Los Angeles–based television and film writer, producer, poet and playwright Kathleen McGhee-Anderson has spent summers on the Vineyard since she was a young child. Today, she dedicates as much time as her busy career allows to her Oak Bluffs cottage and garden, where she finds respite and inspiration. Her latest play, “Miss Maybelline’s Nocturnal Flights of Fancy,” debuted last summer with staged readings to sold-out crowds at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. The full production explores Black life on Martha’s Vineyard across generations and premieres on the Patricia Neal Stage on July 13th.

Kathleen grew up in Detroit and graduated from Spelman College. She went on to get an MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts in film. She was one of the first African-Americans to write for the screen, and has had a rich and varied career spanning from screen to print.

Q. Tell me about your earliest memories of being on the Island.

A. I was raised in Detroit, but my mother is a Philadelphian, so from the age of five, we would join our East Coast family on the Vineyard. One of my earliest memories was learning how to ride a bike up in the Highlands of Oak Bluffs, which wasn’t developed then, so it seemed like I was on a dirt path in the middle of a forest. Those kinds of sense memories stay with you. As the years went by, I started doing my own thing, but I still came back regularly. When my mother retired as a schoolteacher in 1987, she bought a house in old Oak Bluffs off of School Street where “Miss Maybelline” is set. When the property became mine, I reimagined it so that our family could enjoy it for generations. Now it’s my privilege to take care of her.

Q. Tell me about your mother. Is the play’s centenarian, Miss Maybelline, based on her?

Taking a pen to paper at Catboat Coffee Co. Jeanna Shepard

A. My mother just turned 96 — Christine McGhee, Phi Beta Kappa, which she will let you know. She still has her Phi Beta Kappa key! It’s safe to say that yes, it is, but Miss Maybelline is a composite figure, an amalgamation of qualities of my mother and her two friends. My mother is an avid reader with a brilliant mind, but not extremely social. But she made friends with the ladies on the corner and that’s the community I’ve written about in my play.

Q. When did the play begin to take shape in your mind?

A. I started writing about my mom and her friends and that special place – their porch life – over a decade ago. When I showed it to her, she wasn’t sure how her friends would respond. She asked me to hold off. I would not be a writer had it not been for my mother, so I respected her opinion, and put it down for awhile.

Q. What is a “nocturnal flight of fancy?”

A. Well, some older people [with dementia] have a condition called sundowners. When the sun goes down, their behavior changes. And they can have what has been described as hallucinations. But they can also be ruminations. I think their minds expand, and it plays tricks on them. I use that as a device for my character to expound upon her stories of the past. She befriends a young neighbor and takes him on trips that are in her imagination, but they’re based on her life, and we don’t know whether or how much she stretches them.

Q. Can you share a few memories of another opening night on the Vineyard?

A. Yes, a little over 20 years ago, I had an opening night at the Playhouse of a play called “Oak and Ivy.” It starred Mario Van Peebles as the poet laureate, Paul Laurence Dunbar, so the play [about Dunbar’s marriage to writer Alice Dunbar-Nelson] is infused with poetry. My doctor, Gerry Yukevich, and his wife Martha hosted a beautifully curated evening which really hearkened to the nature of the play, which took place at the turn of the 20th century when African-Americans were not known to be part of the upper-class Victorian set.

Another of my plays at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse that was also lovely was “5 Mojo Secrets,” which starred the fabulous actress Suzzanne Douglas. She was a star and an amazing actor alongside one of the best actors in the Shakespearean canon, John Douglas Thompson. They actually rehearsed in my Oak Bluffs garden, which people call my mini-amphitheatre.

Q. What is different about mounting a play at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse?

A. I like theater best of all my genres, which include television and film, because of the intimacy and the immediacy. The Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse affords both of those things because the audience is so close to the experience and nestled in this safe space for theater, and the feelings of the play connect more. I’m totally comfortable with MJ [Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse Artistic and Executive Director MJ Bruder Munafo], so we have shorthand. The workshop last year was unusual, because it was a two-week workshop [and a two-night public reading], funded by the Martha’s Vineyard Community Foundation.

Q. Besides seeing your work on your favorite stage, do you have a favorite summer event or tradition?

A. Illumination Night – and it’s also one of Miss Maybelline’s flights of fancy. She takes the young boy who she’s befriended on a flight describing the most magical things that happen on the Island. In her mind, one of them is Illumination Night. But, now that you ask, my other favorite “illumination night” is my good friends Karen and Skip Finley’s fireworks party. It’s a bunch of close friends who grew up together gathering around a bonfire on the beach. Fire leaps into the sky and we lean back in our beach chairs and watch it crackle and pop.

Q. Let’s talk about Hollywood. Is there one thing that you are best known for in your wide-ranging career?

A. There isn’t one thing. My career has been more of a tapestry – a whole variety. It’s drama, theater, film, television and literature. Last year I co-wrote the memoir for one of the last remaining Four Tops.

Q. Is there one television show as a kid that really influenced you?

A. Little House on the Prairie . Watching TV as a kid, I liked a well-told story. That’s my craft today. [Inspired by the show,] I tried my hand at it – writing a short story – and Michael Landon read it. I wrote the script and it was the first sale I ever made. So he started me on the road.

Q. What obstacles did you face breaking into television writing rooms?

A. I was the first dramatic television writer of color, and when I came along, the opportunities were not available. And now it’s much different. And that is a testament to those other writers and myself who really wanted this to happen and worked for this to happen. To see it happening now is so rewarding. When the doors did open, you had to bring the talent. I think they were rather impressed, I guess, with the skill set that I brought to the table. I think they appreciated it. And they could see me. Certainly, they could see me.

Q. In the years you’ve been coming to the Island, what’s changed the most?

A. People complain about change. It’s classic on this Island. But I do think the change has been more rapid in recent years. Before it was gradual, so it was easier to acclimate. The part that is difficult for me is the idea that bigger, newer, shinier, cleaner is better than weathered. The people who are in charge of beautifying the Island are doing the Disney version of what the Vineyard used to be. I live in L.A. and there’s a Disney replication of everything. But last year when I went up-Island to meet a friend, I found that old sense of the Island – the feeling was pretty much the same as always.


Sissy Biggers is a regular contributor to the Vine and an occasional contributor to Martha’s Vineyard Magazine.