See drama in its early stages

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 17, 2013 - 3:49 PM

New plays by Christina Ham, Mat Smart and Trista Baldwin get workshop productions during PlayLabs.

Christina Ham Photos courtesy of the Playwrights Center.

Christina Ham workshopped her engrossing thriller, “The Hollow,” at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, where a full production of it closed last weekend.

Now Ham and her directing partner, Hayley Finn, are developing another play at the center. “Scapegoat” is a two-act historical drama set in Elaine, Ark., in contemporary times and during the Red Summer of 1919, when African-Americans were killed in orgies of racial violence. It is one of three works in the annual PlayLabs festival.

“Elaine, Arkansas, is not as famous for its race riots as other places,” Ham said, “but over 200 people were killed there. I was interested in seeing how something like that, where the blood’s in the ground, affects people a hundred years later.” Ham is a rising playwright, whose “Four Little Girls” was read in Washington, D.C., under Phylicia Rashad’s direction.

The two other works-in-progress that audiences can see at PlayLabs are Trista Baldwin’s “Angel Fat” and Mat Smart’s “The Royal Society of Antarctica.”

“Angel Fat,” named for the way pregnant women look, is about surrogate motherhood, money and power. A hedge-fund executive and his wife who cannot conceive hire a woman to carry their child to term.

“I worked at a [New York] hedge for three years many years ago,” said Baldwin, who was born in Northern California, grew up in Washington state and attended Evergreen State College and the University of Arizona. “That experience, plus one in India, got me interested in exploring how people with money can be detached from what we would consider the most intimate decisions. The hedge-fund chairman basically commissions a child.”

“Angel Fat” also was influenced by the “Baby Manji” case in 2008, when an Indian surrogate gave birth to a Japanese couple’s baby. The couple had broken up, and the baby became stateless.

Smart’s “Antarctica” is centered on a search for roots. His play orbits a girl born in Antarctica whose mother disappeared shortly after her birth. She returns 24 years later to work as a janitor as she seeks information about her history and heritage.

Smart spent half a year working as a janitor at the research station in Antarctica in order to immerse himself in his character and her unique surroundings.

“All three playwrights in this year’s festival have a really wonderful relationship between place and environment,” said Finn, who is associate artistic director at Playwrights’ Center and producer of PlayLabs. “They are dealing with complex, hot-button contemporary issues.”

The Playwrights’ Center has hired noteworthy talent for these plays.

Actors James A. Williams, Regina Marie Williams, Jennifer Blagen and Dan Hopman play a pair of interracial couples in Ham’s “Scapegoat,” with Michael Kinghorn as dramaturge and Dan Dukich doing sound design.

Performers Jamila Anderson, Christina Baldwin, John Middleton and Laura Esping will play the parts in “Angel Fat,” which is being directed by Daniella Topol with Wendy Weckwerth as dramaturge and C. Andrew Mayer as sound designer.

Smart’s “Antarctica” has the biggest cast of the three plays, including Pearce Bunting, Bruce Young, Annie Enne­king, Ron Menzel, Cristina Castro, Ashley Montondo, Dustin Valenta and Neal Skoy. Meredith McDonough directs while Polly Carl, a former head of the Playwrights’ Center, returns as dramaturge.

Plays developed at the center often go on to full stagings, here and elsewhere. Marcus Gardley’s rewritten version of “Dance of the Holy Ghosts” is at opening soon at Baltimore’s Center Stage under the direction of theater head Kwame Kwei-Armah, who saw the workshop production in Minneapolis.

“We used to fly artistic directors in from all over the country to see work here, but now they’re coming on their own,” said Jeremy Cohen, producing director at the Playwrights’ Center. “This festival is a big part of what we do to support playwrights and connect them to producing partners.”

It also is a way for curious audiences to see and influence works that could go on to glory and fortune.

“The Playwrights’ Center gives me, as a writer, an invaluable opportunity to see ideas in the flesh,” said Ham. “And it gives audiences, who react and comment, a chance to influence the making of plays.”

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  • Trista Baldwin

  • Mat SmartPhotos courtesy of the Playwrights Center.

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