Carl Upchurch: An American Shaman

Breast Entanglements

"I believe the play is an important contribution to uncovering the story of those individuals who are not recognized by society as having a significant impact, due to a pre-conceived suspicion toward reformed individuals."
"The overall writing of the playwright remains crisp and succinct as she shifts from many voices and charcters within shorter spans of dramatic time."
-Dr. James Mirrione - Professor United Arab Emirates University


Carl Upchurch was an African-American man whose life led him on several journeys. At the opening of Carl Upchurch, the Playwright and Carl meet to wrestle with the question of Carl’s death. The play explores Carl’s young life, which was void of an adult role model, a shaman, to help him make a healthy journey in becoming a contributing member of society. Only as an adult did Carl find a shaman to guide him and eventually become a shaman to others including the Playwright. As Carl attempts to explain to the Playwright the circumstances of his life, he exposes the Playwright to a world of struggle, prejudice, violence, and redemption.

Carl begins by illuminating and revisiting instances of injustice in his past, from elementary school to adolescence, interspersed with clarifying and enlightening conversations with the Playwright. In these vivid flashbacks, we meet Carl’s grandmother, Gomere, and his sister, Stoney, two women who play vital roles in Carl’s young life. We follow Carl as he is sent to juvenile prison, presenting his first instance of incarceration. While Carl is in prison, his sister is raped and his father is killed. These events only serve to harden young Carl. Upon release, he becomes involved in gang violence which leads to his second imprisonment, during which he is haunted by the oppressive voices of his past. Eventually he is saved from utter despair when he discovers a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets in the prison library. He begins to “read, read, and read some more,” allowing authors such as Fredrick Douglass, Mark Twain, and Malcolm X to penetrate his consciousness and inform his world view. While incarcerated,

Carl meets and befriends a Quaker teacher who eventually invites him to live with her family once he is released. Accepting this offer, Carl attends university where he meets his future wife, Andrea Santoni, and the two of them work as activists against apartheid. Carl is wrongfully accused of a supposed parole violation and is, once again, imprisoned. Upon his release this time, he begins to teach, mentor, and speak out against racial and economic injustices. Then, suddenly, he is gone. The Playwright is left to tell Carl’s story himself, and another journey begins.

CARL UPCHURCH: AN AMERICAN SHAMAN had its first reading at the Fess Parker Studio Theatre on September 24, 2004. The play received a second reading at the Fess Parker Studio Theatre on August 22, 2005. CARL UPCHURCH: AN AMERICAN SHAMAN was produced by Progressive Theatre Project as a staged reading at San Jose Repertory Theatre on July 17, 2006. The production was directed by Sarah Grojean, and featured Aldo Billingslea (AEA) as Carl Upchurch. Brian Stevens and Rachel Zampelli played the ensemble roles.

Carl: Carl is an African American who grew up in Philadelphia, raised mostly by his mother and grandmother. He is both intellectually adept and deeply intuitive. Carol is a man with many layers.

Ensemble: As written, the play requires an ensemble of two actors, one female and one male, to play the characters the accompany Carl on his journey. These several characters vary widely in race, age, gender, and economic status.

Download a dialog sample.