South Coast Repertory Premieres LITTLE BLACK SHADOWS By Kemp Powers
Playwright Kemp Powers knew he'd found something incredible in the personal recollections of former slaves documented by a federal writers project during the Great Depression. Discovering the different voices and views in those first-person histories inspired him to learn more and write Little Black Shadows, which has its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, April 8-29, on the Julianne Argyros Stage. Directed by May Adrales, the show is part of the Pacific Playwrights Festival. Tickets are available now at www.scr.org.
Little Black Shadows is set in pre-Civil War Georgia, where child-slaves Toy and Colis spend long days on the plantation silently serving adolescent twins in the big plantation house. But in the dead of night, Toy and Colis' world comes alive, as they lie beneath their masters' beds whispering stories to each other through a vent in the wall. When the Father announces that the family is moving to Louisiana, the children face uncertain futures and wonder if they dare come out of the shadows.
"What I found most unsettling in the narratives was not necessarily the atrocities being recounted in their tales, but how, in many of their stories, the former slaves seemed to have a kind of appreciation for their obviously cruel masters," Powers said of the life history accounts recorded by the Federal Writers Project for the Works Progress Administration. The collection is called Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves.
"They'd be describing something awful that had happened to them and inexplicably qualifying it by saying, 'But I had it good. It was that slave down the road that had it bad. We had a good master,'" he said. "It was like reading the recollections of a generation that had worked so hard to suppress what they'd endured that they were left in a dissociative fugue state in which having a 'kind master' was the best thing a person could ever hope for in life. That was far more horrifying to me than any whipping or hanging."
Powers dove into research. He spent a lot of time in the American South, visiting plantations and investigating more about the African-American experience, including the Whitney Plantation-a restored history site in Louisiana that documents extensively the black slave experience.
Powers began his storytelling career as a journalist and then a contributor to the Peabody Award-winning series, "The Moth." His plays include One Night in Miami..., The Two Reds, Christa McAuliffe's Eyes Were Blue and A Negro by Choice. He received the 2013 Ted Schmitt Award for outstanding new play for the world premiere of One Night in Miami... in Los Angeles. That production also won three LA Drama Critics Circle Awards, four NAACP Theatre Awards and an LA Weekly Theater Award. The 2016 production of One Night in Miami... at London's Donmar Warehouse was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best New Play. Power's work has been developed at numerous theatres including Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Classical Theatre of Harlem and Rogue Machine Theatre. In television, he was most recently a writer for "Star Trek: Discovery" (CBS All Access). He is a founding member of The Temblors, a producing playwrights collective in Los Angeles.
Adrales most recently directed Vietgone by Qui Nguyen at SCR and the 2016 Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of Little Black Shadows. Her other credits include directing at Lincoln Center Theater, Signature Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, Goodman Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Portland Center Stage, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Seattle Repertory Theatre.
The design and creative team includes David M. Barber, scenic design; Sara Ryung Clement, costume design; Elizabeth Harper, lighting design; Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts, sound design and original music; Hana S. Kim, projection and puppet design; and Joanne DeNaut, CSA, casting. The production manager is Joshua Marchesi and the stage manager is Nikki Hyde. Kimberly Colburn is the dramaturg.
Little Black Shadows has generous support from The Playwrights Circle, the show's Honorary Producers, whose members include Sandy Segerstrom Daniels, Dr. Robert F. and Julia A. Davey, Patricia Ellis, Janet and Michael Hards, Yvonne and Damien Jordan, Jim and Pam Muzzy, Carl Neisser, Michael Oppenheim, Barbara Roberts, Peter and Joy Sloan, Julia Voce, and Marci Maietta Weinberg and Bill Weinberg. The play is the recipient of an Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award.
Tickets start at $23 Discounts are available for full-time students, patrons 25 years of age and under, fulltime educators, seniors and groups of 10 or more. For complete information, visit: www.scr.org.
Tickets: May be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the Box Office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. Performances run April 8-29. Ticket prices start at $23. Low-priced previews run April 8-12. SCR's performances run Tuesdays-Sundays; there are no performances on Mondays.