Michael Walek on research surprises, mythologizing, camping, and HAVE YOU MET JANE GOODALL & HER MOTHER

Michael Walek

Michael Walek

On Tuesday, February 5, as part of the 2019 First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project is presenting the first public reading of HAVE YOU MET JANE GOODALL & HER MOTHER by Michael Walek. The play dramatizes the first months of twenty-six-year-old Jane Goodall’s first expedition to study chimpanzees in Africa. But why did she bring her mother? To learn why, let’s hear from the playwright: 

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

What prompted you to write HAVE YOU MET JANE GOODALL & HER MOTHER?

When I was growing up, my mom loved Jane Goodall. We had her books in the house, and I thought I knew her story. A few years ago, I learned that when the Tanzanian government allowed Jane Goodall to study chimpanzees, they required she bring a chaperone, so she brought her mother. The idea of a scientist bringing her mother on her first expedition sounded like a play I wanted to write. 

Jane Goodall and her mother Margaret “Vanne” Myfanwe Joseph in camp (Photo: Hugo Van Lawick, National Geographic Society)

Jane Goodall and her mother Margaret “Vanne” Myfanwe Joseph in camp (Photo: Hugo Van Lawick, National Geographic Society)

What research did you do to write your play?

Tons of research. I read everything I could get my hands on from her journals to her family’s letters. 

Your play creates vignettes that dramatize the first months Jane Goodall spends with her mother leading her first expedition to study chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in 1960. How did you figure out what they sounded like? Did you work with her field notes?

Luckily, many of Jane and Vanne’s letters from that time were published, so it was easy to get a sense of their writing style, words they liked, nicknames they used. I found them to be utterly charming. 

Is the relationship you dramatize between Jane and her mother your invention or based on something Jane wrote?  They are often quite funny. Is that from your imagination or based on your research?

Before I did my research, I assumed that any child living in a tent with her parent for five months would find it a stressful situation, only to discover that Jane and Vanne adored each other and never really fought. Suddenly, I had to write a play about two funny, kind people who encouraged and supported each other. 

Jane Goodall grooming David Greybeard, the first chimp to lose his fear of her.

Jane Goodall grooming David Greybeard, the first chimp to lose his fear of her.

It’s always seemed a bit preposterous that the famed anthropologist Louis Leakey would choose a secretary with no academic background or field experience to lead an expedition into the thick mountainous terrain the chimpanzees inhabited. And be able to get funding for her. Why do you think he chose Jane?

Well, she wasn’t his first choice. Jane only found this out years later, but Leakey tried to get another scientist to go into the field, but she declined. I think a lot has been made out that she was “just a secretary.” She went on a human fossil dig with Leakey and worked with him at his museum in Kenya. She was a bit more qualified, but it makes a better story if she’s this random typist. 

Have you ever gone camping for an extended time? Spent any time observing nature? Done field research?

I absolutely hate camping, and the outdoors, which I realize makes it hysterical I wrote this play. 

Young Jane Goodall with Jubilee

Young Jane Goodall with Jubilee

Much has been made of how Jubilee, a plush toy chimpanzee Jane was given as a child, may have determined her career. Were you ever given something as a child that shaped your life?

Again, I think this is some hindsight mythologizing. Jane would’ve studied birds if it was the assignment. It just happened to be chimpanzees.  

You’ve been a member of EST’s Youngblood collective. How has that influenced your playwriting?

One of the best things about Youngblood is how radically different everyone’s writing is. I think Youngblood pushed me to write more like myself. I am very lucky to have been part of the collective. 

Have you written other plays about science?

Yes. I wrote numerous plays for the Youngblood Science brunch and they were always rejected. 

When did you first know you were a playwright?

My high school had a play contest my senior year. I wrote a play, and it won. I wasn’t invited to rehearsals, so I just showed up one night and saw my play. There was a twist ending, and the audience gasped. I was completely hooked. 

The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 1 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through March 10. Tickets can be purchased here. The First Light Festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year.