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Diarra Kilpatrick is a natural as a force of nature

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Diarra Kilpatrick

The actress has been called ‘superb’ in her role in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s ‘In the Red and Brown Water,’ a play that exists in two conceptual dimensions.

by Reed Johnson

Before Diarra Kilpatrick was cast in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” at age 12, she already knew what she wanted to do with her life: anything but acting.

So when her hometown Detroit newspaper interviewed her about the production at a suburban theater, Kilpatrick told the reporter she wanted to be a lawyer or maybe the president of a public relations firm. But definitely not “a struggling actor,” she said.

Recounting that anecdote recently at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, where she’s playing the lead role in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s mytho-poetic drama “In the Red and Brown Water,” Kilpatrick laughed at the memory of her precocious pre-adolescent self.

Because by the time the article went to press, Kilpatrick knew what she absolutely had to do with her life: Be an actor.

“It was the quality of the actors that I got a chance to work with and see them up close,” she said, explaining her overnight career conversion during “The Piano Lesson.” “And the production, the material — it was August Wilson.”

Startling transformations are the stuff of theatrical magic, and they’re central to McCraney’s play, which opened at the Fountain in October and has been extended through Feb. 24. “In the Red and Brown Water” is the first of McCraney’s trilogy “The Brother/Sister Plays,” produced off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2009.

Set during the “distant present” at a mythical housing project in a make-believe Louisiana bayou town, “In the Red and Brown Water” exists simultaneously in two conceptual dimensions.

There’s the 21st century world of Oya (Kilpatrick), a high school track star torn between her college ambitions and the need to care for her ailing Mama Mojo (Peggy A. Blow) and between her affection for the stammering, sweetly devoted Ogun (Dorian Christian Baucum) and the dangerous erotic heat she feels whenever Shango (Gilbert Glenn Brown) comes around her door.

Diarra Kilpatrick and Gilbert Glenn brown in "In the Red and Brown Water"

Diarra Kilpatrick and Gilbert Glenn Brown in “In the Red and Brown Water”

But in another dimension — parallel, yet inseparable — the play is a spiritual struggle that draws on the stories, cosmologies and archetypal gods of the Yoruba people of West Africa, whose legends were transported by slaves to the New World. Virtually all of the play’s 10 characters are named for traditional Yoruba orishas, or spirits: Elegba, the shape-shifting trickster; Shango, god of fire and lightning; Ogun, the deity of iron-working and war.

And Oya, goddess of the Niger River, wind, storms and, as Kilpatrick puts it, “revolutionary transformation.”

“It’s not like ‘Let’s redecorate the house,’ it’s like ‘Let’s tear this [stuff] down! Let’s knock the walls out!'” Kilpatrick explained. “So when Oya comes into your life, people fear her because it means your life is about to change.”

For Kilpatrick, the task was to simultaneously, plausibly portray Oya as a contemporary young woman as well as a force of nature. “This is a girl who listens to Nicki Minaj and Rihanna,” Kilpatrick said. “This is the texture of right now. But yeah, we also carry in our DNA these stories from hundreds and hundreds of years ago.”

In his review, Times theater critic Charles McNulty praised the Fountain’s production, directed by Shirley Jo Finney, as “sensational” and Kilpatrick as “superb.”

Growing up in Detroit, Kilpatrick was taken regularly by her mother to plays, art exhibitions and other cultural events. “Let me just say, if there was a play that was done in Detroit I probably saw it, particularly if it was a black play, and let’s say 95% of them are black plays in Detroit.”

Between ages 12 and 16, Kilpatrick took part in Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theatre, one of the country’s most accomplished youth theater programs. She also acted at her private college prep school, Detroit Country Day, before moving to the theater program at New York University, where she performed in plays like Suzan-Lori Parks’ “In the Blood” and Stephen Adly Guirgis,’ “Our Lady of 121st Street.”

“I was one of the only black girls who had made it that far who could cuss and make it sound real,” Kilpatrick said, laughing. NYU instructors strongly encouraged her to lose the vestigial Southern accent she’d picked up from her South Carolina-migrant forebears.

Given the realities of casting for African American actors, Kilpatrick said, it’s important to be able to switch accents and speech styles depending on the role. “You don’t want the private school to eat up all the richness of … your flavor. Because no matter what that flavor is, that’s going to be your calling card at the end of the day.”

Kilpatrick came to Los Angeles in 2007. She has appeared in the Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble’s version of “Three Sisters,” set in Trinidad, and a half-black, half-Mexican transgender male in the Bootleg Theater’s production of Gary Lennon’s “The Interlopers” last year, among other roles.

But getting to play a role like Oya “is a blessing,” especially with this cast and “Shirley Jo at the helm,” she said.

“There aren’t parts like this for black women very often. It’s like Hamlet, it’s like King Lear, it’s Medea. It’s an opportunity to really go in there.”

In the Red and Brown Water  Extended to Feb 24  (323) 663-1525 More

Fountain Spotlight: Actress Diarra Kilpatrick On the Run in ‘In the Red and Brown Water’

Diarra Kilpatrick

Tell us about yourself. Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Detroit, MI.  My mom was always really dedicated to nurturing the artist in me as I was growing up.   She put me in every arts or literature program she could find and I thrived in them, so there was no way I was gonna grow up and become an accountant.   And thank God for that.  And my dad has the best sense of humor of anyone in the whole world. So if my mom gave me the gift of art, my dad gave me the gift of laughter.

How would you describe Oya, the character you play in In the Red and Brown Water?

“The Interlopers” at Bootleg Theater.

At this point in the process its a little hard to delineate where she ends and I begin honestly.  She’s a track star, so she’s alot faster than I am, that’s for sure.  My track and cross country coach from high school would probably chuckle if she saw this play because aside from the horizontally challenged members of the team, I was the worst one.  And I had the longest legs.  But  I went to this painfully conservative college prep school  and the rule was everyone had to  play a sport.  And if you were on scholarship you had to play TWO sports.  I thought that was completely racist because nearly all the scholarship kids were black.  So I think the angry little militant in me didn’t want to excel in sports cause as a black girl on scholarship was expected to.  I was like whatever, somebody point me towards the stage please.   But I regret it now.  I’ve grown up and found that I actually do like to run.  I probably could have been better if I had applied myself.  So I’m getting a chance to feel what that might have been like through Oya.

What themes in the play resonate for you?

The play for me is about Oya’s growth.  She has a hell of a time getting over the hump, from one version of herself to the next.   She’s special and she knows she’s special so there’s quite a bit of frustration that comes in when she has such a difficult time asserting herself in the world.

The language of the play

Yes the language of the piece is poetic. Black folks speak in poems to me anyway.  McCraney definitely highlights the lyricism in the black vernacular.  It informs me as an actress. I know exactly who these people are by the way they speak.  There’s no vagueness in there.  I know who they are.

How does mythology weave its way through the story?

My favorite thing about the piece is the presence of the mythology throughout.  These characters are black and poor and living in the projects.  Seems like the makings of a sad sack 90s movie that we’ve all seen before.  But by reminding us that at the very center, at the core of these characters,  is the spirit of a god or goddess, it somehow more fully reveals their humanity.  The playwright is showing these characters so much respect in that way.  It somehow manages to both elevate the piece and pull us closer to it.

Diarra Kilpatrick (Oya) and Gilbert Glenn Brown (Shango) from ‘In the Red and Brown Water’.

This is your first project at the Fountain. Are you having a good time?

I’m really enjoying working with Shirley Jo and the whole cast.  There’s a closeness that happened pretty organically.  I’m excited to get to rehearsal everyday.  This is the only ensemble I’ve been in  where people balk about taking a day off.  Everyone is very excited by the work.  And everyone is bringing so much of themselves to their performances.

In the Red and Brown Water  Oct 20 – Dec 16 (323) 663-1525  More

Intern Journal: My Peek into the World of Casting

by Jessica Broutt

Now a few weeks into interning at The Fountain, I have been able to do some very diverse tasks. This happens every few days when someone, usually Stephen,  announces that they have a “project” for me.  I have learned that project can mean a lot of things. Sometimes it is prefaced with, “this project is a really horrible boring job” and can be as mundane as organizing check stubs. Other times,  like last week, it can mean something really exciting like working in our casting department. This was one project I was dying to be a part of.  I would be scheduling times for actresses to audition for a role in our upcoming play, the US Premiere of Athol Fugard’s The Blue Iris.

When thinking about working in the entertainment industry, obviously casting is a big part of it, but it is also a facet of running a theatre in which I have had no experience.  I soon learned that it really is a world unto itself, populated with agents, assistants, and actresses, complete with its own language with which I was all together unfamiliar.  Despite some brief coaching from Stephen, I felt a little unsure about how I could survive in this world .  But, armed with my new-found knowledge of “sides” and “breakdowns”  I put on my most confident voice and  called agencies and actresses alike.

Sometimes it was easy.  I got to speak to the actress herself, we picked a time, she said she would be there and it was done.  Other actresses were not so easy to track down or I found myself talking to the second assistant of their agent. It was quite nerve-wracking to remember who was represented by Lisa from Momentum or who would be out of the country through the week. It definitely gave me a new-found respect for anyone who has ever worked in casting.

Still, one thing that really amazed me was how nice everyone was when I called. Every agent and assistant seemed more than happy to speak with me, e-mailed me back right away, and much to my amazement, seemed to believe I knew what I was doing. And the same was true with the actresses, each one was more polite than the next. I was surprised at how easy it all seemed.  It was then I realized that I had a little bit of power.  These actresses were grateful for my call. They wanted this role. And by being nice to me, their chances of obtaining it remained intact.  I was so worried about them calling my bluff as a casting director, that I failed to realize that they wanted this audition even more than  I wanted to not embarrass myself scheduling it.

The Audition Process.

If I thought calling everyone to arrange the auditions was exciting, it was nothing compared to having all the actresses come in the day of the audition. My job sounded fairly simple:  have the actresses sign in, take a copy of their resume and headshot, and escort them into the audition room.  But then there are the things that no one tells you.  Like how some actresses will come a mere moment before they are expected while others will come one hour before and size up the competition.  I also had no idea that Calvin Klein jeans were the unspoken uniform for auditions. Or how different every actress’s method of preparation is.  Some remained very calm as if waiting for a doctor’s appointment and sat patiently in the waiting area until they were called.  And then there were others, like the actress Julanne Chidi Hill, who would rather not sit just outside the audition room and feel the tension.  Instead, she went elsewhere and practiced. And not just outside the theatre but a block away, to truly distance herself from the competition.  So far away in fact, that I was afraid she had left all together. Yet, her unorthodox method obviously paid off, because she walked away as the newest addition to our Fountain Family, and with the role of Reita.

Julanne Chidi Hill

When auditions were over and the role had been cast I thought my job was done.  I commended myself on everything going without a hitch, and considered my venture into the world of casting over.  But I forgot something very crucial:  I had to call all the other actresses  and inform them that they did not get the part.  The thought of making those calls seemed awful but in practice, it wasn’t really that bad.  The few actresses who I spoke to were painfully nice about it, and thanked me for the call. The agents seemed to take the news as nothing out of the ordinary. And I was blessed with speaking to many voicemail boxes, who all seemed to take the news extremely well.

After the last “the role has been filled” phone call, I was actually done with this project. Instead of breathing a sigh of relief, as I did when I filed away the last check stub, I felt a little sad.  While it might have been a bit scary to arrange auditions, it was also very exciting.  Now when I get to see The Blue Iris next month in August, I will know that I helped to make it happen in some way.

Just as my many other projects have taught me, there are so many different jobs in running a theatre and countless people who work behind the scenes to make it run smoothly.

This was definitely one of my favorite projects thus far. I look forward to my next!

Jessica Broutt is our summer intern from UC San Diego.

Women Attend More Theatre Than Men: Why Not More Roles?

by Lauren Gunderson

"El Nogalar" at the Fountain Theatre.

It appears that in many major theaters across the country, men’s roles out number women’s by half. One out of every three roles go to women. (An informal survey of 10 theatrical seasons from across the country that I did put women in only 35% of the total roles). This means that men’s stories out number women’s by the same amount.

Those of us noticing this could be considered big old whiners if it weren’t for some solid business-y sounding facts:

  • Women buy 70% of theater tickets sold
  • Women make up 60%-70% of its audience (see here and here)
  • On Broadway, shows written by women (who statistically write more female roles than men) actually pull in more at the box office than plays by men

In any other market the majority of consumers would significantly define the product or experience. Why not theater?

Raushanah Simmons in "In the Red and Brown Water"

I will disclaim right away that this is not about women playwrights, though plays by women represent less than 20% of the works on and off-Broadway and in regional theaters (and also in the UK, as The Guardian illuminates). I consider August: Osage County and In The Red And Brown Water plays about women though men wrote both.

This is about modern theater telling its predominantly female audiences that the human experience deserving of dramatic imagination is still the male one. In TV, this might be a top-down insistence. In politics or business we see it all the time. But in theater?

Sean Daniels, Artist-At-Large/Director of Artistic Engagement at Geva Theater, says:

“In addition to it being inconceivable in 2012 to not program any female playwrights (or really any year past 1913), it’s also just bad business. Just from a business model, look at Menopause: The Musical. Though we may take it to task for not hitting all of Aristotle’s Six Elements, it’s a show that looked at who the main people buying tickets were, and allowed them to see themselves on stage — thus making millions and not only preaching and loving the choir, but getting tons of new patrons into the theater.”

But what would it be like if this were more common? What if American theater equally reflected and projected its own audience (at least 60% women) and their audience’s wallets (which are in their purses) in their season choices?

Estelle Parsons on Broadway in "August: Osage County"

Theaters might make more money. A friend and artistic leader at a major regional theater remarked on the marked success of Molly Smith Metzler’s plays Elemeno Pea, a play about sisters. Or what about Tracy Letts runaway hit August: Osage County (a play with incredible parts for women including three sisters), or Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, or Margaret Edson’s Wit, or John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt or Steve Yockey’s Bellwether (with seven parts for women)?

Cate Blanchett in "Streetcar Named Desire".

We wouldn’t lose our classics. Shakespeare’s plays are notoriously under-femmed, but not all of them are. Give me Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night or wacky Midsummer. Or re-imagine the Bard for us. I saw a truly fresh and powerful production of Julius Caesar at Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year in which Caesar was unapologetically played by a woman (it might have been the best show I saw all year, including my own). I didn’t think “Oh look at that woman playing a man’s part.” I thought, “Oh my god she’s channeling Benazir Bhutto.”

Ibsen also gave us stunning women’s stories. So did Shaw, Chekov, Williams, Miller. And don’t forget the female playwrights of those same eras. Complex parts for more than one token women are there for the planning.

We might inspire new classics. I’m not telling playwrights what to write.Wait. Hell yes I am. And I’m hoping they get commissions to do so. Please write those complex and shocking and profound parts for our great female actors. Lead roles, supporting roles, lots of roles. Imagine writing for Stockard Channing or Viola Davis or Amy Morton or Meryl Streep. How about putting all of them in the same play. Oh my god, I just died a little thinking about it.

However, the now famous study by social scientist Emily Glassberg Sands about gender bias in theater says that though female playwrights write more roles for women, they are aware that plays with female protagonists aren’t as likely to be produced as plays with male protagonists. “One way women have compensated for writing female stories is to write fewer [female] roles, which make their plays accessible to more theaters,” the study finds.

So American theater might need a theatrical version of the The Bechdel Test for movies which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.

There are bright spots however. Chloe Bronzan and Robert Parsons of Symmetry Theater in San Francisco have already put into practice their own version of the Bechdel Test. They built their company around the precepts: “We will never produce a play with more male than female characters,” they said, “We will never have more male than female union actors on our stage and we will produce plays that tell stories which include full, fleshed out and complex women that serve as propellants to the human story being told.”

"Menopause: The Musical"

We won’t lose our audiences, but we might just gain new ones. Another Artistic Director colleague noted that if theater companies counted Menopause: The Musical as part of their actual season (as opposed to the touring or rental production it usually is) it would be the best-selling show in their histories. Why? Women go to the theater and they bring their friends if they have shows that reflect their experiences. A dear friend connected with August: Osage County‘s fierce females so much that she flew from Atlanta to New York three times just to see it as many times on Broadway.

As Hanna Rosen has pointed out in her articles and lectures — there is a definitive rise in women as breadwinners and moneymakers in this country. I live in the Bay Area and am delightfully surrounded by brilliant women running major intuitions, businesses, and government orgs. Smart institutions will notice this and deliver. Women are already your majority, and women share experiences with other women, so it shouldn’t be hard to bring new women into the theater patronizing community.

Sean Daniels again:

“I think there’s a hidden thinking in here that men won’t watch women centric plays, but women will watch men centric plays — which really just sells everyone in that equation short. There are men watching The Hunger Games, but eventually there won’t be ladies watching dude filled plays and seasons.”

Viola Davis in "Fences".

We might help the world. Women are always underrepresented in positions of money, power, and personal safety. This comes, as most inherent biases do, from a lack of understanding and empathy. If we see more stories of women on stages across the country and the world we can change that.

Maybe what we really dream of is the day when plays by and about women would stop being “women’s plays” and start being — oh, y’know — really successful, moneymaking, audience-supported, universal, true, bold, smart plays. Everyone wants those plays, no matter what your gender.

Theater audiences want the designers of theatrical seasons to pay attention to the women onstage. Count them (as Valerie Week is doing in The Bay). The women in your audiences will.

Joy Meads of Center Theater Group in LA says:

“It’s frustrating that we have to have this conversation in 2012. But I’ve experienced this in my conversations about plays with colleagues across the country. Colleagues dismissing a play because its female protagonist was ‘unlikable.’ Producers should recognize that ‘we just choose the best plays’ is no longer an adequate defense: no one believes that there’s a shadowy cabal of avowed misogynists determined to keep women offstage. We need to be brave and rigorous in examining the shadowy, unconscious ways gender bias influences our decision making.”

Theater should be in the complex and necessary business of illuminating the human condition, of inspiring empathy and community, of provoking understanding, of entertaining and surprising and exposing and making beautiful the complete world of our time.

You know what helps that?

Telling everyone’s stories.

Lauren Gunderson is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and short story author living in The Bay Area. She received her MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU Tisch, her BA from Emory University, is an NYU a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. Her work has received national praise and awards. She writes for The Huffington Post.