Down the Caramel Road
At 28, Virginia Playwright Jerome Hairston Has Already Come a Long Way
One of them was Jerome Hairston, the playwright whose a.m. Sunday opens this month at Center Stage. Today he is a self-possessed 28-year-old in a tan sweater, horn-rimmed glasses, and tight, wavy black hair discussing theories of stagecraft in Center Stage's fifth-floor rehearsal space. But in 1990, he was a gangly 15-year-old in the bland suburbs of Yorktown, Va., a military kid who had never seen a live theater performance. That transformation probably wouldn't have happened without the Young Playwrights Festival program.
In 1990, he was attending the York County School for the Arts in Williamsburg, when he got the typical high-school assignment: Write a story in whatever style you want. Like most 15-year-olds, Hairston was self-absorbed enough that he had to write about himself. He had written short stories, but that form didn't seem commensurate with the importance of the topics he was interested in. A novel would be better, but he worried that not enough had happened in his life to sustain a novel. So he decided to write a play. He called it A Trip Down the Caramel Road.
It basically consisted of a 15-year-old character standing onstage and explaining to anyone who wandered by how difficult his life was. But there was something about the vividness and passion of the language that attracted the readers at Virginia's Young Playwrights Festival. Plus, the subject matter was unusual, for the protagonist, like Hairston, grew up in a biracial family. The one-act script was accepted for a workshop production at Richmond's Studio Theatre the following summer.
"We read through the play," Hairston remembers, "and the director, Ernie McClintock, looked at me and said, 'This is really boring.' At first, of course, I was devastated. I thought, I don't belong here. But a moment later, I realized what he meant. Nothing was happening in the play. I went home that night and rewrote the play to give it some conflict, some events, some reason to exist onstage. What I brought back to rehearsal the next day wasn't a masterpiece, but at least it was a play. And Ernie became my first important mentor.
"I must have had good instincts because I understood exactly what he meant. Everything I've done ever since has been designed to defeat that statement, 'This is boring.'"
Two years later, Hairston's next play, Live From the Edge of Oblivion, about an inner-city Washington, D.C., kid who talks to the images of African-Americans on his television, not only won Virginia's playwriting contest but also was accepted by the original Young Playwrights Festival in New York. Marion McClinton, who would later become August Wilson's director of choice and who is now directing Center Stage's production of a.m. Sunday, directed a full production of the show at New York's Playwrights Horizon Theatre.
"I had to walk from Port Authority to the theater on 42nd Street," Hairston recalls. "I had all my luggage with me and really looked like a hayseed from Virginia. And 42nd Street was a lot rougher in 1993 than it is today. I'm surprised I ever made it.
"But once I got in the theater, I felt right at home. Marion is an intimidating-looking man--he's big and burly--but he was very welcoming. Even though I was 17, he treated me like a writer, and I knew I had to live up to that. I was around all these people who were as excited about the theater as I was. That's when I knew I belonged."
Thus began the relationship that led to McClinton directing Hairston's latest play at Center Stage. In 1993, McClinton, a Minneapolis native, had been looking for a way to break into the New York theater scene, and he figured the Young Playwrights Festival in New York was as good a door as any. But when he read Hairston's script for Live From the Edge of Oblivion, he became genuinely enthusiastic.
"It was an original voice," the director remembers. "And it was a real play. A lot of stuff in the theater is trying to be something else, but this didn't feel like a movie or television script or a script that comes out of a grad-school factory. Jerome had a particular take on the world he lived in that was his and his alone, and that's what original writers do. When I finally met him, he was mature beyond his years. I've known writers twice his age that aren't as mature. He was able to speak clearly about what he does. A lot of writers can't do that.
"You can learn more from a program like the Young Playwrights Festival than you can from three years of graduate school," McClinton argues. "It puts a young writer in a room with directors and actors who do this for a living, and subjects him to the pressure of mounting a professional production in three weeks and getting reviewed in The New York Times. It's the major leagues, and those who thrive in it, as Jerome did, are helped immensely."
Hairston returned to New York's Young Playwrights Festival in 1994 with another script, The Love of Bullets, about an addict and a dealer both struggling to free themselves from the drug world, but a clash with the director made that experience as frustrating as the 1993 festival had been inspiring. It awoke the teenager to the less attractive realities of the theater business. But it didn't dissuade him from his path, and he thrived in the theater program at James Madison University before entering the MFA program at Columbia University.
"For the very first writing exercise I had at Columbia," he says, "the teacher told us, 'Close your eyes and imagine a window. Put a character in front of it and have him describe what he sees.' That scene became the beginning of a.m. Sunday.
"The original monologue is now gone, but the play begins at that window when a second character comes in and they start talking. As they talked, I realized they were father and son. Then a woman came in, and I realized they were a family. The father says, 'Are you going to get the other one up?,' and I realized there was another son. And that's how I wrote it. I didn't start out with a predetermined plan--I just listened to them talk and discovered where the play was going."
R.P., the father in a.m. Sunday, is black, while his wife, Helen, is white. Hairston grew up in a biracial family, and his first play, Caramel Road, also dealt with this theme, but the new show is not as autobiographical as you might think. His father, a black Air Force officer, died when he was 10, while R.P. is very much a presence in his teenage sons' lives. Moreover, Hairston's mom was Korean, not white. And the whole issue of interracial marriage is never in the foreground of the script.
"There's going to be an assumption that this play is my story," Hairston laments. "They're characters you don't see very often in American theater, so that's what people will remark on. But ultimately, that's not what the play is about. I didn't want to burden these characters with representing a niche of American society. When you're in a biracial family, you don't sit around and have discussions about what it means. We certainly didn't in my family.
"It's hard enough to grow up and love one another and make your way through the world without analyzing the social fabric every five minutes. It never occurred to me to announce that they're extraordinary. It's going to say enough when the play opens and you see this black man, this white woman, and their sons."
Only someone who had grown up in a biracial family would have the confidence to tell a story about such a family where the whole subject remains in the background. In fact, the true subject of a.m. Sunday is the tendency of all families to talk about everything but the most crucial subjects. And for this family those topics include a husband's infidelity, a wife's wavering commitment, one son's learning disability, and the other son's sexual experiments. Hairston finds a way to allude to these issues without ever forcing his characters to be more explicit than they would be in real life.
"I had been reading a lot of Harold Pinter when I wrote this," Hairston confides. "And his plays are all about what people aren't saying. He helped me learn how to be precise and succinct, how to trust that the truth of a scene could be there without me stating it. It was a big change for me, because my original influence had been Tennessee Williams. I had read The Glass Menagerie when I was 15 and I became enamored with all his work, the lushness of his language and the vividness of his characters. But that sometimes led to overwriting on my part. Between Williams and Pinter, I was finally able to find my own voice."
Hairston has since ventured into television as well, having written a pilot for CBS and two screenplays. None has made it to production yet, but the development money has enabled him to pursue his first priority, writing for the theater. In March 2002, a.m. Sunday was staged for the first time in full by the country's top showcase for new work, the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky. And while rehearsing that show for its second production at Center Stage, he's fine-tuning his latest play, which he doesn't want to talk about in any detail until it's ready. Clearly, he's in it for the long haul.
"He's 28," McClinton points out. "I'm really interested to see the writer he will be at 36. You want to see what's going to happen when the life experience catches up with the craft and talent. He's a good playwright now, but he has a chance to be a great one."
The Center Stage begins preview performances Nov. 13. Opening night is Nov. 19, and the play runs through Dec. 14. For more information call Center Stage at (410) 332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org.
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