Washington D.C.'s Studio Theater is presenting the latest world premiere by August Wilson protégé Javon Johnson. Runaway Home tells the story of a single African-American mother who must choose between the demands of her family and a life of her own. The playwright has been heavily involved in the rehearsal process; in fact, he claims that "About 80 percent of the play has changed since its original draft."
"I hope there is something for the audience to gain and talk about as well as being entertained," he continues. The work centers on a mother of five, Betty Ann -- a character that was partly inspired by one of the playwright's aunts. "She experienced several of the things that exist in the play," says Johnson. "I primarily write from the ideas of characters and personalities that I have met along the way. That's family, friends, or strangers. My personal baggage does find its way into my work -- how could it not? But it's not explored in a biographical way."
Runaway Home is set in the playwright's childhood home of Anderson, South Carolina, which Johnson describes as "an industrial city that's more like a county, [a place] that's growing but at a much slower pace than some of its neighboring cities. Things are pretty conservative. A grand dragon of the Klu Klux Klan lived about 45 minutes away, and I was one time referred to as 'a little colored boy at the door' when I went to buy a doghouse from a man. It's very Old South in that way."
As regards his relationship with August Wilson, Johnson states: "I met August briefly about six years ago in New Hampshire, then again about three years later in Alaska. He had heard of me prior to that meeting, so the door was opened for me to express to him his influence on my work. Since then, he has given me criticisms and support."
A POPULAR CLUB
Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club is arguably the most popular -- and certainly the most successful -- Asian-American novel ever written. It has inspired a successful 1993 movie and two stage adaptations. The first, by Susan Kim, was produced by NYC's Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in 1999; the second is by David Hsieh, the managing artistic director of Seattle's ReAct Theatre, and its world premiere engagement has just begun at the Langston Hughes Cultural Center.
"First and foremost, it's a good story," says Hsieh in accounting for the work's popularity. "It's full of life, full of relationships, full of drama, full of history." The action of Joy Luck spans nearly 75 years, from war-torn China to modern America, and tells the epic tale of three generations of Chinese women. The title refers to a group of middle-aged Chinese-Americans who meet to play mahjong, eat Chinese delicacies, and brag about their children. Following the death of her mother, American-born June takes her place among these women and hears their stories.
Hsieh decided upon a new adaptation because he wanted to emphasize different aspects of the work. "Our versions differ quite a bit," he says in comparing his play to Kim's, "particularly in regard to the staging and the material from the book that we've chosen to include or leave out." ReAct's cast also had a chance for input: "Several reported how they loved a particular line in the book or from the movie," Hsieh relates, "and we've taken these discussions to heart. This created some changes to our text where appropriate; obviously, we can't do the whole novel."
The play's emphasis on family relationships and storytelling has recently become even more personally significant for Hsieh. "My maternal grandmother passed away right after we started rehearsals," he says. "I returned to the Bay Area for the funeral, and although it was a sad time for my family, it was also a delight for me to see and hear my aunties and uncles sitting around, telling stories and celebrating her life."
OLD FRIENDS, NEW INVENTIONS
Playwright-director Nagle Jackson returns to Denver Center Theatre Company to premiere his latest work, Bernice/Butterfly: A Two Part Invention. The former artistic director of New Jersey's McCarter Theatre feels that DCTC is one of the last companies to follow the original intent of the resident professional theater movement. "Most other LORT theatres are essentially winter stock companies," he says. "There is no continuity, no artistic personality, and no artistic development."
Bernice/Butterfly was written specifically for DCTC regulars Kathleen M. Brady and Jamie Horton. Longtime friends of the playwright, the two actors receive nothing but praise from Jackson. "They are consummate performers who know how to display the strengths and weaknesses of their characters," he says. "They are also superb comic artists, which I admire."
The piece actually consists of two inter-related plays. The first introduces the audience to Bernice, a waitress who works the breakfast shift at the O-Kay Diner; the second features Randall, who delivers an address on "The Butterfly Effect" to the American Philosophical Society. Jackson is a bit coy about revealing exactly how the two parts fit together. "To explain would be to spoil the surprise element of the plot," he says. "Only by experiencing the plays will one understand the relationship." He is more forthcoming when asked to explain the subtitle. "I borrowed the 'Two Part Invention' nomenclature from Bach," he reports. "It suddenly occurred to me, when I completed these plays, that it fits exactly. I have taken one theme -- a study of isolation and failure -- and given it two invented realities."
Directing his own work is common practice for Jackson, who states that he does so "because the only times I have had failures with my plays is when someone else has directed them." He is quick to point out that he worked as a professional director for 20 years before becoming a playwright, and he reasons that "Most classical composers conduct their own works." He agrees that if a playwright has no experience in directing, then by all means s/he should not do so. But he says that there are definite advantages when one person is functioning in both capacities, particularly when it comes to questions of interpretation. "The other day, we discovered that one of the actors had misunderstood a basic plot point," Jackson relates. "When I cleared it up, we all agreed: Isn't it nice to have the original source in the room?"