With the upcoming production of a new play “The Summer House” at Passage Theatre in Trenton, audiences will be introduced to two amazingly talented and beautiful young women artists. But you won’t see either of them on stage. They are the playwright, Amber Kain, and the director, Jade King Carroll.
When I entered the New York City rehearsal space, Carroll was perched on a stool watching and guiding four actors through a scene from “The Summer House” in which a young man is trying with questionable success to make a favorable impression on his new in-laws. When I left almost an hour later, she returned to her perch with a piece of cold pizza in hand to begin a run-through of the play for a small invited audience. She and Kain chatted with me while the rest of the company lunched.
They both grew up in arts-saturated families. Playwright Kain’s father, Gylan Kain, is also a poet, as well as a playwright and actor. Her mother, Karen Perry, is a theater costume designer.
Director Carroll is the daughter of jazz musician/composer Baikida Carroll, whom local audiences remember for his collaborations with McCarter’s Emily Mann, composing the score for the 1991 premiere of the musical “Betsey Brown” and incidental music for “Having Our Say” (1995). Carroll’s mother is poet Janice King. Kain accuses Carroll of always being an over achiever. Carroll graduated from SUNY in New Paltz, New York, in 2004 with a double theater major in design/technical theater and performance with a concentration in directing. For someone so young, she has amassed an impressive list of directing credits. And she certainly learned a lot firsthand as an assistant director on a number of productions of August Wilson’s plays.
In fact, Kain and Carroll were brought together by an encounter at McCarter Theater during rehearsals for “Gem of the Ocean.” Carroll was the assistant director to Reuben Santiago-Hudson and Kain’s mother, Karen Perry, designed the costumes. Perry, as “mother/agent” approached Carroll, who relates their exchange: “I don’t want to mix family with work, but I want you to read my daughter’s play. I think you’ll totally get it.” And so she did, admitting that she read it all the way through without a stop even for a cup of coffee. “A real page turner;” she adds, “It’s a good story with so many surprises, yet I believed all of the relationships between the characters and cared about what was happening to these people.”
“The timing just worked out,” Kain says. “Jade was a fellow at 2nd Stage Theatre in Manhattan so we were able develop the script there and mount a workshop production of the very first draft.” She laughs at “how to get your play ‘up’ — call your mother!” But seriously, she says, “It seemed like an easy overnight introduction, but actually this was built over years of (my) parents and me developing our craft and of making connections with theater people.” Kain’s previous writing credits include numerous screenplays, children’s stories and a tele-play for “Sex and the City.”
Connections are vital, but they don’t take the place of persistence, according to Carroll. She practically grew up at McCarter, watching Emily Mann direct. Press representative Dan Bauer says he remembers a very young Jade “hanging around during the rehearsals of ‘Betsey Brown.’” The musical had previously been developed at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, where her father, Baikida Carroll, and Papp “formed a strong working relationship.”
When choreographer/director Michael Bennett was swept away by his production of “Dream Girls” in California, he wasn’t able to work on the Public Theater’s production of “Betsey Brown.” So Papp introduced Carroll’s father to Emily Mann. Together with Ntozake Shange, the three built “Betsey Brown” under the watchful eyes of young Jade. “I wasn’t backstage, but always in the house auditorium, always watching from the front row.” She continued to watch and learn observing Mann and other directors. “The doors have always been open to me there. Even if my dad wasn’t involved, I’d go out for tech week. I was so serious and determined. They’d let me off from school.”
She assures me that there was no nepotism here as she had to try out for a directing internship at McCarter three times before she was accepted. But she had been indoctrinated early with an artistic eye. “I was under my dad’s wing from day one. His studio was in the house. When he was composing, he’d play something and then ask me how it made me feel. I’d say ‘happy.’ He’d say ‘Oh, it’s supposed to be a dirge.’ Listening and watching are in the fabric of my household.” Her mother taught at the Montessori Woodstock Children’s Center so her daughter could attend this special school.
Kain says, “Jade and I have a lot in common. Her parents and mine were both mentored by Joseph Papp.” Kain’s father was a core member of Papp’s company for persons of color to perform Shakespeare. Unlike Carroll, she watched from the wings. “I watched the plays every night. I don’t think I was ever so happy than when watching a show.” Her earliest memory — actually, she only remembers bits and pieces — has become a family legend. The story goes: “I was watching my dad in ‘Julius Caesar.’” Since he was playing the role of Cassius, he definitely comes to a bloody end, taking his own life. “I remember so much blood — then asking to see Daddy. Is he really dead?”
Both Kain and Carroll were child actors, with Carroll leaning more toward dance. Until she was around nine years old, she wanted to be a choreographer, then switched to set her sights on directing for the theater. Kain made some commercials as a tot and appeared in a few PBS television programs. “My mother was very protective, so much so I’d lose jobs as Mom would warn casting directors: ‘You better treat my baby right.’” On stage at the Public Theater, she was the little girl in George Wolfe’s “Colored Museum” in 1986.
All but one of the Cain children are in show business. The three brothers are actors; the youngest, a rapper who raps in Dutch.
Two African-American superstars had a big influence on Kain, she says. About the time she was applying to college, her mother was working on several of director Spike Lee’s films. Observant Kain decided to attend Tisch School of Arts at New York University to study filmmaking, where Lee had done graduate work. Though she had done some fiction writing, at film school she discovered that she had a “flair for screenwriting.” Not satisfied with the school, she took the suggestion of esteemed playwright and director Wolfe, who suggested she go instead to Pomona College in Claremont, California. He even helped her with recommendations and advice. However, she says, “George set me up. The theater department wasn’t what I expected.” So she dropped out of college again. “School was too distracting. I wanted to focus on the script I was writing. I always intended to go back.” And she thinks that she will some day. “I’ve gone to school long enough to have a degree. Maybe when my kids start kindergarten I’ll go back to college.” Unmarried, she admits she has “prospects.” And she adds, “I have hopes and dreams.”
With Kain’s focus on screenwriting, it isn’t surprising that the inspiration for her first play, “The Summer House,” came from film sources. She felt especially motivated by Julian Fellowes’ Academy Award-winning film script “Gosford Park,” the 2001 Robert Altman movie set at one of those English weekend-in-the-country parties where intrigue and mystery reign. She also claims influence from “Les Miz” and “Star Wars.” As for the latter she says: “You feel compassion for the villains because they are doing what they’re doing because they think it is right. They are destroying lives in the name of righteousness.”
She started the play as a challenge, thinking what she would want to see if she went to a play and where it would take place. She opted for a “gorgeous apartment on the upper East side of Manhattan — something I would dream about when I was a kid living on the lower East side.” And still a bit practical, she wanted to write a part in the play for herself, though in the Passage production another actress takes “her” role. “Writing with myself in mind, because I’m black, African American, or negro — whatever we call ourselves these days — the rest of the family has to be the same race as me. So my play ends up being about a black family, but it’s not a play about race. It’s about a family with a secret and a problem and a lot of love, but with issues they have to work out. They just happen to be black. I really like that. People have mentioned that every now and then it’s refreshing to find a play with characters of this race who are not talking about it all the time. It is of course part of the fabric of how they speak and the music they listen to.”
Passage’s artistic director June Ballinger admits that she didn’t realize the characters were African American until she was on page 35 of the script.
“The Summer House” has four characters: mother, father, daughter, and her new husband — who the daughter met online. The foursome goes together on the young couple’s honeymoon to the family country home in the Catskills. Both director and playwright look warily at each other, anxious not to tell too much about the plot of their mystery/ thriller. “I hope it will help people to be more open about their flaws and that there’s hope beyond neurosis, beyond your dark secrets.”
What’s up next for them? Naturally Kain hopes that there will be a continued life for “The Summer House.” And she’s busy writing another play, “Veritas,” which she plans to have ready for a workshop production during the summer of 2009. It is about a female school teacher accused of having an affair with a boy student.
Carroll will go directly to another project workshopping a play by Sara Hammond at 2nd Stage in New York. “I covet writers,” she says. Then she directs a reading at Passage of “Deacons” by Yusef Komunyakaa, followed by work with another new writer, James McManus, for a production of his play “Cherry Smoke,” which she describes as “a great, raw, jagged, angry play.” It will be performed at the Kirk Theatre in Manhattan.
Kain’s credo seems to reflect the work ethic of both women: “I think as a kid I had this magical belief. Yes it’s hard, but it’ll work out for me. You have to have that to go forward.”
The Summer House, Thurday, October 30, through Sunday, November 23, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. Comic thriller by Amber Kain. Directed by Jade King Carroll. $25 to $30. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.