Philadelphia playwright Erlina Ortiz’s first work for Azuka Theatre takes on the POC-driven dramedy, ‘Young Money.’ Teaming up with director Briana Gause – also in her Azuka debut – the story follows a freshly-anointed chart-topping rapper, Kila-T, her relationship with a new hire, cleaning woman Gardenia, and questions class, morality and the definition of ‘success,’ that exists between them.
‘Young Money’ also marks Azuka’s return to live and in-person theater.
Initially connected during 2020’s digital Fringe Festival run of ‘Young Money’ via Zoom, Gause and Ortiz found welcome on-stage quarters for their play in 2021, at Azuka, “a home for the underdog; one which feels, very much, about what this show is, and what the Philly theater scene is as so many young folks are trying to break into higher positions,” says the director. “The Azuka space is made for us, and gives us power in a way I haven’t witnessed before…. Looking at this season, Azuka looks ready, as always, to give voice to people who don’t have one, with stories audiences may not have heard before.”
‘Young Money’ is exactly that—a tale of two women of color in a small dressing room backstage at a concert, getting to know each other’s lives and drives.
“For me, Kila-T is Cardi B-based, a character that helped me to know ‘bad b*tches’ in general,” says Gause, laughing.
“When Cardi B first hit, I knew I wanted to write a play based on her energy,” adds Ortiz. “Her songs either made people feel good and dance, or made others feel uncomfortable. And you could really tell that she made people feel uncomfortable. Either way, she sparked conversation.”
What Ortiz wanted to explore was the idea of what was “acceptable” for women regarding the expression of sexuality, the desire for power and the manner in which money is dealt. The art, business and power-drive of hip hop offered Ortiz a literal and figurative space in which to offer conversation, and a face for its favor in Kila-T.
So, what of Gardenia?
“Gardenia has a lot of shame regarding that which she believes she hasn’t achieved in her life,” explains Ortiz. “Kila-T, however, tells her that Gardenia didn’t get what she deserved because she never demanded it, that Gardenia should be true to herself in the same way that Kila-T is.”
You want money? Get money. You want sex? Get sex. Never be ashamed of the things that you are told are taboo.
“Both of these characters are authentic, true to themselves,” says Gause. “They’re rooted to their experiences and their responses to the world are based on that experience. For Gardenia, that means buckling down and getting to work. For Kila-T, it means expressing yourself as loudly as you want and to move your body, freely, and as comfortably as you like. That’s a generational difference on display. It is one generation full of hope and change, and another than feels as if real change occurs through meticulous work and moving within the system.”
Seeing the nuance in each character – which could have become caricatures if not for Ortiz and Gause’s subtly shaded writing and direction – was challenging to actors Angela Bey (Kila-T) and Johanna Tolentino (Gardenia). Each local thespian had to find the soul at the axis of hard work and diligence versus pleasure and passion through many of the script’s stoic, uncomfortable silences.
“Embracing silence is natural for two people stuck in a space together, so my job was to keep things flowing,” says Ortiz. “The ups-and-downs of that nature was one of the reasons I gave myself the challenge of writing this play.”
Navigating those silences, for all its creatives, is as crucial to ‘Young Money’ as its raps and soliloquies.
“For Kila-T, she’s deflecting: all of her jokes are serious and everything that is serious becomes a joke,” notes Gause. “For Gardenia, she’s conservative and buttoned-up, but she can let go. She’d probably be fun to hang out with after two drinks, but she’ll never take the two drinks… ‘Young Money’, then, is about finding the bad b*tch within yourself and igniting that spark within others. Everyone has those powers. Use them.”
‘Young Money’ runs from Nov. 3 to 21. For information, visit azukatheatre.org/young-money