The Stage: Local Playwrights Debut

First things first: The winner of last month’s contest is Rachael Carlson, who not only came up with a reference to urine in Shakespeare but also came up with one that I did not even know, from Measure for Measure: “It is certain that when he makes water, his urine is congealed ice.” Congratulations to Rachael!

The season for Shakespeare in Iowa City has not yet rolled around, but despite what might seem like a theatrical dry spell in May, in the lull between spring and summer, there are indeed plays being produced. Brand new plays!

When people think “writing” and “Iowa,” their minds are drawn, with unfailing, compass-like precision, to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But in fact there are other writers and other writing programs in town, not the least of which is the playwrights workshop in the Theatre Department. Like other MFA candidates in the university’s writing programs, these playwrights produce written work that ends up in green bound volumes on the shelves of the third floor of the UI Main Library.

Unlike those works, however, the plays are meant not to sit on shelves, or even to be read by solitary readers. They are meant to be produced. This May, area residents will have the chance to see five of these works produced at the Iowa New Play Festival, running May 1-5.

Recently, I talked—or emailed—with three of the writers whose work will be produced in May.

Jen Silverman’s play may want to make you see it for the title alone: And Humbaba Came from His Great House of Cedar. The play concerns Gilgamesh, hero of the fertile crescent’s earliest eponymous pop hit, and Enkidu who is, in contemporary terms, his sidekick. Silverman has always loved the story of Gilgamesh, but she reread it in full just last summer. “The part that made the biggest impression on me,” she wrote via email, “was the part where the monster Humbaba asks the hero Gilgamesh not to kill him, and Gilgamesh hesitates, and then his friend and side-kick Enkidu tells him to kill—and he does—and the whole world unravels from that point. That moment of choice and of violence became the basis for … Humbaba.”

In the play, Gilgamesh and Enkidu travel through time, encountering the monster over and over again as history, perhaps inevitably, repeats itself.

Jessica Foster’s play, by contrast, all takes place in the same place, and in the present time. But the issues it deals with are no less complex or important. Proficient concerns three main characters: Ms. Delaney, a teacher; Craig, an educational salesman; and Rodney, who works with Craig. There’s also a chorus of children—the number can be determined by the director. The salesmen want Ms. Delaney to buy their product, which promises significant financial rewards for the school. Ms. Delaney accepts, only to learn that the program actually programs children, making them into test-taking robots.

Why the school setting? “Last spring,” Foster writes, “I found out that three of my favorite teachers were retiring. When I wrote them to express my gratitude and congratulations one responded telling me that the decision was not of her own volition, but strongly encouraged by the administration. Knowing what a naturally talented teacher she was and also having been greatly influenced by her, I felt the effects of No Child Left Behind on a more personal level and I knew it was about time I spoke for my family and friends who sacrifice so much in what seems to be a broken system. In other words, I started my play Proficient with the dedication page.”

It might seem odd to imagine a three-character play that takes place in two rooms in a school as containing much in the way of dramatic tension and, indeed, Foster worried about that. She let the idea for a play about education incubate for awhile until the characters started to come to her. “Once I was better able to grasp them and their relationship, the absurdity of the actual situation also seemed to be an obvious element to dramatize.”

Andrew Saito was born and raised in the United States but he’s always felt a slight disconnect or displacement from it. His grandparents were interred for part of their youth in Mansanar, one of the “relocation camps” where Japanese-Americans were sent during World War II. “Japanese Americans are the most acculturated Asian group in the US,” he said to me when we met in the lobby of the Theatre Building one afternoon. “We didn’t really pass on language or culture. I feel this sense of rootlessness which is the issue at the center of the play—I am disconnected from my own ancestors.”

His play is called Landless, a title he said he doesn’t like but one which seems to get at the root of both his problem and that of his main character, a young woman named Six. She’s called Six because her whole family—mother, father and three siblings—all burned to death in a fire. She thus carries six people with her wherever she goes. In Landless, she is traveling: traveling with the five people inside her, with those around her, who are part of a sharecroppers’ strike in southeastern Missouri in 1939, and traveling alongside the ghosts who have trod that same trail—for the road where she walks was part of the Trail of Tears—one hundred years before.

The idea for the play came initially from a photograph Saito saw of the sharecroppers on strike, with all their belongings, lining a road. The more he read, the more he learned not only about their plight but also about the plight of those who had traveled the trail all those years before. His play comes from that research, but it is his own creation.

Summer, and its accompanying outdoor festivities, are on the way. But while there’s still a chill in the air in the evening, step inside a few more times and check out some of the work being made right here. Details on the plays in the festival are available here.

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