When a single local playwright chooses to write about the Tampa Bay area, that’s news. But when nine local playwrights write with love and humor about this community, that’s TampaWorks, the evening of short plays by the Stagewrights playwriting group at Stageworks. Last weekend, TampaWorks opened (and closed) in the Channel District and offered proof that the Bay area is as rich as any other in the possibilities it offers wordsmiths. Its nine short plays (which I saw at a dress rehearsal) addressed subjects as significant as racism, homophobia, insanity, marital distress, and even the art of theater. And though not all the short plays were of the first quality, several were arresting and resonant and abundantly worthy of the audience’s attention. There are fine playwrights in these environs, and they have some important things to tell us.
The most emotionally incisive play of the evening was Janet Scaglione’s Maid in Heaven, about an African-American housemaid in Tampa’s Seminole Heights, and the little white girl who loved her long before she came to know about race hatred and Jim Crow. Scaglione shows her white protagonist as a woman (Erin Kirby) in 1994 and as a girl (Shelby Zimmerman) in 1960; and as the former reminisces, the latter embraces her beloved Rose (Gloria Bailey) and endures the gentle black woman’s lessons in dignity and poise. Particularly moving is the story of Rose leading her charge to the back of a bus while the white riders up front bristle at the sight of black and white together. But children, we’re reminded, aren’t born as racists, not even in the South. And the gratitude that the narrator finally offers to her black mentor is poignant and convincing.
The most surprising play of the evening was Sorry For Your Loss by Ed Stevens. This seemed at first to be a story about a love affair between pet lovers, or rather, between two mourners for their pets who meet at the Pinellas Park Memorial Pet Cemetery. Ordele (Dawn Truax) is a fading Southern belle (echoes of Blanche Dubois) who comes to the cemetery to commune with her not-to-be-forgotten Chi-Chi. When another dog-mourner (Jim Webb) asks for directions, Ordele’s immediately unsettled, but then starts coming on to him as if they were 20somethings in a singles bar. If Ordele’s predation is hasty, Herb’s compliance is bizarre; and it’s only a sudden plot twist which ends the confusion and sets things to rights — sort of. Even in Pinellas Park, it seems, reality is porous. And be suspicious of anyone who names his dog Skipper.
The most literate of the plays was The Village Idiot by Jim Wicker (who also acts). This was about Jack (Jonathan Carter) and Jerry (Wicker), two friends who meet at Tampa’s Village Inn Pancake House and alternate personal confessions with a delightful word game involving famous names. But the verbal sport can’t always mask the difficulties Jerry faces: his wife is intermittently psychotic and he has to choose between freedom, with guilt at abandoning her, or attachment, with all the disabilities that requires. Wicker’s one-act is a cogent reminder that behind the façade of “ordinary” people at a landmark restaurant are a lot of profoundly challenged souls encountering life with unavoidable clumsiness. And even the perfect Village Inn waitress (Natalie Sullivan) can’t offer more than a refill on their coffee.
Which brings me to the play with the most historic interest: Teryle A. Traver’s Pentimento, about the Florida legislature’s 1963 attempt to remove homosexual professors and pupils from the state’s colleges and high schools. Traver imagines a college professor (Robert King) and his former student (Nathan Jokela) who meet at Tampa’s Knotty Pine Bar and discuss their relationship and whether it can survive the government witch-hunt. This one-act brings us some forgotten Florida history, and makes us wonder how many more state scandals are just waiting to be dramatized. Not all Floridians, we’re reminded, have found our sunshine so liberating.
Space restrictions don’t allow me to describe the other five plays, all of which had strengths. But for the record, they were Boulevard by Sheila Cowley, The Woman in White by Larry David Donahue, Remembering Billy by Matt Cowley, Apocalypse at the Dun-Brew by Lil Barcaski, and Over the Top by Jeanne M. Adams. But these plays too, set in Ybor City, Dunedin and elsewhere, showed that the Bay area is rich in subject matter for writers with enough imagination. So if there’s a message in TampaWorks, it’s look homeward, scribes: in shopping malls and on beaches, in outdoor cafes and in schoolyards, stories begging to be dramatized are unfolding.
And await their Shakespeares.
Bravo for "New Swirl Order" Megan!
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