For city playwright, big issues onstage

November 03, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Baltimore playwright Kenneth F. Hoke-Witherspoon wanted to write a play about what some people will do for love -- and what others will do for politics. So he chose the subject of abortion.

The result, "Babies' Breath," debuts tonight at the District of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC), an alternative gallery and theater in Washington with a history of presenting controversial work.

Hoke-Witherspoon, who also directs and produces the play, chose to open the play on Election Day because one of the most hotly contested issues on the Maryland ballot is Question 6, the abortion referendum. He had hoped to premiere the play in his hometown, but the closest available theater turned out to be in Washington.

While the 41-year-old playwright acknowledges he is "extremely pro-choice" and intends to vote for Question 6, he says he went out of his way not to take sides in his play. "The play is about abortion," not for or against it, he insists. "I want people to step back from all of the anger and the shouting, and at least listen to the other side."

The format he selected is a family drama about a father who opposes abortion, a mother who suffers from a neurological condition, and their grown daughter, who has had an embryo implanted in hopes of using the fetal brain tissue to cure her mother.

The medical details stemmed from Hoke-Witherspoon's day job as a senior research specialist at the Welch Medical Library of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "It came out of a conversation with a doctor," he explains. "I was trying to come up with a medical condition . . . for which a fetal brain tissue transplantation might be a cure, and she reeled off four or five areas of current research."

At the same time, he decided not to identify a specific disease by name. "One of the things I try to do when I write is to make things open enough so you can't escape and say, 'That obviously would never happen to me,' " he says.

His subjects have ranged from the effects of the Vietnam War on the black community to the civil rights sit-ins in Baltimore in the 1950s.

The South Baltimore native has used the city as the setting for several scripts, including "Babies' Breath."

And although his education took him away from his roots, he has always returned. The son of a father who made bricks and a mother who worked as a domestic, Hoke-Witherspoon attended the private Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Mass., on scholarship. From there he became one of the first black male freshmen at Vassar College.

At Vassar, he majored in psychology but found himself becoming increasing involved in theater. After graduation, he held a variety of jobs, including positions in special education, crisis intervention and working with abused children. He also wrote 10 plays in five years, before entering the graduate program in playwrighting at Catholic University in 1985.

In the intervening years, he's had two plays produced by the Baltimore Playwrights Festival -- "Last Night at Ace High" (1988) and "All Partial Evil, Universal Good" (1989). And since receiving his master's degree from Catholic University in 1988, he has served as a playwright-in-the-schools with the Young People's Theater at Center Stage.

Center Stage was one of two local theaters -- the other was Theatre Hopkins -- that responded to his request for assistance, and specifically, for rehearsal space for "Babies' Breath." He and his cast, which consists entirely of Baltimore actors, ended up dividing their rehearsals between Theatre Hopkins and the medical school's Institute of the History of Medicine, where two dress rehearsals were presented for invited audiences last week.

Hoke-Witherspoon was pleased with the response -- and especially with the fact that the script has met with the approval of friends whose views are opposite his. It showed that he has achieved one of his goals: getting an audience to "listen to what the other side has to say and to understand that everybody has a viewpoint and you don't have to go at each other's throats."

'Babies' Breath

When: Tonight at 8 p.m.; thereafter, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees Sundays at 2 p.m. Through Nov. 29.

Where: District of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC), 2438 18th St., N.W., Washington.

Tickets: $10.

Call: (202) 462-7833.

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