Photo by Flickr user Drew McLellan
Memphis has always had a strong community theater scene, but until recently, one would be hard-pressed to call it a theater town. The missing ingredient was a regular supply of new work, and an audience for the little we had. That’s changed considerably in recent years due in part to relentless efforts by Voices of the South, a small crew of artists and new theater enthusiasts devoted to producing quality work. Other companies have begun to consider the value of new work, and it’s not uncommon for an unknown work — the kind of thing that used to play to audiences you could count on one hand — to sell out.
This week Memphis theatergoers have a chance to take Haint and Other People’s Happiness, a pair of tasty original dramas, and Blueprints to Freedom, another relatively new work that’s just beginning to make the rounds.
Other People's Happiness is a well-made play about a tightly knit family of four who all come down with relationship flu at the same time. Some of the drama feels artificial — manufactured by characters who court it — but there's some real stuff too in this latest NewWorks@TheWorks-winning world premier. It's a handsome thing too.
Other People’s Happiness begins on a family fishing vacation, with an occasionally interrupted monologue by John, a reasonably successful businessman and father of two who's casting around for more than the evening meal. John drops his fishing line again and again without success while talking about the new phase he and his wife Sara are entering. Maybe it's time to relax and try new things. Maybe they can spice things up too with some erotic adventures. But Sara has a completely different future in mind, whether she's willing to be honest about it or not. Words are spoken, mean things are done. Stupid things too.
More complications arise when the couple's adult son and daughter, who are experiencing rocky patches of their own, get involved. The details make the show, so I'll say one more thing and stop at that. There's a twist that comes near the end. In a well-made play there's almost always a twist that reverses much of what the characters think they know about everything.
Like a New Yorker cartoonist, playwright Adam Seidel has a fine sense of economy. He ably builds people we recognize and circumstances we know too well, with only a few scribbles and scrawls. And like old masters of the well-made play, he makes great use of letters and notes. Or, in this case, smart phones.
Artistry is another metaphor in Other People's Happiness, and while the cast is able and the direction steady, the real stars of the show are Jackie Nichols' blank canvas set and Mandy Heath's gorgeous, painterly lighting design. Heath isolates her figures in space and makes them glow against rich, jewel-tone landscapes of color that sometimes make up for an absence of color in the writing. The lights are a big, bold choice in a play that plays it safe and could benefit from more bold choices.
The theater needs more good plays appealing to all kinds of consumers. Other People's Happiness is already a good play, and it connects, judging by the mostly enthusiastic response of a packed Saturday night house. It's also a little familiar — currently lacking the unique identity and defining moments that make for really memorable theater. Leah Nichols' clean composition and Heath's saturated colors make it memorable anyway.
Other People’s Happiness closes at TheatreWorks Sunday, January 29.
Some Memphians may already be familiar with Justin Asher’s Haint, a southern Gothic drama woven with supernatural threads. New Moon — an ambitious Midtown-based indie — produced the show in 2014, with impressive results. Asher’s script is being revived at Germantown Community Theatre, with Cecelia Wingate in the director’s chair.
With Haint, Asher shares the story of a woman who holds on to the past so tightly she can’t live in the present. Mercy, the central character, used to be a well-known root worker and healer. Now she secludes herself in her home and depends on her 30-year-old son Charlie as her only link to the outside world. After her son dies, she’s forced to deal with life again. Along the way, she discovers the secrets that Charlie kept from her for years. From that point on, Charlie, acting as the narrator, watches as his mother learns to trust people again and let go of the fear and anger she’d been a slave to for years.
If you haven’t seen Haint yet, it’s worth a look-see. If you have, it’s worth revisiting.
Haint is at Germantown Community Theatre January 27th-February 12th.
Bayard Rustin was a brilliant and complicated individual. He was an architect of the Civil Rights movement but isolated within the movement because he went to jail for things like standing up against the draft and being gay. He was as a nonbeliever among ministers and a Socialist who became a neoconservative. As a labor organizer, his common-sense mantra — "from protest to politics" — shifted responsibilities from individuals to intermediaries at the moment when corporations became people, money became speech, and the movement became unraveled.
Blueprints to Freedom, a new play about Rustin, opened at La Jolla Playhouse in 2015. Now, thanks to the Hattiloo Theatre, Memphis has it. Michael Benjamin Washington’s drama drops in on Rustin in the tense summer of 1963. It depicts a man of conviction and contradiction confronting an enormous assignment — to organize an unprecedented march on Washington D.C. When it comes to subject matter, you simply couldn't ask for better.
Blueprints to Freedom is at the Hattiloo Theatre through Feb. 12.