Scriptwriters/Houston Brings Theater to the National Museum of Funeral History

Gaby Martinez, Nate McGilvray and Cardero Berryman star in Leslie Barrera's White Smoke.
Gaby Martinez, Nate McGilvray and Cardero Berryman star in Leslie Barrera's White Smoke. Photo by Leslie Barrera

This weekend, Scriptwriters/Houston continues their mission of giving a platform to local Houston playwrights, directors and actors when they stage the 2023 edition of Museum Plays, a collection of five world premiere ten-minute plays performed in and inspired by a museum.

The museum, this year, is the macabre-sounding National Museum of Funeral History.

“To be honest with you, when I first heard funeral museum I thought it would be something that I would not want to see because I would be scared,” says Barbara Starkes, the president of Scriptwriters/Houston. “But it is an awesome museum and the exhibits there are very fascinating…It’s totally different [from what you might expect].”

Leslie Barrera, the vice president of Scriptwriters/Houston, adds that “it’s not just what we think of when we think funerals.”

“[It is] also different cultures and the funeral ceremonies within various cultures,” says Barrera. “I think a big part of the museum’s theme is not just looking at death as the end, but how other cultures view it as the next chapter of life.”

Museum Plays, one of two annual festivals presented by Scriptwriters/Houston (the other being the 10x10 Ten Minute Play Festival), will invite audience members into the museum to experience the its exhibits and view five ten-minute plays inspired by those exhibits.

“The museum itself is used as the basic set design and the theme of what the playwright is writing about is whatever exhibits they have going on at the museum at the time. The playwrights pick an exhibit and they write about that and then we call for directors,” says Starkes. “Even though it’s done in the museum…we still play it like a full play.”

Of the five playwrights featured in the festival, at least two chose the exhibits themselves. For the ones that did not, Starkes says Scriptwriters/Houston had to look around the museum to see where their plays would fit best, which posed “the biggest challenge” to the directors and the actors because “they have to marry the two, so to speak – the playwright’s script and the exhibit.”

“Performing in the exhibit presents a very interesting challenge to directors and actors, but I think it’s one that I know my cast and the other casts that I’ve talked to have embraced wholeheartedly,” adds Barrera. “It’s like, how can we create a world for this specific play within an exhibit and be respectful of the exhibit. I think that the audience is going to be really thrilled with what the directors and the actors have done.”

The museum’s 19 permanent exhibitions include displays on jazz funerals in New Orleans, fantasy coffins from Ghana, and the 5,000-square foot, Vatican-approved exhibit “Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes,” which inspired Barrera to pen her contribution to the festival, White Smoke.

The short play throws back to 2013, when eyes all around the world were glued to a chimney sitting atop the Sistine Chapel. Pope Benedict XVI had recently resigned, the first to abdicate from the position since 1415, leading to a papal conclave convening to elect the next pope. Each night without a decision, black smoke would billow from the chimney. Then, on March 13, 2013, white smoke appeared, indicating the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis).

In Barrera’s play, which she is also directing, three chancery workers are following the goings-on in Rome from YouTube when they realize the cardinal they work for is a top contender for pope.

“For a moment, they all reflect on their own personal experiences with their cardinal,” says Barrera. “They’re torn, because what an honor to have the person that you work for become the pontiff supreme but, at the same time, they would, as a diocese, not want to lose him to the world.”

Unfortunately for the deceased namesake of Mindy Roll piece, The Funeral of Milly James, no one is much worried about the loss of the woman. In fact, it seems no one, not even her son, has a single nice thing to say about her at her funeral – and it’s causing a distinct problem for the pastor.

“If you’re the pastor trying to lead that service, [imagine his] state of mind. He’s scrambling,” says Starkes, who is directing the comedy. ““The pastor is sweating bullets trying to get someone to come up and say something nice about Milly James.”

Out of nowhere, a stranger appears with “nothing but glorious things to say” about the dearly departed, says Starkes.

“In him saying all these nice things about Milly James, her son is kind of healed,” says Starkes. “He sees a different perspective coming from this stranger.”

But who exactly is he? It’s a surprise you’ll have to see at the festival.

The final three plays are Charles Harvey’s Aunt Mae’s Shroud, about an older woman who, Barrera says, is “haunted by the regrets of her life”; a bit of a ghost story from Donna Latham titled Memento Mori, about a grieving post-mortem photographer; and Tyreece Hardwick Reece’s The Witching Hour.

“That one is about a young man who wants to take his life because his wife is leaving him, and he encounters both Jesus and the devil,” says Starkes. “If you imagine Jesus on one shoulder and the little devil on the other shoulder – you’ve seen it so many times before. They both are trying to convince him why he should or should not do what he’s planning to do.”

Though this is their second year in a row at the National Museum of Funeral History, Scriptwriters/Houston have also worked with other museums in the past, such as the The Printing Museum, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and they hope to work with more in the future. But for now, they are happy to offer the opportunity to see what Barrera calls “a truly underrated museum” – in the month of October, no less.

“I think that there’s a haunting or otherworldly string that ties them all together, which is really cool for the museum because it goes along with their themes, but it’s also a nice little preview to get ready for Halloween,” says Barrera.

Scriptwriters/Houston 2023 Museum Plays is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday, October 7, at the National Museum of Funeral History, 415 Barren Springs Drive. For more information, visit $18 (includes museum admission).

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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.