A precocious grasp of identity

A young playwright grapples with who we are and how we're seen by others


November 16, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In Jerome Hairston's new play, a.m. Sunday, a biracial high school student overhears himself called a racial epithet. He tells his white girlfriend how it felt:

Jay: I'm standing outside school yesterday. The sun shining. Shining like always. On everything, everywhere. I'm thinking about summer. Your ... ribboned hair. Thinking so deep, I almost don't hear it. But I do. I most definitely hear.

Lorie: Who said it?

Jay: Does it matter?

Lorie: What did you do?

Jay: I got jealous. Angry jealous. On the hunt, wanting to know. Who this guy was. ... You know, it only took half a second. A half second for the answer to sink in. I've had this name my whole life. But it's like I never heard it. Till then. Suddenly the sun grows brighter. Hotter, harsher. A half second later the world's different.

Knowing who you are and how the world sees you - favorably or unfavorably - is a continuing theme for Hairston. His writing grapples with issues of racial identity and how it feels to be an outsider. His characters speak in simple words and phrases, but often fail to communicate. Their silences may be more telling than their speech.

"One of the things that draws me to theater," the playwright says, "is issues of identity, whether it's through literally role playing or whatever, struggling with how you define your existence."

That Hairston, the son of a black father and Korean mother, wrestles with these topics may not be surprising. What's intriguing, however, is that he does so with great subtlety and sophistication, even though he is only 28 years old.

Although his play, a.m. Sunday - which opens Wednesday at Center Stage - is about a biracial family in crisis, the racial makeup of the family forms the backdrop for the drama, not its focal point. The action takes place over five days and concerns the parents' increasingly strained marriage; their 15-year-old son, who is experiencing sex and racism for the first time; and his 11-year-old brother, who is having trouble in school.

When Center Stage resident dramaturg Gavin Witt first read a.m. Sunday, "It sucked me in and not just in a page-turning story way, but compellingly through the painful, tortuous human ordeal these individual characters were going through," he recalls.

Already the play - which could be the breakthrough script of Hairston's budding career - has received readings at a half-dozen theaters, including Playwrights Horizons and the Joseph Papp Public Theater, off-Broadway, and the O'Neill Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn. In 2002, it became one of the hits of the Actors Theatre of Louisville's prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Witt, who saw the play in Louisville, recommended it to Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis. She liked it enough to arrange a meeting in New York with Hairston.

"I said, `Jerome, this is a dark play,' " says Lewis. "And he said, `Sometimes when you go right to the bottom, it is liberating.'" Convinced that the hard-hitting drama would be a good choice for Center Stage's audiences, Lewis committed to what will be only the second full production of the play.

Learning to write

As a 10th grader at Bruton High School in Williamsburg, Va., Hairston was given a broad assignment: Write about anything you want. He knew he wanted to write about his life.

How to go about it was another matter.

"My life up to that point could not warrant a novel," he says. "A short story wasn't enough, and a novel was too long." So he wrote a play - a 13-page, "very autobiographical" play about growing up biracial.

Except it wasn't really a play. It was a monologue - "a kid standing on center stage complaining about his life." But it earned him a place in a state-wide competition. It was there that Hairston says he figured out how to create a play. "I went home and I rewrote the whole thing, [adding] other characters, actual scenes, actual dramatic events."

Fast-forward to another assignment in 1999. By this time, Hairston has a degree in theater from James Madison University and is in the first year of the graduate playwriting program at Columbia University.

On the first day of a course taught by award-winning Cuban-American playwright Eduardo Machado, the class is assigned to "describe a window from your past and place a character in front of the window." Hairston writes about an 11-year-old boy watching his dog futilely attempting to chase a train from within a fenced yard.

RP: What's wrong with this dog?

Denny: She heard the train.

RP: She's all messed up in the head.

Denny: She's excited.

RP: We got took.

Denny: Whenever she hears the train. She tries to chase it, but the fence. She goes back and forth like that.

RP: Honey, I said we got took.

A version of Hairston's class exercise, this scene opens a.m. Sunday. Other scenes also stem directly from Machado's assignments. Eight months after that initial class exercise, Hairston had a finished play - an account of an increasingly troubled family of four.

Knowing who you are

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