The Call by Tanya Barfield is one of those rare plays that puts the most intimate of situations into a compelling global context. It’s the story of a white couple in the U.S. who decide to adopt a child from Africa. The intersection of the couple’s personal struggles and the international implications of the transaction makes for a play that engages its audience on several different and provocative levels. Theater J’s production of Barfield’s play runs through May 31st and is being presented not at the troupe’s home base at 16th Street’s DCJCC, but at Atlas Performing Arts Center in Northeast.
John Stoltenberg wrote about the production on DCMetroTheatreArts.com: “Tanya Barfield’s play The Call…tackles a topic with vast global consequence and humanizes it on stage such that we in our western comfort zone may take a hard look at it and not avert our eyes. In Theater J’s handsome new production…Barfield’s worthy ambition is well served. The Call comes through clearly with both gravitas and grace.” In The Washington Post, Nelson Pressley praised “Barfield’s hard-nosed realism” and ”tough-minded insights,” continuing, “The playwright plainly knows what she is talking about…you hear some honest and deeply unsettling things…There is heat on Barfield’s fastball.”
D.C. audiences will remember Pecan Tan, an earlier Barfield play, from its 2005 ACTCo production. TV viewers will see her work on the FX series The Americans. During an email interview, Barfield talked about The Call and a range of other topics:
I’d like to begin by asking you to talk about your choice of title. It sounds as if you intended to have the word “call” operate on more than one level.
Tanya Barfield: Every adoptive parent waits anxiously for the call letting them know that they have been matched with a child. So, on the most basic level, that is what “the call” refers to. The other call in the play is the “deeper calling” or the “call to courage.”
Was there any specific experience that was a catalyst for the play?
Barfield: A friend of mine went through severe postpartum depression. I wondered if the whole thing was entirely hormonal – or was there a psychological component too? And, if so, you don’t have to have given birth to experience it.
You’ve said that you didn’t want to write this play and that it is very personal and close to you. When writing a play whose situations overlap your own experiences to some degree, do you worry about the play being perceived as autobiographical?
Barfield: Most of my plays deal with issues or topics that I either (a) think will make a terrible play or (b) am afraid to write because they feel too personal. Usually, both. In all cases, I never end up writing autobiography because fiction is so much more dramatically compelling than my real life – and after living my life once, I don’t feel the need to re-live it in story. But, there is often a seed of personal experience in what I write about. I wrote The Call after adopting two children. People almost always think my plays are MUCH more autobiographical than they are. This used to frustrate me because I couldn’t actually get credit for the storytelling. But, now, I just take it as a compliment.
Things have and are changing very rapidly, as regards some of the subjects that your play engages. Do you feel as if it will retain its power and relevance in five or ten years?
Barfield: More than anything, the play is about a couple at a crossroad. When writing, I’m not concerned with the story’s contemporary details. What interests me are relationships and the ways in which we navigate “being with each other” over time.
You’ve spoken about how this play is different from your previous plays, in which you have written about “the African-American experience through history” while The Call is a “contemporary play.” Do you think you will write more “contemporary” plays?
Barfield: My most recent play, Bright Half Life, is also contemporary. It’s very different than The Call. It’s a two-hander and structurally non-linear. It’s my most intimate play. I try not to repeat myself too much when writing. I don’t want to write the same story over and over. I try to challenge myself by finding new ways to explore resonant material.
You have spoken about the writing of this play breaking a block you were experiencing.
Barfield: I tend to go through periods of writer’s block as I’m figuring out what’s next. Sometimes the block is quite brief and sometimes longer. Certainly, after becoming a parent, I had to reinvent myself as a writer. On a very practical level, I had very little time to write. I wrote The Call between 4am and 6am (before the kids woke up and before I went to my day job). I also found myself drawn to different themes: marriage, parenthood, midlife, etc.
A play like this will resonate very personally with many in the audience. Have there been any responses you have received from audience members that have been particularly meaningful to or memorable for you?
Barfield: All responses are meaningful to me. I have been particularly struck by the high school teenage groups that saw the play. The fact that they found it moving and engaging meant a lot to me.
Have you had a chance to see the Theater J production? Do you ever have an impulse to revise a finished, even published, script after you have seen other productions of it?
Barfield: Unfortunately, due to scheduling constraints, I’ve haven’t been able to see the Theater J production. But, yes, I always want to revise my plays after they are produced or published. Theatre is a living, breathing thing. It never feels done to me. So, in some ways, I don’t enjoy seeing my work after it opens because I always find things I want to rewrite. I change the script all through previews. With the NYC production, we had a very long preview period and I brought in new pages every day. The actors had to learn new lines in the afternoon and perform them that evening. So, audiences that saw the play during early previews saw a different play than those that saw it after opening.
How has parenthood has changed you as a writer, as an artist?
Barfield: I think I’m a better writer post-parenthood. The breadth of my life experience has grown, life has more intrinsic value to me, I’m less “me” focused. As a parent, life is joyful and painful in a very different way.
You describe one of the play’s concerns (“doubt surrounding motherhood”) as a taboo subject. Could you talk a little about the importance, in theatre in particular, of engaging difficult or taboo material?
Barfield: I tend to think of the best plays as inherently boundary-pushing and confessional in nature. Even comedies. That’s why so many farces are about infidelity or secrets. We go to theatre not to see everyday as it is. We go for two hours or so to see very high moments or very low moments (the most pivotal moments) of a character’s entire life. If we’re not seeing something that’s on the edge of our comfort zone, we’re usually bored. At least, I am. I’m not saying that I like shock-value plays for shock’s sake. I mean that I like stories in which characters are trying to balance on a precipice – any minute they could fall.
You are writing for the FX series The Americans. Do you worry that if playwrights spend so much time writing for television, plays which might otherwise be written will not be — or has the quality of television improved so much that it is as satisfying for a writer artistically as playwriting is?
Barfield: I feel like TV-writing is subsidizing theatre. To me, the problem is not so much that amazing playwrights are spending too much time in television, the problem is that, with the sky-high cost of living in New York, it’s nearly impossible to make a living in the theatre. If you haven’t married a doctor or lawyer and aren’t independently wealthy, it’s very hard to sustain yourself. Especially if you have kids. (Of course, there are notable exceptions, but they are few and far between).
I think the exodus to TV-writing will continue to happen and even increase unless something changes in the ways in which playwrights are compensated. That said, there are a number of TV writers that are able to continue writing plays. Not a lot, but some. And, yes, the quality of television has elevated so much in the last few years that it can be satisfying artistically.
Tanya Barfield’s latest play Bright Half Life debuted at WP Theater where it received rave reviews.