Playhouse’s Monday Night Specials were extra special this year

Suzzanne Douglas performed on Monday evening, Sept. 3, in the last Monday Night Special of the season. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

A collaborative theatrical piece called “In Development” starring award-winning actress Suzzanne Douglas wrapped up the 2012 Monday Night Special season for The Vineyard Playhouse this past week.

And, although The Playhouse had to borrow a venue this year on account of an ongoing renovation project at its home on Church Street in Vineyard Haven, the series was as strong as ever. The material was fresh and stimulating, the performances outstanding, and — more than ever — stars of stage, screen, and even the literary world were on board.

Playhouse board president Gerry Yukevich called the 2012 series, hosted by the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, “the Best Monday Night Specials ever.”

Ms. Douglas has had a triumphant career on Broadway (The Threepenny Opera opposite Sting), in film (“Tap,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” “The Inkwell”) and television (“The Parent ‘Hood”) despite a troubled adolescence. “In Development,” a multidisciplinary piece conceived by Ms. Douglas and written for her by young poet and Yorri J. Berry, starts off with an interpretation of a scene from the actress’s teenage years.

The short opening piece called “The Ride,” written by actress, singer/songwriter, and poet Carol Lynn Maillard, introduced the audience to an unusual character — a Broadway show-belting transvestite biker who unofficially adopts a homeless 16-year-old girl. As the audience discovered in the post show Q&A, the drag queen was a real person — an early mentor to Ms. Douglas who was kicked out of the house by her parents and forced to live in an SRO in Chicago for a year.

Mama Baba, the focus of the one-character piece, discusses his struggle with identity and acceptance. Then, after a projected montage of images from Civil Rights and anti-war movements, Ms. Douglas took center stage and conducted the audience on another ride of sorts. In a very powerful, emotional performance, the skilled actress delivered a non-stop spoken word journey of self-exploration. The half-hour piece was accompanied by drumming by Mama Yaa (who also choreographed and wrote the music) and music and vocals by Louise Robinson and Ms. Maillard, founding members of the Grammy-winning a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

The title of the main piece, “In Development,” refers to the growth and discovery process of the autobiographical character herself. Ms. Douglas, who describes the piece as “a journey of reclaiming self and identity,” began the creation process by relating stories from her life to Ms. Berry, a young poet, inspirational speaker, minister, and educator. “I gave her themes of things that happened in my life,” explained Ms. Douglas in the Q&A, “and said don’t make it literal.”

“I wanted to explore my identity, not in a linear way but in an emotional way in verse and prose.” she added. The music, especially the drumming (initially a heartbeat rhythm), was used to represent inherited memory. “There was this disconnect from my African American history,” said Ms. Douglas. The actress contributed her own vocals at times, displaying a remarkably strong and sweet singing voice.

Among other theater luminaries lending their talents to the Monday Night Special series this year were actors Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams, who appeared on two evenings; highly acclaimed New York Shakespearean actor John Douglas Thompson who portrayed Louis Armstrong in a one man show; Yale Repertory and American Repertory founder Robert Brustein who presented a new series of short plays; New York City based Ricardo Khan and Trey Ellis, who followed up their popular production “Fly” that enjoyed two runs at The Playhouse with another historically based play; acclaimed children’s author Kate Feiffer; and literary icon Joyce Carol Oates who fielded questions after a reading of her play about Emily Dickinson.

The Playhouse renovation project, which closed the theater’s doors after last summer’s final production, is nearing completion, according to Dr. Yukevich, although the building fundraising initiative is ongoing.

“We’re heading down the backstretch and we hope to be rounding the home stretch very soon,” he said, adding, “We’re extremely grateful to the Hebrew Center for hosting us and the Liman Foundation [Monday Night Special sponsoring organization] for inspiring the series.”

Despite a vagabond year for the 30-year-old professional theater organization, The Playhouse still managed to present one full scale production at the high school’s Performing Arts Center, two Shakespeare plays at the Tisbury Ampitheater, and a full roster of Monday Night Specials.

“We were the brightest dark theater on the East Coast,” quipped Dr. Yukevich.