Summit Spotlight: Donnetta Lavinia Grays on navigating trauma

Video above by DCPA Video Producer David Lenk and Senior Arts Journalist John Moore.

In this daily, five-part series for the DCPA NewsCenter, we will introduce you to the plays and playwrights featured at the Denver Center’s 2017 Colorado New Play Summit. Over the past 12 years, 27 plays introduced to the Summit have gone to be premiered on the DCPA Theatre Company mainstage season. Next up: Donnetta Lavinia Grays, writer of the family drama Last Night and the Night Before.

Playwright Donnetta Lavinia Grays on finding
your voice in the aftermath of trauma

So, right off the bat: Tell us what you have in common with Taran Killam and Jim Belushi

Donnetta Lavinia Grays (laughing): I just did a pilot with those two. Talk about typecasting: I played a lesbian goat farmer, and I will tell you: That was right up my alley. They did not have to go too deep into the costuming because I had all the gear already. I was like, “Seriously, how many flannel shirts do you need? Because I have plenty of them.”

John Moore: And when do we get to see your network television debut as a lesbian goat farmer?

Donnetta Lavinia Grays: Sadly, the pilot was not picked up.

John Moore: That is sad. Well, at least you have your writing to fall back on.

Donnetta Lavinia Grays: Yes, I do.

John Moore: You’re here in Denver as a playwright, but as we just alluded, you are an accomplished actor as well, having appeared on Broadway in plays by Lisa Kron (Well) and Sarah Ruhl (In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play). Has your playwriting been guided by working with such iconic women?

Last Night and the Night Before. Donnetta Lavinia Grays. Photo by John Moore.

Donnetta Lavinia Grays: What was wonderful about working with Lisa Kron and Sarah Ruhl is that I was in on the process of watching them do the work of new-play development from the start. I saw them in communication with wonderful directors like Leigh Silverman and Les Waters. I watched how they took in information. I watched how their plays evolved. I had the opportunity to just observe and absorb all of that. So I had great teachers from the outset. And from the very beginning of my own writing, I tried to pattern what I saw in them. Over time, I developed my own way of listening and my own way of interpreting notes and feedback. But I got a good foundation from the two of them.

John Moore: How do you think being an actor has informed you as a playwright?

Last Night and the Night Before. Valerie Curtis-Newton. Photo by Adams VisCom. Donnetta Lavinia Grays: I’m an actor, so I write for actors. That’s the only way I know how to write. At our first rehearsal here in Denver, my director, Valerie Curtis-Newton, had me read the entire play to her by my lonesome. All of it. Which is interesting, because that’s actually how I write. I am constantly talking to myself and trying to see things from each character’s point of view. So as traumatic as that experience was, it was sort of familiar to try to see the play from each character’s point of view.

(Pictured above and right: Director Valerie Curtis-Newton with actors Brynn Tucker and Olivia Sullivent. Photo by Adams VisCom.)

John Moore: You were born in Panama and raised in South Carolina. Growing up must have been interesting for you.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Donnetta Lavinia Grays: I am an Army brat. I was born in the Canal Zone – just like John McCain. So we have that in common. My family moved to the Long Island area when my dad was stationed there. But my parents’ game plan from the start was for us to have a consistent household, so we moved to South Carolina, where my maternal grandmother lived. We were there from the time I was 5 or 6 up until I graduated from college. So South Carolina is home.

 John Moore: I want to ask you about your name. First there is Lavinia, a character in Titus Andronicus. But also, I have known many people named Gray but never anyone named Grays. You even offset that part of your name on your website. The first thing that came to my mind is that the job of the playwright is to write life in shades of gray. How awesome is it that you live and work inside the world of your name?

Donnetta Lavinia Grays: I really dig my name. I don’t know if my parents understood the poetry of it, or even that Lavinia is a Shakespearean character. I just really enjoy it, rhythmically. When I first signed with my manager, he was like, “The whole name, though? … Really?” And I was like, “Yeah. The whole thing.” Because I also want to celebrate my parents wherever I go. I want them to know that my name is their unique stamp on me – and I carry that with me. It’s in honor to them that I don’t deviate from any part of it.

Last Night and the Night Before. Donnetta Lavinia Grays. John Moore: The official description of your play tells us that when a woman named Monique and her 10-year-old daughter, Sam, show up unexpectedly on her sister’s Brooklyn doorstep, it’s the beginning of the end for Rachel and her partner Nadima’s orderly New York lifestyle. It says the family’s deep Southern roots have a long reach. What do you want us to know about Last Night and the Night Before?

Donnetta Lavinia Grays: Sam has suffered a traumatic event in her life. She is in the unfortunate position of being at the mercy of the adults in her life who are trying to safeguard her from what she has suffered. And now she is having to suffer the consequences of their decisions. I think Last Night and the Night Before is a play about the tremendous, enduring component of love in our lives. It is a play about loss. It is a play about family. And it is a play about finding your singular voice as a woman coming into adulthood. 

John Moore: Your original title was simply, Sam. Tell us about the change to Last Night and the Night Before.

Donnetta Lavinia Grays: Throughout the play, Sam plays these childhood hand games as a way of settling her spirit a little bit. One of the games is [singing]: “Last Night and the Night Before, I Met My Baby at the Candy Store.” I think that particular phrase also supports the structure of the play as well.

Last Night and the Night Before. Cajardo Lavinia Grays. Photo by John Moore. John Moore: When I visited your first rehearsal last week, I was taken by actor Cajardo Lindsey‘s observation that in two decades of performing on Colorado stages, he has never had the opportunity to play an open and vulnerable African-American male until now. This is a guy who has won many awards playing many different characters written by voices from August Wilson to Matthew Lopez. So that has me very intrigued about the character he plays – Sam’s father. (Pictured above: Cajardo Lindsey as Reggie.)

Donnetta Lavinia Grays: The role of Reggie is based on the abundant love that I found in my household. I mean, I grew up just lousy with love. And my father is probably the most gentle creature I have ever met. He is full of humor and warmth – but he is also a tiger. He’s not going to let anything happen to his family. He’s a man, you know? So I tried to put that on paper. What honestly frustrates me is that we have become very comfortable with the negative depictions of black men we see onstage today. We don’t see bigness or a breadth of emotion unless there is an aggression or a hardness attached to it; unless it’s hurting someone else. So I wanted to create a full guy who is attached to his emotions. The kind of man I have seen and witnessed in my life but not seen onstage. But I also play into what you expect of a black man, too. I twist the story a little bit.

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John Moore: This is your first time at the Colorado New Play Summit. What are your first impressions?

Donnetta Lavinia Grays: This is the most massive facility I have ever been in. It’s beautiful. I am super-duper impressed. But more than that, the people here are just lovely.

John Moore: What does it mean to you to be one of the chosen five playwrights for the 2017 Summit?

Donnetta Lavinia Grays: I had never been to Colorado, and I had never worked at this theatre before, even as an actor, so it was exciting to be selected. And the other playwrights here are just so exceptional. For my little play to be a part of this is super-exciting to me.

John Moore: You have said you seek to write strong roles for women of various ages, races, sexual identities and economic standings. So what does it mean to you that the Denver Center has a $1.2 million Women’s Voices Fund, and it essentially puts its money where the women are?

Last Night and the Night Before. Photo by Adams VisComDonnetta Lavinia Grays: It means a lot to me to now be a part of an organization that has such a great mission toward women’s voices, because that is something I am passionate about. I grew up in a very loving, very female-centered household, and so strong women are just a part of my culture. So I put those women in my plays. I put working women in my plays. I put women of various incomes in my plays. I want to give them a strong voice wherever they are. It means a lot. 

(Pictured above and right: Valeka Holt and Jasmine Hughes. Photo by Adams Viscom.)

John Moore: One of the things that makes this festival unique is the second week of rehearsals and public readings. How do you think that will impact what you will take away from the Summit?

Donnetta Lavinia Grays: It’s nice to have two weeks for development because you get to play. You get to set up these large, beautiful failures for the first week, see how it goes over, get feedback, and then go back and clean some stuff up for the second week. Instead of going home with all of these notes and not knowing how they might land the next time around, you get an actual next opportunity to find out right here.

John Moore: So why is this the right time for your play?

Donnetta Lavinia Grays: We are in a violent moment in time right now. And by “violent,” I am talking about an internal kind of disruption. How do we channel the justifiable rage of something that has hit us? How do we manage depression? How do we manage chaos? How do we manage our expectations of each other? How do we care for each other? I think that is a big part of this play, and a big part of where we are at right now. The world feels kind of like an unsafe place. We don’t know what’s going to happen next, and Sam mirrors that. So how do we get back to a safe place?

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Last Night and the Night Before

Written by Donnetta Lavinia Grays
Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton
Dramaturgy by Lauren Whitehead
Sam: Olivia Sullivent
Monique: Brynn Tucker
Reggie: Cajardo Lindsay
Rachel: Jasmine Hughes
Nadima: Valeka Holt
Stage Directions: Tresha Farris

Selected previous coverage of the 2017 Colorado New Play Summit:
2017 Summit welcomes dozens for opening rehearsal
Summit Spotlight: Robert Schenkkan on the dangers of denial
Summit Spotlight: Lauren Yee lays it all on the free-throw line
Summit Spotlight: Rogelio Martinez on when world leaders collide
Summit Spotlight: Donnetta Lavinia Grays on the aftermath of trauma
Summit Spotlight: Eric Pfeffinger on the fertile comedy of a divided America
Record four student writers to have plays read at Summit
DCPA completes field of five 2017 Summit playwrights

The 12th Annual Colorado New Play Summit
Launch Weekend: Feb. 18-19
Festival Weekend: Feb. 24-26
More details:

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