Expect the unexpected from Confrontation Theatre.
Its second full production, a co-production with Milagro, is Charly Evon Simpson’s Jump, which opens at the Milagro space on Friday. Two full shows in (its first full production was James Webb’s comedy Sibling Rivalry in 2017) and the nascent theater hasn’t come across as a company that, on the surface, might seem particularly “confrontational.” That’s just how artistic director La’Tevin Alexander Ellis wants it.
“Confrontation means to confront all topics,” Ellis says, “all things within the Black community first, and then those outside of our community. It’s not necessarily about picking a fight and arguing, and it’s definitely not just about racism, because that shit gets tiring. There’s not anything stereotypical. There are no caricatures. That’s the goal, that’s the plan – confronting all of that. Not just in the negative of trying to pick a fight with white people.”
Not that Confrontation is averse to more volatile subject matter. In smaller productions, it’s taken on Amiri Baraka’s searing The Dutchman (2015) and took part in 2016’s Every 28 Hours national series of extremely short plays in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. And its next show, another co-production (with Portland Playhouse), will be Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline, a piece “about the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Ellis. “We’ll come back with the little bit about race there but it’s more about motherhood and how do we respond to this unjust, inadequate educational system.”
In other words, Confrontation Theatre is about presenting and exploring issues that confront the Black community in all its nuance and complexity. Which is what drew Ellis and the rest of Confrontation (actor Andrea Vernae, actor/director Tamera Lyn, sound designer Philip Johnson, education director Jasmine Cottrell and community outreach director Alagia Felix) to Simpson’s multi-faceted jewel of a play, Jump.
“These are just people going through human shit,” says Ellis, “and we’re watching it unfold before our eyes. It’s a story about something that really impacts our community but is not explicitly about our community.” Jump is a story that could happen to anybody. The family in this case just happens to be Black. Which is important because the play deals a lot with depression, which is as much of an issue in the Black community as elsewhere, but no one ever talks about it. “Historically, there is a lack of both diagnostic and treatment studies on depression. This lack of studies on depression in African Americans has existed for decades. African Americans are underserved, understudied, and misdiagnosed as a group.” A key study published in 2014 in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, Misconceptions of Depression in African Americans, underscores that.
Jump was brought to Confrontation Theatre’s attention by Milagro’s Jose Gonzalez, who saw it in 2017 at the National New Play Network’s National Showcase of New Plays, which produces a series of “rolling premieres” at companies across the nation, including Milagro. In its series of premieres, Jump is also being produced at PlayMakers Rep in Chapel Hill, N.C.; Actor’s Express in Atlanta; and Shrewd Productions in Austin, Texas.
“Charly’s play was one of the presentations during the event,” Gonzalez says. “I really enjoyed the performance. It was a really moving, artfully created piece.” What Gonzalez didn’t realize at the time was that Simpson was one of the actors performing in the show. “None of us knew about it until the end. I don’t know how it came out. I think we had a post-show discussion and it was at that point,” he says, laughing, “she came out and it was like, ‘Wait a minute, what’s this?”
“There were a couple of things I was impacted by during the show,” continues Gonzalez. “One was the beauty of the storytelling. It could connect to any audience. The second was the emphasis that she put on the fact that the characters in the play were designated to be people of color. Not necessarily of one color, but people of color. We tend not to think of mental illness when it affects people of color. The system gives all kinds of other attributes to it but doesn’t look at the fact that there could be real problem there.
“We actually had a presentation last weekend by psychiatrist Dr. Shea Lott from the Avell Gordly Center for healing and he specifically talked about mental illness and how it impacts people of color and he talked about how in several cases it’s not clearly perceived that way, particularly from a majority culture situation.”
When he got back from NNPN, Gonzalez still had Jump on his mind. “For years we’ve worked with a variety of different groups. In this case I reached out to Shelley Matthews and said, ‘Shelley, I’m interested in working with an African-American company, and she said ‘You know, you might want to talk to these folks,” and she sent us to Confrontation. Confrontation responded immediately. And we started to have conversations about how we could do this co-production and not only bring this story to the stage but, in the case of Confrontation, continue to help them develop their craft and their audience.”
Which is something Milagro has done before. Jewish Theatre Collaborative spent several years as Milagro’s resident guest. For Gonzalez, this is important. “It’s been part of our mission for the past several years,” he says. ”Initially you’re just focused on surviving. Just hanging on. As we matured as an organization and also as we became engaged in organizations like the Coalition for Communities of Color, and in the Latino world where people come from so many different backgrounds, it’s multi-racial, it became part of our mission to support other communities in their cultural and creative endeavors. It helps everybody to do that. We have some good insight into that because of our 35 years of working in this industry. If we can share that I think we’re all better off. “
For the playwright, Charly Evon Simpson, Jump has a personal stake. “I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety since I was a teenager,” she says. “There have been times in my life when I felt truly overwhelmed and didn’t see a way out of that overwhelm except for ending my life.” Then, while writing the play, an even more poignant connection was made; one the playwright didn’t see at the time. “The year I really worked on this play I lost three family members,” she remembers. “I didn’t think about that until much later, but in some ways the feelings of grief and family were probably straight out of my everyday life at the time.”
But the immediate impetus for Jump came from an article in the New Yorker. “It was written by Tad Friend in 2003,” says Simpson, “and focused on how the Golden Gate Bridge was a place where many decided to end (or try to end) their lives. The article fascinated me and I kept it open on my browser tabs for months. I didn’t know why I kept it there but I did, knowing that I had to do something with it at some point.”
That “something” came about when Simpson found herself with two characters in search of a story. “I tried writing a new play,” she remembers. “The play didn’t work, but it had two characters I loved—Fay and Hopkins. I kept them in the back of my head—maybe they’d find a new home in a new play. In the fall of 2016, I had a week up at SPACE on Ryder Farm, a wonderful nonprofit residency program in Brewster, N.Y. I looked at my browser and saw the “Jumpers” article. I then remembered Fay and Hopkins. And five days later, I had about 75 percent of the play.”
Despite its heavy themes, (depression, death, familial dysfunction), Jump also has a surprising amount of humor. It’s not an accident. “I think that is a typical aspect of my work,” says Simpson. “I don’t think of myself as funny or my writing as funny, but I think I am attracted to awkward situations and characters who either always have a comeback or really, really don’t. And that allows for humor to emerge. I also think it is important, in plays about heavy themes and topics, to have the opportunity for release. Laughter is a great release. I enjoy laughing the most when I am feeling the most down. So I try to allow for those comedic moments to have a place in my work.”
What sets Jump apart from other scripts is the play’s alchemy of tragedy, humor, and mystery. It’s a balancing act that not many would try, and even fewer could pull off. That Simpson is able to do that might have something to do with the fact that she’s also a poet, with two collections published, almost a year’s worth and in the name of commencement and other poems … Much of the air of mystery in Jump is engendered by Simpson’s economy of language. She’s as fascinated by what’s not said as what is, and is able to find aesthetic as well as narrative value in that.
“I think the processes (playwriting and poetry) are very similar for me,” says Simpson. “I hear words in my head; often I say them out loud, and write them on a piece of paper. I’ve always been a little more interested in what people—characters—don’t say. What’s in-between the lines. So I think I am attracted to characters who more often than not are sparse in their language. Not because they don’t have a lot to say, but because they say what they want to say and get out of Dodge. Maybe they say what they actually want to say. Maybe they don’t. Regardless, they don’t want someone to have the time to read between the lines. They want to seem to the point, even if they are trying to hide the point.”
Poetry. Mystery. Comedy. Tragedy. Family. All of those themes have a long and fruitful history at Milagro. None of them are words you would necessarily associate with the word “confrontation.” But it’s best to expect the unexpected when seeing a Confrontation Theatre show. And when the two entities create together, anything could happen.
Jump opens Friday, March 22, and continues through April 13 at Milagro Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.