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Author: Simon Saltzman. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 15, 2000. All rights reserved.

Provocation in Paradise: Kathleen McGhee-Anderson

There was no sun shining on Venice, that is Venice

Beach, California, when I talked with playwright Kathleen McGhee-Anderson

by phone. "It has been raining steadily for five days," says

Anderson, whose play, "Venice," has its world premiere at

Crossroads Theater Company, opening Thursday, March 16. The play,

which is about her Venice and its people, marks her third world premiere

there.

In 1992, Anderson’s "Oak and Ivy," about the turn-of-the-century

African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, was the second production

at the new Crossroads Theater, with "Mothers," about mothers

and their mixed-race children, premiering the following year. "Oak

and Ivy" continues to have a lively existence in regional theater;

Washington’s Arena Theater presented the most recent staging this

past season.

Although we commiserate about how one can no longer grab a gondola

there when the water rises, Anderson says she made her decision to

live and write in Venice in 1977 partly because of its Italian model.

She also informs me that the man who designed Venice Beach, Abbot

Kinney, in the early part of the 20th century, was from New Brunswick.

"Venice is a place that has triggered my imagination," she

says. "Fifteen of the original 20 canals have been filled in,

but those remaining boast multi-million dollar homes with boats that

traverse the canals."

With "Venice," a play selected for production by Crossroads’

co-founder and artistic director Riccardo Khan before he took this

year’s sabbatical leave, Anderson is writing about a community of

people who see themselves as separate.

"I’m totally in love with this small beach community that epitomizes

a convergence of cultures, economic classes, and lifestyles. It has

a very different personality from the surrounding towns, attracting

a very artistic community, including the very rich and very poor,

the millionaires who live on the beach and the homeless who live and

panhandle on the beach," says Anderson, who has drawn on this

diversity to create her fictional characters — two families and

two generations that find their lives interwoven and drawn together.

When a young African-American shoots a white cop, the tragic incident

finds a white family and an African-American family pitted against

each other against a backdrop of gang violence on urban streets. Even

before the tragedy, Anderson explains, there had been an attempt by

these two families to communicate with each other. They confront a

conflict that dates back to the Vietnam War.

Directed by Timothy Douglas, "Venice" features Ray Anthony

Thomas, Brian Coffey, Tarah Flanagan, Kim Brockington, Keith Josef

Adkins, and Noel Johansen.

To write the play, Anderson says she thought of the two families as

a huge tree with entangled roots. "Although there is love, there

is no romance," she says. Since she wrote "Venice," four

years ago, it has had its share of workshops. Khan first read the

play when it was brand new, and told her, "It stayed in my mind."

Anderson feels that the production is particularly timely, in that

it responds to the growing number of shootings of policemen and civilians,

and to community reaction. Despite being small, Venice, like so many

towns, has its territorial boundaries. Although Anderson recognizes

that many people have given it a wide berth, associating it with dirt,

crime, drugs, and weirdness, many others are contributing to its gentrification.

Despite being an award-winning writer and having her plays produced,

Anderson feels she hasn’t had the opportunity to really cultivate

her career as a playwright as she would wish.

"I’ve been so busy making a living outside the field of theater.

I do value the experience of playwriting when I get it," says

Anderson. She says she spends every waking moment writing, although

it isn’t for the theater, but as a television and film writer. "I’ve

been doing that for a lot of years, while raising a son." Anderson

is quick to add, "My son Khalil is not in the profession, but

I’m proud of him because he’s a good writer. He’s 22, about to graduate

from Loyola College, and hopes to be a lawyer."

Anderson is a member of the Mark Taper Forum’s Blacksmyth’s

Playwrights Workshop. "Jump at the Sun," her radio drama about

Zora Neale Hurston, has been aired on NPR and is currently included

in L.A. Theatrework’s "Alive and Aloud" project, a radio theater

company that produces plays before a live audience. The play is then

put on tape and sold.

"Jump at the Sun" was also selected for study nationally in

1,200 schools. This pleases Anderson who says Hurston was the first

writer who really excited her, and even though there are now various

dramatic portraits of her, writers have barely scratched the surface.

"Her poems, plays, short stories, even the anthropological material,

it’s so vivid, so fertile."

Selected twice as a Eugene O’Neill Playwright, Anderson says that

it was at the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, where

she felt she made her breakthrough as a playwright. While "Oak

and Ivy" had its early workshop there in 1985, "Jump at the

Sun," was first developed there as a tele-play in 1990.

She is also continuing the development of her two newest works, "Five

Mojo Secrets," a play of monologues, and "The Power and the

Glory," a musical about two brothers in a feud over which one

will replace the father as minister of his congregation.

Anderson has been consulting producer of the television series, "Any

Day Now," for Lifetime TV. It is a contemporary piece, set in

Alabama, about two lifelong women friends, one black and one white.

When I apologize for not having seen the show, Anderson says (tongue-in-cheek?),

"Except for that show, I don’t watch television, either."

"The Color of Courage," a teleplay about Anderson’s grandparents’

Supreme Court housing discrimination fight was aired on USA-TV about

a year ago. "I’m expecting a video rental check on that any day,"

says Anderson, joking about how she could then buy herself a couple

of months to sit down and write a play.

As a native of Detroit, Anderson says she was initially "a reluctant

transplant" to Los Angeles with her husband. She is no longer

married. An English major at Spelman College, she also has a film

degree from Columbia, taught film for a year at Howard University,

and then worked as a film editor for ABC in Washington, D.C., an affiliation

that continued when she moved to the West Coast.

Among the many screenplays that Anderson has written and sold, "Sunset

Park," about basketball, has been the only one produced. It was

released about four years ago.

Although Anderson is currently writing an original Showtime movie,

she is set to leave rainy Venice for sun-drenched New Brunswick. Will

"Venice," now that it has become a play, continue to serve

as an inspiration for Anderson?

"Now that my son is graduating from college, I’m thinking of a

simpler life, like making my home on the East Coast — not so many

cars, and meetings." (Is she kidding?) "I’m ready for the

country life." No one can guarantee Anderson that the sun will

shine on "Venice," even in New Brunswick, but Crossroads Theater

is able to offer a ray of hope and a glimmer of glory to every gifted

playwright and their play.

— Simon Saltzman

Venice, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick,

732-249-5560. $24.50 to $31.50. Through April 16.


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