At a time when Trump-trouble rules the roost and the notion of controversy is a daily utterance, the challenges of creating original theater that educates, permeates and provokes – the best kind – means more now than anytime in our history. Race, glass, gender identification, sex, fire: these are the hallmarks of what a great aggressive play must have. For three young-but-veteran Philadelphia born-or-based playwrights – James iJames, Jacqueline Goldfinger, Tracey Scott Wilson – this May, trouble is their collective middle name with the May 3 openings of, respectively, WHITE, The Arsonists and Buzzer.
James iJames: WHITE
The pitch: Gus wants his artwork to be in an important museum. Vanessa wants to be an actor on her own terms. Gus asks Vanessa to play the role of a lifetime. The persona they create proceeds to eat the rest of the play. Along the way Vanessa and Gus grapple with their own assumptions about race, class and gender. In the end everyone gets their greatest desire, but it costs them something. And ends with a ‘bang.’
Self-proclaimed ‘baby playwright’ iJames’ idea for WHITE came from a controversy at the Whitney Museum a few years ago when a white artist hired black actresses to help him create a piece of art for the museum's Biennial. “One of the parts of that piece was having the actresses pretend to be the sole creator of the art, which caused a huge backlash from black artists in the Biennial, specifically The Yams Collective,” says iJames of the self-defined, mostly black and mostly queer international artists group. “I was trying to quit smoking at the same time this was happening and decided that I would write every time I had the urge to smoke. I wrote the play in like a week.”
iJames has pretty much handed his baby off to director Malika Oyetimein actor Justin Jain and Erin Reilly at Theatre Horizon who has been with WHITE since its first PlayPenn reading in 2015. With but a few self-penned plays in his canon, iJames believes WHITE falls at a moment where he’s clarifying how he wishes to discuss race and identity. “I wanted to approach these topics with large theatricality, humor and horror/violence. So in that respect this play sits at the beginning of a shift in how I talk about a race and how I want an audience to witness race."
WHITE | May 3-21. 7:30pm. Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street. $20-$35. theatrehorizon.org
Jacqueline Goldfinger | The Arsonists
The pitch: Think in the realm of Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman or a throwback to 1970s cinema a la Peckinpah or early Scorsese. Inspired by Electra and touched by Southern Gothic lyricism, a father-daughter arson team escape to the Florida swamp after a fire they set rages out-of-control. The story ends with a promise, a blessing and a renewal.
Goldfinger states that she wrote the first draft of The Arsonists over three long wine-soaked nights by the seaside in Lisbon while at the Disquiet Literary Conference, an event whose goal is to “help support the creation of provocative and disruptive literature, so the play seemed destined to be born at that time, at that place, among those people,” she says. “However, this idea – scored with music from my childhood: roughed up hymns, reimagined folk tunes – has been around since 2011 when we produced Terrible Girls at Azuka, and caught fire in my imagination when I was teaching Frank McGuinness’ adaptation of Electra after giving birth to twins.”
The unbreakable bond between Electra and her father, Agamemnon, the betrayal she felt by her mother, and Goldfinger’s fear she might not be a good mother rattled her bones.
“Around the same time, my father had some health issues, which pushed me to think even more about our relationship and that he’s not going to be around forever.” The Arsonists grew from a more intimate, personal place of having just given birth and intense, sometimes deeply disturbing, connections to her children which, “went far beyond the Disney-ish sanitized sentimental love and parenthood. They were primal emotions, so visceral, that they could only be tackled through the lens of Greek theater. We’ve been told that we are beyond these emotions, too civilized and intelligent, yet they are there and can be equally damaging and empowering.”
For Goldfinger, good theater regardless of genre, stands up to societal lethargy, ignorance, intolerance and stupidity; especially if “you’re writing characters true to themselves and cultural realities. Whether it’s a light touch or a bold-faced, ripped-from-the-headline theme – anyone who interacts with the world is going to both be shaped by, and shaping, what happens in society. Martha Lavey of Steppenwolf said: "This is the central conviction of the theater: that by listening closely to the lives of others, we will know ourselves more fully, locate ourselves in a more generous world."
The Arsonists | May 3-21. 8pm. Azuka Theatre. 302 S. Hicks Street. Pay what you decide. azukatheatre.org
Tracey Scott Wilson | Buzzer
The pitch: Jackson, an upwardly-mobile black attorney, has just bought an apartment in a transitioning neighborhood in Brooklyn. He sees the potential of his old neighborhood, as does his white girlfriend Suzy… at first. When Jackson’s childhood friend Don leaves rehab to crash with them, the trio quickly becomes trapped between tensions inside their own home and the dangers that may lurk outside. “Hopefully, it ends without any clear answers,” says Wilson. “Hopefully, the ending is a conversation starter.”
Temple University alum Tracey Scott Wilson – a writer and co-producer on the highly politicized FX Network show The Americans – must barely break a sweat when it comes to tackling rough subjects such as gentrification, race and class via Buzzer.
“I first wrote the play four years ago as part of a commission with the Guthrie Theater and Pillsbury House Theater, both in Minneapolis, but as I went to grad school at Temple in the 90’s, I’m very familiar with Philly and how it gentrified,” says Wilson. “The issues in Brooklyn are the same here: different neighborhoods and architecture, same problems.
As Wilson traffics in theater (Neon Mirage, The Good Negro) that move through “the intersection of sex, race and class” Buzzer fits as snug as a rug, a dramatic tale perfect for the current climate of fear and loathing that’s personal, political, racial and sexual. “I wrote the play – at first a shorter version -in reaction to everyone saying that we were living in a “post-racial” climate after Obama was elected. Now, we know that was a complete lie but a few years ago many people, both black and white, believed it. It started out as a short play. ten minute play centered around a very common situation that occurs when neighborhoods start to gentrify and people who have lived in a neighborhood for years find themselves unable to access new goods and services that come along with gentrification. I couldn’t stop thinking about it so I kept writing it.”
Wilson wasn't trying to elicit any particular emotion, but has witnessed audiences having very strong reactions to characters within the action of Buzzer; “Suzie, in particular, seems to provoke very strong emotions. I just want people to engage with the work however they can and, hopefully, think about it later.”
As to whether or not Wilson believes all theater – be it newly produced or freshly staged – should provoke, and she says calmly, “I don’t know if it should but I wish it would.”
Buzzer | May 4-28, Theatre Exile’s Studio X, 1340 S. 13th Street. $10-$35, theatreexile.org