After months of winter rain that persisted through June Gloom, I’m ready to get out in the sun and see some theatre! Aren’t you?
This July 11-16 at The Zephyr Theatre, five budding theatrical works by up-and-coming playwrights will be showcased at the SheLA Arts Summer Theater Festival, self-described as the premier festival for new, original, creative works by gender-marginalized playwrights and composers in Los Angeles.
I was able to speak with the wonderful playwrights and directors to give us a sneak peek into their vision, process, and hopes for these plays.
Carolina Pilar Xique (she/her): What compelled each of you to write your piece?
Maddie Nguyen (she/her, playwright of the moon play): I have a friend in college who is Native Hawaiian and was telling me about how Mark Zuckerberg wanted to buy land in Hawaii. My friend was really pissed off about that and told me about this dream he had where Hawaii colonized the Moon. Around that same time, my college friend group was graduating and I was having a hard time dealing with that emotionally – the loss of connection with people is something I’ve always struggled with in my life. I combined the two ideas of going to the moon and connected that with a metaphor of connection with other people, and no longer desiring that connection because it becomes too painful when it ends.
Margaret Owens (she/her, playwright, composer & director of RoseMarie – A Kennedy Life Interrupted): I was suffering from chronic fatigue from myalgic encephalomyelitis severely for about a year and a half, so I was in a wheelchair. I couldn’t do any of my normal daily tasks, so I was like, “What can I do to earn my right to live?” And I thought, “I can write a musical!” I put it out to the universe, and a very strong image came into my mind about the Kennedys, which I didn’t think was a good idea because everyone writes about the Kennedys. My husband mentioned that the family lobotomized this daughter, and I had never heard of that. I did a little research and learned that RoseMarie was the inspiration for the American Disability Act and all the Special Olympics. Since I was in my wheelchair at that time, I was becoming very, very grateful for the street curbs. You know who’s to thank for that? RoseMarie. I was trapped in my body and could do nothing else but write this.
Natalie Nicole Dressel (she/her, playwright of There is Evil in This House): What compelled me to write this piece was going to therapy in my thirties after coming out as transgender and losing touch with my mother, and talking about my experience growing up in a haunted house with my therapist. My therapist recontextualized my entire childhood experience, I had to go back and re-look at everything again. So it’s based on some real feelings I was going through. It was either write this play or keep bothering any halfway-friend Uber driver that I was meeting, because I had stuff to get off my chest.
Sarahjeen François (she/her, playwright & director of Sister, Braid My Hair): George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Elijah McClain. Ahmaud Arbery. All the unarmed deaths that were occurring at the hands of police officers. I was at home in the middle of COVID while all of that was stewing in my mind, and I was angry. But also I was yearning for a laughter and warmth that I wasn’t getting because I was so isolated from my family. I decided to create these sisters who thrive despite this political circumstance, and they have brought me so much comfort and joy. Just being in the presence of Black women is something special and I was craving that.
Nakisa Aschtiani (she/her, playwright of Bismillah, or In the Name of God): Years ago, I was having a conversation with my mom, and she had mentioned that a friend of the family said that if his son were gay, he would kill himself. It stuck with me and years later, I had to write about it because I couldn’t understand how you could say you love someone and say that simultaneously – the duality of that drove me nuts. I put that conversation in the play.
Carolina: What has been the process in bringing these pieces to life?
Sarah Bell (she/her, director of the moon play): What’s particularly wonderful about this piece is Maddie has put in this Vietnamese myth of “The Man on the Moon,” which includes a banyan tree on the moon, giving it an atmosphere. There’s also all this trash that’s in the play. Bringing it to life was actually quite easy because Maddie has created this perfect environment for me to kind of throw whatever I need in it. So it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been collecting trash from my house for my moon play trash pile.
Margaret: Well, the story was down in my mind, so then I wrote all the songs. I was looking for a book writer, because I didn’t know how to do that, and – long story, short – I ended up writing it myself. It was intimidating because I didn’t know how to write or talk like the 1930s & 1940s. My husband’s a professional writer and he took a stab at writing one scene just to give me an idea. Catching the verbiage of that broke it wide open for me. I started in December of 2011, and I finally had it all written in 2014. A producer I knew did staged readings to raise money to take it to Broadway – that didn’t happen, and then COVID. I started submitting it to places, and SheLA picked it. And it’s this play that led me back to college where I got my degree in playwriting.
Dean Grasbard (he/him, director of There is Evil in This House): It’s a really emotional piece. We have a loving cast that take care of themselves and each other and are doing a really excellent job of finding the humor in it. The deeper we get into it, the more we’ve been able to have communal healing. This play shows us paths to forgiveness for ourselves and each other. I don’t think any of us expected to walk out of rehearsals and feeling this light and with this sense of relief, which is really powerful. The play is so much funnier and more painful than I think any of us even imagined. It’s a play begging to be seen; it really aches for community and does a good job of creating it.
Sarahjeen: It has been a journey and the journey continues! When I wrote this play, I started thinking about quintessentially Black works of art because they’re a source of comfort, and there’s this one piece that can be found in many Black households. It’s a generational braiding photo with about four Black women seated and are grooming each other. And I wondered, what is the conversation? What’s happening that we can’t see? What if this is the only place where they feel safe? That’s where I birthed the characters and this world. I decided to take a chance on this play. It’s rhythmic in nature and is accompanied by djembe music, and it’s not something I’ve ever experienced in theatre.
Ani Maderosian (she/her, director of Bismillah, or In the Name of God): The dream for every director is to see things finally come to life, in the flesh. I did a radio play version of this [play] about two years ago. At that time, we needed that rendition, and it was creatively fulfilling and wonderful, but I sat there and thought, “Oh, God, this would be so great if we could get this on stage with people who can connect with it on such a deep and personal level and bring it to the community.” So it’s exciting. My process includes blocking organically, so a lot of the creative work is on the actors in following their own instincts and bringing out their own truth. Being able to work with this unique set of talented actors and tell this story from their perspective is my joy.
Carolina: Is there anything the audience should know before seeing your piece?
Maddie: There’s heavy language. It’s not recommended for children.
Margaret: Maybe bring tissue. Trigger warnings would be that there’s simulated surgery and there is a little violence, domestic quarrels. The play does mention the timely usage of neurodivergent terms of the 1930s and 40s.
Natalie: There are pop culture references, but I think I do a good job of taking people by the hand so you don’t have to know them to know what it means to the main character. And it [the play] won’t be in order, but I promise I will reorient you as to what’s going on.
Sarahjeen: They should know that this is an invitation – they’re being invited to a space that is sacred for these sisters. And to be prepared to go on a journey with these bombastic sisters who take risks and live life.
Ani: I love this play so much because it encapsulates what we as artists do in this industry. I think we both agree that we have a civic duty to the public to tell stories and this story will educate, instill empathy, and the hope is that it will get people talking and create a little bit of change when they leave the theater.
Carolina: What would you like audiences to take away after the performances?
Sarah: Something I’ve been talking a lot about with Maddie & the cast is what qualifies or even quantifies a friendship? How do we define relationships that can feel fleeting or deep, lasting, and meaningful – is it the time that we’ve known someone or is it how deep our knowledge of them runs? I guess I want audiences to be more open to that definition.
Margaret: People may know of Teddy, and of Eunice, and they certainly know of Jack, but they don’t know all the work they did because of RoseMarie. We’re lucky that she came into this family that had so much power and money. By being in that family, she changed the world because rights for people with disabilities are better because of the Kennedys.
Dean: I want people to walk away with the feeling of complexity, and the acceptance around complexity. Because nobody is just good or bad. And I want people to walk away knowing they have options. There is no one way to deal with trauma or to reconcile with yourself or your family. That is something to exquisite that I so rarely see – the idea that there is no lesson other than figuring out what’s right for you and holding that complexity tenderly.
Sarahjeen: I want them to feel the absolute joy amongst these Black women. Second, I want them to go home and do a little bit of research after seeing the play. And the last thing is I want them to make space for grace as it comes to the complexities of being a woman of color in America.
Nakisa: Fundamentally, we’re all the same. We have stories to tell. When we were casting, it was important for us to cast people of color – Middle Eastern actors. Even though we can take this story and put another family into it or imagine people that you know who are like these characters, we’re fundamentally the same and we come from the same stock. And we all have stories to tell.
Carolina: Is there any other play in the Festival you’re particularly excited to see?
Maddie: I really want to see Sister, Braid My Hair. Every time I see the title, it just strikes me. The description, portrait, and title feel very intimate so I think that’s the one I’m most excited for.
Sarah: I got to talk to most of the production members of There is Evil in This House. Talking to the dramaturg, I asked her what her favorite part is about that piece and she said how healing and transformative it is as a witness and as someone who is working on it. So I want to see that one for sure.
Margaret: I would love to see them all. I like the idea of Sister, Braid My Hair.
Natalie: I spent a great deal of time talking with Sarah [the director of the moon play], and I’m fascinated. It sounds like a fairytale book come to life and if that’s not a good time at the theatre, I don’t know what is.
Dean: I’m excited for Bismillah, or In the Name of God. I’m really glad we have representation of queer stories of color in this festival. I know Nakisa and I haven’t seen her work before so I’m really excited.
Sarahjeen: I’m really excited to see all of them, but Bismillah is snatching my soul with interest. But I really want to see them all, and I’m going to, so it’s going to be tasty.
Nakisa: One of my friends was saying that RoseMarie is absolutely phenomenal and will probably go very far.
Ani: The great thing about this festival is that it’s always vastly different stories, genre, and styles, so I’d like to see all of them!
For more tickets and information on the five plays – and playwrights – featured in the 2023 SheLA Arts Summer Theater Festival July 11-16 at the Zephyr Theatre, visit shenycarts.org/she-la.