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All Over the Map

Beauty of the Father in Coral Gables, Sky Girls in San Diego, and It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues in Phoenix logo
Roberto Escobar and Ursula Freundlich in Beauty of the Father
(Photo © Eileen Suarez)
Playwright Nilo Cruz returns to the New Theatre in Coral Gables, Florida, which first staged his 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winner, Anna in the Tropics. Rafael de Acha, artistic director of the New Theatre and the original director of Anna, once again takes the helm for the world premiere of Cruz's Beauty of the Father.

De Acha has a long history with the playwright, having known him since Cruz was a teenager. "He was a theater groupie and renaissance man," de Acha recalls. "He directed, he built sets, he acted, and he was beginning to write plays. We stayed in touch over the years and, every time we'd see each other, we'd go, 'When are we going to do a play by Nilo Cruz at the New Theatre?'"

That opportunity first came with Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams, which the New Theatre premiered in 2001. Following that experience, de Acha and Cruz applied for and received grants from the NEA and TCG to commission a work from Cruz as resident playwright. The result was Anna in the Tropics. Now, Beauty of the Father marks the third world premiere collaboration between the two men.

The play centers around Emiliano, a Spanish sculptor and painter, and his relationships with his live-in "boy toy" Karim from Morocco, his housekeeper Paquita (who is both Karim's wife and Emiliano's former mistress), and Emiliano's estranged daughter Marina (who comes to visit after a 10 year absence and is smitten by Karim). "It's a very messy household," states de Acha. "This is a play about love, humanity -- all of those things that we are about. It just so happens that the characters' sexuality is very, very eclectic."

Added to the mix is the ghost of Federico Garcia Lorca, whom Emiliano views as his soul mate. The spirit of Lorca and the prominence of the power of art in this play are reminiscent of the effects that Tolstoy's work has on the characters of Anna in the Tropics. "It's a recurring theme in Nilo's writing," says de Acha. "Art as a form of healing, as a medicine for the soul, taking us and lifting us out of our mundane surroundings."


Carolyn Stone, Breean Julian, Jennifer Lynn McMillin,
Kristin Fiorella, Sarah Rafferty, and Judith Hawking in Sky Girls
(Photo © Ken Jacques)
When playwright Jenny Laird first learned about the WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilots) program during World War II, she knew she had a story to tell. "I was inspired by the very idea that, at a time when most women couldn't drive, there were a group of women who could fly," says Laird. Her play, Sky Girls, comes to San Diego's Old Globe Theatre in a version that represents a substantial revision of the work that Laird originally wrote in 2000 for Chicago's Northlight Theatre.

"While the soul of the piece is the same, structurally it is practically a new play," says Laird. "In the original draft, Jackie Cochran [founder of the WASP program] mostly appeared as a sort of apparition -- an imaginary gremlin -- to one of the fictional characters in the play. However, I realized that, while that device was theatrical, it wasn't serving the story I wanted to tell. Jackie Cochran is a fascinating character study, and I think integrating my version of 'the real Jackie Cochran' into the story for this new draft was rewarding on all levels."

In researching the play, Laird conducted interviews with several women who were WASPs. "Some of the events in the play are based on real events that happened to real WASPs," she says. "But I didn't try to literally recreate any of the women I interviewed. I did, however, try to capture the spirit of these women in all my characters."

Sky Girls is set in 1944, as the members of the final WASP trainee class battle political and social pressures in their fight to earn their wings. "In terms of style and dialogue, I tried to capture the feel of a 1940s piece," says Laird. "But I'm hoping that the themes in the play will resonate with contemporary audiences. While we may take for granted many of our hard-won rights, I still think we're able to identify with the personal and political issues explored in the play, particularly the idea that women often have to be 'better than equal' if they're going to be considered 'equal'."


Gregory Porter and the cast of
It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues
(Photo © Tim Fuller)
Randal Myler remembers his first encounter with the blues: "Seeing John Lee Hooker onstage at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco," he states. "We'd come to see the headliners -- acid rock or Janis Joplin -- and the opening act would sometimes be John Lee or Muddy Waters or Elmore James. Names we didn't recognize. They showed us the roots [of the music]. We may not have fully understood it, but their truth was undeniable."

Myler went on to co-create and direct It Aint' Nothin' But the Blues on Broadway in 1999. Now, he's helming a production of the show for the Arizona Theatre Company; that production played Tucson in December and comes to Phoenix this month. Among the performers are several members of the original Broadway cast, including co-creator Mississippi Charles Bevel, who's reprising his original role.

Other cast members are with the production in spirit. "We dedicate the show to our friend and co-creator, the late Ron Taylor," says Myler. "He 'drove the bus' and remains our spirit, our guide post. Working on the show, I still often ask myself, 'What would Ron think of this and that?'"

In addition to It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, Myler has directed and co-created such other musically driven productions as Love, Janis and Hank Williams: Lost Highway. While the musical styles of the shows may seem very different at first glance, Myler views it another way. "They are all very American," he states. "They all tap into this 'great river of blues.' Hank was a bluesman. Janis came about as close as a white girl can come to singing the blues. There is a shared pain in all their voices."

It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues features such classic tunes as W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" and Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You." The timing of the ATC production coincides with Congress declaring 2003 to be the "Year of the Blues." But Myler is skeptical of what kind of impact that had. "No need for an Act of Congress," he says. "The blues will outlive us all -- current administration included."

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