When Teco Theatrical Productions Founder/Executive Artistic Director Teresa Coleman Wash launched the 1st Annual New Play Competition ten years ago, it immediately filled a void by showcasing predominately African-American playwrights and highlighting the talents of local actors. The first event was held at Fair Park – Hall of State in the lecture auditorium and the first playwright to win was Dallas local Laterras R. Whitfield, who went on to become a national touring producer on the urban theater circuit.
Since that time, 37 additional playwrights with increasing racial diversity have been able to workshop their work through a live production schedule which initially ran over a 3-week period. In the mid 2000’s, a literary prize category was added for the playwright who scored the highest during the initial evaluation phase by community readers who selected each year’s entries.
This year, Teco has upped the ante and partnered with Southern Methodist University and its Meadows Prize Winner and the Mellon Foundation’s Playwright-in-Residence at the Dallas Theatre Center, Will Power. An award-winning playwright himself, Power was intimately involved in all facets of the 11th Annual New Play event and based on the plays which made the final cut, it is evident that Teco has grown up in the overall quality of playwrights selected while maintaining a much needed connection to its roots and nurturing local talent.
The competition opened with Amaryllis, written by Ruth Cantrell and directed by Miranda Parham. This story deals with the awkward predicament of a couple whose son has recently died without their knowledge and the bearer of the bad news is their son’s lover. While the writing was excellent, a credit to Cantrell, the acting performances were uneven, at times melodramatic, and somewhat forced at multiple points. While the set used was very minimal, scene blocking had actors standing in one location as if they were waiting on their next line.
Steel Bird, written by Victor Bravo and directed by Ruben Carrazana was the highlight of the competition. The writing was exceptional as were the acting performances of veteran actor Dennis Raveneau in the role of Ruben Mathis, a homeless and ill Vietnam veteran, and Brandon White, in the role of T-Dog, a fast talking teenage hustler.
From the moment Raveneau hits the stage, he commands attention and respect. Ever the vigilant soldier, he is emphatic in his mission “that’s what war is; to kill and destroy.” Likewise, when questioned by the young T-Dog as to why he is unable to go and create a new future for himself, Mathis somberly states “it ain’t no way to go back into the world the same way you went in.” The empathy one feels for Mathis cuts to the soul.
Not to be bested, White handles his role like a pro, engaging the older statesman like a novelty, an oddity, but with an inquisitive fascination to see what makes this man tick and why he’s in the position he’s in. However, when he finally dismisses Mathis and proclaims nonchalantly “don’t even worry about it, I ain’t never even seen you Invisible Man”, that too, cuts to the core. The dynamic between the older and younger black man underscores a present generational divide in the African-American community between its males. In this case, the older one who fought for a country to prove himself a patriot, and the younger one who is disconnected from that history.
The mood lightened up with Antay Bilgutay’s Theophany, or The Tree in the Living Room, directed by Jeffery Moffitt. The writing in this piece was clever and the characters engaging. Robin Daniels, who played the Greek goddess Artemis, was delightful and had some funny one-liners, including the self-effacing statement about her weight “the Goddess of the hunt cannot have a muffin top.” Joining her in the laugh department was David Harris in the role of Gabriel, a gay man who isn’t quite sure if the tree in his room is the man he proposed to and can’t find (“Down on one knee, and there in the glow of Anderson Cooper, I proposed”). His love interest, played by Sam Green, deserves major props for standing motionless as a tree in an uncomfortable position for a lengthy period before morphing into himself, which he does to the hilt. Green works the stage to maximum benefit, even addressing an audience member pointedly when telling his side of the proposal (“Don’t look at me like THAT, Miss Thang!”) and lamenting his life as a tree. Green’s performance elevated this play to a level consistent with the writing.
The Red Dress, written by returning playwright Isabella Russell-Ides and directed by Marissa Paris Romer, explores one-night stands and the aftermath of ‘lust/love at first sight.’ Vontress Mitchell plays Esme, a smooth-talking, panty-snatching man who discovers love unexpectedly from Daikan, played by the lovely and talented Ashley Wilkerson, a playwright herself. Daikon finds herself completely overwhelmed by the experience from this stranger who she doesn’t even know his name, especially when he proclaims “this is the first day of the rest of our lives.” Daikon declares her indiscretion an accident, which hurts Esme because he considers what has transpired as magical. The exploration of the pair discovering each other was funny and a joy to watch.
If awards for best comedy performance by actors were given, Coney Hewitt, Jr. and Jasmine Giles would be in the running with Green for their portrayals in W.R. Maxwell’s The Dog Play. Also starring Dave Harris and Sherry Hurnes as Man and Lady, Hewitt and Giles play the couple’s bull dog Buster and French poodle Cookie in an acting display that was HYSTERICAL from beginning to end.
Buster likes to lounge around and live the good life, with his only concern to eat and pee. But when he has to go, he has to go. When Man and Lady are late getting home, a frustrated Buster says nervously “Man and Lady are late and I need to go water a tree. Yeah, you know, hit on a puddle, spring a leak.” Cookie is a pampered diva who loves her at-home spa treatments and her fashions. When Lady tries to accessorize her with a bow she doesn’t like, she pouts “oh no, not the red one! It makes my beautiful eyes bloodshot. It doesn’t match my pink collar. This is NOT the season for red. What are all the magazines going to say? Spring is just around the corner and the fashion people say pastels are the 'in' color.” Hewitt and Giles are to be applauded for making the dog days of summer so damn fun!
Pious, co-written by author Camika Spencer and performance artist Kyndal Robertson, serves as the best comedy effort of any play in the competition in recent years. Featuring Vontress Mitchell as a charismatic preacher and Spencer and Robertson in the roles of churchy, gossiping sisters Gail and Lorraine Bender, this play hits all of the right notes from a performance standpoint and musically. At the heart of this piece is the discontent Gail has over the fact that her son is marrying the church harlot affectionately known as ‘Hester the Heffa’, a scandalous cougar who leaves no man unturned. Gail is firm in her resolve “in the name of everything holy, I have to keep this wedding from happening.” Patricia seconds that emotion with the retort “ain’t nuthin worst than an old, fat hoe”, which had the audience on the floor.
This play follows in the tradition of the ever popular Greater Tuna series of plays and if Spencer and Robertson were to outline a series of themes, extra characters, and write around those, the Bender sisters could enjoy the same fame as the Tuna franchise.
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The final show will take place on Mar. 10 at 3 pm, with the winner announced immediately after final audience votes are tallied. Some plays contain some adult language and situations. For more information and to purchase tickets, please call the Bishop Arts Theatre Center box office at 214-948-0716. All seats are $15 in advance and $20 at the door plus a nominal processing fee. All sales are final with no refunds or exchanges.
The Bishop Arts Theatre Center is located at 215 S. Tyler St., Dallas, Texas 75208.