Dramatist builds on carpentry

UM performance examines gender

April 15, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Marty Pottenger is an Obie Award-winning playwright and a former carpenter with 20 years experience.

Pottenger's plays reflect these widely divergent perspectives -- both of which will be on display tonight in a program called "Women in Theatre" at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park.

The program will combine 15-minute performances by Pottenger and two other female artists with a panel discussion about the relationship of gender and performance.

Woodworking and writing might seem quite different on the surface, but Pottenger, 50, sees similarities. Both, she said, are part of the building trades.

"Carpentry taught me to be systematic," Pottenger said in a telephone interview from her New York home. "It taught me how to build things. It taught me how to keep thousands of details in my head at the same time and not drop any of them. It taught me self-respect. Being an artist requires all of these qualities."

Similarly, decades as a grassroots activist in the women's and gay pride movements were integral to her artistic development. "Before the word `sexism' entered the language in the mid-'70s, it was like growing up without the word `blue,' " she said. "You see blue everywhere, and it informs everything around you. But you almost can't think clearly until you have a word for it."

The longer Pottenger was involved in social justice movements, the more she became convinced that standard societal ways of provoking change were insufficient.

"I felt, I don't know, a calling," she said. "I could tell that dialogue and arguing weren't going to take us as far as we needed to go to really grapple with these life-and-death issues. I knew that performance had to be part of the conversation."

During tonight's program, she will present excerpts from her Obie Award-winning play on perhaps the most unlikely topic imaginable -- the new water tunnel scheduled to be completed in 2025 that will carry water to 9 million New Yorkers.

Pottenger interviewed about 250 construction workers, government officials, scientists and bankers before writing City Water Tunnel #3. The play reflects her meticulous reporting and her affection and respect for the workers.

"When I started working on the project in 1993, 24 men had died, and hundreds had been maimed," she said. "I knew that the men working there had felt that the tunnel was worth dying for. I knew they would think that their life was a worthy life. And that's a lovely thing."

The program also includes:

Alva Rogers, an African-American actress-turned-playwright. Rogers is perhaps best known to movie audiences as the star of Julie Dash's 1992 film, Daughters of the Dust.

Despite the critical acclaim for both the film and her performance, Rogers found that acting by itself didn't satisfy her creative impulses, so she began to write. According to biographical information posted on the Women in Arts Web site (www.womenartists.com), Rogers earned two master's of fine arts degrees -- one in creative writing from Brown University and one in musical theater writing from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

During tonight's program, she will perform excerpts from Race Songs, a compilation of satiric monologues and music, plus monologues from The Bride Who Became Frightened When She Saw Life Open, which was inspired by the work of the late visual artist Frida Kahlo.

Much of Rogers' work reflects the larger culture's preoccupation with race. For example, one of her songs is called "How'd You Get Your Teeth So White?" and it has the following lyrics:

You must be from Jamaica or something

With a complexion like that

You're not really black, are you

Are you?

Magdalena Gomez, a poet, educator and playwright. Since 1976, she has been actively involved in bringing storytelling, theater games and improvisation to schools nationwide, while continuing her own creative endeavors. A widely published poet, Gomez also has been playwright in residence at Enchanted Circle Theater in Springfield, Mass.

One of her chief themes is the tensions caused by biculturalism, and tonight she will perform excerpts from her play, Chopping -- which is how the Puerto Rican women with whom Gomez grew up pronounce "shopping." The play features the outrageous Mina, a second-generation Latina, who speaks to the audience from her walk-in closet, which is crammed with eccentric clothing.

Gomez raids the closet to act out the stories of women who have shaped Mina's life, including her late mother and an independent-minded lesbian aunt. Chopping touches upon topics ranging from Yiddish slang to body image to bargain-hunting; at one point, Mina says: "We're all little thieves at heart."

Words to live by.

Women in Theatre

When: 8 p.m. tonight

Where: Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Stadium Drive and University Boulevard in College Park.

Tickets: $20 for adults; $5 for students

Call: 301-405-2787

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