The most striking thing about entering the small Manhattan theater was its similarity to the streets one had just left; a convenience store counter, complete with lottery tickets and candy bars, was juxtaposed with chairs and sliding doors from an actual subway car. There was no raised stage or curtain in the small performance space, immersing the viewer in the action of a New York City meticulously crafted to blend in with the one just outside. It was apparent that the play would reflect the mores of the contemporary city.
When January Feels Like Summer, a new play by Cori Thomas, which closed its second run in October, was described by The New York Times as “an engaging, buoyantly acted romantic comedy.” Many of its characters and situations, however, defy both the norms of the genre and the typical demographics of the stage. Throughout the story, the audience watches as Nirmala (Mahira Kakkar), an Indian immigrant, struggles to find companionship years after her husband has become comatose. Ishan (Debargo Sanyal), her brother, comes to embrace a transgender identity and transitions into a woman named Indira. Meanwhile, a pair of teens, Jeron and Devaun (Carter Redwood and Maurice Williams, respectively), attempt to make their mark on the world. It is easy to imagine encountering any of these disparate characters in a convenience store or on a subway car, and in fact, such chance encounters often occur during the play, allowing the dramatis personae to meet and propel the unusual plot.
Like any satisfying romantic comedy, the play ends with a pair of dates. Unlike most, however, it climaxes with a transgender protagonist praying to the Hindu god Ganesh, asking for acceptance as she falls for (and prepares to sleep with) a homophobic twenty-year-old. The actors effortlessly embraced this broad swath of emotions, which ranged from suspenseful intensity to heartwarming emotion and sidesplitting comedy. The result was an innovative new piece of theatre, bending the norms of genre to present an invigorating portrait of five lives in Central Harlem.
This refreshing inclusivity is less surprising when one considers the producing companies. The Ensemble Studio Theater, which hosted the project during both of its runs, describes itself as a company “committed to the discovery and nurturing of new voices,” and claims to “develop and produce original, provocative, and authentic new plays that engage and challenge our audience and audiences across the country” (Ensemble Studio Theater). Several groups of playwrights are hosted by the company, including Youngblood, a band of playwrights under the age of thirty, and Going to the River, a collection of female playwrights of color. In these ways, the Ensemble Studio Theater demonstrates a commitment to challenging the status quo and creating innovative works of theatre.
The show resumed its run this fall, however, with the collaborative support of the Women’s Project Theater, a company committed to supporting the work of female playwrights, directors and producers. Since its founding in 1978, the Women’s Project Theater has been a starting point for some of the most well-known women in theatre today, including playwrights Eve Ensler and Lynn Nottage. In addition to mounting a full season of plays written by women each year, the company also hosts a two-year mentorship program called WP Lab for emerging female directors, producers and playwrights. “At a time when gender parity is still a distant goal,” the company website states, “the unique mission of WP is more essential than ever.”
Such companies and productions, foregrounding theatre that is inclusive of manifold ethnic, racial and gender identities, are essential not only to increasing the equanimity of the industry, but maintaining the vitality of the art form. A brief survey of bohemias of the past reveals that the most enduring, exciting, or innovative pieces of art are often created by those who embrace identities outside of the accepted norm. Pioneers such as Bessie Smith, who launched a legendary blues career during a time when women of color were openly discriminated against (and mainstream society loudly pretended that bisexuality did not exist), provide examples of the momentous contributions that result from the expansion of artistic diversity. In addition, famous salons, such as those maintained by Gertrude Stein or Mabel Dodge, testify to the importance of variety in an artistic community. Both of these women maintained social empires that allowed up-and-coming, avant-garde individuals with unique viewpoints to meet, exchange ideas with and influence each others’ evolving perspectives.
Increasing inclusivity is important not only on the stage (ie, creating roles for minority actors), but also in all aspects of the production process. In her essay, “Eating the Other,” bell hooks explains that “mass culture is the contemporary location that…perpetuates the idea that there is pleasure to be found in the acknowledgment and enjoyment of racial difference…Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (hooks 179). In other words, the façade of increased diversity sometimes in fact benefit problematic structures of privilege; cultural appropriation often reduces the “other” to mere variety in entertainment for the dominant group. For this reason, it is key that the Women’s Project and Ensemble Studio Theaters provide a platform not only for diversity in content, but also a voice for playwrights, producers and directors who are members of underrepresented groups. Not only does this encourage diversity without appropriation, but it also ensures that the works produced, such as When January Feels Like Summer, burst with authenticity and genuine emotional resonance.
Although Cori Thomas’ play has now closed at Ensemble Studio Theater, it attracted enough attention to support two runs, and received favorable reviews. The play proved remarkable not only for the talent of its actors, but for the unusual nature of its plot, which resonated with the diverse energy that defines contemporary Harlem. As the New York Times stated, it was a “sweet-tempered play” in which “the lives of a handful of problem-plagued New Yorkers intersect in surprising but satisfying ways.” Hopefully, this piece is indicative of a trend of inclusivity emerging in new professional theater.