New PlayGround season opens with theatrical conversation on race
By Lou Fancher
Call them word warriors.
The courageous six men and women otherwise known as playwrights and a selection of Bay Area actors will stride into Monday Night PlayGround's 22nd season Sept. 21. With script-in-hand staged readings of original, short plays, the artists confront the topic "Race Matters."
Simultaneously celebrating Alumni Night and the announcement of the 2015-16 PlayGround Writers Pool, a free, preshow reception at Berkeley Rep's Addison Street location launches the seven-month season.
Alumni presenting their plays include William Bivins, a four-year PlayGround veteran; Rachel Bublitz, winner of PlayGround's 2015 June Anne Baker Prize; Ruben Grijalva, playwright and filmmaker; San Diego-based Genevieve Jessee, PlayGround's 2012 Emerging Playwright Award recipient; Ken Prestininzi, currently teaching at Connecticut College; and Mercedes Segesvary, founding member of the PlayGround-LA Writers Pool.
Acknowledging the volatility of opening night's subject, Artistic Director Jim Kleinmann says a theatrical conversation on race "is long overdue, particularly given the events of the past year."
Conversations with three of the six playwrights display the twists and turns they encountered while developing their initial approach -- well before the moment their work receives a slender 90-minute rehearsal and is made public. "I wanted to write a comedy, because I thought that might be received better by the audience," Jessee says. "When I started working on this play it told me where it would go. It turned out to be wholly about pathos."
Segesvary has chosen to keep the geographic location of her play about a couple's origin story intentionally ambiguous, saying, "The struggle for racial equality and the tragedy this particular couple encounters are not limited to one city or one nation."
For Grijalva, self-reflection on responsibility when it comes to the racial divide is more like a house of mirrors than a hallway leading one-directionally to answers. "Is it enough to think clearly about it, or do I need to do something about it?" he asks. Social etiquette, conflict aversion, or even self-preservation, he says, can stifle an internal desire to push back. Must we resist and risk ostracism or physical harm?
Jessee and Grijalva say audience laughter as a response to a scene focused on racism has multiple implications: Discomfort with the topic, recognition of the absurdity of a racist comment, embrace of a story, and possibly, even ignorance. But humor, Grijalva adds, is a vital tool when used to amplify underlying questions. Segesvary says the beauty of the Monday night series is the instant connection between maker and receiver. "The audience has immediate access to the creatives behind every production. To ask questions, to give feedback, to continue a discussion and to encourage education and positive self-awareness."
For Jessee, a performance of August Wilson's "Fences" was her entry point.
"It was the first time I saw a play with people who spoke like members of my community," she says. "It became personal."
Race, she says, has divided society "since the inception of our nation," but audiences and actors can share stories that reconnect people and histories. "If we can get back to the connection, the humanity, we have a jumping off point to really see each other."