Caleen Sinnette Jennings was describing what had inspired her latest play. One of the things she mentioned was a white college-age son of her friend telling her, “If a hip hop candidate ever ran, I’d vote for him.” Processing that declaration, she noted how much different hip hop culture and values are from baby boomer culture and values. She noticed that her son and his cohort “did race slightly differently. It struck me how many white kids label themselves as lovers of hip hop culture.”
Jennings continued by saying, “I’m old enough that I was alive when hip hop came into being. I watched it emerge. My two sons are lovers of music and products of that culture. I’ve watched as the values of hip hop culture have permeated all aspects of American society,” even if that permeation isn’t evident to everyone. She began to wonder about the response of white baby boomer parents to the hip hop inclinations of their children. Her rumination became Not Enuf Lifetimes, which begins previews in a production by The Welders today at Atlas Performing Arts Center.
Jennings noted that “a lot of baby boomer parents feel more savvy and less racist and rigid than their parents, whether they in fact are.” The white boomer Dad in the play is named Frank. Jennings described him as a “working class white male puzzled by what’s going on around him, clinging to values that are hard to change. I became most interested in what happens when that person has a son who is 180 degrees different. People like Frank feel that others are taking power away and that that is sort of what’s happening in his relationship with his son. This happens in a lot of black families too .” Meanwhile Ian, Frank’s son, discovers what poverty and social injustice really mean. He and his Dad go head to head. He and his girl friend are at odds. As the press release puts it, “This exploration of rifts and potential bridges between the boomer and hip hop generations features a hip hop-inspired structure with rhymes and music.”
“Group and community are at the heart of hip hop culture,” Jennings observed. “There is this idea of breaking out of chronology. Coming along in education when I did, you started from the beginning, back in history, and moved forward.” But the hip hop generation “is not locked into chronology. History is not devalued, but is just one of many variables.” What’s as important as historical context is whether something is “a good or not good thing. Another thing about the hip hop generation is that it is much, much more peer-focused, not as much influenced by elders.”
Jennings described how contemporary technology has altered this generation’s relationship to the world. “Distance relationships are different than for the boomer generation.” She told me about asking her son if he missed a friend who had moved out of the area, to which question her son replied, “We just Skype’d yesterday.” They can play games with a virtual friend in the Philippines or have a relationship on a discussion board with someone they have never met. “The amount of time people spend together live, in a room, is less. The concept of proximity in a relationship is really different.”
I interviewed Jennings about a year ago, when the The Welders, a theatre company that is a playwrights’ collective, was just being launched. Since then, the company has produced its first world premiere, Allyson Currin’s The Carolina Layaway Grail, which was greeted warmly. Jennings described her experience of being the follow-up project to that initial success as “daunting.”
on the art of theatre criticism
We talked about how tough it can be to birth a new play. Everyone, including critics, effuses about the importance of encouraging new work, but sometimes those very same critics can nit-pic a premiere so thoroughly that the result only discourages playwrights and the companies who take a chance on the untested.
“There’s not much we can do about it. The artist-critic relationship has been the same for centuries. I respect the art of the critic. I think it is almost a lost art. I teach students that good criticism can make artists grow. I welcome good criticism. And here’s what I mean: Number one, he or she respects how bloody hard it is to write a play. It’s a risky thing to put a new piece out. I think it’s not too much to ask that the critic has actually studied theatre and has read enough and been exposed to enough to know the world of theatre and the world of new plays.
“Important and good criticism finds the good in a play and praises it, but also asks constructive questions about what needs improvement. A good critic doesn’t just savage a work. Sometimes criticism is not balanced and contextualized. Two things drive me crazy: a criticism that is only a description of the plot, and a criticism that is only a comparison to other works. I’ve never seen the usefulness of that. Examine a play on its merits, what it set out to do, the choices it made. Did it engage you? An artistic community thrives when the critic respects the artists, and criticism is an art in itself.”
Looking to the future, the company is already interviewing the “next generation” of Welders in order to bring them on board a year in advance of the shift from the current five. “DC has a very smart, active, and collegial playwriting community. Good playwriting has been going on here a long, long time.” Jennings mentioned, in addition to The Welders, Ernie Joselovitz and his Playwright’s Forum, and Theater J and its “Locally Grown” initiative. “The emphasis on the writer in terms of production is something that needed to happen. This is a gradual shift in developing platforms for getting plays produced.”
Not Enuf Lifetimes, Jennings told me, will run 90 minutes without intermission and has a cast of five. As such, it fits into the recent trend of shorter plays and smaller casts, as compared to the plays of 60 and 70 years ago, which frequently pushed toward three hours length with casts of 20 or more. Acknowledging the financial imperatives that make smaller cast, shorter plays attractive to programmers, Jennings made the interesting point that “the last place where we can push those boundaries is in universities.” They aren’t looking for four-character or five-character plays to do, but rather plays with opportunities for a huge group of their theatre majors. (Jennings has been teaching at American University since 1989.)
At the same time that Jennings described The Welders as encouraging “vision that’s big enough to inspire experimentation,” she recognized real-world realities. “This first generation of Welders has the double blessing and burden of setting up an organization in addition to funding and producing plays. We’re hoping to hand off something solid and subsidized going forward. Success is a [successor] generation of Welders who can say, ‘15 characters? Let’s do it!’ — something that in this first iteration would not have been possible.”
“Looking clearly and carefully at a budget as part of this is not a bad thing,” Jennings continued. “We’re in a wonderful place, and the thing we didn’t know that is so amazing is that it would be only 15 months between the time we said, ‘Let’s do this’ and when we announced The Welders . We were cautious because we didn’t know how the community was going to receive us. My biggest fear was that we would be seen as a selfish clique that was going to produce our plays ourselves. But the message has been crafted clearly enough that people have said, ‘I get it. It’s not just for them; it’s for generation after generation after generation.’”
NOT ENUF LIFETIMES
Closes November 15, 2014
The Welders at
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
Wednesdays thru Sundays
As an example of the “hallmark of what DC theatre is,” Jennings told me that, within a few days of the launch of The Welders, theatre folks who aren’t writers were reacting with striking support and encouragement, saying “How can I help? I want to be a part of this.”
Established theaters in town were not threatened. They said , “‘This is fantastic. This is right at this particular time.’ Other cities are launching the same kinds of groups. That’s extraordinary, and we had no idea — it’s something that The Welders never predicted. We feel good about where we are now and, dare I say, where successive generations will go.”
We finished our talk discussing the production of Jennings’ play, and her enthusiasm kicked into an even higher gear. About her cast, which includes fresh faces alongside familiar names such as Melissa Flaim and David Lamont Wilson, she said, “There’s not a dull pencil in this box at all!” Her director is Psalmeyene 24, an actor, director, writer, and Helen Hayes award-winner, and about whom she said that “hip hop is to him what water is to a fish. Many years ago I said to him, ‘I want to create a piece together about the hip hop/boomer gap.’ When I wrote the first draft in 2007, he was one of the first people to read it. I have a couple of colleagues who act as sort of hip hop authenticity monitors for me. He is an important voice in that. I had been watching him develop as a director and I thought he has wonderful chops. He’s the perfect match for this play.”
Not Enuf Lifetimes will run until November 15, which gives you more than enuf time to check out this intriguing-sounding world premiere and to support our trend-setting new company, The Welders.