How the Ghost of You Clings (PWC Reading)

I’m baaaaack! Hello, theater blogging world. After a much needed rest, I am back in the new year to continue sharing my thoughts on theater. I took some time to focus on mental health and my own writing. I took a trip to Louisville to get to better know Actors’ Theatre and to see a couple of shows there. I enjoyed the holidays and ate too many cookies. But now, I’m faced with a whole new year of theater and a new perspective on what I want to focus on. More about that to follow. But first – the Playwrights’ Center.
In case you don’t know, the Playwrights’ Center (or PWC) is one of the greatest centers for new work in the Twin Cities (and the US) and a huge, much-loved resource for playwrights. Also, all of their public readings are free and always wonderful. Monday night presented the opportunity for me to hear a piece by PWC founder John Olive. Olive has been writing for many years and, while artistic director Jeremy Cohen mentioned that right now much of the theater world’s focus might be on the next young and up and coming playwrights, it’s our core continuing playwrights, who are in the middle of latter part of their careers we also need to keep supporting.
This reading of How the Ghost of You Clings: The Anna May Wong Story included Sun Mee Chomet, playing Anna May Wong, Katie Bradley, Stephanie Bertumen, Daniel Coleman, Sherwin Resurreccion, and Daniel Sakamoto-Wengel, with Rick Shiomi directing. I’m sad to admit that I had never heard of Anna May Wong before this reading. She’s an Asian-American actress who made films in Hollywood, from silent films to talkies. She often was typecast, working in films with strong stereotypes and even yellow face. After seeing this reading, I want to learn everything I can about her.
If you’re unfamiliar with staged readings, this is how they work – actors read the lines and perform them with music stands holding the scripts in front of them. Another actor reads stage directions and, at PWC, the playwright chooses one aspect of design to focus on. For this reading, John Olive chose to have dramaturg Christina Ham work with him.
I absolutely loved this reading – it deals with a lot of deep, nuanced issues including casting and racism in Hollywood, race and gender, and the fact that not a great deal has changed since mid 1900s.
Part of this really hit home for me. Anna talks about being one person, that can’t be everything for everyone, or the solution we’re looking for to racism in Hollywood. It’s so easy to point fingers and see someone as misrepresenting their group and see their flaws as we look back on the past. We can blame Anna for taking these roles, but it’s much harder when you are the person trying to make a career.
Though I’m not a person of color, I aspects of this as a young queer playwright. I feel like there’s so much I’m expected to uphold. But I’m only one person. I can’t do everything. I feel exactly the same as a reviewer/blogger. I can’t see all the shows. I can’t go to all of the theaters. It’s unrealistic to expect me to be able to do that and it’s wrong to assume that I have to say it all or that I even should say it all. This is something I’m being more vocal about going forward as it’s a large part of why I stepped away from blogging. In regards to this, I’ve decided to stop writing my blog the way I think I have to or am supposed to or what people expect. I share this writing with others and to support the theater community, but most of all I do this for myself. I don’t want to feel the pressure of having to review certain shows or write certain things. I want to do this because I want to do this. And I really want to write about this show. So I’m glad to be jumping back into this with How the Ghost of You Clings and PWC. It feels good to be back, like I’m coming home. I can’t wait to see what else this year brings.

Fool For Love



If you’re anything like me and the death of Sam Shepard feels a little like a loss of part of yourself, run as fast as you can to Dark and Stormy’s production of Fool for Love. It’s a sort of balm – not so much because of the story which, in true Shepard fashion discomforts – but in how wonderfully this company produces this playwright’s work.

Eddie (James Rodriguez) and May (Sara Marsh) have met in a hotel room where May is staying. They haven’t seen each other years and the tension between them is palpable. May feels drawn to Eddie but also wants him to go. Both filled with jealously, Eddie at May’s waiting for Martin (Antonio Duke) to take her to the movies, May at Eddie for an affair with the rich “Countess,” the two push and pull at each other, starting passionate fires that burn them but also connect them. They’re clearly not supposed to be together, as the ghostly Old Man (Patrick Coyle) hints at throughout, but they can’t stay apart. This play hurtles forward like a nonstop ride you can’t get off and, while it seems like a love story, the play throws you into unexpected territory from which there is no return.

There is more than one fool for love in this story – there’s Eddie and May’s oil and water relationship, the old man who haunts what came before and whatever happens after, and even Martin in his rational well-meant kindness might seem naive, though he has no idea what he’s getting in to. This cast brilliantly shows all the different sides to their characters, from their flaws to their good intentions gone wrong, to pure bitterness and hate. I also appreciate that though the cast is small, it’s diverse and allows these actors to shine in parts that they may not often be given. (For more on this, see this article from the Star Tribune).

Dark and Stormy uses a small space and a simple set to great advantage. There’s something claustrophobic about this play and having a small theater space in the Grain Belt building helps build on that. The production feels fierce and intimate and allows for the tension of the piece to take hold and for the larger designs of the piece to speak more boldly (with lighting by Mary Shabatura, fight choreography by Annie Enneking, costumes by Lisa Jones, props by Katie Phillips, sound by Aaron Newman, and lasso expertise by Megan West). It’s a mistake to think this play is either simple or complicated – it’s both and neither with acting and design that may seem very simple but, like an iceberg, this is only the top layer and there’s far more underneath. This is the first Dark and Stormy production I’ve seen, but I’ve gotten the sense that, as small theater company, this is something they excel at.

Shepard has certain similar themes in his work – issues of masculinity, family drama and conflict, tension between being alone and being part of a community, cycles that endlessly repeat themselves from which there is no escape. Fool for Love is a great introduction to his work for someone who is unfamiliar with his plays and a wonderful celebration for those who know it well. Because Dark and Stormy is so devoted to Shepard’s style of storytelling and what his plays convey, this play is bright and dark, humorous and painful, gut-churning and empathetic. This play could easily stay in the melodramatic realm or become entirely bitter and cynical. All of these elements are present, but the show itself stays honest and sincere to its characters which in mind makes the best staging of Shepard – where all of these moments build on each other into a vivid array of emotions. As Ross Wetzsteon describes it, “His work is based on the spontaneous outpouring of feeling.” I’m so happy to have this production now not just as a way to celebrate Shepard, but also to celebrate what small theater companies in the Twin Cities can create.

Fool For Love is written by Sam Shepard and is directed by Mel Day. It is playing now through September 16th at Dark and Stormy’s space in the Grain Belt Building. Ticket and show information can be found on Dark and Stormy’s website.

A Young Playwright on Sam Shepard



It might be the middle of the Minnesota Fringe Festival here in the Twin Cities but I want – no, need – to take a moment to talk about Sam Shepard. I’m still reeling from his death and feeling all the levels of loss at once. Out of the playwrights we’ve lost since I’ve been working in theater, his death has hit me the hardest because he is one of the writers I consider a fundamental influence, both in my repertoire and in my own writing.

I found uncanny solace in his plays and they taught me about dysfunctional families, dysfunctional relationships, anger, fear, love, hope, hopelessness, and how to make an audience/reader feel uncomfortable and disturbed. Navigating struggles between community and feeling alone, Shepard has a style and perspective on the world that’s all his own. His dialogue is fast, sharp, harsh, painfully emotional, and, at times, detached and confused. Characters speak across each other and ignore what the other says. Communication falls apart even while lines are still being uttered. When I first discovered his plays, it was like hearing punk music after hearing soft rock and pop all your life.

It’s hard to put into words what it means to lose someone so important to you that you’ve never met, which I why I’m so grateful for the outpouring of articles out there. There’s of course the gorgeous, heartbreaking piece by Patti Smith  and this article by John Leland (which has some great highlights like Shepard worked with Charles Mingus Jr and brought Nina Simone ice). These illuminate Shepard as a complex, brilliant guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time and wasn’t afraid to try something different. This New Yorker piece describes his work and presence wonderfully:

To the downtown New York theatre scene, he brought news of the West, of myth and music. He didn’t conform to the manners of the day; he’d lived a life outside the classroom and conventional book-learning. He was rogue energy with rock riffs. In his coded stories of family abuse and addiction, he brought to the stage a different idiom and a druggy, surreal lens. He also had the pulse of youth culture. He understood the despair behind the protean transformations that the culture was undergoing—the mutations of psychic and physical shape that were necessary for Americans to survive the oppression of a nation at war, both at home and abroad. Martians, cowboys and Indians, and rock legends peopled Shepard’s fantasies. He put that rage and rebellion onstage.

And then there’s this video with Shepard himself talking about his work, not wanting to deal family and how he noticed he was avoiding it in his work – thus making himself focus on it. Some people dislike Shepard for his “testosterone mania” (which I’ve always taken as a critique of hypermasculinity in society, or at least an examination of the dangers of it) and the way he writes women. One person in the video comments that Shepard may not understand women. And in the Leland piece, Mingus says “Some people are one-woman men. And some people never figure out which one woman to be with.” Shepard’s personal life colors his plays. He’s human, trying to figure out this weird world like the rest of us, examining the misunderstandings he holds and the different ways of being that exist for him and others. The bold colors that characterized his life find their way onto the page and shine in vivid hues, some beautiful, some frightening. Shepard is complicated, and messy, and visceral, and so, so wonderfully flaw-fully human. I’m grateful that I got to be in this world the same time as this great writer and that his plays will live on well after he’s gone. And that somewhere, he’s probably super pissed off that I’m rhapsodizing about it. But I wouldn’t be the playwright, the theater advocate, the person I am without knowing his plays. His work means a lot to me and I’m heartbroken in a way I haven’t been since Prince’s death. When you grow up, only knowing playwrights such as Shakespeare or maybe Arthur Miller, it rocks your world when you discover writers like Shepard. And I hope that we keep on rocking it and keep making plays that shake up the world and keep this “rogue energy” alive.

So, Sam Shepard, one last thing: thank you.