New Plays Show Washington’s Fresh Take on Theater

New plays, are nothing new on the Washington theater scene, but what is just a little new is that this year, there’s an abundance of new plays from which theatergoers can choose. And what’s more, in some very companies, they’re the jump starters for their season.

That’s to be expected from, say, Woolly Mammoth, whose whole history and existence, and reason for being for decades now has been centered around new work. Many theaters encourage new plays, promote them and provide a home and possible production site for new playwrights. That’s been the case for Arena Stage, whose first two productions are plays that are either made from scratch or have never been seen in Washington.

We had occasion to chat with three playwrights, whose work were part of the early Washington Theater Scene.

Charles Randolph-Wright’s new play “Love in Afghanistan” is currently running at Arena Stage in the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle through Nov. 17. Eric Coble’s two-character play “The Velocity of Autumn”, starring Estelle Parsons, is finishing its run in the Kreeger at Arena Stage Oct. 20. And Lisa D’Amour’s remarkable (and remarkably staged by Director John Vreeke) play about the dying of suburbia finished a successful run at Woolly Mammoth October 6

Charles Randolph-Wright and “Love in Afghanistan”

Charles Randolph Wright is hardly a new playwright, or a new presence in Washington, or a new guy at Arena Stage. This is the man who is directing “Motown: The Musical,” the smash hit musical, on Broadway, who has helmed a number of productions at Arena Stage, including, notably, “Sophisticated Ladies” at the Lincoln Theater, a production of “Guys and Dolls” at Arena, and “Senor Discretion Himself,” the last musical written by Frank Loesser before his death in 1969. Recently, he directed Arena’s production of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ruined.” At ACT in San Francisco, he directed a musical version of Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot” with music by Tracy Chapman. As a playwright, he wrote the acclaimed “Blue,” which was produced at Arena Stage, and starred Phylicia Rashad.

Not only that, but just for another interesting credit, he was an original cast member of “Dream Girls” on Broadway. Yet, even for the wide-ranging Randolph-Wright, “Love in Afghanistan” is a departure, something brand new.

For him, it’s almost an exclamation point to the projects he’s worked on at Arena: “Molly Smith has always encouraged me, provided an arena for exploration, for searching in her own desire to focus on American plays. But even so, this play is different, for me, because it was about a collision of cultures, and I had never been to Afghanistan, so in many ways, I had to imagine the setting.”

“Basically, Molly said I want to do your next play, which is huge. There have been no limits on what I can try or do, as director, and now as resident playwright.”

Randolph-Wright said the play was sparked by as story he had read about Afghanistan, the family practice of bacha posh in which girls are forced to dress and be like boys in order for them to work. “You have to wonder what that does to a girl, to people,” he said. “That’s where it started for me, and I talked to a lot of people from Afghanistan who had been there, and in a way the country came to me, in a kind of total inspiration.

The result is “Love in Afghanistan,” a play in which a young America hip hop star encounters a young interpreter named Roya on a visit to Afghanistan. Melis Aker plays Roya and Khris Davis plays Duke. “It’s a kind of Romeo and Juliet, sure, but it’s also about a clash of cultures and the effects of the American presence in that country and the impact of what happens when we leave.”

Eric Coble and “The Velocity of Autumn”

Coble has written—and is writing—a lot, although “The Velocity of Autumn” marks his Arena debut. He has been in numerous festivals, and produced a volume of work that’s interesting for its variety, diversity. He writes plays for young people including an adaptation of the popular novel “The Giver,” a standard in many middle school curriculums.

“I’ve had a pretty unusual background,” Coble said. Somehow, this native of Scotland who was raised on the Navajo and Ute reservations in New Mexico and Colorado, ended up in Cleveland, where he’s happily ensconced as a part of the Playwrights Unit of the Cleveland Play House. “The Velocity of Autumn” was originally scheduled to open on Broadway, but instead opened the Arena season, starring Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella in remarkable performances.

Coble is obviously one of those people who pays attention to his surroundings. “I was walking past a neighbor’s house , it was a woman named Lottie, she was living alone and it was obvious she was having a hard time taking care of herself . . . and that’s where it started.”

The result was “Autumn” and the tale of a widow who is trying to avoid living in a retirement or assisted living home by staying in her house and who has barricaded herself inside in rooms filled with Molotov cocktails. A wayward son tries to talk her out of it, as they re-unite after years of not seeing each other.

With Parsons and Spinella, this material has been turned into a witty, funny, moving and powerful play about how we live, age, and prepare for the dying of the light in America.

Lisa D’Amour and “Detroit”

“Detroit”—a Pulitzer Prize finalist—had a remarkable run and a remarkable production at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Sept. 9 to Oct. 6. It was a play that dealt with a lot of issues, the least of which was probably the city of Detroit proper. It focused, rather on the decaying fringes of suburbia and two sets of couples living under one extreme or another—emotional and economical—in an America full of stressful squeezes and disconnections.

The play itself had two productions before coming to Woolly—at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago with a cast that included Laurie Metcalf and off-Broadway last year with a cast that included David Schwimmer and Amy Ryan. The Washington production had riveting performances by Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Danny Gavigan, Tim Getman and Emily K. Towley

“It’s not about Detroit, the city per se,” said Lisa D’Amour, who with her brother Chris, hails from New Orleans. “It’s about a state of mind. It’s about anxiety, fears, isolation, disconnection, and that’s what’s happened in the suburbs. Although it’s funny, when I wrote it that was kind of a malaise among many groups of Americans, and now, Detroit was actually nearing bankruptcy so it’s in the news all over again.”

D’Amour is part of PearlDamourm an Obie-award winning team—with Katie Pearl—that does collaborative theater in traditional and non-traditional venues that creates installation theatre as in “How to Build as Forest,” an eight-hour effort in which a forest is assembled, disassembled and put together again.

“Detroit” is a play about what happens when strangers—neighbors but strangers—reach out to each other, with an explosive results. But D’Amour believes that’s exactly what people need to do: talk to strangers. “We need to reach out to and connect with strangers more,” she said. “We’re all too comfortable in our little groups of families, peers, people we socialize with, but we don’t talk to strangers.”


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