Politics and poetry onstage Theater: Kia Corthron's new play about teen pregnancy, environmental hazards, pollution and illiteracy opens at Center Stage Thursday.

November 09, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"This is not what black English sounds like. I know people who speak black English. I know what black English sounds like."

Kia Corthron still bristles when she remembers this written comment, received after a workshop production of one of her plays before a predominantly upper-middle-class white audience.

"I found it so offensive because I feel that when white writers play with language it's poetic, but when black writers play with language it's wrong," she says.

If Corthron's reaction sounds politically charged, it is. As one of the country's most in-demand young black playwrights, she entwines politics, poetry and playwriting. Her newest play, "Splash Hatch on the E Going Down," which makes its Baltimore debut at Center Stage beginning Thursday, explores issues including teen pregnancy, environmental hazards, pollution and illiteracy.

Director and playwright Marion McClinton, who recommended Corthron's work to Center Stage, describes her use of language as part of a movement in black theater that's akin to be-bop, an idiom that revolutionized jazz in the 1940s. "It's going to radicalize theater," he says. "Kia has a distinctive voice just like Thelonius Monk has a distinctive piano style. She's definitely one of the forerunners."

McClinton is not alone in his praise of Corthron, whose plays have received productions and workshops at leading regional theaters and off-Broadway. When "Seeking the Genesis," her most recent off-Broadway play, debuted at Chicago's Goodman Theatre last season, Chicago Tribune critic Richard Christiansen wrote, "Not since the emergence of August Wilson has there been a playwright who has created language in such a fever of fervent poetry."

American Theatre magazine listed Corthron in the esteemed company of Ntozake Shange, Adrienne Kennedy and Anna Deavere Smith as African-American women playwrights with "compelling, thought-provoking and stylistically fresh" voices.

Corthron's use of language will no doubt be familiar to many in the Center Stage audience. The 36-year-old playwright is a native of Cumberland. And, though "Splash Hatch on the E Going Down" is set in Harlem, where she now lives, Corthron says her language "does come from where I grew up. I always heighten the language, but it always has some of Cumberland in it because those are my roots."

Corthron's mother and older sister still live in Cumberland. A younger sister is a junior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and there are aunts, uncles and cousins in Baltimore. Most hope to see the play; in addition, plans are under way for a bus load from the Cumberland schools and a contingent from UMBC.

Dressed in jeans and toting a backpack, Corthron looks at least 10 years younger than her age. When she talks, her words tumble out enthusiastically, interrupted by frequent giggles. She doesn't seem like someone who writes plays with such hard-hitting subject matter that she's sometimes had difficulty getting them produced.

On this particular morning, the only immediate clue to Corthron's serious-mindedness is her T-shirt, which defiantly lists the titles of books -- ranging from the American Heritage Dictionary to "Where's Waldo?" -- that have been banned in various places at various times. Mention to her that she would have been right at home in the turbulent 1960s, and she laughs knowingly.

"Kia was always one for the underdog and still is, and she would speak her mind," says her mother, Shirley. Although most of her daughter's activism surfaced after high school, Mrs. Corthron says the degree of Kia's convictions was so strong, "She would scare me sometimes."

For McClinton, who is directing "Splash Hatch" (a co-production with the Yale Repertory Theatre), there's another clue as well. "She has a brightness, an effervescence, but when you're in conversation with her about her play or things in general, there's a seriousness in the eyes -- somebody always keeping a close watch on things."

'Environmental racism'

"Splash Hatch," whose main character, Thyme, is a pregnant 15-year-old, grew out of Corthron's desire to write a play about "environmental racism," specifically, the tendency to place environmental hazards in low-income neighborhoods. One of the play's scenes takes place at a fancy park and recreation center built on top of a waste-treatment plant -- a site that actually exists in Harlem.

"This is our kids running, sucking in toxic air cuz the white neighborhoods sure didn't wanna be looking at it," says outraged Thyme.

Thyme's concerns about both her impending parenthood and the environment intersect unexpectedly when her teen-age husband is diagnosed with lead poisoning. The title is deliberately cryptic -- one of many aspects of the play Corthron hopes will spur thought. She does acknowledge, however, that "Splash Hatch" refers to Thyme's desire to give birth in water and that "E" represents, among other things, the character's interest in environmental issues.

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