Two of the region’s professional stages are meeting the new season with timely looks at two American cities that also shaped the playwrights.
At Trenton’s Passage Theater playwright Josh Wilder’s “Salt Pepper Ketchup” is on stage through Sunday, October 14.
A co-production with the Philadelphia InterAct Theater, the play puts the spotlight on people experiencing the effects of gentrification — a topic on the minds of both Trenton and Philadelphia.
The play’s title is connected to both a neighborhood Chinese restaurant and the appearance of a trendy food co-op.
Wilder’s decision to write for the theater and his artist vision were shaped by his Philadelphia roots, as he notes in several interviews and statements. “Growing up in the inner city as a young black man, I felt like my dreams and my environment were at war. Growing up, I’ve witnessed so many smart and talented people become casualties in this pursuit to be their ideal selves.”
He says his gravitation to theater is connected to being in the Philadelphia schools where he “was fortunate enough to have an arts education since I was 10 years old. My teacher, who was a theater artist, asked a group of students if we wanted to write a musical and I said yes. We wrote the story and the lyrics in a community center during the summer months. Eventually I ended up being cast in the musical, which happened to be my first time performing onstage — so I met playwriting and acting at the same time. For some reason I didn’t believe that I was a writer then, but I knew that I could write.”
Wilder then attended the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts where he read, wrote, and performed in plays. “When I was 16 I started an after-school theater company called MyVision Theater Ensemble, and we would create new work that spoke to our peers and the community. My senior year I wrote a play that I produced through MyVision. I didn’t believe that I was a playwright though — I just liked writing plays. I still believed that acting was my true calling. It wasn’t until I got to Carnegie Mellon that I started to trust my writing more. The problem was that I was in an acting program, and I had limited time to write. I did, however, learn a lot about playwriting by working on new plays.”
He says once he got past the bulk of his acting training, “I wrote my first solo performance and performed it. It all just clicked. From that moment on I knew that my writing was something that I had to pay more attention to. When I got a Jerome Fellowship and moved to Minneapolis to be in residence at the Playwrights’ Center I knew that writing plays was the ultimate calling for me. I became a playwright at the Playwrights’ Center.”
Of his influences, he says he enjoyed reading ancient Greek theater and American masters August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller.
He also mentions seeing his first professional production, Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. “That play cracked my chest open, took me out of my seat, and transported me to some crazy places. I’m always hoping for that kind of experience when I see or read a play. I want to do what McDonagh did to me on that fateful day.”
Yet another influence was something closer: “My great grandfather was a painter and I have a love for art and going to museums. I always visualize the play in my head as a painting before I write it.”
Salt Pepper Ketchup, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Fridays and Saturdays 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. $13 – $38. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org
At McCarter Theater in Princeton, playwright Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ‘67” opens Tuesday, October 9, and runs through Sunday, October 28. The production was created in partnership with Hartford Stage.
The play centers on a brother and sister running an unlicensed after-hours club in a Detroit pulsing with the Motown Sound and soon erupting into the 1967 race riots.
“I wanted to include the people I thought were of the world that I had come from,” says Morisseau in interviews and statements regarding her decision to use Detroit as a background for her works. “I taught full-time at my mother’s school for one year before I left Michigan and moved to New York. I taught at a school in Highland Park in Michigan, which is an enclave inside of Detroit, and I call it one of the most economically stressed cities in our nation.”
A nationally produced playwright and winner of an Obie and NBFT August Wilson Playwriting Award, Morisseau says “Detroit ‘67” is one in a three-play cycle similar to playwright August Wilson’s cycle of 10 Pittsburgh-centered plays. “I wanted the people of Detroit to have an author doing the same thing for them. We deserve love and full exploration of our humanity, and the media wasn’t doing that, so I decided that it had to come from those of us writers who are from the city and know its humanity well. I love my city, so this trilogy is also my way of spreading that love.”
Explaining her background and approach, Morisseau says, “I started acting in plays in second grade. The bug bit me very early. And I’ve been writing since second grade also, very much into mysteries and short novellas.
“Playwriting didn’t happen until I was in college as a theater acting student, and I started getting frustrated with the lack of roles for African-American women in our department productions. I wrote my first play for myself and the two other African-American girls in my department as a way to make space for our stories. And then, with the success of that show, the playwriting bug had bitten me forever.”
Morisseau, who attended the University of Michigan, says her work as a playwright is informed by her own work in poetry and from her study of acting. “My characters speak poetically and also naturally. It’s a blend. And my characters are strong and developed well because the actor in me knows how to make every character have a purpose, objective, and point of view. And the activist in me is where all of my stories live. Everyone in every play is searching for some sense of justice.”
Music is also important. “I’m married to a hip-hop artist and musician,” she says. “I used to be a dancer, so music was instrumental to my art. I used to play piano. I used to choreograph. As a poet, I’ve recorded my poems with live musicians and other music artists. Music is everything and everything is music to me. It has become a huge inspiration to all of my writing.”
Thematically she says she is writing about community, family, and home. “What I’m really writing about is people, and those people transcend the time period they’re in; they even transcend region. I’m writing about humanity, and that’s everybody’s entry point into the plays.”
Another entry point is social or political realities. “I am looking at how politics, in a certain light, impact people. I’ve learned to embrace that I have a very strong social justice call to my work. Even when the work is very personal and not pushing a political agenda, there is some sense of justice I am always seeking for my characters. How are they or are they not getting justice in their lives for the things that they want? How are they or are they not being measured fairly by each other and by the world? And how are they or are they not being considered by those who have status over them?
“I’m not so arrogant to think I have all the answers. I don’t have them. I have none. These are the things that stay on my mind all the time. These are things that I wrestle with and I’m trying to work out. There are some things I think I know, but I don’t know the full extent of it.”
Looking at her work, she says, “I’m never finished with Detroit, but I don’t necessarily need it to be part of a cycle. But there are more stories to tell in Detroit, and I definitely want to tell them.
Detroit ’67, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. October 9 through October 28. $25 to $79. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org