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