By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
To submit the grant, Bradley and Nodler had to make a list of the five people they would most like to work with. Suzan-Lori Parks was at the top. They knew it was a long shot.
Lo and behold, Parks said yes. She did so mostly, the playwright says, because of her friendship with Bradley, which began years ago when they worked at New York City's BACA Downtown, a gallery/performing space in Brooklyn that operates much like DiverseWorks.
Nodler and Bradley agreed to produce Parks's script without seeing it first; that's because it wasn't written yet. In fact, Fucking A wasn't finished until the fall of 1999, at which time Parks cast the show via videotapes sent to her from IBP. Cooper says the casting actually seemed very laid-back. "[Parks] said to Jason, 'Why doesn't Tamarie just play Hester?' " Parks wanted someone she could count on, no divas.
Parks still seems relaxed about the whole thing as she sits on the floor during rehearsals, quietly knitting or smiling at the jokes in the script. It's Nodler who's spinning around DiverseWorks like a top, commanding actors to be on time, negotiating with the woman who's videotaping the production for the lighting designer, and pacing in the parking lot as he chain-smokes Kools.
His angst is understandable. The man's got a lot on the line. People from all over the country have been invited to the opening. Bradley has solicited people from the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, "the best presenting space in the country," as well as Michael Wilson, artistic director at Hartford Stage (Wilson has also directed several shows at the Alley, including Angels in America). The national press has been invited, too, including writers from Newsweek, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Bradley sees this show as a "critical moment" in IBP's development. The company is "poised to become a national touring company," she says. "And Jason's profile is going to increase." She foresees him getting invitations to direct all across the country.
Directing invitations would be an ironic outcome for Nodler, since he isn't helming the production of Fucking A. Yet his presence is palpable throughout rehearsals. Parks tells the actors what to do, but it's Nodler who makes sure they do it. Even more telling, his influence is clear in the way this company works together on stage. Over and over, the actors talk about how committed they are to the company and to Nodler's vision of producing intelligent and inventive theater.
Rob Bundy, the artistic director at Stages, a theater with its own rags-to-riches story, says that Infernal Bridegroom is "intrinsic to keeping Houston viable artistically." Bundy acknowledges that IBP is doing the risky, experimental work that no other theater in town can afford to do on a consistent basis. Gregory Boyd, the longtime artistic director at the Alley, agrees. "Infernal Bridegroom is providing a great service to Houston audiences by bringing in the extraordinary theater artist Suzan-Lori Parks. She is clearly one of the most intriguing, distinctive voices in the country," Boyd says.
It's a Sunday afternoon, and rehearsals for Fucking Aseem to be going well. There's an easy calm to the work happening on DiverseWorks's big, black stage. The cohesive nature of the company is evident. There are no screaming divas running around backstage and refusing to cooperate. In fact, when Nodler and Parks run through the several scene changes, every actor in the room happily volunteers to move props.
The beer kegs of years gone by have been replaced by Styrofoam cups of coffee and large fruit smoothies. A loaf of whole wheat bread is being passed around to the hungry. Parks tells everyone to be sure to take vitamins. Cast member Dan Treadway is at home sick, and Parks is mother-henning over the healthy, aware that opening night is less than two weeks away.
Barilla sits at the piano helping the actors learn the songs that Parks has written for the work, which she adamantly states is not a musical. "It's a play with six or seven songs." The playwright realizes this sounds strange, and she smiles at the incongruity. The woman is disarming. She is approaching her late thirties, but could easily pass for 20, if not for her maternal tendency to call the actors "honey." She's also full of praise. Schulze, who plays a troubled character named Monster, is worrying over a few notes in his song. Parks tells him to relax, that he has a wonderful singing voice.
But she's also very exacting. After a run-through, she reads notes to the actors from a tiny book she scribbles in, telling them to "learn the lines as they're written." Later she asks that an actor make sure not to cry over a line; "make sure we can hear the line," she says. She's obviously the playwright, mother hen or not.
Fucking Awould seem to encompass some of Parks's complex personality, the concerned mother and the brooding perfectionist. Set in some mythical future, a sort of regressive third-world hell, Fucking Ais about a place where more people are in jail than not. Bounty hunters enjoy cutting the hands and feet off their live prisoners, then feeding them to wild dogs as the other prisoners watch.