"My America" (Violet LeMay / Special to…)
When Kwame Kwei-Armah left London to move to Baltimore, he was exploding with questions about this strange land on the other side of the Atlantic, where he was planting not just himself, but also his wife and young son.
"As I was starting to find my footing, I thought, 'How do I really get to know my new land, not just now, but moving forward?' " says Kwei-Armah, who is one year into his new job as Center Stage's artistic director. "And I said, 'I know. I'll ask the writers.' "
The result — and the centerpiece of the theater's 50th anniversary celebration — is a series of 50 three-minute filmed monologues based on the theme of "My America."
Participants include such nationally known playwrights as Christopher Durang, Neil LaBute and Anna Deveare Smith, along with such Baltimore stalwarts as Rich Espey.
The monologues will be performed by a handful of television stars — Michael Emerson and Bobby Cannavale — as well as hometown favorites Tracie Thoms, Terry O'Quinn and Jefferson Mays, who developed their skills locally before forging national reputations.
Events this weekend include a gala with live performances and a panel discussion among playwrights.
In advance of the anniversary celebration, four of the scribes chatted by phone about their own fleeting and highly idiosyncratic glimpses of the country they call home.
Neil LaBute would prefer to think that he's nothing like his father and has absorbed none of his late progenitor's attitudes toward the world. But he knows that the reality is more complicated.
LaBute is the author of such brilliant and acerbic works as "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors" — plays and movies that frequently cast a jaundiced eye on gender relations. But though he's often accused of being a misanthrope, that may be a misunderstanding of the playwright's deepest intent. Instead, LaBute's plays can be read as cautionary tales, as a kind of warning to himself.
The two monologues that he wrote for "My America," which will be narrated by two longtime collaborators, actors Bobby Cannavale and Gia Crovatin, are no exception. Of all the plays submitted for the Center Stage project, only LaBute's are told by characters that, the audience gradually realizes, can't fully be trusted.
"I love this sense you get when you're talking to people who feel like they're on the right side of the issues, but their understanding isn't very broad," LaBute says.
"I like to think of my father as someone quite distant from me in terms of our views. But I have to constantly remind myself how small the space between us really is. There's a distance between where you are as a person and where you want to go."
In both monologues, the narrators refer quite explicitly to their upbringings.
In "Current Events," the character known as the Woman tells the audience, "I whisper to myself each night that I'm living a dream, this dream that my folks had for me …"
And in "Tour de France," the Guy congratulates himself that he's more enlightened than his father, who, if he'd seen a black man riding a racing bike, would have assumed that the fancy two-wheeler had been stolen.
"The thread that connects us all to family is really strong," the 49-year-old LaBute says.
"My father was a trucker, and I became a playwright. I think of him as a person who was in a lot of ways unknowable. He was gone a lot, and when he wasn't distant physically, he was quicksilver in terms of his emotionality.
"We weren't close. But the other day, I was laughing at something, and I realized, 'That's how my father used to laugh.' "
It took Lynn Nottage 20 years to wrest even one good result from the state of Utah's middle-of-the-night execution of a black prisoner.
Her monologue, "Kill the N#&&@R," is based on the 1992 lethal injection of William Andrews for three murders that were committed by an accomplice. (In Nottage's play, the death-row inmate is named "Jimmy Bates.")
At the time, Nottage, now 47, was an impressionable young woman working in the press office for Amnesty International. She was ecstatic when the governor seemed to have granted a second stay of execution for Andrews.
"When I went to bed that evening, I thought we had saved him," she says.
"I had more faith in the criminal justice system than I do now, and I was absolutely, 100 percent sure that he was not going to die. Waking up the next morning to the news that he'd been executed remains one of the most devastating experiences of my life."
Nottage left Amnesty International within the year, and over time the intensity of her anguish was blunted.
But after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in February while walking in a Florida neighborhood, all of Nottage's pain, anger and sadness resurfaced. The monologue, which will be read by actress Maechi Aharanwa, is partly a memorial to Martin, though the teen is never named.