Jerome Hairston(Photo © Jennifer Bishop)
Jerome Hairston
(Photo © Jennifer Bishop)
On a Sunday morning, the lives of Helen, R.P., and their two sons begin to come apart. Jerome Hairston's new play a.m. Sunday is set in the household of a mixed race family whose members come to terms with who they think they are after certain secrets are revealed. The play debuted at the Humana Festival in March 2002 and now comes to Baltimore's CenterStage under the direction of Marion McClinton.

"I have a relationship with Marion that started a long time ago," says Hairston. "He directed my first play in New York at the Young Playwrights Festival 10 years ago." McClinton has gained a rather high-profile reputation over the last several years, particularly in regard to his direction of August Wilson's works. However, it's his background as a playwright that Hairston values the most: "I think it's always a plus when you have a director that writes as well. They bring a certain insight and a certain way of talking about the play both to you and to the actors that is very satisfying."

Hairston began writing a.m. Sunday during his first year at Columbia, where he studied under playwright Eduardo Machado. He describes his process as the development of action and character simultaneously. "I start off with a certain situation with a number of givens that you instinctively know will reveal something about the people you're writing about," he says. "Just listening closely and honestly will hopefully lead you to answer questions for yourself and reveal what's needed for the scene to happen."

Hairston does not write autobiographically; although he admits that "you draw upon your experience as a human being to make the moments of your play have any sort of integrity," the dialogue, situations, and plot of a.m. Sunday are fictional. "Your experience will provide it with the truth," says Hairston, "but your imagination will take it somewhere interesting."

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Tim Elliott and Larry Bailey in Trolls(Photo © Ben Adams)
Tim Elliott and Larry Bailey in Trolls
(Photo © Ben Adams)
Playwright Kathleen Hopkins has worked as a drug and alcohol counselor, a vocational counselor for veterans, and a volunteer in mental hospitals and group homes. Along the way, she has met a number of interesting people who serve as the inspiration for Trolls, co-produced by Denver's Bootstrap Productions and Industrial Arts Theatre.

"There was one man -- a veteran with a mental health disability -- who really sparked my interest," says Hopkins. "He lived by camping out in the National Forests between New Mexico and Colorado. He couldn't handle being around other people, so he lived alone. The Park Rangers liked him camping in their areas because he cleaned up the campsites and generally looked out for things."

This man served as inspiration for "Billy Goat Gruff," the first of four scenes in Trolls. The title of the play is also taken from the popular children's story about Billy Goat Gruff and the troll who lives under the bridge. Hopkins sees a parallel beween the story and the plight of the homeless people who often live under bridges and other public places. She feels that her play offers "a vision of the homeless that is rarely, perhaps never, seen by the 'top-dwellers.'"

The opening night performance is a benefit for Threads -- "a new store where homeless kids can get clothes and supplies so they feel like they fit in at school," explains Hopkins. "The program hopes to keep kids in school this way." Other performances donate part of their proceeds to the St. Francis Center, a soup kitchen that also runs a shelter, a clinic, and various other programs to assist the homeless.

In addition to having written the play, Hopkins is the show's producer and director. "I like directing my own shows because I can more easily make necessary changes," she says. "I always tell my cast that I expect them to let me know where the mistakes are. The actors feel that they really are part of the process."

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Tiffany Loui and Jeff Lorezcoin But Can He Dance?(Photo © Thomas Villegas)
Tiffany Loui and Jeff Lorezco
in But Can He Dance?
(Photo © Thomas Villegas)
An Asian American "Everywoman" searches for love and the perfect dance partner in Dorinne Kondo's But Can He Dance?, staged by San Diego's Asian American Repertory Theatre. Kondo, a Professor of Anthropology and American Studies at USC, has a long and successful career as an academic but is less well known as a playwright, though she was one of the dramaturges for Anna Deveare Smith's TWILIGHT: Los Angeles 1992. "The process remains a transformative experience for me," says Kondo. "TWILIGHT attempted to say something about the complications of race, class, and power that was really unprecedented in American theater."

The complicated terrain of racial representation continues in Kondo's own work. Describing her current play, she states, "I originally started out with the idea of an Asian American woman listening to all the lines that Asian American women always get -- and they are actual quotes -- about 'throwing the I Ching' or 'practicing Tai Chi.' It's also about mutual stereotyping; those lines can come from someone of any race, including one's own."

During the course of the play, the central character falls in and out of relationships with four suitors of different races -- three men and one woman. According to Kondo, "The dance of relationship, of sex, figures centrally. The multiracial characters are at first associated with the conventional signs of their ethnicities -- R&B, Salsa, Techno -- but, by the end, I hope this is subverted."

"It's strange for an academic, used to working alone, to give over work to others," muses Kondo. "It's strange but wondrous. I'm very lucky and happy to have this young, smart, fun company do this play, and -- almost without exception -- I'm delighted with the results."