When it was founded in 1976, The Humana Festival of New American Plays was unique: It was a centralized showcase of new work from playwrights around the country. Decades later, new play development is no longer consolidated in a single spot, but the festival continues to a enjoy a reputation as a major platform for plays their authors hope will ripple out to stages of every size in the years to come.
I’d never been to Humana, so I was excited by an invitation to Louisville to cover the festival’s closing “industry weekend” with 11 other journalists from around the country, including my pal Michael Phillips, as part of a "pop-up newsroom" called Engine 31. This year’s six-play lineup was the first curated by Obie Award-winning British director Les Waters, who has earned a reputation as a midwife for important new plays by directing premieres from heavy hitters like Sarah Ruhl, Caryl Churchill, and Anne Washburn. Of the four that I saw, three were sufficiently intriguing to make me want to revisit them.
In the case of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s race-relations-themed family drama Appropriate, I’ll get that opportunity before the year is out: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s production opens in November. More than a little reminiscent of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, the play tracks a fractious family’s return to the crumbling Arkansas home of their recently deceased father, and their various attempts to reckon with the discovery among his personal effects of some very troubling keepsakes.
The consensus among reviews of the Gary Griffin-directed Humana production -- presented in association with Chicago's Victory Gardens Theatre, where Appropriate is already booked for a full run -- is that the second act needs some slight reworking to correct what feels like an arbitrary curdling from character-based comedy into farce.
For me, at least, a narrative effect attempted in the play’s final minute left me confused rather than moved. But there’s no question Appropriate is an admirably complex and sympathetic piece from a powerful young voice -- Jacobs-Jenkins is only 28 – and seems destined for a long afterlife. What impressed me most about it was the remarkably natural and non-schematic way Jacobs-Jenkins manages to invest each character with a complete emotional backstory. No matter how unlikeable they are or how repugnant their choices, we come to understand how they got to be that way, which makes their ugliness and and their pain impossible to dismiss.
Ralph Remington, Director of Theater and Musical Theater for the National Endowment for the Arts, pointed out in a post-show panel in which I participated that for Jacobs-Jenkins, who is African-American, to write a play for an all-white cast was a shrewd move that would increase its likelihood of getting produced. (It seems, uh, appropriate to mention here that Remington is himself African-American.) Jacobs-Jenkins prior play, 2010’s Neighbors, took a far more confrontational tack in its discussion of racial discord. The piece puts five black actors in blackface and compels them to embody cruel racial steteotypes familiar from minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Waters himself directed the festival production of Will Eno’s Gnit – pronounced guh-nit, though it took me the entire weekend to stop staying knit – a wry update of Henrik Ibsen’s 19th century verse play Peer Gynt. That’s a classic with which I had only a remote and academic familiarity, but I didn’t find that a barrier to enjoying the piece; my first exposure, I'm now ashamed to say, to Eno's work. Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005, and earned him the quote that must now, by law, be included in every piece that mentions his name: Eno is “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart Generation,” wrote Charles Isherwood in the New York Times.
Wordplay would be too reductive a word to describe Eno's multilayered linguistic games, but I found exchanges like the one where someone asks the origin of the title character’s name and he responds, “a typo” to be the most immediately gratifying of the play’s pleasures. There's also Eno's inspired choice to conflate several of Ibsen's minor characters into one body, a walking crowd/lynch mob called Town, played by Danny Wolohan in a hilariously schizophrenic performance. (Kate Eastwood Norris, who is familiar to DC theater folks from her numerous major roles at the Folger Shakespeare Library and elsewhere, was also in the production, playing several parts.)
Alas, Gnit, too, suffered from a disorienting tonal shift in its second act. The show is so heavily salted with irony that when it finally asked me to feel something, I didn’t know whether I should trust it. Even so, I’d love to watch further stagings wrangle with this problem.
My favorite show in the festival, surprisingly, was the one written-to-order for the Actors Theatre’s Apprentice Acting Company, recent college grads who're selected by audition and who work as stagehands and in other critical support functions when they aren't performing themselves. Sleep Rock Thy Brain is a trio of one-acts by Rinne Groff, Anne Washburn, Lucas Hnath, who were given a bizarre, party-game-style brief: Write plays about sleep disturbances, drawing on research conducted by the University of Louisville School of Medicine’s sleep center, and oh, could you also please make sure to include lots of aerial stunts?
It turns out to be easy enough to make inspired use of flight rigs in plays about sleep. What’s surprising is that this odd mandate produced the most thematically confident work in the festival. Groff’s Comfort Inn is a satisfying farce with a surreal edge, set in the university’s sleep lab (a private floor of the local Comfort Inn). Better still is Hnath’s nightnight, set during a long space mission wherein an astronaut’s insomnia begins to erode his relationship with his two crewmates.
While Sleep Rock Thy Brain benefited from the strong production values — giving new work full productions rather than staged readings or budget iterations is one of Humana’s hallmarks – its component parts don’t seem to require lavish stagings. The aerial work is technically impressive, and director Amy Attaway did a masterful job of integrating the noisy, obtrusive flight rigs into the narrative, but at least the two of the three Sleep Rock plays I've mentioned could work without it. When the material and performances are this sound, one needn’t suspend the actors to make us suspend our disbelief.