‘Just sit back and allow these people into your heart,’ says author of upcoming world-premiere play that defies expectation
“And that’s the whole point,” the breakthrough playwright and actor said on the eve of the play’s highly anticipated world premiere this month by the DCPA Theatre Company.
“It looks like a simple family drama, and it looks like you might already know all of the players in that drama,” said Grays, who was born in Panama and raised in South Carolina. “But what I tried to do is play on the expectations of what people think they might know and turn that a little bit in order to complicate the storytelling.”
Truth is, most theatregoers have never seen a story, or its players, quite like what Grays is about to put on The Ricketson Theatre stage.
Monique is a lost soul on the run from deep trouble in the Deep South, and when she shows up with her 10-year-old daughter, Sam, on the doorstep of her sister’s Brooklyn brownstone, it shakes up Rachel and her partner Nadima’s orderly New York lifestyle. When we meet Sam’s father, he is loving to a fault. These are characters, Grays says, who defy all expectations and stereotypes. But all of them, it seems, have a secret, which makes Last Night and the Night Before, more than anything, a mystery.
“And it is important to me to have that mystery unfold the way it does because the play moves with memory and surprise and poetry,” said Grays, whose title was inspired by a children’s hand game.
The central mystery revolves around young Sam, who has been through some unknown traumatic event, “and that puts her in the unfortunate position of being at the mercy of the adults who are trying to safeguard her,” Grays said.
“Trauma manifests itself in different ways,” she said. “I think there is this quiet trauma happening inside many black bodies in America right now. I know there is in mine. When you are confronted with the threat of police brutality on an ongoing slow roll, combined with the everyday criminalization of black people going about their mundane business in public spaces, the question becomes: How do you deal with that?
“I think we see in Sam a kid who knows more than she should. And she has to somehow manage that. But eventually that also presents her with a roadmap to healing and joy.”
There has long been an institutional disparity in the American theatre in terms of the gender and race of our storytellers. For decades, as long as a company was presenting at least one story by an African-American playwright, the “black experience” box was checked for the year.
“But that’s such a tricky thing, because how does one fully express ‘the black experience’?” Grays said. “My argument is that there are many, many black experiences. And if you only present, say, the plays of August Wilson, then that becomes the only perspective you get. And the only style of language you get. Over time, you are going to start thinking that is the only experience black people have. So you have to diversify within a culture.
“The audience is going to come into my play with whatever preconceived notions they have and what they are going to discover is, ‘Oh, this is actually a story about a black family that is very different from other black families. This is just this one family’s story.’”
Many performing arts centers are now proactively trying to offer a wider variety of playwriting voices. This season, for example, the DCPA Theatre Company’s Vietgone and Last Night and the Night Before have one thing in common: They are, as Grays puts it, “devoid of the white gaze.” That doesn’t mean those stories aren’t for white audiences. The point is rather the opposite: Every story is for all audiences.
“I think a lot of these ‘slot’ plays do manage to teach white audiences about blackness and how to get along with black people. But I’m not interested in that,” she said. “I feel like the burden of talking about race in the American theatre has always been on minorities, and from my perspective, it’s exhausting. For me, it’s more compelling to tell a story that is uniquely and unapologetically black, as opposed to saying this is blackness in relief of whiteness. I think that opens up a completely different way of diversity storytelling.”
In Last Night and the Night Before, Grays presents the loving same-sex relationship between Rachel and Nadima not as the point of the story but simply as part of the fabric of the story.
“Simply put, they’re there because we’re here. We exist,” Grays said. “Rachel and Nadima are not in the play as a lesson for straight people. As a storyteller, I’m most interested in exploring how does family operate? How do love relations operate? Who takes out the trash? I think it’s a really radical thing to simply show the everydayness of who we are.”
Last Night and the Night Before was a featured reading at the DCPA Theatre Company’s 2017 Colorado New Play Summit, making it the first play ever to be selected for the Summit by one Artistic Director (Kent Thompson) and put on the mainstage season by another (Chris Coleman). In announcing the pick, Coleman called the play “a beautiful and a deeply human story.”
“What I feel about Denver is overwhelming,” Grays said deliberately. “It’s a really humbling thing when you have this whole community telling you: ‘This play works. This play is worthy not only of the financial investment but of the artistic and institutional investment.’ That’s no small thing. The Denver Center has been buoying the stories of women playwrights [through the Women’s Voices Fund] for years, and for me to be added to that legacy is really pretty cool.”
And the reason Grays believes her legacy play is for all audiences, she said, “is that it is has love at its center.”
Her advice to theatregoers: “Just sit back and allow these people into your heart.”
Last Night and the Night Before
- Written by: Donnetta Lavinia Grays
- Director: Valerie Curtis-Newton
- Dates: Jan. 18-Feb. 24, 2019 (Opens Jan. 25)
- Where: Ricketson Theatre
- Genre: Family drama/mystery
- The play at a glance: When Monique and her 10-year-old daughter Samantha show up unexpectedly on her sister’s Brooklyn doorstep, it shakes up Rachel and her partner Nadima’s orderly New York lifestyle in this poetic, powerful and remarkably touching drama. Monique is on the run from deep trouble and brings their family’s Southern roots with her, grabbing hold of Rachel’s life more ferociously than she could have ever imagined. This 2017 Colorado New Play Summit featured play explores the struggle between the responsibilities that are expected of us and the choices we actually end up making.
- Tickets: Call 303-894-4100 or
Photos from first rehearsal:
- Erin Cherry (The Siblings Play, Cherry Lane Theatre) as Nadima
- Sharod Choyce (Rutgers University MFA) as Reggie
- Bianca Laverne Jones (Ocean’s Eight) as Rachel
- Zaria Kelley (upcoming feature film Bad Hair) as Sam
- Keona Welch (Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London) as Monique
Additional creative team:
- Matthew Smucker (Scenic Designer)
- Melanie Burgess (Costume Designer)
- Mary Louise Geiger (Lighting Designer)
- Larry D. Fowler Jr. (Sound Designer)
- Dwight Bacquie (Voice and Dialect)
- Jacqueline E. Lawton (Dramaturg)
- Harriet Bass, CSA and Grady Soapes, CSA (Casting)
- Stage management by Randall K. Lum (Stage Manager), Kristen O’Connor (Assistant Stage Manager), Wayne Breyer (Apprentice Stage Manager)
Video bonus: Last Night and the Night Before at the 2017 Colorado New Play Summit
DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore talked with Donnetta Lavinia Grays when her play was a featured reading at the DCPA Theatre Company’s 2017 Colorado New Play Summit.