Twenty-one years ago, the following names graced the inaugural Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF), South Coast Repertory’s foray into the mostly uncharted (at least on the Left Coast) waters of new plays: Richard Greenberg, Anthony Clarvoe, Cusi Cram, John Glore, Jessica Hagedorn, Howard Korder, Chris Van Groningen, Karen Zacarias.
Okay, okay, that was supposed to be a list of predominately white men, juxtaposed with the 21st installment of the PPF, which is this weekend, in which the batting order of eight playwrights consists of one white guy with a penis and seven other writers who are either people of color or people without a penis. But here’s the thing: Even back when white men ruled every conceivable roost—the halcyon days of the late 1990s, for those keeping score—the PPF was diverse, with 33 percent of the rookie class women and 25 percent people of color.
It’s just a wee bit more diverse these days. Of the seven plays—five readings and two full productions—four are written by women, and there is an African-American and Asian American among the men. Of course, race and gender are subordinate to the quality of the writing, but Kimberly Colburn, SCR’s literary director, admits it doesn’t pain her to see so much diversity. “Obviously gender is certainly part of our equation, but we’re not explicitly looking for it,” she says. “But as long as we’re close, I appreciate it. But while I don’t see a [festival] that is solely white men again, the stories are just as important as the playwrights.”
SCR has always been a theater where words reign paramount. Plays are not chosen for this festival or the theater’s mainstage productions based on politics, social concerns or similar hot-button issues. But that doesn’t mean that inadvertent themes don’t manifest. “We never program with a theme in mind; we’re simply looking at the best plays,” says Colburn, who, along with associate artistic director John Glore and fellow literary-staff colleagues, spearheads the selection process. “But we want to try to make sure to have a healthy mix of aesthetics, content and playwrights. But it’s only after the fact, whether it’s the audiences telling us about the connections they see or ones that we see, that a pattern emerges.”
And the theme this year?
“Love and relationships,” Colburn says. “All the readings and, to a lesser extent, the full productions, all tackle the interpersonal as a way to take on larger issues.”
So, for instance, Poor Yella Rednecks, Qui Nguyen’s follow-up to his wildly successful 2016 play Vietgone, which was part of the 2015 PPF, re-introduces the couple who fled war-ravaged Saigon in the 1970s, but now they are five years into their relationship and their immigrant status as an Asian-American family living in rural Arkansas. They are raising their child, as well as living with a mother who doesn’t speak English, and in exploring that family dynamic, the play touches on broader concerns.
The same with Kevin Artigue’s Sheepdog. Though it seems ripped from whatever passes as headlines these days, Artigue’s play about a white cop shooting an unarmed African-American isn’t just the local news. His girlfriend happens to be an African-American police officer, and the shooting not only opens perilous political and racial windows, but it also puts their relationship in the cross-hairs.
The most obvious relationship-centric play is also Colburn’s favorite, since she serves as its dramaturg: Love and Contracts, a new work by a rising theatrical presence and giant robot fan (seriously, that’s what it says on her website) Julia Doolittle. “Well, we obviously try to treat all the plays fairly, but that’s my favorite,” Colburn says. “She is a young playwright, but she is a really exciting new voice. She has an uncanny ear for dialogue, and her plays are so reflective of her personality. She is so engaging and self-deprecating and whip-smart. It’s not always true that you draw a straight line from a playwright to their work, but in her case, you certainly can.”
Love and Contracts begins with a couple in the 1790s but then fast-forwards, with no explanation or apologies, to the present day. “You see the same characters operating in the same time [periods], and as you watch them navigate how modern relationships work, you see how much has changed and what hasn’t. But it also makes a parallel with how relationships are like a contract and how it might be necessary to talk about the details of that contract, how it’s better to be transparent and upfront about things, which isn’t always the case.”
The fourth reading, Caroline V. McGraw’s I Get Restless, is another piece rife with relationship, as a newly married woman gets struck by a car and loses her memory of the past six years—the entire time she has been with her husband. When she wakes up, she has no memory of the man who introduces himself as her husband, and the play “is about what happens when you lose your story, lose your anchor, and you have to renavigate all those things.”
The final reading, Madhuri Shekar’s House of Joy, isn’t about one relationship, but rather about hundreds of them. It’s set “in a time like 1666 in a place like India.” in a prince’s harem. Besides the ruler and a few eunuchs, the women do not interact with any men, and even though they are little more than slaves, they are protected by the prince, so they are afforded liberties and freedoms that most people in the society can only dream about. The arrival of a doctor, however, upends the less-than-delicate balance, and, according to Colburn, the play turns into a romantic swashbuckling adventure, equally fast and funny.
Pacific Playwrights Festival at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Poor Yella Rednecks, Fri., 1 p.m. Love and Contracts, Fri., 4 p.m. Sheepdog, Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. I Get Restless, Sat., 10:30 a.m. House of Joy, Sun., 10:30 a.m. $5-$18.