Friday, September 1, 2017

NOT MY FATHER’S SON …a memoir by Alan Cumming


Christine Dixon, my Harriet Tubman actress, is appearing on a TV series in New York, “Instinct,” with Alan Cumming as the star. Having seen his work in Cabaret on Broadway, and being an admirer, I was interested to find he had written a memoir, “Not My Father’s Son.” 
Alan in Cabaret

Turns out his father had claimed that, due to his mother’s extra marital affair, Alan was not his child. In this book, the search for answers makes for an emotional detective story as a young man wonders, if not him, then who is my father? 
Tony Murphy
Coincidentally, my younger brother, Tony, was 6 months old when my father ran off with another woman. My father’s affair had been going on for more than a year and apparently he told his paramour he was not having sexual relations with his wife. Therefore, my mother was a bad woman and Tony was not my father’s child. 

In “Not My Father’s Son” there are 2 mysteries that parallel each other. Alan is being filmed for a documentary TV series, “Who Do You Think You Are?” in a search for the truth behind his maternal grandfather’s tragic death. Over a period of months the film crew take him from England to France to Singapore, unmasking the story of a WW2 hero who never came home and died mysteriously in a foreign land. 

For 10 years, my brother lived with a loving elderly couple until my mother brought us all to America. In fact, he never met my father until he was 38 years old. By then Tony Murphy was famous in the motorcycle world, winning the US Speed Racing title when he was only 21 and holding it for 3 more years. 

The walls in his large ranch house in Antelope Valley are covered with photos from his championship days, along with the medallion from Trailblazers Hall of Fame

Alan's parents

While Alan is reeling from the facts he learns about his grandfather, a man he never met, he is drawn into a greater drama. Is it possible that the brutality he experienced from his father was punishment for being the result of a betrayal by his beloved mother. Where does the truth lie? The parallels are mind-boggling. 
My parents
Was my mother unfaithful to my father, which gave him reason to abandon her and seek happiness elsewhere? After the woman died, my father came to America to visit us and, when he returned to England, amazed everyone by proudly showing photos of “my son in America!” It takes a leap of faith to know your own son, or does it?

Today there is DNA, and a parent can no longer disown their own child. Alan, in the book, goes the distance and takes the leap to DNA testing, a journey that my brother and I are still considering. As Tony says, “I want to know the truth. If I’m not his son I’ll be quite happy to not have been acknowledged by him.”

Read the book. You will not be able to put it down. When I worked for Dell Publishing there were 2 rules for buying a book: If the phone rang and you had to put it aside, did you immediately return to it? And, if you took it home, did you stay up until 3 a.m. to finish it?
“Not My Father’s Son” is definitely a 3 a.m. book!

Friday, August 25, 2017


This is from a prompt on July 10, 2013 in The Tuesday Writers Group at Durant Library in Hollywood.

I am determined to get back to my own creative writing. It seems self-indulgent since I rarely show my poems or stories to anyone but have submitted quite a few with no response. When I write articles, reviews or essays it’s a different story. I get published but then it’s about other people’s lives or creative work, not my own. Why is this? 

I love reading my old works – in fact I am deeply moved and often dazzled by the deep emotions they evoke. My relationship with my father, my childhood, my first loves, fascinate me. Someone said, “Write what you know” and I have. But no one said, “Share it with others” so I secrete it away in dusty old files. But I keep the hand-scrawled poems, keep the tear-filled memories, love to read them – I am awed by their power – but do not believe anyone else will feel the same.

Do all writers feel this deep scared shame about their honest work? If it is great writing, will anyone even recognize it? 

Colleges teach about the greatness of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry, students study his words, but in his own time no one even listened. He died unrecognized. 

          And we all know that Vincent Van Gogh painted master works that now sell for millions, but in his lifetime never sold a painting. 

Is it because I can believe I am like them – an undiscovered genius – as long as I keep my work hidden. The clever stuff is out there. I get my kicks from being printed, being online. Dare I ever open those dead files? Or is it better not to know? Is it better to be discovered or is it better to feel that, after I’m gone, I might join with them, and Emily Dickinson, and so many others.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017



Twenty years ago my husband Ralph and I wrote a musical about the early Women’s Rights movement in the 1850’s. Because the issue of slavery was an important feature in the story, in one rewrite I added the character of Harriet Tubman. About ten years ago, when we were living in Staten Island, I read an amazing book by a woman who had actually interviewed Harriet when she was living in Auburn, New York after the Civil War. Ralph and I had received a number of grants from the Staten Island Arts Council to write and produce musicals and I now felt inspired to write a new work based on Harriet’s actual words. However, in a meeting with the African American Grants Director, Ben Jacobs, I expressed my hesitation over tackling this Harriet Tubman project. I said, “As a white woman, I don’t feel I have the right to be writing about the greatest African American woman in history.” Ben looked at me with eyebrows raised and said bluntly: “Get over it!” So I went home and started the play that very day, handed it in at the last minute, and two months later was awarded a $2,000 grant to write and direct “Harriet Tubman Herself.”

It started as a two-person play with myself, as Sarah Bradford, interviewing Harriet with questions taken directly from the book. My choice of an actress for Harriet was Christine Dixon, whose work I knew. When Christine performed in our interactive Christmas musical, “Santa Claus is Missing” she portrayed Dasher, the lead reindeer, who gathered children from the audience to come up as reindeer and help her draw Santa’s sleigh. I had observed how she dealt with shy or belligerent or confused little ones She always calmed them by her uncanny ability to be natural and persuasive so they trusted her and believed in her. I wanted my Harriet to be a real human being, not a waxworks impersonation of someone we never really met. I knew Christine had that special ability, she was not only a brilliant actress and singer, but she was there, totally there, in every sense of the word.

Having been a Broadway critic and seen a number of The Greats in performance I have always observed that acting is not ‘acting’ but ‘being’ so when you are watching a great performer you don’t think ‘Wow, he or she is really good!’ In fact you don’t think at all. You know this is the real thing with no affectation or falsity. You forget you are watching an actor because you are seeing a real person. My knowledge and instincts told me this was Christine’s special ability so I wrote the play, with gospel songs and spirituals, specifically for her.

Ralph wrote a number of songs to add to the more famous spirituals and we started performing at the local libraries. After a few months of embracing the material, and observing how well it worked, the artistic director of Staten Island’s Sundog Theatre, Susan Fenley, saw it as perfect for their School performance series. With my agreement, Susan worked with Christine to make it into a totally one-woman show and the race was on. Schools, Community Centers and Senior centers throughout the New York area welcomed Christine to come there as Harriet all year long. This grew into an annual tour along the East Coast and, for the past 8 years, Christine, as Harriet Tubman herself, has been engaging audiences from Harriet’s home in upstate New York, down through New York, New Jersey, Georgia, North Carolina even into the Caribbean. As of today, with over 326 actual performances we can now count the 310 standing ovations she has received at every show.

Years from now people will be saying, “Did you ever see Christine Dixon as Harriet Tubman?” And thousands of people, not only African Americans, will remember it well because when they were a child the real Harriet Tubman came to their church or school and made them realize what a great person is really like. With Christine they met a living, breathing woman who maybe shook their hand or bump-fisted them, and even drew them up to the stage where she led them to freedom. Whether Harriet Tubman’s picture appears on a stamp, a twenty-dollar bill, or as a distant moving image on a movie screen, they know they had the greatest privilege. Because they met Harriet, touched her, saw her tears and her laughter, her courage and her determination, and saw how much she loved her people, her family, and best of all, how she loved them too.
 Christine takes her performance right into the audience so she is present at that moment with them and it has to be experienced to truly appreciate. Christine Dixon is a great actress but, as Harriet Tubman, she transcends the technique of acting when she channels Harriet Tubman at the exact moment in time as her performing. With rowdy teens she is a scolding momma, with little ones she is the cuddling adult that loves them unreservedly, with adults she is the challenging force that awakens their instinct for play while strengthening their awe and admiration for this acknowledged icon. Yes, it’s Harriet Tubman in person and everyone who cares for humanity needs to be encouraged by this informal but informative hour with Harriet Tubman Herself!
Morna Murphy Martell
Hollywood, CA