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Director of UT's Michener Center for Writers stages his 1965 play on UT campus

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

"It's a lot harder doing street theater today than it was 40 years ago," jokes James Magnuson over an oversize cup of chamomile tea recently at JP's Java.

Magnuson has strolled over to the coffeehouse from his office at the Michener Center for Writers, where he is the director of University of Texas' celebrated graduate writing program that uses as its headquarters the former home of Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie, just north of the UT campus.

Dobie's 1920s Colonial Revival house anchored on a leafy, bucolic yard is a long way away from early 1960s Harlem, where a young Magnuson worked for the New York City welfare department and first plied his trade as a writer.

In his 20s, freshly graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Magnuson moved to the Big Apple in part to pursue his dreams of being the next great American author. And because the social-minded wordsmith was attuned to the burgeoning civil rights movement, he set his pen to writing short plays that could be performed by just a few actors, anywhere, anytime. Street theater, after all, emerged as an effective creative means for artists with an urgent message for social change.

"We'd do the plays anywhere — in parks, on playgrounds, on a street corner," recalls Magnuson, who forwent writing plays years ago and has 10 novels to his credit, plus a stint in the 1990s as a television screenwriter.

Magnuson's play "No Snakes in This Grass" — a reworking of the story of Adam and Eve — emerged a street theater hit of sorts, performed again and again. Now, 45 years since its debut, "No Snakes" gets another staging, this time at two outdoor locations on the UT campus. The current production is a remount of the one presented this summer at Lincoln Center's Out of Doors festival as a tribute to the first iteration in 1970 of the Lincoln Center festival, which featured "No Snakes."

But presenting a play on a state university campus in 2010 means more than it did 45 years ago. Magnuson has to think about lights and sound equipment, getting the necessary permission, flying the Lincoln Center cast in and rehearsing.

"We used to just do it," says Magnuson. "Now I'm playing the role of producer."

Set in the Garden of Eden, "No Snakes" finds Adam an efficient, all-American white guy who's already read up on what's coming his way — mostly, that is. While Adam plans to send Cain and Abel to separate schools, and have the boats ready for the flood, he's thrown for a loop when God introduces him to an African American Eve. In quick-moving raucous style, the 30-minute socially critical comedy unfolds.

"There's a real idealism to the play, with its cry for integration and all. But there's a real humor, too, and yet it's still confrontational," says Magnuson.

He wonders if a contemporary Austin audience will find the immediacy of its 1960s agitprop tone a bit too harsh. Or perhaps it's still necessary to confront racism with some jarring theatrics.

"The play still feels oddly contemporary to me, even after all this time, though I wonder if people will be shocked," he says. "Theater is so immediate; there's no escaping it."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

‘No Snakes in This Grass'

When:6 p.m. today on the patio of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, 2313 Red River St.; noon Friday in front of the Ransom Center, 21st and Guadalupe streets

Cost: Free

Panel discussion: 7 p.m. today, LBJ School