When Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, co-founder and artistic director of Mixed Magic Theatre (mixedmagictheatre.org), taught Moby-Dick to young people at the Rhode Island Training School four years ago, he could not have predicted that this literary classic would lead him to MIT, Poland, New Bedford, and on November 15, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.
In 2006, Pitts-Wiley wrote Moby Dick: Then and Now, a theatrical version of Herman Melville’s book, which joined the story of Captain Ahab chasing a great white whale to an urban tale of teenagers chasing “that Great White Thing” — cocaine.
Under Pitts-Wiley’s direction, Moby Dick: Then and Now was given its first full production at his Pawtucket-based theater in spring 2007, as part of a three-day Moby-Dick symposium. It was reprised last year at the Providence Performing Arts Center, and it was showcased at MIT in August. A special kick-off-to-Washington performance is scheduled for November 7, at the Pawtucket Congregational Church.
What initially got the Moby Dick ball rolling was a connection to the Melville Society Cultural Project in New Bedford, one of whose members was on the faculty of MIT. The Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, which had just received a MacArthur grant to do New Literacy Projects, contacted Pitts-Wiley to support the development of the Moby Dick project. In turn, Pitts-Wiley has collaborated with them to create a nationwide strategy guide, Reading in a Participatory Culture.
Pitts-Wiley had dreamed of getting 10,000 people — “students, but also doctors, lawyers, regular people” — to read Moby-Dick, and although he doesn’t know how many have been inspired to do so, he has heard from many who have seen the show. “We wanted them to not only love the novel,” he says “but to have a thirst for a deeper understanding of things, through literature.”
Asked why he chose that particular book for the project, Pitts-Wiley has a quick response: “Because everybody was on the Pequod — it had every race represented, with a variety of cultures and economic levels.”
Being able (with help from US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy) to take this production to the Kennedy Center is particularly important for Mixed Magic, because, in Pitts-Wiley’s view: “Our ability to grow from a 90-seat theatre in Pawtucket had become very limited. We had to think bigger than Rhode Island.”
“We had to find a way to tap into the bigger river,” he adds. “Sometimes you can get caught into little thinking, and that’s where you will always stay, and we didn’t want to do that anymore. We wanted to build projects that we owned and could be done in any city in the country, as opposed to waiting for someone to discover us.”
Pitts-Wiley is primed for the opportunity in DC: “I want to see how high we can fly. We’re going to have a great time, and at the end of the day, we can say we did it.”