By: Debbie Minter Jackson
Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV July 13, 2006
Why, oh why has it taken me sixteen years to finally get to Shepherdstown, WV for the Contemporary American Theater Festival, which started the same year I moved here from Chicago? I have heard rumblings about it since its inception, so I had No excuse – reasons, sure, but no excuse. My reasons started with two little letters that implied unreachable distance, unknown parts waaaaay over the river and across mountains somewhere out yonder-WV. For some pathological reason, I was averse, okay, terrified, of crossing the Potomac into West Virginia on my own. This year I had fortification-fellow sisters of the Black Women Playwrights’ Group. We packed our bags, grabbed that highway, and in just shortly over an hour we were in Shepherdstown for an invigorating line-up of new plays. What an inauguration to what I am publicly announcing will be an annual pilgrimage for me. Sometimes, you just need a little nudge, okay, for me maybe a push, a hand, or even a kick to get me off my couch.
In his recent review of the Festival, Peter Marks, premiere marksman that he is, immediately focused on what appears to be a thematic wave cresting through the four plays, the role of fathers, even absent or ghostly ones. My approach to theatre is more like time/space travel in exploring life journeys. For me, the “father-thing,” while interesting, was more tangential and artificial, not significant enough to package these innovative scripts. Instead, what caught my interest was the different playwrights’ approaches to character development and how the major shifts in the characters’ inner lives were rendered on the page. The Festival showcases four very different styles in capturing pivotal moments, some more effectively than others, but all are exciting and shouldn’t be missed.
My playwright sisters and I agreed to lovingly disagree about the powerful significance and rendering of Keith Glover’s Jazzland.
Several were put off by the creative exploration of jazz as experienced through a white character in the lead role… again, with his black buddy as seasoned jazz purist at his side, woeful and soulful wise teacher… again. Yes, it’s comfy Americana formulaic, but it works and sells, so Keith Glover can swing at his distracters all the way to the bank. Still, I was more mesmerized by what Glover continues to do in pushing the interior journey outward (did you see his Thunder Knocking on the Door at Arena, several years ago? Need I say more??) This time he tackles the magic of music, blending the rhymes and rhythms of poetry into cool jazzy riffs, with the son sparring musically with his deceased father. Perhaps filled more with atmosphere and attitude than character, Jazzland still worked for me and is jostling with Mr. Marmalade for my top spot.
And that’s quite a feat since on first glance at the abstract description I was prepared to pass on this one given half a chance. First of all, the marketing still-Barbie with smeared lipstick was very off putting. I don’t do Barbie, never did, not even when she came in brown, she just never worked for me. Then, the idea of being in a four-year old’s fantasy world for 90-minutes, with hints of a menacing make-believe character, made me plot my escape. But, it was the final show of our fabulous trip, an early matinee giving us just enough time for breakfast at the fabled Yellow Brick Bank restaurant, so I relented, joined my group, strapped myself in, and held on tight for a bumpy ride. And am I glad that I stayed. The play is like nothing I’ve ever experienced, was incredibly well acted and directed, and helped me stretch beyond all my comfort zones. The playwright, Noah Haidle, strikes the perfect balance between Lucy’s rattled make-believe world and her unsettling reality. And seeing the actors from Jazzland morph from atmospherically serious to playfully sinister was priceless. See it, experience it-those two pieces alone can sustain coffee-time theater discussions for the rest of the summer.
The two other plays in between were no lightweights, especially the extremely well crafted Augusta.
What Richard Dresser can do with three characters– two nickled and dimed cleaning women and their loose cannon of a supervisor boss– is sheer artistry. Listening to him in the playwright’s panel provided helpful insight to his raging wit and humor-he’s spontaneously hysterical with a calm, mature delivery, so you can’t believe he just said that! In Augusta, the relationship between the two cleaning women grows from their first assignment to the final twists and blows of discovery at the intriguing end. Finally, while Kim Merrill’s Sex, Death and the Beach Baby lacked the heft and appeal of the other three, it helped to round out the offerings in its exploration of memory, personal history, and the primordial effects of the ocean.
Visiting the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV is an easy fun way to immerse yourself in solid, well-crafted theater where playwrights are encouraged to boldly go unto new territory, even dance along the cutting edge. The Festival offers a refreshing break from the traditional (sometimes stuffy?) metropolitan D.C. theater scene. Also, you get a taste of good things to come since several of the playwrights will flaunt their wares within the Beltway. Haidle, whose style if you haven’t guessed screams Woolly, is indeed included in Mammoth’s next season with Vigils. Also, Dresser plans to have the second of his trilogy on happiness (each set in a different social class) in the Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage this fall.
So, dance along the cutting edge of contemporary theater. If you need a hand, a tug, or a kick off the couch to get to Shepherdstown, call a friend or send me an e-mail. I’ve been there, and will be glad to help.
The Contemporary American Theater Festival
Now through July 30th
on the grounds of Sherpherd University
Easy directions are on their web site