Playwright Kemp Powers

I was in Denver last weekend for the Colorado New Play Summit and my favorite reading was a play by Kemp Powers called Christa  McAuliffe’s Eyes Were Blue. Kemp is an established and accomplished television writer (“Star Trek: Discovery”) and playwright kemp powerswith awards and a movie in production (One Night in Miami) and other plays including one I’ll write more about below; this piece shows his mature hand.  The main characters in the play are three young men —  twin brothers born of a white mother and a black father, one of whom looks black and one of whom looks white (rare, but possible) and one of their childhood friends.  Since it is still considered to be a piece in development, I won’t say too much about it except that it is about many things – including the painful power of ethnic jokes and childhood taunts.  Here is how the Denver Center describes the play:

Christa McAuliffe’s Eyes Were Blue by Kemp Powers
Commissioned by DCPA Theatre Company

 

Even though they share the same DNA, twins Steven and Bernard have lived drastically different lives. The big reason? One is plagued by racism because of his dark skin while the other passes as white. Steven spent his childhood fitting in with fellow classmates and is now a successful attorney. Though he was an extraordinarily bright student who had his eyes on outer space, Bernard’s future is as dismal as the Challenger Space Shuttle that once inspired him. As he prepares for trial and potential jail time, Bernard must face his childhood bully behind the judge’s bench and confront his brother’s advantages. Following his DCPA audience favorite One Night in Miami…, Kemp Powers’ piercing meditation on race and privilege targets the circumstances that can change a child’s destiny.

My confident prediction is that you will be able to see its world premiere about this time next year in Denver.  Do so if you can.

Before leaving the subject of the Colorado New Play Summit, I feel compelled to briefly mention the mesmerizing performance of one actor – Jacob Gibson.  jacob gibsonIn a reading of Celia, A Slave by Barbara Seyda, Jacob had a long  monologue as the character George that had the entire audience leaning forward, fully engaged as this beautiful actor both portrayed and evoked a gamut of emotions and showed cocky confidence, sly humor, love, rage and pathos in a fully authentic man I could listen to far longer.

 

Back to Kemp Powers.  Kemp’s play Little Black Shadows will have its world premiere (directed by the terrific May Adrales) at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, California April 8 – 19 and if you can see it, you should.  I saw a reading of it at the 2016 Pacific Playwright’s Festival and loved it.  Here is what I wrote in my post from April 30, 2016:

The reading of a play called Little Black Shadows by Kemp Powers left me stunned.  Set in the 1850s in the “Big House” on a cotton plantation, the six characters in this play are the plantation owning family – father, mother, son and daughter (12 year old twins), and the two 12-year old boy and girl slaves who “shadow” their child owners.

 Toy and Colis are children; so are the masters they silently serve on a Georgia cotton plantation. Only at night do the young slaves come alive, to tell stories and dream by the light of fireflies. But their world is about to change forever. Do they dare to come out of the shadows? 

In the Playwrights Panel on the last morning of the Festival, Kemp Powers said he had wanted to write a family drama in that time and setting that wasn’t about slavery; where slavery was part of that reality.  He said, “I don’t take lightly the idea of asking a black actor to play a slave.”  When asked by the actor how to approach one of those roles, he replied “think about day by day, hour by hour, you don’t speak; think of yourself as a dog who heels.”

I’m looking forward to seeing this very good play with full production values.  Actually, I’m looking forward to seeing anything Kemp Powers writes – with or without costumes and sets.  We’re lucky to have him in the American Theatre.  Let’s hope he doesn’t get too enticed by Hollywood.

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