In Freeda Peoples about to open at The Ensemble Theatre, playwright Joyce Sylvester (Women in the Pit) explores the relationships between the members of the congregation and their new pastor — discovering along the way that no one is exactly who they seem to be.
Although she did not grow up going to church, Sylvester is now self-described "church girl" and a member of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, a mega-church. The church she has in the play, however, is small and struggling, losing people and looking for sustaining funds. And she purposefully kept things general so no specific denomination is singled out.
In real life, as a member of her church, "I get to witness what goes on behind the scenes of the church," she says. "I felt it would be far more interesting to write about what goes on behind the scenes than in front. People in front, it's almost like a mask. they can't possibly wear all of their troubles on their faces.
"What does it take to maintain the church that the pastor doesn't necessarily talk about?" she asks. In Freeda Peoples the new pastor comes in and is being compared to his predecessor. "He resents it because people are saying it with judgment. He sees an enormous amount of judgment in the church without even realizing he's also filled with judgment.
"It's sort of like an old-fashioned behavior: not accepting or believing that certain things could actually happen in his own church because everybody has a mask."
Freeda Peoples is the name of a woman who visits the church. "She definitely questions things. She feels like she attends the church and feels like she's being judged and she doesn't understand. She's looking for a family, a church family and doesn't feel like this church family is where she wants to be part of because the first person she meets is a character called Sister Ann and she's being judged by her clothes."
Though set in contemporary times, the play could be said to be taking place in almost any time, Sylvester says.
Sylvester's career has taken her to several parts of the arts. Originally a dancer, she went into acting and then decided to write her own plays and has had several published and performed. She counts as a mentor Douglas Turner Ward, the playwright, actor, director and producer who was a founder and artistic director of the Negro Ensemble Company.
The first play she wrote was selected for the National Black Theatre Festival. That's where Eileen J. Morris, artistic director of Ensemble Theatre saw Freeda Peoples and Women in the Pit (and Pit does not refer to pulpit as one reviewer mistakenly characterized it, she says. It refers to the great divides this country has in terms of gender and race: "The pit that we fall into."
In many ways, what goes on in a church service and a play are very similar. Both are live, people are carrying out their roles and judgments are rendered about the production values.
She's in town now continuing to answer questions from rehearsing cast members who include Jason Carmichael as Reverend Scott, Delali Potakey as Reba Scott, Roc Living as Elder Jones, Byron Jacquet as Deacon Beasley, Shane Warren Jones as Deacon Lewis, Joyce Anastasia Murray as Sister Ann and Callina Situka as the title character Freeda Peoples. Morris is directing.
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"I don't give my plays to anybody easily," Sylvester says. "Many of my plays are spiritually based. I don't want them to buffoonerize the characters." She applauds the care that Morris is taking with this production.
Certainly audience members will be laughing at some of the things that occur in her play, but Sylvester says that is different than making the church and its people the butt of jokes. With themes that include rape, possible adultery. illness and lying, serious topics are included as well in Freeda Peoples.
Most of all she wants people to leave the theater with two messages: "Do not judge. And be truthful and the truth will set you free."
Performances are scheduled for March 21 through April 14 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For information, call 713-520-0055 or visit ensemblehouston.com. $23-$50.