by Paul Hansen 09 December, 2020
Theater companies are still implementing creative ways to circumvent distancing requirements spawned by the current pandemic. Moliere in the Park, a theater company based in Brooklyn, New York, will be presenting a live stream of Christina Anderson’s timely new drama Pen/Man/Ship.
The press release for the production describes the play as being set in 1896. Against the backdrop of the United States Supreme Court upholding The Separate But Equal Doctrine in that year, a “Black American surveyor boards a ship to lead a mysterious expedition bound for Liberia. In tow are his troubled son, a rebellious young woman, and a skeptical crew. On the open sea an unexpected detour forces secrets out of hiding fundamentally changing the course of the journey and their lives.” The press release further describes the maritime epic as a “telling parable about violence, betrayal, faith, and freedom…”
Christina Anderson is a playwright whose works have been performed at such prestigious venues as The Goodman Theatre, The Public Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre, and Kansas City Rep. Her many honors include being a 2020 United States Artists Fellow, and being awarded a New Dramatists Residency and a Lucille Lortel Fellowship. She has also taught playwriting in a number of universities, including Wesleyan, Rutgers, and Brown University. In addition, she recently worked as a television staff writer on the CBS drama Tommy. Her current projects include writing her first TV pilot The Only Isaac and producing an album of instrumental hip hop music titled The Montage Flow.
Pen/Man/Ship streams live on Saturday, December 12 at 2pm EST and 7pm EST. A recording of the live stream will be available on Moliere in the Park’s YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/moliereinthepark) until Monday, January 4. Viewing is free. For more info on how to register to view the play visit https://www.moliereinthepark.org/penmanship.
I posed some questions to Anderson about Pen/Man/Ship, the production of which will feature innovative lighting and sound design software from Liminal Entertainment Technologies.
Q: What was the impetus behind the creation of Pen/Man/Ship and what issues is the play exploring?
A: The initial impetus came from a Paula Vogel bake-off prompt that asked us to explore the “fallen woman” plots from the 19th century. I created most of the characters in Pen/Man/Ship from this exercise. While visiting friends in San Diego I walked along the beach at night and was really moved by the darkness, the sound of the ocean. I started to look at maritime plays, novels, etc.
I decided pretty early on these characters were going to be on a ship. As I started writing a few current events of the time (2012, 2013) influenced some of the themes I explored in the play such as … when, why, and at what cost do we cling to family or break free? Who has the right to claim “stand your ground” to justify murder and/or violence? The complicated connections between religion, faith, and activism.
Q: Are there any special challenges and benefits to presenting this play on a live stream over the internet?
A: Being able to share this live stream with a broad audience is a benefit. I have missed being physically present in the rehearsal room.
Q: Are there other playwrights or writers that you particularly admire and have they influenced your work?
A: Ntozake Shange, Paula Vogel, Lynn Nottage, Missy Elliot, Harold Pinter, Nikki Giovanni, Maria Irene Fornes, Dipika Guha. So many others …
Q: Can you describe for us your experience of working as a writer on the CBS series "Tommy"?
A. I learned so much while working on that show. The cast was great, so many wonderful folks on the crew, and the other writers were so smart and talented. The experience was the ideal balance of familiarity and uncharted territory. In the writer’s room we worked on story development and character arcs … similar to the process when writing a play, and yet being on set for the first time ever—the pace, the energy—was completely new.
Q. Is there anything, in general, you would like to tell audiences about Pen/Man/Ship?
A: The cast is fantastic. It’s been a joy to watch Jared [McNeill], Crystal [Lucas-Perry], Kevin [Mambo], and Postell [Pringle] bring these characters to life. I hope audiences revel in the artistry of their performances.
The play lives in the past, but I write to be in conversation with the present and future. I hope audiences can feel that as they experience the play. I also attempt the push against the tropes I discovered while reading maritime stories. Particularly, how a woman can navigate ship life and impact the lives on board. Ruby is courageous and I attempt to reward that courageousness in the course of the journey.
Q: Would you like to share with us what your next projects are?
A: Currently, I’m writing the stage adaptation of Zora Neal Hurston’s Barracoon. I’m also working on two tv pilot scripts.