Open Theatre Project Slam Needs More 10-Minute Plays!

Hi everyone! Open Theatre Project, a group of great people committed to community and diverse voices (and new work!) is still recruiting great 10-minute plays for our October Slam!

The details of the call and submission form are here: Disregard the July 1 deadline and send it on in! And spread the word. New England region playwrights, and comedies particularly coveted.


What? But we’ve only just begun!

“It’s dead in a coma, Jim.”

Hi readers!  Thank you for reading! Thank you very much. I have loved the comments and the likes, and I am constantly surprised and delighted to get another follower. I’m amazed at those of you who (might) still read me even though you were first lured over here by my food blogging.

“I’m not dead yet!” 

To keep the catch-phrase theme going…this blog is not dead, but will be going dormant for an unknown amount of time :(. All good reasons: work is bananas, but I am loving, I may take a class this fall to learn a new skill while continuing to work full time. I am “Wookin’ Pa Nub” and I have about 80 plays to read that are all new, unpublished work so I can’t write about them. Too much of several good things is exactly the right problem to have and I am grateful for it. But I will miss putting words on the page and eventually a new rhythm will be found here.

If you stick with me, thanks! If you have to go to greener blog pastures, I totally understand.

Until we meet again, I hope you are creating the lives you want for yourself (even if it feels like progress is only one grain of sand at a time). Peace.

Black Diamond: The Years the Locusts Have Eaten – J. Nicole Brooks

Black Diamond: The Years the Locusts Have Eaten was delightful surprise at the end of this collection. Delightful might not be quite the right word, as the major theme is a protracted military action between the people and the government in Liberia…to clarify by ‘delightful’ I mean pleasingly entertaining. In this case I was entertained, once again, in spite of some techniques and tropes which at a minimum make me squirm uncomfortably, and at worst make me scoff.

There is more griot/tribal leader mysticism/wisdom. There is a glut of provocative character names which rarely make it into the text so I’m not entirely sure what the value is to the reader or the viewer. There is a unit of absolutely badass women who are clearly the leaders in this fight, but are also in some ways caricatures, which takes a way a bit from their power. Finally, this is a huge play! Think dance numbers and pyrotechnics. I’m not kidding it’s all in the notes and stage directions. Still I would probably go see it if it was on. Get your snacks though. And if you’re inclined a tipple at the interval probably wouldn’t go amiss.

Cast: Multi. There are approximately 30 roles. The script notes call for doubling by all but two characters (1F 1 M) and the production notes give a cast of 12 (2 dedicated roles, 10 doublers). Run Time: 84 pp. 110 minutes? Themes: African conflicts between the state and the people; civilian military activism; women’s rights and equal status in society; the Western world’s perception of African conflicts.

In The Continuum – Danai Gurira & Nikkole Salter

File under “I see what you did there.” In The Continuum was developed as part of a graduate acting program and it reeks of dotting academic i’s and crossing performance theory t’s. It has that “Tragedy, Will Robinson, Tragedy!” gravitas built in with the HIV/AIDS topic, and a certain amount of, “If you don’t pay attention you are just passively perpetuating the silencing of [Black] women.” If you can get past all of that, the play is a sort of explanatory fable, which compassionately showcases women doing their best to be modern and successful, while coping with the consequences of sex that disproportionately affect us.

It is hard to both develop characters and delineate them when they are all being played by the same (or a few) actors so I had difficulty picturing this as rising above educational exercise. I have a soft spot for HIV-themed work, and I would support my sisters if they put this on, but it’s not a first line production pick for me.

Cast: 2  2F playing multiple characters. Run Time: 37 pp. 45 minutes? Themes: Women, HIV/AIDS, stigma, success, confronting partners, cross culturalism.

Antebellum – Robert O’Hara

I started doing this to share my musings on Simon Stephens’ plays. This play is one that inspired me to keep posting about plays that I was reading. I am a few months removed from that moment, and I won’t lie, my original judgement about the quality of this play holds, but it does seem a bit ridiculous.

Antebellum asks for a very cool ‘split screen’ technique in its staging. A story set in the lead up to the Atlanta premiere of Gone With The Wind, runs in parallel to a story set in an increasingly conservative Nazi Germany just a few years prior to the Atlanta story. And eventually the two timelines collide.

The play very obviously compares the Jim Crow South with Nazi Germany; the assumed superiority of whites over blacks to that same idea about Aryans over Jews, then it throws in heterosexuality over homosexuality, and there’s more than a whiff of class warfare in here as well. I’m going to be crass and call it an oppression smorgasbord. And I have no doubt that this show will ‘jump the shark’ for some readers/viewers. But somehow the characters and the passions speak and no matter what you make of any of the social issues covered, it’s very entertaining. Kind of an awesome Black-Jewish quasi-historical telenovela. You kind of have to see it to believe it, and if it’s ever running near you, you should.

Cast: 5  2W 3 M Runtime: 80 pp. 100 minutes? Themes: Jim Crow South, nascent Nazi Germany, Gone With the Wind, Marriage, Homosexuality, Judaism, Betrayal

…And Jesus Moonwalks The Mississippi – Marcus Gardley

This play is introduced with a Frederico Garcia Lorca quote, “A play is a poem standing up.” That would have come off as pretentious if the text hadn’t absolutely lived up to that assertion. …And Jesus Moonwalks The Mississippi is not poetic in the traditional sense, but the sometimes disjointed, pure emotion sense of poetry is in this play and wrought with a tremendous sense of humor in spite of the sad historic themes.

Most griot, wise mammy, rhythmic, highly devised, look at these deepcultural BLACK ROOTS!!! types of storytelling make me want to run from whatever venue they are being presented in. There is an element of that here presented without irony and with a seriousness I would be tempted to resist as a director, but it works. There’s no fable here. There is the kind of story that was probably all too true at the end of the Civil War, told with a ‘mysticism’ that is delivered by black characters but is no kookier than anyone else’s idea of ‘holy’ and the result is a showcase of how absurd the whole mess was, and how deep those wounds still are. In a theatre it would be hard for me to make it through the first 10 minutes or so, but it would be well worth it.

Cast: 9  4W 3M 2 unspecified Run Time: 63 pp. 80 minutes? Themes: traditional African American storytelling, slavery, slave children born of the master, American Civil War, death and rebirth, freedom.

Understand. Accept. Repeat.

I have a corner apartment with windows on two sides (in three out of four rooms). In spite of being on the third floor (the top), it takes a long time for it get hot. But once it does, it takes a similarly long period to get cool again. So it’s still hot in here. Like, doing nothing more strenuous than typing in the lightest cotton outfit I own, and still I sweat. I hate air conditioning so this is my own doing, and really just an observation of the current state of affairs.

I planned to write about another play tonight, but some hiccups with the library mean I only have one of the collections I was writing about (the wrong one). And my haphazardly applied precision was made very uncomfortable by the prospect of posting out of order. However, that same misapplied precision is also sad that I broke my posting rhythm, and so here are these words.

I believe the years of effort have paid off and I can consistently pick my true voice out of all the noise in my head. The compass is surer about my personal north, I believe it, and can sometimes even feel the magnetic tug. It is a direction, mind you, not a destination. I have no idea where I am going. But I am familiar with my “you’ll know it when you feel it” feeling. All I am trying to do is string as many of those as close together as I possibly can.

My true voice does not always get the last word. Sometimes I find myself headed due south and that magnetic tug starts to feel more like an angry churn; or a ball and chain; or the proud of Dante’s Purgatorio, laboring under large stones (though mine are more often guilt).

Whether a course correction or a step a long the path, there is nothing but change. Minute, unseen shifts in my psyche, or grand upheavals in my life: change. So I feel myself now, shifting…emotional weight to the other metaphoric leg; emphasis; attention. And all that change requires forgiveness for what I leave behind and shed; exploration of the choices I yield to; always remaining ready to dance, because the next change is coming.

Satellites – Diana Son

If you read my last post it will come as no surprise that this play was a relief to me. Probably would have been even if it wasn’t also very good. Satellites is a drama about a professional interracial family intentionally moving to a culturally diverse neighborhood with their new child. Every issue in the play is familiar and painfully real: the financial worries of maternity leave in the midst of a big expense like a house; the stress of moving; the new mother’s ache to get back to work pulling against the urge to never leave her child; family; the sudden urgency to make decisions that honor both parents’ ethnicity, culture, values.

There’s nothing new here. Satellites unfolds in linear time. You would need actors who could be very bare and real night after night. This would be a gem in a really intimate theatre. But it is worth reading or performing and discussing. I think there is quite a bit of universality to the experiences here for people of any race.

Cast: 7 4M 3F. Run Time: 67 pp. 75 minutes. Themes: As above. The racial awareness that exists in the microcosm of a relationship reveals a lot about the racial reality we are all living in and unconsciously influenced by.

The Shipment – Young Jean Lee

You may have sensed from reading this blog that I resist being negative. I blame most pieces I don’t like on my own biases and (try to) make it clear that it’s just my boring old opinion that x work is ‘bad.’ I’m going to do the same thing here and confess all that was built up to bring me to this conclusion, but I really didn’t like this play.

The play has two parts but doesn’t require an intermission. The structure of the first part is a lot like The Coloured Museum (Wolfe). The second part features the actors in stereotypically “white” roles in a stupid, bad, mean, empty [Insert name of any all white sitcom]-satirizing plot.

This play felt the most academic to me. Lee’s author’s note made the writing process sound very collaborative, but the result for me has the sterility of a grad school final project. I thought there was nothing new in the Coloured Museum-ish half and as my adjectives above suggest, the mean, vapid satire of the second half didn’t do it for me either. I wouldn’t put this in a season. Perfectly good for reading and talking about (anything that makes you uncomfortable usually is), but I would not go to see this and I would not want to make others believe that they should see it. Finally, I have found a way to just read when it comes to plays. I try not to judge (until I’m finished) and just let the language and action of the play suck me in. In this collection, this was the third play that was well outside my comfort zone so I will confess I was primed not to like it. So here are my platitudes: perhaps it just did not get to cook enough. I know there’s a niche for this work. Probably, I just don’t get it. To each their own.

Cast: 7 6M 1F. Actors should have movement and singing ability. There are (multi-) doubling tracks identified in the script. You could probably mess with the gender ratios (seek author’s permission). Runtime: 54 pp. 65-70 minutes? Themes: the legacy and expectation of racial stereotypes.

Good Goods – Christina Anderson

Good Goods is an allegory. A family business is both the setting for and nexus of several domestic conflicts which boil over in a 24 hour period. The play is packed with tropes and archetypes –mysterious, friendly outsider as catalyst; you can’t go home again; evil corporation; transformation; unconfessed homoeros; deliberate misunderstanding/misexecution of another character’s desire. These jostle against each other and create an internally consistent olio, but there are times when it jumps the shark for me.

Ms. Anderson writes in the notes that the time is “Between 1961 and 1994. There is a keen sense of hindsight in the characters that places this play on a sliding scale in relation to time.” She goes on to describe the place as, “The side pocket of America. It’s a small, unknown city/county/town/village that doesn’t appear on any map.” It is this Brigadoon-ish location which excuses some of the magical action of the play.

This play was another to reveal my producer-y tendencies. I would gladly support a passionate person who had the vision and follow-through to bring this skillfully to life, but I would not direct it myself. Further, just now in this writing, Good Goods, has made me realize how much of what I like in theatre has to do with scale and realism. More on that later.

Cast: 6 4M 2F. Two of the characters “double.” Runtime: 107 pp. Let’s call it 120 minutes. Plan that intermission. Themes: Historical and current double crosses, worse for being black on black double crosses.

Bulrusher – Eisa Davis

Bulrusher is a full-length coming of age story, which features the awakening and revelation of individual characters and a change in the consciousness of the community the characters represent. The play is set in Boonville, California in 1955, an existing town with a history of a unique local dialect. The author states in the notes that the characters do not have a contemporary self-consciousness, and the play read to me more like the inhabitants of a struggling frontier town from maybe 80 years earlier.

The title character is openly mystical, a lore that is both cast upon her and one that she lives. Falling in love surprises her and reveals her identity at an individual level and with resonance in the community. Bulrusher is well-wrought, the prose and the story move well, and the dialect is a neat element which pulls the ear and the curiosity. The ending is also neutral. I love a play that does not tell you how to feel.

It’s plays like this that make me realize I may a producer more than a director. I absolutely see the value of this show in a season, but the mysticism, songs, and setting don’t light any personal fires for me to make me want to do it. Well worth a read though.

Cast: 6   3M 3F Runtime: 82 pp. Let’s call it 90 minutes? Themes: historical regional, sexuality, identity, coming of age, roots, water, mysticism.

Fourteen Plays About Blackness II

A large part of why I write is that forming words about a topic makes it stick in my brain. So this post is as much about wanting to remember all I learned from the introductions to these two collections as it is about sharing it (and setting the tone).

The eight plays from Post-Black Plays will be first. This collection was edited and introduced by Harry J. Elam and Douglas A. Jones. Both of these men are professors, but having read other introductions by him I believe it is Dr. Elam’s tone which prevails. I respect his stance that plays by black writers and plays about blackness (or post-blackness) deserve erudite study, recognition of significance, and analysis of sociocultural meaning and value. But I find the academic writing overwrought. That said, with 42 footnotes in 18 pages, I gained two great things: the names of many other artists I want to look into, and a very useful lens through which to view the collection. These are all plays that said something to these editors within their frame of post-blackness. I am almost positive that other editors would have chosen eight completely different plays. All collections are subjective, but sometimes I see a level of quality, or some celebration of innovation or form, that unites the work. The plays in this collection seemed to me consistent with the professorial air of the editors, very worthy of study. But I was delighted to learn about: Poet – Evie Shockley; visual artist Kori Newkirk; Playwrights Lynn Nottage and Tarell Alvin McCraney; and a host of literary, art, and cultural thinkers of color.

The Black British Writers collection was introduced by Dr. Lynette Goddard, same page count but half the footnotes and a much more inviting tone. The plays she chose span a longer timeline, and with Britain being smaller, she gives the history of some venues and companies that were particularly critical to the included work, as well as the context for the individual plays and playwrights. These six plays were all clearly performable and seemed very accessible to me. I felt invited to interpret them like a director or a dramaturg (rather than like a graduate student), and the discussions of the London theatre scene of the past set my imagination alight. I learned about Theatre of Black Women, Gay Sweatshop, and Drill Hall (which has led me to Unfinished Histories). The theme here is identity but there is much about here about how language (spoken, cultural, body, etc.) defines or sometimes condemns that identity.

The final lesson from these two collections was sort of a disappointment for me personally: I have a stronger attraction to plays with pretty “conventional” form. I am actually sad about this and working very hard keep my mind open to the more exotic pieces. Plays without conventional form sometimes don’t read well because of the words the have to be spent on…well, explaining the form. But I just want to acknowledge that I go in with a bias and I’m working on that.

Fourteen Plays About Blackness I

So you made it through the run down of all the Simon Stephens plays I’ve read: Bravo and thank you! We progress next to two more collections published by Methuen Drama, all organized around the themes of black playwrights and/or concepts of blackness.

Before getting to the plays themselves, I wanted to make some comments about these collections.

Methuen Drama – Methuen Drama is an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing. I got to know them on Twitter through fun play title word games before I realized that they publish both classic and contemporary plays, with the latter being their notable strength. They release contemporary plays now!, often with a copy for sale during the production run, and if not, available very soon. Their single author and thematic collections of plays are well curated and I have gained as much from the introductions as I did from the plays.

The cons are a website that is hard to search and not very useful for discovery. You’re unlikely to arrive looking for a specific author and stumble upon four others that you might like. And there are typos, no more than a glossy magazine these days, but they are there and sometimes they make you question the meaning of a line. Still I find their thematic collections a great resource.

These two collections —Post-Black Plays and Plays by Black British Writers– I chose for two reasons. 1) Guilt. I am a black woman, and I actually have thoughts like “Why are you spending so much time on another white man’s work [re: Simon Stephens]? Why don’t you read some voices more like your own?” 2) Comparison. I have written a (very) few plays. I wondered how my full-length play would be perceived and received compared to other black plays. Would anyone know it was written by a black author? Would they care? Would they accept the story I told knowing it came from a black voice? Does it still matter that I am black? Should it?

These collections did not answer any of those questions for me, but gave me plenty of food for thought, some of which will be covered in the next posts.

Finally, I am by necessity, going to be talking about race (and sexuality – there’s a lot of that in these plays too) for the next several posts. I am a black American, but I do not possess any particular skill in discussing these topics. So don’t mind my stumbling too much.

Carmen Disruption – Simon Stephens

Carmen Disruption. Oh! Oh oh oh oh! I enjoyed this production so so much. I just had a damn good time.

I have it in my head (accurate or not) that Simon Stephens develops a lot of his work very collaboratively. And I think that may be how he, very deftly, wrote a play with a gigantic hole in it; left room for a missing character. And that missing character was the stage craft. How the company fills in that gap is what makes this production so much fun. I will see every revival I can get to just to witness each new group’s imagination with the text.

The majesty of this play in performance points up the need for a confident, creative production team, and underlines the absolute requirement to recruit an incredible set of actors. Which might be the nicest possible way I can say I thought the text was the weakest link. I think if I had read it without seeing it I would have struggled to understand why anyone would do it (this gave me some important and eye-opening information about my imagination (and its limitations :))! The structure is beautiful, but the words…the words are right, but they are not deep, or lovely, or satisfying. But I do think that may have been the point.

The text of the play is five fragmented monologues that intersect. There is no dialogue. There are single lines that intercut, but there is no dialogue. It’s awesome. However, there were physical interactions in this production that inferred dialogue. There is a chorus in both the operatic and Greek sense. The entire play is masturbatory. There is an act of actual masturbation, but mostly there is a non-erotic, non-romantic, preening, egotistical arc for every character. It is so modern it hurts.  It resonated deeply with my entire range of emotions about contemporary life, and I wonder if it will stand up to even five years of aging.

The whole experience gave me the sense of looking at an exceptional hologram of a beautiful flower. It is such a marvel when you are seeing it, but once it’s gone you feel worse than if you had the flower and it died, because clever as the hologram was, it was never real. I felt like everything about the play deserved and rewarded every minute I spent in that theatre, yet I was also left with a dirty, furtive emptiness, which I think is a feather in the cap of all involved.

Cast: 5  3F 2 M and Chorus – In the London run the chorus was 1F. Run Time: 80-85 minutes. Synopsis: 5 intersecting monologues by the principles in the Bizet’s Carmen, updated to modern London.

Birdland – Simon Stephens

Birdland is one of two Simon Stephens’ plays that I have actually seen in production. My original review of it is here. I did not buy the script last year (when it was 3£) because walking into the show I didn’t know if it would be ‘good enough’ that I wanted to have a copy. One year later I paid 10£ for it because I’m still thinking about it.

I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing. I was kind of disappointed in the production, which has festered into being oddly angry about it. My interest in this play and my desire to direct it (maybe even act in it) has a keen competitive edge to it that isn’t necessarily friendly. The play, as it was staged last year, did not give me anything I wanted or needed (which may, in fact, have been the notion), and I have a stubborn hunger to fix that (even as I understand that I might just be totally wrong about everything).

I’m certain I’m not the only one who is confused. Reviews were mixed. There was no agreement as to what the play is about. The Royal Court marketed on Paul’s line “Everything can be quantified.” (scene 2); some clung to the references to Baal (Brecht); and some went after the musical influences or the interpersonal conflicts. Having finally listened to Patti Smith’s song “Birdland” which charged the spirit (Stephens’ phrase) I think I understand the (pro)tagonist a bit more, but I still remember this play as hollow in a way that failed (for me).

That said, it reads pretty well. The text pulls at me. Makes me want to do the play (in a more benign spirit). There’s patter here that fills the ear. It’s a little bit Mamet in its elevated banality, repetition, and profanity; but I like Mamet. I think Mamet is good clay. Having seen one take on it gives me some idea of the range of emotional notes in the play. And I think the tone of capitalistic nihilism that Royal Court emphasized is there, it just needed a different hand on the tiller.

Cast: 18 Roles; doubling allowed; gender is kind of optional. Run Time: 90-100 minutes? 122 pages but no interval and really no beats between scenes. Synopsis: Paul is the local boy all blowed-up. Now an international rock star loving all the perks of fame, he’s on the last leg of a worldwide tour, which may have been running a bit too long.