Dawn Powell wrote nearly 100 stories, 16 novels, and 10 plays—yet by the time of her death she was completely forgotten. As part of a season devoted to plays by American women, Mint offered the world premiere of her bittersweet 1931 drama WALKING DOWN BROADWAY.

Written more than a decade after Powell’s own arrival in New York from Ohio, the play tells the story of two young women new to the big city—and how their dreams of romance wind up clashing with reality. WALKING DOWN BROADWAY was never produced during Powell’s lifetime and although Erich von Stroheim bought the rights to the piece, his resulting film, Hello, Sister!, bears almost no resemblance to Powell’s play.

Over seventy years later, Powell’s original script finally received the treatment it deserved. Margo Jefferson of the New York Times praised WALKING DOWN BROADWAY saying, “Cheers to the Mint for going where others feared to tread or else never bothered to look. This production, directed by Steven Williford, gets almost everything right: the slang and the speed; the glamour and the fakery…Powell’s unsentimental compassion isn’t just heartening, it’s staggering.”1

“Always sharp, never cranky, and with a pagan’s delight in the pleasures of this world, Powell’s work elaborates the human comedy
with a vigor matched only by its unpretentious wisdom,” wrote one of her critics.

Born in Mount Gilead, Ohio in 1896, Dawn Powell ran away from an abusive stepmother when she was thirteen and settled with her unconventional aunt in nearby Shelby, Ohio. “Auntie May,” a divorcée, owned a home near the railroad depot, made lively by Powell’s cousins, Auntie’s lover, and passing strangers who stopped for meals. Encouraged by her aunt to further her education, Powell begged a scholarship to Lake Erie College for Women. There she wrote and performed in plays and edited the Lake Erie Record, a campus quarterly, which often contained her playful yet pessimistic stories.

In 1918, Powell moved to New York City. There she worked briefly for the Butterick Company, the U. S. Navy, and the Red Cross while writing freelance articles and stories. She married Joseph Gousha, Jr., a Pennsylvania-born poet turned ad man, and the couple had a son, Jojo. They settled in Greenwich Village. Powell loved her bohemian neighborhood and the Manhattan nightlife she spent alongside friends John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, E. E. Cummings, and others from the literary scene. “There is really one city for everyone just as there is one major love,” she wrote.

Powell tried her hand at writing plays, particularly when the family felt pinched financially, but she came to consider her primary work the creation of novels. Powell set her fiction in the small Ohio towns of her youth and later, most successfully, in familiar New York neighborhoods and cafés. Though dogged by Gousha’s drinking, Jojo’s probable autism, financial strain, and her own struggles with alcohol, illness, and depression, Dawn Powell managed to write sixteen novels, nine plays, and numerous short stories and reviews. She died in 1965.

by Tim Page, Library of America

Photos

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CAST

  • Marge Christine Albright
  • Chick Denis Butkus
  • Dewey Antony Hagopian
  • Eva Elman Carol Halstead
  • Elsie Amanda Jones
  • Librarian Emily Moment
  • Librarian Stacry Parker
  • Mac Ben Roberts
  • Isabel Cherene Snow
  • Ginger Sammy Tunis

CREATIVES

  • Assistant Director Tom Wojtunik
  • Set Design Roger Hanna
  • Lighting Design Stephen Petrilli
  • Costume Design Brenda Turpin
  • Sound Design Jane Shaw
  • Casting
    Stuart Howard, Amy Schecter & Paul Hardt
  • Production Stage Manager Jason A. Quinn
  • Assistant Stage Manager Noelle Font
  • Press Representative David Gersten & Associates
  • Graphics Hey Jude Design, Inc.

MICHAEL SECTION: POWELL THE DRAMATIST

Michael Sexton, freelance director and the co-editor (along with Tim Page) of the volume Four Plays by Dawn Powell talks about his experience working on Big Night and preparing the text for publication.

ANDREA BARNET: THE WOMEN OF GREENWICH VILLAGE

Andrea Barnet, author of All-Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913-1930 speaks about some of Powell’s contemporaries and the scene that Powell became a part of after moving to New York in 1918. Andrea Barnet has been a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review since 1985. Her articles on art and culture have appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Mirabella, and Self. All Night Party was a nonfiction finalist for the 2004 Lambda Literary Awards.

TIM PAGE

Tim Page is nearly single-handedly responsible for the revival of interest in the work of Dawn Powell. He is her biographer, the editor of her diaries and her letters, the editor of The Library of America’s two-volume edition of her work, and has written introductions to nearly all of her work that is now in print. Mr. Page is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic for The Washington Post.

Program