Higher Love, a play written by novelist and playwright Germaine Shames, is based on the many love letters and relationship between poet Kahlil Gibran and his patron Mary Haskell. WingSpan Theatre Company will present a staged reading of the play at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 29-30.
Gibran — a Lebanese-American poet best known for his novel The Prophet — met Haskell May 10, 1904, when Gibran was 21 and she was 10 years older. Impressed with his art, Haskell became Gibran’s benefactress. Upon Gibran’s death at age 48 from complications of alcoholism, Haskell discovered letters she had written to him spanning 23 years. She initially planned to burn them because of their intimacy, but recognizing their historical value, she saved them. She gave them, along with his letters to her, to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library before she died in 1964. Excerpts of the more than 600 letters were published in Beloved Prophet in 1972.
Higher Love uses a play within a play format to tell the real-life story of Gibran and Haskell alongside the love story of the two fictional actors who are cast to play them. The play shifts in time between the two sets of characters and between the years 1904 and 1923.
"Each character is tested in his/her quest to seize the higher love," says Susan Sargeant, producing artistic director of WingSpan Theatre.
Sargeant says she is drawn to Shames' work because of her mission to adapt 19th- and 20th-century novels "with a special emphasis on works either by women or with strong women’s roles and relationships."
"WingSpan Theatre Company is now in our 22nd season and has been dedicated to a female focus, most especially strong roles for women," she says.
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The prolific Shames wrote her first suite of short plays, Wars of the Flesh, in 2014 and has since adapted multiple works by Edith Wharton, Aldous Huxley and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Her re-imagining of The Masterpiece by Emile Zola was recently a finalist for the Trustus Playwright Award. In 2018, her adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy was performed at the Festival of New American Theatre at the Phoenix Theatre. Most recently her musical comedy Anna Karenina Lives! premiered in New York.
WingSpan has been emphasizing women’s roles in literature and promoting female writers since its 1997 production of The Last Flapper by William Luce, a one-woman show about Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Its staged reading platform, founded in 2001, has given them the opportunity to present six world premieres of new plays by local female playwrights.
“The future goal for WingSpan Theatre Company is to continue exploring, expanding and having an impact on the cultural landscape," Sargeant says.