The 2024 Philadelphia theater season starts with intimate takes on epic themes such as the prism of African American ancestry from Philadelphia playwright Lorene Cary’s ‘Ladysitting’ at the Arden, and fighting cynicism with hope and faith via playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s ‘A Case for the Existence of God’ at Theatre Exile.
After writing and publishing 2019’s ‘Ladysitting: My Year with Nana at the End of Her Century’ – a story based on her grandmother Nana’s narrative of the struggles of five generations on African American women – Philly author Cary recognized that her complex familial tale and all of its complicated characters had poignant dramatic gravitas.
“The initial incentive to write the memoir was a revelation that came while practicing yoga on Ash Wednesday: a moment that became the last scene of the book,” said Cary. “From there, other memories began to come like a slow, irregular slide show, with, finally, several haunting dreams where Nana shouted at me from her wheelchair. What is theatrical about that story is someone who is dying, a family struggling, and so, so, many moments that capture their conflict and joy. A strong-willed person fighting against the inevitable: that’s theatrical.”
Once it was decided upon as an Arden Theatre world premiere play for its 2023-2024 season, director Zuhairah McGill, Tony Award winner Trezana Beverley and fellow actors Melanye Finister, David Ingram, Brian Anthony Wilson, and Monet Debose internalized Cary’s every mood, and her family’s history – including its rage toward the oppression of the Jim Crow South.
“The Arden provides the container, Zuhairah aims the cast, crew and designers toward her vision of the story, and then, all these creative professionals add beauty and depth, critique and experience,” said the author. “I was surprised to see how the actors moved, with the speed of thought, from grief to laughter. I mean, I wrote it, but did not quite know how real people could inhabit the emotional surprises…Everybody grows the piece.”
Asked how the joys and sorrows of her family’s past guide who she is as a writer in the present, Cary answered that such a “very big question” is the reason she has written two memoirs, three novels, God-knows how many blogs and articles to try to find an answer.
“The trauma and struggle scream to be expressed, and the love and joy and problem-solving—these challenge me to live up to the blessings of their survival.”
Asked how it feels to see one of ‘Ladysitting’s central characters (played by Melanye Finister) modeled after Carey parading around the Arden’s stage in all her glory, and the playwright said, “I have to keep telling myself: ‘You got yourself into this. Now woman up.”
‘Ladysitting’ runs at the Arden, 40 N. 2 Second Street, from Jan. 18 to Feb. 25. For information and tickets, visit ardentheatre.org
MacArthur Fellow playwright Samuel D. Hunter is no stranger to South Philly’s Theatre Exile, as its 2015 wrenching version of Hunter’s ‘The Whale’ — directed by Matt Pfeiffer — still gets discussed in local theater circles as an exemplar of dynamic, intelligent craftsmanship from all creatives involved. This month, Pfeiffer directs another Hunter drama at Exile with the Philadelphia debut of ‘A Case for the Existence of God’ starring Keith Conallen and Isaiah Caleb Stanley.
“Theatre Exile’s reputation was built on immediacy and performance,” said Pfeiffer. “We asked actors to do harrowing, challenging work…the productions and aesthetics we chased were based on that. And Joe Canuso (who started Exile) and I were both actors so finding actor-driven projects was the norm. Hunter writes for actors in a way that is unparalleled today, as everything he does is filled with great psychology, incredible nuance and real, vulnerable humanity. Intimate playwrights like Hunter… that’s what is appealing about his work.”
Though Conallen (like Stanley) has worked with Pfeiffer in the past, only the former has performed onstage as part of many Exile performances.
“I read ‘Existence of God’ early on, and made an eager push to be considered for the role of Ryan, a character very filled with hope,” said Conallen. “Cynicism would destroy him…. I am very drawn to work that is very natural and very emotional, but also taking all of that and tamping it down, not leaning heavily into that. I hate when theater becomes therapy for people, but I do like to explore the ‘bigger’ stakes and those stronger emotions that we don’t get to express in our everyday lives too often.”
Stanley agrees with Conallen that making less-is-more is the key to an effusively-charged story such as Hunter’s.
“I was floored by Samuel’s honesty,” said the actor. “We live in a world where everything gets cleaned and packaged. Hunter’s characters don’t do that. They’re so deep in their own mess that they don’t have a choice but to be brutally honest. They have to show just how much that the totality of their existence is costing them. And that’s really attractive to any actor.”
Pfeiffer added that the work he has created with Conallen has been “centered on fractured broken souls,” and with Stanely on the exactitude of language that is Shakespeare and its “intellectual rigor.” Together, these creatives went on the journey that is Hunter’s look at finding hope “as fathers in a world where cynicism reigns,” all while remaining true to themselves and the horrors of reality.
“These two actors display vulnerability, and Sam Hunter’s work demands just that.”
‘A Case for the Existence of God’ runs at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th Street, from Jan. 11 to 21. For information and tickets, visit theatreexile.org