BY JAMES STILL, PLAYWRIGHT
A long time ago I ran away from home. In many ways, Amber Waves has been one of the ways I’ve never forgotten where I come from.
The writer Willa Cather wrote many of her novels that were set in the Midwest while she was living in New York. Mark Twain wrote his novels set on the Mississippi while living in Connecticut. I first wrote Amber Waves while living in New York in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment in Hell’s Kitchen in the same room where my roommate was watching TV, listening to the radio, and talking on the phone. Somehow with the help of my Walkman—remember the Walkman?—I kept my headphones on and my head down. I would type with my eyes closed because the unrelenting and beautiful landscape of the Midwest was profoundly alive inside me.
The play was set in my native Kansas; when the IRT produced it in 2000, I wrote a version set in Indiana. For this current IRT production, I’ve reimagined the play again—this time from my home in Los Angeles. I affectionately call it Amber Waves 3.0. Much has happened in the world since I first wrote the play, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that family farms continue to disappear, and with them a way of life disappears as well.
Two events I want to share with you. The first is the loss of my own family’s farm. My grandparents, in their mid-eighties, had finally decided to sell the family farm in Kansas and move into the nearest town. The auction was like all the auctions that happen on summer weekends throughout the Midwest.
Strangers, old friends, and family members sift through a lifetime of mementos. The highest bidder takes home things that I grew up with: a stereoscope, my grandmother’s wedding dress, an old Case tractor...the house. My great-grandparents homesteaded that house. My grandparents moved into that house on their wedding day and lived there for more than 60 years. My father was born in that house. I grew up going to that house, to that farm, playing in the fields of 80 acres in Eastern Kansas.
Flash forward to just a couple years ago: I was visiting my dad in Kansas and we decided to make the 90-minute drive just to see what had happened to the old farm. I wondered who might live there now, if they had found my handprints in the cement sidewalk leading up to the house. Was there still the comforting smell of my grandma’s cherry pies baking in the oven? When we approached the old place, something was different, disorienting. My dad and I fell silent. The entire place had been razed. The barn and chicken coop and garage—everything was gone. And the house was gone. The only thing I recognized was the remains of the old circle driveway and the water hydrant that was still in the front yard.
We didn’t get out of the car. People driving by would have no idea that this was once the place where a family thrived. They would have no idea that once there was a little boy who spent long summer days playing in the hayloft or watching my grandma make her prize-winning quilts or riding my grandpa’s horse. People would have no idea that this little boy grew up to be a writer and wrote a play called Amber Waves which at its heart is meant to honor generations of farmers, a way of life that continues to disappear, and how the relationship to land is both holy and practical.
I’ve come to understand that writing this play has been one way of returning—spiritually and emotionally—to a place where sunsets seemed to last longer, where generations of a family were carved into the land like rings of a tree, and where ordinary hard-working people spoke a kind of poetry that is all their own. It is a poetry everyone understands. It’s the poetry of place and family, it’s the poetry that helps us remember what home means. Amber Waves is part of me, it goes with me wherever I go. I hope it might become part of you as well.
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