A pleasant confluence of circumstances resulted in the UW School of Drama’s production of Wild Black-Eyed Susans, which runs at the Ethnic Cultural Center through Feb. 17.
The show’s director, Valerie Curtis-Newton, knows the playwright, Kara Lee Corthron, and had already done a successful workshop production of the play at Juilliard.
And the Professional Actor Training Program has several actors of color, more than meeting the needs of the script, which calls for four black actors — three women and a man. That in itself is a plus, the director said. “It’s not an ordinary occasion when actors of color in grad school get the opportunity to portray characters of color.”
This, then, makes the first-ever School of Drama production in which the playwright, director and all actors are African-American.
Curtis-Newton, an associate professor of drama, said the play “always stuck with me” after the Juilliard workshop in 2006. So when she suggested the UW take a similar approach to the play, School of Drama Director Sarah Nash Gates took the thought a step further.
“This started out as an idea just to do a workshop,” Curtis-Newton said. But she said Gates replied that “‘Our students will be doing good work — we should put it out there.’”
The fact that Curtis-Newton also heads the Hansberry Project at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theater (ACT), caused yet another piece to fall into place. The Hansberry Project is named for Lorraine Hansberry, author of the modern classic A Raisin in the Sun, the first-ever Broadway production written by an African-American woman.
“ACT had talked of ways of partnering with the UW, and it felt like a great opportunity to follow through,” Curtis-Newton said. As a result, the Hansberry Project is co-producing the play with the School of Drama. The project is helping with marketing of the play and flew the author out for the first preview.
Curtis-Newton described the play as a comedy-drama, serious in tone but also entertaining and heart-warming. She added, “It actually reminds me a lot of Sam Shepard — quirky, I guess, would be the best way to describe it.”
The play’s action takes place in a trailer park in rural West Virginia, where sisters Rita and Brady each hold dreams for a better future. Rita wants to be a songwriter and Brady breathlessly aspires to become a supermodel.
The trailer park location itself goes against a certain dramatic stereotype, Curtis-Newton said. “These are people who live that way and sort of don’t make note of it. We think of working class or lower-class African Americans as living in a city, and this paints a different picture.”
She said, “The heart of the play is about a woman (Rita) trying to get unstuck from a life that’s smaller than she actually deserves. She got married right out of high school, and not because she felt a great passion for this man but because she thought she was doing what she was supposed to do — she’s spent her whole life making choices she thought she was supposed to make, instead of those choices that were close to her heart.”
Curtis-Newton added, “And she’s always looking for the next thing. The grass is always greener. But what this character learns is that you can change your life where you are. She decides to be happy, instead of the choice to just get by.”
As it happened, with The Playhouse out of commission for a while, the School of Drama didn’t have a theater for this unique play, so it is being presented at the Ethnic Cultural Center Theater, at 3940 Brooklyn Ave. It’s a small, intimate theater that poses certain technical challenges for the show, but Curtis-Newton said the choice has worked well.
The playwright, Kara Corthron, has won several awards as an up-and-coming talent. “She’s someone on the rise,” said Curtis-Newton, adding that the timing of this production is good because “I suspect that a year from now we wouldn’t be able to get the rights.”
Wild Black-Eyed Susans plays at 7:30 p.m. tonight through Sunday, and then Wednesday, Feb. 13 through 17. Tickets are $10 for students, $12 for seniors and $15 for general admission, available at the UW Arts Ticket Office, 206-543-4880. For more information about the School of Drama and its productions, visit online at http://depts.washington.edu/uwdrama/.