WASHINGTON, Oct. 14, 2015 – The Hothouse New Play Development Series—Theater Alliance’s commitment to developing, producing and presenting socially conscious, thought-provoking new works that fully engage the arts-loving community—is working again, as it presents a four-week October schedule highlighting the work of new playwrights at the Anacostia Playhouse.
Last Monday featured an incredibly compelling reading of Alan Sharpe’s “Play Ball,” a play that explores the dual dilemmas of an overachieving student who’s bullied for his brilliance as well as his emerging sexual identity.
Alan Sharpe is the founding artistic director of African-American Collective Theater (ACT). He began creating LGBTQ-themed projects in 1970 as a freshman film student at Boston University. An on-campus theater company he co-founded there evolved into African-American Collective Theater after his move to Washington, D.C., in 1976. Since that time, he has written and directed over 70 plays and films, all showcasing contemporary black gay and lesbian life and culture.
Read very effectively by 20-something Nate Shelton, Sharpe’s raw, no-holds-barred new play examines the ways 12-year-old Travis copes with being bombarded by all manner of cruel epithets hurled at him by everyone from family to classmates. This constant, negative barrage forces him to retreat into an isolated, and confused corner of his Beyoncé-postered room, where he attempts to sort out the confusion swirling around him.
The two-act drama plays out within the modest Southeast apartment of his mother, Portia, who shares their humble abode with her macho returning citizen boyfriend Ivan. This self-appointed “man of the house” constantly torments young Travis with cruel but idle threats and regularly reminding him, “You got a heart problem – no heart, that is.”
Portia puts up with Ivan’s trifling attitude and out-of-work lifestyle because “pickin’s are slim” and Ivan takes care of business in bed and regularly forces Travis to take a walk so he and his mother can have some privacy while watching cable TV on the living room couch.
What makes the play compelling is the strong cast of extended family and community characters, from Portia’s gay brother and his lover who attempts to mentor and counsel Travis on the thousand questions that a 13-year-old virgin has about sex, to the local pastor who tries to bully Travis with brimstone and fire.
“It’s only normal for a boy your age to be interested in girls – it’s part of GOD’s plan. GOD don’t like sissies and homosexuals,” counsels the Rev. Meeks as Travis’ mother returns after the “talk” to reaffirm “that my son is not gay.”
Even the minor characters add depth and context to Travis’ world, but ultimately they fail him. I won’t reveal the ending, but let me say that the most rewarding part of the evening for me and I’m sure the playwright was the “Talk Back” session that followed the two-hour-and-20-minute reading after a five-minute break.
The readings in the series take place with only the back wall of the black box theater open to the audience and the nine readers and facilitator facing them. The theater was set up for about 50 participants with an RSVP reading series, and about half stayed to participate in the very compelling feedback session even though it was well after the start of the 11 o’clock news.
Kat White, Theater Alliance’s literary director, led a lively session that helped provide the playwright with constructive insights on how he might improve the play or clarify a character’s intent or message before the work goes final. Some in the audience thought the current version of the play was too long, while others thought the character of the pastor was unnecessary and that the ending monologue was out of place with its message of hope in the face of tragedy.
“I intended to show him alive and happy at the end of the play,” said Alan Sharpe. And Week 3 playwright Kitty Felde agreed with the need to see a way out of the drama’s central dilemmas.
On the other hand, director Stephawn Stephens defended the Rev. Meeks as a complementary but limited cameo that he struggled to salvage after the first couple of readings and edits confirmed his judgment.
But the most passionate input came from this Monday’s featured playwright, Dane Figeroa Edidi, who felt the core message was critical of everyone who was close to Travis, but “was not invested enough to not let the kid die.”
The ongoing Fourth Annual Hothouse New Play Development Series, is currently showcasing the work of four D.C.-based playwrights in various stages of development. Week 2 of the Series, which commenced Monday, features “Absalom” by Dana Figueroa Edidi; Week 3, beginning Oct. 19, will offer “Western & 96th” by Kitty Felde; and Week 4, beginning Oct. 26, will offer “We R Punk Rock” by Chinta L. Anderson.
“For Season 13, we asked the D.C. playwriting community to propose pieces for development—pieces that delve into and explore the diverse lives and experiences of D.C. residents. With such an incredible response of new work and ambitious playwrights, this year’s Hothouse Series is quickly becoming one of the most exciting projects to emerge on D.C. stages in recent memory,” said Kat White.
Theater Alliance’s Hothouse serves as an intellectual incubator—a place where local playwrights can nurture and grow their ideas sustained and supported through collaboration with the audience and artists in the D.C. Metro Area.
To reserve seats for upcoming readings, visit www. Theateralliance.com
The Anacostia Playhouse is located at 2020 Shannon Place SE, Washington, D.C. 20020.