“I was 40 years old. I had a life. Especially with [daughter] Chiara — will we feel guilt forevermore? Of course, yes. But the truth is, I could not spend every day with her. I didn’t want to do that. I looked for all kinds of reasons not to do it. … I’ve been working since I was 14, and that part of me is me. It took a long time for me to get into ‘I’m taking care of kids,’ and what that means.” – Chirlane McCray, 2014
After New York Magazine profiled Chirlane McCray, wife of Mayor Bill de Blasio, the New York Post took some of McCray’s comments out of context, publishing a front-page story with the headline, ‘NYC’s first lady: I was a bad mom.’
In the realm of public life, any father who utters similar words about parenting likely would receive a free pass in the press — certainly not a front-page story. However, McCray was refreshingly sincere in her interview, turning on its head the typical image of mothers being eternally selfless and suffering, always bending the arc toward personal sacrifice. Nevertheless, McCray suddenly was a new high-profile target in the cultural mommy wars that shape the contentious sociopolitical dynamics we endure these days — around the country and most especially in Utah.
The New York Post failed to mention other aspects of McCray’s interview in which she became the “default parent” for their two children when de Blasio worked in the Clinton administration. Likewise, the Post piece failed to mention her becoming the primary caretaker for her mother as well as her mother-in-law who lived in a Brooklyn neighborhood, a time she remembers as one of the most difficult ever in her life.
In the new play, ‘Mama,’ which is being premiered this month by Plan-B Theatre (Feb. 12-22), playwright Carleton Bluford lays out an exquisitely touching and honest tapestry celebrating the deep connections which he shares with his mother, interwoven with stories of others that he curated from a request he put out originally in a Facebook post. Bluford pays a masterfully synthesized tribute to a mother’s presence in a unique voice and art that is a profound statement of remembrance and embodiment. He captures the gamut of emotion — affection, awkwardness, grief, disappointment, fierce commitment, contemplation and silence — in a script that epitomizes the courageous artist in the recent movement known as the Utah Enlightenment.
‘Mama’ also signifies several milestones for Plan-B and Bluford, who has appeared in several productions for the company. This is the young playwright’s first premiere, as ‘Mama’ was selected unanimously in a blind reading process involving 24 submissions from Utah-based playwrights 35 and younger in the inaugural competition for the David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists (The Davey Foundation).
“The panel was composed of David Fetzer’s friend/filmmaker/actor Johnny Kuene, who loved that is was experimental in form; playwright Jenifer Nii, who found it beautifully written; playwright Debora Threedy, who found it to be unique but universal, and I thought it felt like a play that Davey’d really like,” Jerry Rapier, Plan-B’s producing director, explains.
The premiere, which coincides with the commemoration of Black History Month and the Edward Lewis Black Theatre Festival, is believed to be the first for an African-American playwright in Utah, Rapier says.
While Bluford was clear on what was needed for The Davey Foundation’s grant competition, he took time to develop the creative path for ‘Mama.’ “As far as developing the themes of motherhood and sacrifice, it wasn’t something I settled on,” he explains. “I started writing with my mother in mind and those themes instantly came to mind. When I asked for stories about mothers on Facebook, I wasn’t sure what to expect, I just hoped people would respond. And they did with beautiful stories.”
While there are four actors, one male (black) and three females (two black and one white), each one assumes between five and seven roles in Bluford’s compact yet surprisingly diverse script which runs 70 minutes. “I’ve written what I know. A lot of the situations in the play I have actually seen, experienced, learned about, or have been told about,” Bluford explains. “I just drew on all of the things I knew in my head and tried to make an awesome stew.”
Bluford experiments with format in impressive ways. In some instances, actors recite lines from stories collected from Facebook responses while other stories are shaped in character dialogue that are told in segments which are eventually resolved at the end of the play. Even as new characters and stories are introduced and then set aside momentarily — marked off by longer monologue bits curated from Facebook stories shared with the playwright — audience members can clearly follow the epiphanies that become apparent at the end. He brings back stories as themes become immediately relevant and apparent.
We hear about a young woman who still cannot get over her mother’s decision to euthanize a beloved pet dog without telling her first. She learned the news through a text her mom sent along with a photo of her dog laying down.
There is the story of Heather, a young woman (who is white) telling her boyfriend Sam (who is black) that she is pregnant, even though she has yet to confirm the identity of the child’s father. He tells her that he will stand by and do whatever she needs.
Another recalls eloquently the stories of two mothers. Her birth mother became a prostitute and a drug user during her teen years, and after years of neglect and abuse, she was adopted. She writes about her adopted parents:
“They broke the cycle. We were saved. So I can say that I have two mothers, but I’ve only ever called one Mom. My parents are angels in disguise. They also ended up adopting the third baby that came along and was taken from my birth mother as well. And though my birth mother became my aunt and she was a part of our lives, because of her lifestyle she died when I was 19 of complications of AIDS. A tragic and sad life for her but, as my Mom always says, she brought three children into this world. Hopefully she is in heaven taking care of babies she couldn’t while she was here on Earth. I do hope that peace for her.”
In one scene, a son is arguing with his mother about making dinner for a college recruiter who is coming to visit but his mom now is deciding whether or not to cancel her previous plans. The son leaves the house angry and frustrated before the situation is reconciled. The woman visitor arrives only to tell the mother her son is not going to receive the scholarship. The mother is passionate in speaking up for her son’s abilities:
“Now where’s my boy going to go? He’s been waiting on this, hoping for this and we don’t have the kind of money where he can just up and choose anyplace he wants to go. He’s the most talented you’ve seen in ten years you said. Wow, and here you are. Doing what you think is right, taking an educated chance and interviewing my boy. Because I’m willing to bet, that after you do, there’s no way you’ll walk out of here and not go back to that school and fight for my boy. We’ve work way too long and hard for this opportunity for you not to at least do that much. God sent you here and he’s going to send you back when he’s ready. Wait and see what he has to show you, I dare you.”
Bluford is part of a newer generation of writers and artists especially in the Utah Enlightenment who resist the anesthetizing, utilitarian or even pragmatic impulses in their creative work. Instead of cynicism or rage in which some writers might prefer to remember their own injuries, disappointments or shortcomings in their relationships, Bluford sets a better path for a more mature, thoughtful, awakened world in sharing and shaping stories that will spark the right memories of home and place in audiences — to remember their mothers as beautiful women in their fierce, forceful and powerful capacities for love.
When Bluford returns to the story of Heather and Sam later in the play, it is Thanksgiving and Heather has come to Denver to spend the holiday with Sam’s family. Heather is preparing dinner with Sam’s mother Grace, who is encouraging while his sister Scarlet is not happy to see her brother’s girlfriend. Scarlet tells Heather, “Ya’ll don’t know nothing about our culture, nothing about where we come from, nothing about what it is to be black and you think you qualified to raise that baby girl in there? Lord Jesus help me, oh it gets on my nerves.”
Heather doesn’t pull any punches, pouncing on Scarlet’s remark by rattling off her great-grandfather’s full name and background about her family. “The fact of the matter is, ‘You like to sit in here and talk shit on good people for no good reason. I’m trying so hard here and I’m going to be an excellent mother to my mixed daughter; she will know black history and white history and every other history I can teach her because she will be educated! Qualified? Honey, we aren’t even in the same country as far as ‘qualified’. You’re not on my level, come to Utah sometime and I’ll teach you how to fry some chicken!”
Grace laughs, telling Scarlet, “Girl, you better hurry up and apologize to this woman. See, that’s what happens, you know God don’t like ugly.” By the time Sam returns to the house, there is no doubt about Grace’s love for the newest member of her family.
‘Mama’ is an impressive introduction to Bluford’s newest ‘role’ as a playwright. “Well the shows that I have been in at Plan-B have been well-crafted, beautiful and smart pieces of theatre. They have given me something to strive for,” he tells The Utah Review. “As a young playwright, I think it is important to be around great writers who are writing new plays and to have that opportunity on stage is a blessing. Now, has my writing gotten better because of this? Absolutely, especially in terms of learning what works in different spaces and for different audiences.”
Rapier who is directing the production says half of the casting for ‘Mama’ was set long before he knew of the play’s existence. “Dee-Dee [Darby-Duffin] and Latoya [Rhodes] have been with ‘Mama’ from the beginning,” he recalls. “In fact, Dee-Dee hosted the first reading of the play in her living room. Once the play was officially part of the current Plan-B season we then held an audition to round out the cast: when Elizabeth [Summerhays] and [William] Cooper [Howell] read together I knew we’d found the rest of our ensemble.”
Rapier is going with a stark setting — just four stools, three chairs, a projection screen and “maybe two handfuls” of props. Rapier is also following Bluford’s sense of experimentation in other aspects. “Costuming is almost always focused on the characters the actors play,” he explains, “but in the case of ‘Mama’ we are focusing on dressing the actors themselves.”
As audience members settle into their seats, they will hear music from Tupac Shakur, Boys II Men, Etta James, Ram Jam and The Spinners. The production also features a song written by the late David Fetzer, a gifted artist and actor, for his mother Betsy Ross, also titled ‘Mama’. David Evanoff has composed the arrangement for the premiere, of which snippets of the song will be used throughout the show. As Rapier notes, “its existence and availability to us is more than serendipity — it’s necessity.”
Performances will run Feb. 12-22, with shows Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. in the Studio Theatre at Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts in downtown Salt Lake City.
Ticket information for ‘Mama’ is here.