Dallas — Seeking to refresh TeCo Theatrical Productions’ playwriting festival, Teresa Coleman Wash decided to feature female playwrights this season. This inaugural presentation of Down for #TheCount is their entrance into the national conversation surrounding the dearth of female playwrights on theatrical stages in the United States. The one-act play festival features the works of six local and national female playwrights (alphabetically): Sharai Bohannon, Ruth Cantrell, Vicki Caroline Cheatwood, Cassie M. Seinuk, Maria Patricia Urbina, and Charlayne Woodard.
The plays are performed sequentially over a two-hour period. Director DR Mann Hanson uses Urbina’s Maya Baktun el Umbral as the conceptual frame for the festival, beginning with the play and returning to its central thesis to close the festival. Urbina’s piece directs the audience’s attention to the selfish materialism of modern civilization, suggesting that society is losing its ability to edit, to let go.
As Carmela Lamberti speaks directly to the audience of a hoarding and polluting society, cardboard boxes are being brought onstage and dropped to the floor randomly, much as one might drop off donations at a charitable location. As soon as boxes are deposited onstage, Nicole Allen picks them up one by one and orders them in a different location, constructing a wall. An assembly line of sorts develops, the dropping off and repurposing of materials. The wall construction engages the audience in a conversation with Urbina’s work, but it is also a thematic element for the other plays in the sequence. Is this a wall of protection, concealment, or is it in absurdist fashion simply a heaping pile of cardboard boxes on a stage?
Bohannon’s Turndown Service is a farce. Adam (Eric Hanson), Cameron (Ray Gestaut) and Betty (Olivia Grace Murphy) tell the story of what happens when two friends, a bachelor party gone wrong, and a suspicious fiancée converge in a seedy hotel room. As this piece unfolds, the purposes for the wall construction are becoming clearer. Adam and Cameron are furiously trying to hide an uh-oh moment when Betty bursts into the room. The audience is asked to believe that Betty does not initially see Cameron. That’s asking a lot given this staging. Eventually all three are interacting, to the relief of Cameron, and to the audience as well.
Cheatwood’s Breathing Room is proof of the importance and power of play festivals. This is now a fully developed, resonant play, but its first appearance onstage was in the Festival of Independent Theatres at the the Bath House Cultural Center in Dallas in 2001. Cheatwood went on to translate the story into a screenplay, Air. This is a wrenching story of memory, damage, and of letting go. Deb (Concetta Troskie) is reluctantly peeling away an emotional scab. Brody (Wm. Paul Williams) and Myna (Nicole Allen) mean well in their efforts to assist. Troskie and Williams seem respectful of their characters, protective.
Phenom, a ten-minute play, was presented during the 2013 La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls Festival. That means this is a fairly recent play, but Woodard is no novice to playwriting. As a Tony Award nominee and two-time Obie Award winner, her name is most familiar to audiences through her performances on stage and on camera, but she has been writing for a long time. Her first piece, Pretty Fire, was produced at the Manhattan Theater Club and positively reviewed by the New York Times in 1993. (All three plays in the trilogy of which Pretty Fire is part were recently produced in consecutive seasons at Jubilee Theatre.)
Woodard situates the play in a car, bringing the audience into a conversation not just between a father (Kassy Amoi) and son (Albert Wash II), but between an African-American father and son. It is a conversation on a topic that can be Kryptonite in the African-American father/son dynamic, therefore this peek is important. This is an intimate piece that rumbles through expectation vs. anticipation, pragmatism vs. hope, and love vs. support with authenticity. Woodard has supplied to the words to be spoken. Needed is the communication of the words left unspoken for that is where Phenom is rooted. That is where the relationship between this father and son is founded. That is the space for Amoi and Wash to explore even more deeply.
Seinuk describes her favorite characters as “intense, angsty young adults.” She has certainly reflected that through Moose (Cain Rodriguez) in Occupy Hallmark. Salty (Delaney Milbourn), a friend from childhood, encounters Moose in a parking lot outside a Hallmark store. As a guy without a Valentine, he is on a rant about corporate greed, specifically the greeting card industry. Rodriguez is funny as Moose. In this ten-minute play, the two characters commiserate but ultimately conclude that they can possibly find someone to love.
A Thing of Beauty by Ruth Cantrell is aptly named. Jennifer (Olivia Grace Murphy), an art historian, has been recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She struggles to find a way to reach out to her daughter Meghan (LaToya Blakely). Jennifer, Meghan, and Pat (Rachael Wilson) sync really well in this piece. Murphy and Wilson create lovely moments. First produced at New Mexico State University in 2008, this play takes a slightly different pathway into the conversation about breast cancer. It is neither maudlin nor manipulative. It is quite simply, beautiful. This was Hanson’s strongest directorial vision, opening up each character and creating nice pictures.
Play festivals can be a lot of fun, but they are also extremely important for theatre. Only 22 percent of plays produced in the United States during the 2015 season were written by females. In other words, 78 percent of what female playwrights were saying was not being heard. That can be fixed. It needs to be fixed. Think of Down for #TheCount as an opportunity to hear from the 78 percent. Not because they are women, but because they are women with something interesting to say.