BWW Interview: The Fabulous Playwright Vincent Terrell Durham Waxes on His POLAR BEARS, BLACK BOYS & PRAIRIE FRINGED ORCHIDS
To commemorate Juneteenth this Friday June 19th, the Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project will present Vincent Terrell Durham's POLAR BEARS, BLACK BOYS & PRAIRIE FRINGED ORCHIDS as a free, live Zoom reading. POLAR BEARS... centers on a cocktail party hosted by a liberal white couple, with guests including a Black Lives Matter activist, his gay white lover and the mother of her slain 12-year-old Black son. Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project has gathered groups of regional theatres in various cities to partner in this production. In the Los Angeles Theatre community, co-presenting POLAR BEARS... are: IAMA Theatre Company, Celebration Theatre, DOMA Theatre Company, Echo Theater Company, Highways, The Inkwell Theater, Lower Depth Theatre, Skylight Theatre Company and the L.A. Stage Alliance.
Vincent managed to find some time to be socially distant interviewed after his latest Zoom rehearsal.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Vincent!
How did your POLAR BEARS, BLACK BOYS & PRAIRIE FRINGED ORCHIDS come to be chosen for the newly-formed Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project's June 19th Zooming, commemorating the end of slavery?
Aldo Billingslea was familiar with the play and called out of the blue to pitch the idea to me. Aldo was so full of enthusiasm that I didn't fully understand the scope of what he was undertaking, but his enthusiasm for the project and the play came through loud and clear. Things became a lot clearer after the second call and I was all in.
Had you previously known Aldo Billingslea before he launched Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project?
Not really. We first spoke by phone in 2019 after he received a copy of the play. Aldo tells a great story about reading the play while in a car headed to Nebraska. He was so taken with the first few pages that he started reading it out loud to his travel companions. I finally had the pleasure of meeting him and his wife in September 2019 at PlayGround's Silver Jubilee - 25th Anniversary Gala Benefit.
Am I correct that besides the Los Angeles cast, there will be different regional casts performing POLAR BEARS simultaneously on June 19th?
Yes. My head is still spinning over that concept. Besides the IAMA Theatre Zoom production, Theatre of Note, also in L.A., will present a production with Rondrell McCormick directing. And of course the originator is PlayGround-SF with Peter J. Kuo directing. All three theatres have assembled an amazing group of actors to bring the play to life. A fantastic list of L.A. theaters and Bay Area theaters have signed onto each production as supporters of the Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project. Those theatre names can be found on the individual websites of IAMA Theatre, Theatre of Note and PlayGround-SF.
That's amazing! How are you going to see them all?
I wish, but unfortunately no. I will have family and friends covering the two performances that I'm unable to view.
When PlayGround and Planet Earth Arts originally co-commissioned POLAR BEARS, what parameters, if any, did they give you?
Well, the co-commission was awarded based on a 10-minute play I had written for the November 2016 round of PlayGround-LA. The monthly prompt was given by Planet Earth Arts, Awakening to the Dream of Earth. I wrote a piece called SHOOTING AT THE UNIVERSE. The co-commission required me to continue with an environmental theme and retain elements from the original 10-minute play. POLAR BEARS begins and ends with the two major themes I explored with SHOOTING AT THE UNIVERSE saving the planet and saving Black boys.
Just last year POLAR BEARS was selected as one of the six finalists for National New Play Network 18th annual National Showcase of New Plays. What did that honor mean to you?
I should make a correction so not to take away the full honor from the actual six winning playwrights. POLAR BEARS was one of 13 finalists. The top six finalists received rolling world premieres of their plays, but POLAR BEARS just missed that honor. It still felt amazing though. I was extremely excited and honored. It was my first mention in BroadwayWorld and the first real recognition from an organization honoring the work of playwrights.
How long ago did you start writing POLAR BEARS?
I started expanding SHOOTING AT THE UNIVERSE into what became POLAR BEARS around March of 2017.
If you were to give a three-line pitch for POLAR BEARS, what would it be?
That's a great question. I always say this is my GOD OF CARNAGE play. I just wanted to put a group of people in a room with cocktails and have them talk. Well, maybe it's my WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOF? play. They drank more in that one.
My pitch: A liberal white couple open the doors of their renovated Harlem brownstone to host a cocktail party for a Black Lives Matter activist, his gay white lover, a sistah named Shemeka and the mother of a slain 12 year-old black boy. A night of cocktails and conversation spark emotional debates ranging from under-weight polar bears, Lana Turner, saving the planet, gentrification, racial identity and protecting the lives of black boys.
I read in your most moving and articulate artistic statement on your website that your storytelling was nurtured by your many family gatherings. Any characters in POLAR BEARS based on your family?
LOL! No, none of these characters come from the wonderful stories the Johnson family used to tell. The Johnsons have their own play, DRAW ME HAPPY. The first play I ever wrote. Hopefully we get to see them soon.
Any one particular story you were told that really resonated with your younger self?
My mother grew up with eight other siblings in Richmond, VA. There wasn't a lot of money and certainly no money for the ice cream man so what my mother and her siblings would do was wait at the dump. They learned that the ice cream man headed to the dump after his rounds and tossed out his empty cartons of ice cream, but the cartons were never completely empty. There was always something left at the bottom of those ice cream cartons and the Johnson kids would stick their heads deep into the cartons to find that last bit of ice cream. That story is who my mother, aunts and uncles are. They made a way.
What words of empowerment would you give to your overweight gay nine-year-old self?
Be your fabulous gay self and *#%* everyone else! There's not a lot of time.
What's in the near future for Vincent Terrell Durham?
Everything! I'm extremely thankful for this moment I'm experiencing with POLAR BEARS, and it feels like a door is opening. I plan to walk through it with every script I've ever written and all the scripts I've yet to write.
Thank you again, Vincent! I look forward to Zooming your POLAR BEARS!
Thank you. This has been great. Shout out to everyone who is in my corner!
To Zoom the free, live reading of POLAR BEARS, BLACK BOYS & PRAIRIE FRINGED ORCHIDS on Friday, June 19, 2020 at 6 pm PT; register at zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_K3JA0ksmTuODKuU3bL4tsQ.