The Playwrights Collective at Centerstage, in Baltimore, gives playwrights an opportunity to workshop and share professional mentorship under the guidance of a resident regional theater. Jennifer Barclay, Assistant Professor of playwriting and performance at the University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, will premiere her new play Danny at a Playwrights Collective Showcase on March 21, 2016. The showcase will also feature a play by TDPS alum Liz Maestri.
An actor-turned-playwright, Barclay earned her B.S. in theatre at Northwestern University, where she studied playwriting with Mary Zimmerman. Frustrated with the lack of roles available for women actors, Barclay developed a solo show, which she toured around the United States and Europe while working in ensemble shows with Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Court Theatre in Chicago. She earned an M.F.A. in playwriting from the University of California San Diego in 2006 and has produced plays put on by Steppenwolf, La Jolla Playhouse, The Old Globe, RedCat, and The Kennedy Center.
Jennifer Barclay’s play Danny is a reflection on motherhood, sisterhood, and friendship loosely based on the 1992 shooting of seven-year-old Dantrell Davis in the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. I had the opportunity to speak with Barclay about her inspiration for the new play and experience in the Playwrights Collective.
Emily: What is Danny about, and what inspired you to write it?
Jennifer: This play is set in Chicago, so of course I took inspiration from the decade that I spent living there. It’s based around Cabrini Green, a really notoriously crime-ridden housing development project, which just finished being torn down in 2011, but it was first established in 1942.
Cabrini-Green was a series of towers that ended up turning into a real ghetto in Chicago. They initially tried to have mixed-race, mixed-income housing. Crime became really out of control, and gangs really took over. It got to a point where police officers were afraid to go in because there were snipers on top of the towers that would shoot down police officers, so it was really, really extreme violence happening there.
One of the big turning points was when a seven-year-old boy named Dantrell Davis walked across the street to his school holding his mother’s hand, and while he was walking across the street, he was shot by a sniper through the head and murdered.
Even though there had been so many murders in Cabrini-Green, that was the murder that really brought about public outcry across the city, and that is known as sort of the shot that brought down the projects. They were tearing down these towers and trying to relocate residents in those towers and bring in mixed-income developments. While I was in Chicago I was witnessing this transformation happen, which is a big seed of the fascination for me in this play. The towers were still standing and Cabrini residents were still in those towers, but mixed-income, shiny townhomes and condos were being built and so wealthier, upwardly mobile people were moving in immediately next door to where the poorest of the poor lived.
It seemed from the outside at that time that it must be a purely positive thing, that Cabrini had been just such an awful hotbed of violence that it must be only a good thing that they were transforming it. But as I did my research, and I interviewed a lot of people firsthand who lived in Cabrini, I learned more and more that it was much more complicated than that, and so that fascinated me because I’m really interested in the gray area of stories. The Cabrini folks really felt that they had such a sense of community there.
The play’s called Danny, which is what Dantrell’s nickname was. He is a very minor character in the play, but the event of his murder is basically the fulcrum that everything revolves around. The two acts of the play take place in the same building 27 years apart, in a hair salon across the street from Cabrini-Green. Act One is in 2011 right on the eve of when the last tower is finally coming down, and we’re following three women as they’re just coming back from a funeral and have inherited this building. It’s an adult daughter of the woman who died, and her sister and her daughter . . . and they’re all coming to terms with why the woman owned this building, why they’ve inherited it and what is the legacy that they have inherited.
Then in Act Two, we go back 27 years and the matriarch who had died in act one is now a character, and she and her two best friends meet at this salon every week over the course of eight years, so we start to really rocket through time in Act Two. It starts with when Danny’s mother becomes pregnant with him and continues until his death at age seven. So there are questions raised in Act One that are answered in Act Two, and we in the audience have the perspective of seeing these two time periods overlaid upon each other in the same building. There’s three African American women characters in both acts, and they’re all played by the same three actresses. It’s about motherhood, it’s about reinvention, loss, and gentrification.
You mentioned you did interviews with people at Cabrini-Green. What was your biggest takeaway from the interviews you conducted?
The biggest surprise was really learning about all the positive memories that people who have lived there have had about Cabrini-Green. It’s really easy for it to be seen as just a really negative place from the outside, and I had heard a lot of really specific anecdotes about the sense of community that they had there, and what Christmases were like.
Is that reflected in your play?
Yeah, that was a big goal of mine. It’s important to me when writing about a topic that is political like that that the politics and the historical event are in the background, and in the foreground is really a personal, intimate story, so it is first and foremost about the friendship and the mother-daughter-sister relationships of this play.
How much of ‘yourself’ is reflected in Danny?
Yeah, very much so. That’s another goal of mine as a playwright, to put myself into every character. . . . I have a different background than the characters I’m writing about. It’s so important that I put myself empathetically in their shoes . . . The specific idea for this story came when I was pregnant with my son and how much relearning about the Dantrell Davis murder really affected me emotionally. I think a great way to start writing is to start with something that really terrifies you personally.
How long have you been working on the play?
I’d say about two or three years. My developmental process that I started with is pretty unique because I wanted to work with a particular director from the very beginning, before I even started writing the script.
I wanted to work with this director I know, Logan Vaughn, who’s based in New York. We had worked together on a ten-minute play that was also sort of a seed on this idea that was set in a hair salon, and her particular take on that ten-minute play was that that structure could be a window into how I wanted to write about Cabrini. So she went with me to do all this research, and it’s been an amazing process to have such a long-term collaborator like that. I know I can bounce ideas off of her and that we can give each other such frank and honest feedback, and I feel that she knows the play as well as I do.
What is the role of the director in a reading?
We’ll be working all day with the actresses, so Logan will be helping to shape how the story is told. We’ll be reading it through, she’ll be giving notes about how we can continue to help articulate the trajectory of the characters, tone, the rhythm of how it’s read so that the story is coming across. The other thing that we’ll continue to do is learn from the actresses, from what we hear, their interpretation of the roles and the questions that they ask or the observations that they make, so we can learn a lot from them about where the script needs to go next, because the script isn’t finished yet. It’s still very much in development.
How does the Playwrights Collective work?
There’s five of us, and we were all invited by Gavin Witt, who is an associate artistic director at Centerstage We meet once a month. It’s essentially like being part of the Centerstage family and ensemble, and then these readings are a culmination of getting to share what we’ve been developing since we’ve been at Centerstage.
How has this process working with the Playwrights Collective helped you as a writer?
It’s great to have a collection of playwrights who you can trust, who you can see regularly and who you can show the same piece and different rewrites and drafts of that piece all together. Writing can be such a lonely process, mostly you have to just do it by yourself, and so I think whenever it can become more collaborative that’s incredibly helpful. That’s also why I wanted to collaborate with Logan from the beginning too, to key into that collaboration early on instead of it being such a lonely process, even though I also enjoy the solo time. I think it’s really good to have both.
It’s that support. I think ideally we push each other and inspire each other and of course hearing other people’s work and work in progress is also a constant inspiration and deadlines are always really helpful. I think they’re key to getting everything done. Having those monthly meetings and knowing that you need to have something ready to share and get feedback on that’s exciting. We’re all so different, we all have different backgrounds, we’re all at different points in our careers and have different goals and voices as playwrights.
Do you think there’s any give-and-take in your playwriting and your work as an educator? Do you see your work with your students ever reflected in your plays or vice versa?
Oh, absolutely, yeah. I teach playwriting and acting classes here, and I’m constantly having to push my own investigations of playwriting and the process of playwriting to the next level, needing to articulate in class. My advanced playwrights right now are incredibly talented and hungry and experienced. Being part of that sort of buzz of sharing creative work – both in my classroom and in the playwrights collective – definitely, it feeds me creatively.
A free public reading of Danny will be held on Monday. March 21. 2016 at 7 p.m. at the Hott Spott – 830 Guilford Avenue, in Baltimore, MD.
From Jennifer’s website: “The first public reading of Danny will be at Centerstage on Monday, March 21st @ 7 pm. Set in an African-American hair salon adjacent to Chicago’s crime-ridden Cabrini-Green housing project, Danny straddles two different eras within one room. It’s a play about motherhood, reinvention, and the place we call home. Directed by Logan Vaughn with Jessica Frances Dukes, Felicia Curry, Valeka J. Holt and Jon Odom. The reading will be at 830 Guilford Ave in Baltimore (that’s the Hot Spott, Centerstage’s temporary space while they’re under construction). Free, no reservations.
Jennifer was recently invited to join Centerstage’s inaugural Playwrights Collective. She will be in residence throughout the 2015-16 season, developing new work.
Along with director Logan Vaughn, Jennifer is developing a new play, Danny, set in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing project. The play has been workshopped in Chicago and New York.”