Saturday, May 27, 2017

New Works From Female Playwrights

Several years ago, I finally had a chance to ask Edward Albee a question when he was interviewed at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. When the event was opened up to questions from the audience I asked him about a curious performance of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that I had attended sometime around 1971.

I was living in Providence, Rhode Island when (barely two years after the Stonewall riots) a group of drama students decided to stage Albee's play at Brown University with an all-male cast without making any changes to the script. Although there has been some talk in recent years about the possibility of mounting an all-male production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? there was no doubt that the taciturn playwright was not pleased by my question.

Playwright Edward Albee

A curious brouhaha recently erupted over the Albee estate’s refusal to grant performance rights to the Complete Works Project in Portland, Oregon. The key issue involved a theatre company’s decision to cast an African-American actor in the role of Nick (who is often described as one step short of an Aryan golden boy). In a post on his Facebook page, the award-winning playwright, Stephen Adly Guirgis, stated:
"The Edward Albee Estate is not racist for respecting the wishes of Edward Albee. And Edward Albee was not racist for having retained his right to see his plays produced as he wrote them and as he saw fit. Not every playwright is as stringent as Albee was. I'm not. But I'm glad he was. Theater is the one medium where a writer can't be rewritten or his intent changed without the writer's approval. Even so, it happens all the time -- which is why I'm grateful to guys like Albee. Even among theater artists, we are taught -- literally instructed -- to disrespect the writer's words from our earliest entry into the theater, i.e. 'Cut that monologue,' 'Edit that scene,' 'We don't need this part,' etc. The not so subtle message is that the writer's words & intent are important, but not that important. Or worse -- people edit scripts or alter meanings to 'improve the play' or to imprint 'their interpretation' on it."
Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis
"In this case (with respect to director Michael Streeter), he sought to 'add depth to the play.' I get it. And I'm sympathetic. But Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an acknowledged 20th-century masterpiece. It's already pretty fucking DEEP without anybody's help. Do the play. If they won't let you do the play how you want to do it? Fuck them. Do another play. Or write your own. There are a million examples of ongoing racism daily -- in our nation & in our theater. But Edward Albee has a legal right to be Edward Albee even in death. That doesn't make him a racist. It just makes him the prickly stickler genius that he always was. No harm in trying to open things up. And no blame shifting if the answer is 'no.' It's fuckin' Albee. Fuck him if you don't like it. Fuck me if you don't like me. But for playwrights, in large part, and perhaps sadly -- we ARE our work. Albee is Albee. And he paid the cost to be boss. His rights are protected. And our rights are not more important than his."
While plenty of outrage has been expressed over the situation, I was particularly taken by Melissa Hillman’s comments on her provocative theatre blog, Bitter Gertrude. Hillman argues that:
“There’s real value in creating space within white male canonical works for marginalized voices. This is because canonical works occupy a dominant cultural position that must be interrogated from multiple angles. However, we must also be staging new works by new voices. My company staged three or four new plays for every classic we did. I like that percentage; maybe a different one will work for you. But stage new work, especially work by writers whose voices have been marginalized -- women, people of color, trans people, people with disabilities, etc.

It is wickedly hard to sell a new play (which is part of what drives companies to choose canonical work). Put your money where your mouth is. Reward companies when they program the way you like by buying tickets, spreading the word, and choosing them when/if you donate. We’re nothing without playwrights. Stage living playwrights and defend their right to protect their work. And Albee’s executors, if you’re reading this, you have some serious damage control to do if you want that money to keep rolling in. Just a thought.”
Bitter Gertrude's Melissa Hillman

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The Bay area's theatre community offers numerous opportunities for readings of new works, ranging from the Playwrights Foundation's annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival to the San Francisco Olympians Festival. The San Francisco Playhouse's adventurous Sandbox series and American Conservatory Theater's use of its Strand Theater and Costume Shop Theater provide new opportunities for aspiring playwrights.

The Aurora Theatre Company's annual New Works Initiative (recently renamed Originate & Generate) and the annual New Works Festival produced by TheatreWorks SiliconValley in August give the most deserving project a fully-staged production in their upcoming seasons. CentralWorks and TheatreFIRST have taken to nurturing new plays through their unique artistic processes while the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's in-house Ground Floor serves as an incubator for new and developing works. Both Theatre Rhinoceros and the New Conservatory Theatre Center have a proud history of staging world premieres of new works that explore LGBT themes.

So when people complain about the lack of opportunities for women, African-American, Asian-American, or LGBT playwrights, they really need to pay closer attention to what's happening in small theatre companies where money may be tight, but the freedom to experiment is impressive. Two recent examples deserve special mention.

As part of its 21st Annual Playground Festival of New Works, the company is producing the world premieres of Robin Lynn Rodriguez's play about gentrification entitled Hedge and Ignacio Zulueta's new play, Kano + Abe. Short plays written by four young women from the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (Annais Naylor Guerrero, Cicely Henderson, Chava Novogrodsky-Godt, and Camilla Dwyer) will be given "curtain raiser" readings at the Best of Playground 21 performances as part of the 2017 Young Playwrights Project.

I was lucky enough to see 15-year-old Annais Naylor Guerrero's short play, Crash, on opening night. Directed by Wendy Wisely, it featured David Chung as Matt and Louel Senores as Julio, two high school students whose car accidentally crashes into a parked vehicle while they are out joyriding. Within moments of impact, the sound of a car alarm causes the two panicking youths to confront certain painful realities:
  • The one who was driving does not have a driver's license.
  • At least one of them is an undocumented alien.
  • The boy who is obviously college material immediately starts to worry about whether or not this accident will sabotage his chances of getting into college.
  • Painfully aware of his more limited options, the less intelligent friend refuses to let his pal think about abandoning a promising future.
Aspiring playwright Annais Naylor Guerrero

In ten short minutes, Ms. Guerrero made it crystal clear that hers is a talent to be reckoned with. Not only did she create two fully fleshed-out characters, she was able to give voice to their critical thinking skills and dramatize their awareness of socioeconomic factors affecting their futures with more skill and greater clarity than many playwrights twice or three times her age.

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In a fascinating article entitled When Women Crowdfunded Radium For Marie Curie recently published on, Kat Eschner discussed a curious moment in radiation research documented by diagnostic radiologist Ann Lewicki in the medical journalRadiology. In a 1920 interview with an American reporter, Marie Curie told Marie Meloney that she didn’t have any radium with which to continue her research. Nor could she afford any. Curie’s famous husband (with whom she had shared the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics) had died in 1906, leaving his wife to support herself and their two teenage daughters on a professor’s salary. As Lewicki noted: “She who had discovered radium, who had freely shared all information about the extraction process, and who had given radium away so that cancer patients could be treated, found herself without the financial means to acquire the expensive substance.”

After a successful fundraising campaign led by American women, Curie traveled to the White House where, on May 20, 1921, she was presented with one gram of radium by President Warren Harding. “The price of radium is very high since it is found in minerals in very small quantities, and the profits of its manufacture have been great, as this substance is used to cure a number of diseases,” stated Curie. “Yet, I still believe that we have done right.”

In April, HBO aired The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a made-for-television movie directed by George C. Wolfe that stars Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, and Renée Elise Goldsberry. At the same time, TheatreFIRST was in rehearsals for its world premiere of HeLa.

Poster art for the world premiere of HeLa

With rapidly increasing numbers of women graduating from college with majors in STEM fields, it should come as no surprise that playwright Lauren Gunderson (who has done an admirable job of dramatizing the achievements of women in science and math in such plays as Silent Sky, Ada and the EngineDeepen The Mystery: Science and the South Onstage) teamed up with another Bay area playwright, Geetha Reddy, to put a new spin on the story of Henrietta Lacks, the dying African American woman whose cancer cells were able to live outside of her body. Sensitively directed by Evren Odcikin (with dramaturgy by Lisa Marie Rollins), their thrilling new play capped TheatreFIRST's inaugural season of four world premieres.

Working on a unit set designed by Bailey Hikawa with lighting by Stephanie Anne Johnson and sound by Kevin Myrick, the stage was dominated by a large sculpture made of plastic balls which, when bathed in different colors by Johnson's impressive lighting design, almost seemed to quiver with life.

Richard Pallaziol and Jeunée Simon in a scene from HeLa
(Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

In 1951, when Henrietta Lacks was undergoing treatment for cervical cancer, the medical team at Johns Hopkins harvested some of her cancer cells without the patient's consent (a standard practice at the time). Named HeLa cells (a combination of the first two letters of Henrietta's first and last names), the biopsy yielded a medical breakthrough -- the first line of immortal cells that could keep reproducing outside the human body.

Over the years, HeLa cells have proven invaluable in research aimed at finding cures for cancer, polio, AIDS, and numerous other diseases. Although their use gave rise to a billion dollar segment of the medical research industry, Henrietta's family never received any compensation (the Lacks family didn't even learn about the history of the HeLa cell line until 1975).

Khary Moye and Jeunée Simon as David and Henrietta Lacks
in a scene from HeLa (Photo by Cheshire Isaacs)

What made the HeLa cells so special? They came from a black woman (attempts to harvest similarly potent cell lines from white women routinely failed). While HBO's film will undoubtedly reach many more people than TheatreFIRST's intimate new play, I doubt that HBO would have had the poetic audacity, imagination, and wit to include a scene in which Henrietta's spirit has a conversation with Strelka (one of the Soviet Union's "space dogs") as she learns about the power of the cancerous cells which were taken from her body.

Jeunée Simon as Henrietta Lacks and Sarah Mitchell as Strelka (the
Russian space dog) in a scene from HeLa (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

As the plot of HeLa unfolds, it doesn't take long for Henrietta to succumb to cancer. But, as can only happen in live theatre, the running dialogue between her spirit and her grieving adult daughter, Deborah (Desiree Rogers), achieves a remarkable level of poignancy while delivering a huge amount of scientific information about the value of HeLa cells and the machinations of greedy researchers following Henrietta's death. All this is accomplished with a technical grace and sense of empathy that could easily have been lost had the story been placed in the hands of less talented playwrights than Gunderson and Reddy (who share a strong interest in science).

Desiree Rogers as Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, in
a scene from HeLa (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Odcikin's ensemble does some beautiful work with Jeunée Simon (Henrietta), Khary Moye (David), and Desiree Rogers (Deborah) as the key members of the Lacks family. Richard Pallaziol appears as a variety of selfish (and occasionally buffoon-like) medical researchers, with Akemi Okamura providing a sympathetic presence as the researcher who shows Deborah Lacks the living cells that contain her long-dead mother's DNA. As always, the wonderful Sarah Mitchell scores comic points with her impersonation of the cosmonaut dog, Strelka.

Having recently partnered with Margot Melcon in co-writing Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly (which received a tightly-choreographed rolling world premiere from the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, the Northlight Theatre in Chicago, and the Marin Theatre Company), Lauren Gunderson has teamed up with Geetha Reddy (who spent several seasons in Playground's playwrighting program) to create a compassionate script which is medically sound and easily accessible to contemporary audiences. It should be stressed that, while Annais Naylor Guerrero, Geetha Reddy, and Lauren Gunderson are certainly not the only women in the Bay area writing plays, their work leaves no doubt about the breadth and depth of their talent.

TheatreFIRST’s website states that the company’s goal is “to revolutionize the intersection of audience, artist, and activism by making theatre a place where social justice happens. As an all in-house development company, our staff, board, and creative teams are built to explore how best to lift and amplify marginalized stories by breaking down perceived barriers so that we might all explore an equitable world.” On opening night, HeLa was introduced to the audience by the production's lighting designer, Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson, an African-American member of TheatreFIRST's Board of Directors who, as a theatre artist and cancer survivor, was especially proud to be a part of this deeply moving world premiere.

Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson (Photo by: Steve Savage)

Performances of HeLa continue through June 17 at the Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley (click here for tickets).

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