From page to stage: More than a soundbite

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At the end of 2012’s Theatre Festival in Black & White, much of the buzz was about “Comfort Zone,” a one-act written by Marlon Youngblood. Enough buzz to require an encore: an expanded encore.

First some background; playwright Marlon Erik Youngblood was in a playwriting workshop sponsored by the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. One exercise was drawing two names out of a hat to create a character and develop a plot; Youngblood picked out St. Bernard and Checkers.

“St. Bernards are someone who comes to the rescue, they’re very loyal and Checkers is a simple game so I have a loyal, simplistic man, Checkers St. Bernard,” says Youngblood. The plot revolved around a type of conflict. When he completed the task, he had 15 pages that he shared during a reading round­table. The feedback he received was the spark that led to “Comfort Zone,” the one-act.

“Comfort Zone” could take place in any neighborhood like East Liberty, Hazelwood, Beltzhoover, the Hill District, North Side, Dusquesne, Wilkinsburg, Penn Hills, Braddock, North Hills—in a local institution like a corner store, a barber shop or salon. The setting is the aftermath following a homicide in said establishment. The story goes beyond the usual news sound-bite regarding shootings—the ripple—effect through the community and how to build some kind of resolution.

“Throughout the rehearsal process for the one-act the cast, Marlon, and I spent some time speculating about what happens to these characters after the play ends,” said CZ director Mark Whitehead. “There was definitely a sense that this wasn’t over, especially for the father of the victim, Evan, who has emerged as a much richer, more complex character in the full length play. Somewhere along the way (PPTCO founder and Producing Artistic Director) Mark Southers encouraged Marlon to expand the one-act into a full length play and gave it the season’s closing slot.”

Fast-forward to just days before the first performance. The action and dialogue on stage is the result of give-and-take, discussions and a dash of angst. When the addition of Comfort Zone to the Pittsburgh Playwrights season was announced last September, the script was literally a work in progress.

“Marlon wrote the first draft on his own,” said Whitehead. “Mark Southers and I gave him some suggestions for subsequent revisions, and the cast has given him a lot of feedback during rehearsals, but ultimately it’s Marlon’s baby.”

“After the 2012 The Theatre Festival in Black and White several people, including other playwrights asked if there was more to come,” recalled Youngblood. “When Mark asked if I’d be interested in extending Comfort Zone I went full steam ahead.”

Youngblood, a Rankin resident, says his biggest challenge was consistency. “(It was) maintaining authentic character motivations and story elements,” he said. “Keeping everything on a real spectrum of an evolution of human emotions without sacrificing any character’s development within the overarching theme of the play was my greatest concern.”

“Watching the cast in rehearsal and discussing the story gave me keen insight into what it takes to tell a story,” adds Youngblood. And fleshing out the story to include characters who loomed large in the one-act but never seen on stage.

“The only new character is a young woman who is only talked about in the one-act.  We tossed a few actresses names around. Mark Southers suggested Jamilah Chanie,” said Whitehead. “I had been impressed by the depth and range she had shown in SOLD and in several B&W roles.  When we found out she was available I knew we had found our girl!”

“The other character is practically invisible to those on stage,” added Youngblood. “That was done intentionally to get the audience to analyze how the characters and they themselves perceive this character throughout the play.”

(Comfort Zone runs May 2 through May 24. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sundays. May 24 performances are 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 for Thursdays and weekend matinees, $25 for Friday and Saturday evening shows. Tickets are $5 more at the door except for students with valid ID and theatre artists. Seating is General Admission. To purchase online, go to http://www.pghplaywrights.com/zone. For group rates call 412-687-4686.)

(It’s starts run on May 2 with an opening night fundraiser. Each $35 ticket includes a post-show discussion with playwright Marlon Erik Youngblood, former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht, and Brandi Fisher, chair of the Alliance for Police Accountability.)

 

 

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