Daily Reporting on the Second Stage Theatre New Works Festival featuring plays from the Time Warner Play Commissioning Program by Laura Hedli
Sitting in a single file line, eight African American women barreled through a nearly three hour reading. Never having rehearsed the second act, their degree of interaction was remarkable as they responded to one another’s split second changes in intonation or body language without ever skipping a beat. Directed by Jo Bonney, Cheryl L. West wove a story about a pastor’s wife who decides to form a recreational volleyball team with the ladies from the church. The range of emotions and complexity of their relationships is anything but quaint. By the end of our journey together, I really felt like I knew a great deal about these eight characters. It wasn’t that I was being introduced to them for the first time, but rather, I cared about what happened to them. And that’s the mark of successful writing.
In an age of divas and baby ingénues, Tracey Scott Wilson’s Buzzer and West’s Wash Your Rabbit are a testament to the power of an ensemble. Both show how strength in a story can come from a range of characters all sharing one story.
“I was trying to do a thing like the La Ronde,” says Wilson. The 1898 play (actually entitled Der Reigen) by Arthur Schnitzler explores the transmission of venereal disease in relation to cultural mores of the day. It is often recognized, however, for its telephone-like structure. “It’s a set of scenes where it starts with a prostitute and a sailor, and the next scene is the sailor and someone else, and so on.” Eventually the play comes full circle, ending with the prostitute and a different suitor.
In Wilson’s script, buzzers in a New York apartment building are broken, allowing an African American male to enter the complex through a propped open door. His ready-made access results in the rape and murder of a woman on the 11th floor, and since the horrifying incident, the characters are left scrambling for solutions and solace. The play closes with starting character, Susie (Lisa Joyce) talking in the apartment vestibule with fellow-tenant, Laura (Carolyn Baeumler) about whether or not they’re going to let an unidentified black man into the building.
“I just think because of this presidential election that’s going on, everyone’s sort of saying they’re talking about race, but no one’s really talking about race,” says Wilson. “I wanted to do a play where no one’s really talking about race, but it’s underlying everything in some ways.”
West—whose work Jar in the Floor, Birdie Blue, and Before It Hits Home has been featured at Second Stage prior to this commission—also dealt with issues of race, but her story was first and foremost a story about women. From a struggle between a mom and her 17-year-old daughter who’s been forced to grow up too fast, to a wife who runs from her abusive marriage into the arms of another woman, West’s script is heaped with herstories. “Keeping it real honoring whatever the hell we feel!” is the team’s chant.
Looking towards the future, Wilson hopes to continue fleshing out ideas before staging a full production of Buzzer. “I want it to be more … more like La Ronde, more of those connected scenes,” says Wilson. “I’m looking to make it a little bit more subtle. Right now it’s a little preachy.”
“Yeah, but when work comes out like this—especially work that has a political bent—it’s okay to be preachy when you’re developing it,” interjects Director, Robert O’Hara. “That way, you know you’ve gotten it out of your system.”
On my way out for the evening, I caught up with Jade King Carroll and Jerry Ruiz, directors of 10 Things To Do Before I Die and Happy, respectively, and each commented upon the intricacy and depth of the work presented that day. Carroll said she was even tearing up by the end of West’s reading.
“You don’t actually realize it until there are people sitting in front of you and you see what they listen to,” says O’Hara. “That’s when, I think, you hear the play. And it’s kind of exciting.”
Buzzer is written by Tracey Scott Wilson and directed by Robert O’Hara. The Second Stage/Time Warner Commission cast included Carolyn Baeumler (Laura), Lisa Joyce (Susie), Katharine Powell (Marjorie), James Miles (Jackson), David Wilson Barnes (Don), and Brian Hutchison (Todd). Stage directions were read by Crystal Noelle.
Wash Your Rabbit is written by Cheryl L. West and directed by Jo Bonney. The Second Stage/Time Warner Commission cast included Ann Duquesnay (Johnnie Ray), Caroline Clay (Ida), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Pinky (Mother Bennet)), Lynda Gravatt (Georgia), Portia (Coco), Brienin Bryant (Camy), Saidah Ekulona (Big Roz), Sharon Washington (Pearl). Stage directions were read by Crystal Noelle
In 2006, Time Warner commissioned 10 playwrights, both emerging and established, through Second Stage Theatre. The week of June 9-13 2008 showcases plays by 8 of the 10 writers as part of the New Works Festival. Readings take place at Telsey Casting Studios (311 W. 43rd Street, 10th Floor), Manhattan Theatre Club (311 W. 43rd Street, 8th Floor), and Roy Arias Studios (300 W. 43rd Street, 5th Floor).NEXT UP: Friday’s final presentation