by Steven Anthony Jones
We’ve been to Canada during slavery (slavery in Canada? who knew?) and to Salem during the witch trials. We’ve seen what happens when an angel falls in love, when a wife leaves her husband after 37 years and when two sisters love the same man. We’ve experienced the conflicts of a free Negro family living in Kentucky in 1858.
These are the stories of the plays featured so far in LHT’s Bringing the Art to the Audience series of staged readings – (in the order above) Lorena Gale’s Angélique, OyamO’s Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (or the Devil Made Me Do It), Walter Moseley’s The Fall of Heaven, Philip Kan Gotanda’s The Wash, Judi Ann Mason’s Indigo Blues, and Keith Josef Adkins’s Safe House.
The readings have been a fascinating exploration of plays being considered as full LHT productions.
There is a particular immediacy to them. Just hours before the reading, the actors and director meet for the first time. Collectively, we work on pace and rhythm and the arc of the story. We want to make sure we get the story told.
In a reading, stage directions become part of the voice of the play. So, if two characters leave the stage, for example, the audience hears, “They exit.” One of our jobs is to make cuts in the stage directions so the reading flows. In our rehearsal, we read through the play once.
And then the audience, actors and director, all of us experience the play almost for the first time, together.
For me it has been exciting to hear these plays and to meet and work with artists I haven’t worked with before. I’ve become acquainted with playwrights I didn’t know. I’ve been impressed by the creativity and diversity of an emerging group of African American playwrights.
One of the most rewarding parts of the readings has been the discussion with the audience afterwards. I think we’ve all been a little surprised by how enthusiastically the audience embraces this part of the process and enjoys taking part in helping to decide the stage-worthiness of the play they’ve just heard.
For example, although I was worried that some of the scenes in Tituba would be difficult to follow without lighting and staging, audience members reported they did not have any trouble following the story. The week before, the audience for Safehouse was able to see the complexity of a particularly challenging character. After Indigo Blues, one woman offered an interpretation I hadn’t considered – the entire play was a dream or hallucination. Fascinating.
And following the reading of The Wash, Gotanda told the audience that after a Mexican television station broadcast the movie based on his play (with subtitles in Spanish), he was inspired to rewrite it, changing the Japanese immigrant family to a Jamaican immigrant family.
Many have said this was the first staged reading they had attended and they enjoyed the experience. They could hear and better appreciate the language of the play and they liked having their imaginations activated to fill in the costumes, set and action of the world of the play. Theater is about engaging the audience; in these readings audience members are pulled into the process of bringing the play to life.
It’s also been interesting to see what the actors are able to accomplish with so little. There isn’t any blocking. With just their voices, expressions and a few gestures, they start to create their characters. Relationships and the dynamics between characters begin to emerge. Audiences have been introduced to a new crop of talented actors. LHT is developing its own company of associate artists.
When the lights go down in a theater, the magic of the theatrical experience begins. In our readings, we’ve been experiencing the magic of the first steps in the journey that results in the production of a play.
Plus, the readings have taken us to new locations – the Museum of the African Diaspora in downtown San Francisco, ACT’s costume shop on Market Street, the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond and the African American Arts and Cultural Center in the Fillmore.
It’s been a gas. There are still five readings in the series. Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit 67, on February 16 at the Museum of the African Diaspora; a play to be announced on February 26 at the Oakland School for the Arts, a play to be announced on March 15 at the Joyce Gordon Gallery in Oakland; Marcus Gardley’s Black Odyssey, on April 6 at the African American Art and Cultural Center; and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present, on May 4 at MoAD.
Come out and experience theater in a fresh new way.