Mark Medoff (1940 ~ 2019)
* Mark Medoff website:
* Mark Medoff obituary in The New York Times:
Remembering Mark Medoff - 1940-2019
A Tribute & An Interview with the Tony Award-Winning Playwright
I often joke that I've been 15 for a very long time. But, tonight, that takes on an extra meaning. It's the evening of Sunday, June 9th, I'm sitting in front of the TV, and I'm watching the Tony Awards' In Memoriam segment. There's the photo of playwright Mark Medoff, who won the 1980 Tony Award for Best Play for Children of a Lesser God, which opened on Broadway in 1979. I've known for six weeks, since he died of cancer at 79 on April 23, 2019, that I will write this tribute, which includes a 1990 interview published here for the first time.
But, I'm still shocked that 48 years have gone by so quickly and that I've been a published writer for more than 40 of those, and I wonder what 15-year-old me would've thought if you'd told her that one day she'd be writing this.
At only seven, I'd announced that I was going to be a writer, though I knew long before then. I knew as soon as I could read, and I could already read before I started nursery school. I can't remember a time when I couldn't read, and I have memories as early as two years old.
So, to hear a writer speak was a very big deal.
In the fall of 1971, when I was 15, Mark Medoff spoke to one of my theater classes taught by the legendary Jay W. Jensen (later the subject of the 2006 documentary Class Act) at Miami Beach Senior High School, and with a group of my fellow theater students I saw Medoff's first play, The Wager, when it premiered that week at the Upstage Theater in Coconut Grove. He'd been a theater student at Beach High, too, and studied with Jensen in the Class of 1958. I was in the Class of 1974.
In my Theater Notes column published in the December 1983 issue of South Florida Magazine, I wrote about Medoff's memorable talk to my class: "That's where I first heard the old adage, 'a writer has to experience life to write about it.'"
I can still feel the impact of that day. I can still see him standing in front of the class. I can still see myself sitting at my desk listening intently to the 31-year-old fiction writer and playwright (who had taught English and was a theater professor at New Mexico State University) eager to share what he'd learned so far -- writing wasn't glamorous, it required imagination and an ability to analyze -- just as others had taught him.
In a November 9, 1986 article published in The New York Times, "In Praise of Teachers," Medoff wrote about being a teacher and about the teachers who'd had a big impact on him.
On teaching, he wrote: "...Everything I will ever know, everything I will ever pass on to my students, to my children, to the people who see my plays is an inseparable part of an ongoing legacy of our shared frailty and curiosity and fear -- of our shared wonder at the peculiar predicament in which we find ourselves, of our infernal and eternal hope that we can, must, make ourselves better."
In that article, he also wrote about another visit he'd made to speak to a theater class at our high school, this time in 1975, four years after he spoke to my class, and how he'd sought out one of his teachers to thank her:
"On reflection, maybe those words, however ineloquent, spoken out of the entire lexicon of my language, were, after all, just the right words to say to Irene Roberts. Maybe they are the very words I would like to speak to all those teachers I carry through my life as part of me, the very words I would like spoken to me some day by some returning student: 'I want you to know you were important to me.'"
As his teachers were important to him, Medoff was important to those he taught and to those who felt the impact of his plays and films. He'd been widely praised as a writer, teacher, mentor, and theater innovator. He'd already been honored with many international awards for his work. It was time to add to his hometown honors. He'd already been inducted into the Miami Beach Senior High Hall of Fame. So, in 2001, when hundreds gathered in a Miami Beach hotel ballroom for a many decades reunion of Thespian Troupe 391, Beach High's chapter of the international theater honor society, we also inducted a few members into our Thespian Hall of Fame, including actor Andy Garcia (who, like me, was in the Class of 1974) and Mark Medoff.
Medoff was unable to attend, and I was honored to deliver an induction speech on his behalf.
More than 10 years earlier, on March 17, 1990, the day before his 50th birthday, I interviewed Mark Medoff by phone (he was in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and I was in Miami) about growing up on Miami Beach and what set him on the path to becoming a writer.
Born in 1940 in Illinois, Medoff and his family moved to Miami Beach when he was eight years old. Back in the late 1940s and in the 1950s, "it was like a little village," he remembered, and one of his classmates lived in a house where a large, oceanfront hotel now stands. "It was a pleasant, unhurried place to live. I felt a real sense of safety, and the schools I attended were extraordinary."
He spent his childhood hitting some kind of ball with some kind of object.
"In the mid-fifties, being artistic as a teen was considered effete," Mark Medoff explained. "I was into athletics -- golf, football, basketball, baseball -- and my world revolved around sports. Finding out through my high school English teacher, Pat Samuelson, that I had this other talent was nice, but I put it in the back of my mind."
But not for long.
In the November 9, 1986 article published in The New York Times, in which Medoff paid tribute to his teachers, he explained the life-changing impact of his Beach High English teacher Pat Samuelson "who torments me to read, to consume vocabulary and to write constantly," he wrote. "He tells the class that my story is better than everyone else's, that he's giving me the first A+ he's ever given, and he asks me if I'd like to come forward and read my story aloud. I am terrified!"
Terror or not, that was the turning point in Mark Medoff's life. Although "athletics was the consuming passion of my life and still is," he told me during our interview, it would have to share his time with words.
Mark Medoff spent his entire adult life as a writer. Among his many plays, his landmark work, Children of a Lesser God, about the relationship between a young deaf woman and her speech teacher, opened on Broadway in 1979 and won him the 1980 Tony award for Best Play. The 1986 film version of the Broadway hit was not only nominated for Best Picture, it earned him an Oscar nomination for his adapted screenplay, and Marlee Matlin won the Oscar for Best Actress.
"It's been said that I write about people who intrude upon other people's lives, although I don't set out to do that on purpose," he said. "Mayhem in a controlled situation is what I write about, and sports and theater have that in common."
Once he began to write, "as a kid, I thought I'd save the world or change it through my art," he told me. "Now, I feel fortunate that I've written a few things that will outlive me by at least a few weeks."
After Mark Medoff died, the tributes poured in from around the world.
Those tributes and mine can be summed up using the words he once wrote:
"I want you to know you were important to me."
Nina L. Diamond is a journalist, essayist, humorist, and the author of books including Voices of Truth: Conversations with Scientists, Thinkers & Healers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Poynter, Omni, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, The Sun-Sentinel, and The Miami Herald.
She has been a contributing writer for Independent Publisher magazine since 2003, and wrote her Much Ado About Publishing column from 2003-2012.
Ms. Diamond was a writer and performer on Pandemonium, the National Public Radio (NPR) satirical humor program, for it's entire run on WLRN in Miami and in select markets nationwide from 1984-1998. As an editor, she works with other authors and journalists on both fiction and non-fiction. You can find her on Twitter: @ninatypewriter.