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Steppenwolf premieres a queer work of art with Last Night and the Night Before
by Jerry Nunn
2023-04-18

This article shared 2788 times since Tue Apr 18, 2023
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Steppenwolf Theatre Company is premiering a new production called Last Night and the Night Before, with plenty of queer representation both behind the scenes and onstage.

The story centers around a relationship between two sisters with a complicated bond. When one of them is on the run from trouble and arrives at her sister's doorstep in Brooklyn, ghosts from the past reemerge, plunging the family and the ones they love into a future together.

Brooklyn-based playwright Donnetta Lavinia Grays knows that world well and brings the very human story to life. She is the author of the plays Where We Stand, Warriors Don't Cry and Laid to Rest, among others. Her acting credits include theater, movies and recurring television roles.

Valerie Curtis-Newton directs Last Night and the Night Before; she currently serves as the founding artistic director for The Hansberry Project. Her award-winning work has been performed across the country with a focus on Seattle, where she currently resides.

The two openly queer artists met up in the Front Bar of Steppenwolf to discuss the development of Last Night and the Night Before for Windy City Times readers before its Chicago debut.

Windy City Times: How long have you known each other?

Valerie Curtis-Newton: Since 2015 and the start of this production. We did workshops, then a world premiere, and now we are here.

WCT: Where was this piece workshopped?

VCN: Denver.

WCT: Where are you both located now?

Donnetta Lavinia Grays: New York.

VCN: Seattle.

DLG: So we met up in the middle of the country in Chicago to put on a play about the South!

WCT: Donnetta, you have won many awards over your career. Is there one that meant a lot to you?

DLG: They are all my babies, but the Whiting Award that I received in 2021 was very special, because it was a literary award. To be in the same conversation with journalists, novelists and poets is an honor when I wasn't a great student in school.

WCT: How did your acting background enhance your writing?

DLG: I would get up and act out all the parts while writing it. I know actors want their lines to have value and to be beautifully written. I tried to create a language that I would want to perform and was muscular, even in Sam's tiny little body.

I wanted to be somewhat envious of what the performers were going to do onstage. What that allows the strong character to do, when they believe something is right, is it gives them something to push against. That is what we do as actors, to change the person in front of us and get them to do what we want them to do. I have to create a good argument for that, physically and verbally. If I get a sensation in my body it is going on the page!

WCT: Where are you originally from, Valerie?

VCN: I am from New England and I am an army brat.

DLG: So was I!

WCT: Oh, so you both have that in common.

VCN: Yes, I went from New England to Seattle for grad school. I have stayed forever and spent a whole life out there now.

WCT: Talk about the formation of Last Night and the Night Before.

VCN: I directed a reading of a play by a friend of Donnetta's. That connected us and brought us to Denver. We bonded over this particular story and had a long time to gestate with it. I was attracted to Donnetta's affinity for a muscular language, like she just mentioned. We were able to bring everything together to make it happen.

This is our third cast, so we are clear that what is on the page holds up, because different people have been able to lift the words off the page.

DLG: It has had a lot of different lives, but the story of how it arrived as a script happened when I was writing a very cerebral play called The Review or How to Eat Your Opposition, and it was about art criticism with artistic integrity versus moral integrity. I did a lot of research and was in a different part of my brain.

As a relief, I wanted to write in my own style of country-influenced language. I got my friends together to read what I had begun to write as my first act, and asked what they thought would happen in the second act. I didn't want anything to be predictable, so I didn't follow any of their guesses. There is an element of mystery to this show that has sustained itself and had a long life.

When the play eventually got to Val, her questions were deeper and more complicated. This really helped shape the play into what it is today.

VCN: I loved being able to work on a piece where there were Black, queer women at the center of it. This story shows the issues that they face, not because they are queer, but because they are in love in a pressure-packed situation. This was really gratifying to me, and I don't get to do that very often as a queer woman. I don't get to work on material that puts us in a fair, representative light. To be able to do that, and fall in love with them while they are wrestling with their love for each other, was a great gift to me. This was a highlight for me in the last phase of my directing career.

DLG: That means a lot to me, Val!

WCT: Sum up the story of the play for those that haven't seen it.

VCN: It is a story of four adults who have to figure out what a young person in their life needs, and how to give it to her. Will they be able to be happy while providing her happiness?

DLG: In addition to that, it is a play about breaking silence and legacy. What can they leave for this child and the next generation? What will the future look like? There is a mystery to it for audiences to discover.

WCT: What does the title Last Night and the Night Before refer to?

DLG: It refers to one of the many hand games that the little girl named Sam plays inside the show. Those hand games are a map of not only where she is mentally, but also tracks where the show is, as well [as what is] in her memory, and this family's expression of their story. "Last night and the night before, I met my boyfriend at the candy store."

WCT: Talk about the queer characters in the storyline.

DLG: It is not a major part of the story. Instead, they are just there and exist as a queer couple. They are not the problem of the play in any way.

This is a play beyond a coming-out-of-the-closet storyline and I have already written my coming-out plays in the past. The women are in a relationship dealing with a problem that has come to them.

The script presents a very complicated and mature kind of love that many will like to see. They might even go home fighting about what happens onstage with the different versions of love.

VCN: From the very first workshop, we recognized the truth of what Donnetta has written. When folks sat around the table, they read conversations that they have had in real life. There is an honesty and a truth to it that is palpable for people.

DLG: For all of the characters, it is a lived-in kind of an experience in its queerness, southernness and Blackness. We are not teaching anybody anything.

VCN: We are only teaching people who have no clue who we are and they need to be taught.

WCT: What obstacles did you overcome to make Last Night and the Night Before?

VCN: In some ways it has been blessed. One of the actors got COVID, so navigating how to keep everyone on board while trading people in and out made this last stretch more difficult than other iterations, but the gods have been smiling on us for much of this journey!

WCT: How different is the final product from the original conception?

DLG: It feels like the play that I wrote. What else can I ask for?

VCN: My job as a director, especially of relatively new work, is to do my best with whatever the playwright has written, to make sure it is something that is seen. The first audience I want to please is Donnetta, and everyone comes after that.

WCT: How do you think the audience will feel after watching this production?

DLG: This play is subversive in a lot of ways, so they will have an expectation as soon as they see these people onstage. Audiences may leave with different things, but they will know something about love by the end of it and will also know more about the people they thought they knew too.

VCN: If people don't laugh and cry, then I have not done a good job. There may be a visceral reaction for people. If there is not a tear in the eye or a chuckle by the end, then we have missed something. Everything is built into the story.

DLG: We are also introducing a rarely heard specific southern accent onstage, so they will leave with a different ear. I hope people come to the show excited about learning a language from a different part of this country that they may not know or be familiar with.

WCT: What projects are you working on in the future?

DLG: I just finished a co-producing project at AMC for a show called Seconds. I will be going to Greenville, South Carolina to shine a light on a blues singer named Josh White soon.

VCN: I run an organization in Seattle called The Hansberry Project; it is a Black theater development group. I will be directing Last Drive to Dodge in the fall.

There is an upcoming festival called Drinking Gourd that we work on with True Colors Theatre Company of Atlanta, to bring more Black playwriting to the stage.

WCT: Well, keep up the good work and bring more unseen stories like this to life!

Last Night and the Night Before runs through May 14, 2023, at Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theater, 1650 North Halsted St. Tickets can be found at steppenwolf.org or by calling 312-335-1650.


This article shared 2788 times since Tue Apr 18, 2023
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