A Girl Scout camping trip sets up a topical discussion of race and motherhood in Theatrical Outfit’s “Brownie Points,” a new comedy by the successful Atlanta playwright Janece Shaffer. A winter storm strands them overnight at a cabin in the North Georgia mountains, and while their kiddies sleep in a nearby room, five diverse women open up about their different walks (and views) of life.
“Living in Atlanta, it’s inevitable that race becomes a part of your life, so I wanted the play to start a conversation about it,” Shaffer acknowledged during a recent lunch interview.
“I look at the older generation, and then I look at the younger generation, and they have completely different experiences with race. My generation, we’re the ones who are really straddling the fence, and sometimes I wonder if that doesn’t make us the most ill-equipped to deal with it.”
Over the four years Shaffer has been developing “Brownie Points,” there have been workshop readings at Horizon (to predominantly white audiences), True Colors (predominantly black) and Theatre J in Washington, D.C. (predominantly Jewish). “The play continues to evolve as more people with other voices respond to it, and that only makes it better,” she said.
After a pause, Shaffer elaborated, “One thing everyone seemed to respond to was the humor, and that’s what let me know it was OK to be bringing it up. It’s a comedy, but it’s about how these women learn to listen to each other, what it takes for them to be their best selves. They’re struggling with the same things I do. To be worth all the time that goes into writing a play, it always needs to speak to me on a personal level like that.”
After grad school at Georgia State, Shaffer spent the early years of her theater career as marketing and media relations director at the Alliance. Her first play, “He Looks Great in a Hat,” premiered there in 1999, followed by productions of “The Genes of Beauty Queens” and “Wishful Thinking” at Horizon. Most recently, the Alliance’s Susan Booth staged Shaffer’s “Bluish” and “Managing Maxine.”
By day, the 46-year-old Atlanta native is communications director for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Her husband of 14 years is Bill Nigut, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Under the direction of Jasmine Guy, the promising ensemble of “Brownie Points” features veterans Terry Burrell, Carolyn Cook, Mary Kathryn Kaye, Courtney Patterson and Nevaina Rhodes as the disparate mothers, who gradually form a mutual trust — “one story and conversation at a time,” Shaffer said.
“I specifically wanted an African-American woman to direct the show, to take me places I couldn’t go on my own, to offer balance or to push me to consider another point of view,” she said. “Aside from being a great director, Jasmine’s so generous and telling of her own life that it brings a tremendous insight to the play.”
There are aspects of Shaffer in each of the roles, but especially in Patterson’s Jamie, the playwright admits — mainly because the character and the playwright are Jewish. (Fittingly, perhaps, Patterson is the only member of the cast to have worked on another Shaffer play — she had a supporting part in “Managing Maxine” — two, if you also count a voiceover bit she recorded for “Bluish.”)
Patterson sees more to it than just that. “Jamie is sweet and funny and laid back, but she also has really profound thoughts and perspectives,” she said. “Not that the character is completely Janece, but Jamie says those hard things that sometimes we think and feel, but are too embarrassed or nervous to say or ask out loud, and that’s essentially what Janece is doing, too, through her play.”
It could seem daunting to have the playwright sitting in on all the rehearsals. “Some don’t want to cut or change anything, and they’re so quick to defend every last word that you hesitate to question anything at all,” the actress said.
“But Janece is very open and flexible and understanding. She isn’t married to her words, but to the drama of the story,” Patterson explained. “That isn’t to say she’s a pushover or that she won’t stand up for something if she really believes in it. In the end, though, it’s all about collaboration and building something together. For an actor, that’s incredibly liberating, an ideal situation.”
For audiences, it’s about more than just watching the play.
“Her great talent is to disarm an audience with laughter, so that the human situation can be perceived in a new and brighter light,” Outfit artistic director Tom Key said. Whatever the subject matter of Shaffer’s plays, he said, “She can attract an audience to understand what it is that we all share in common. She’s truly committed to writing not just for the experience of the play, but for the conversation the play will begin with the audience after the curtain call.”
Literally. To that end, Shaffer has formed a host committee of women to lead “talk back” discussions after each performance of “Brownie Points.” The idea, she said, is that the audience becomes an active participant in the process, not simply a casual observer.
As Shaffer puts it, “My hope is that the play will embolden people to have conversations they’d normally shy away from. For me, success would be if ‘Brownie Points’ provoked a serious dialogue among different people, because that’s what compelled me to write it in the first place.”
Through Feb. 28. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, Feb. 13 and Feb. 27. $35. Theatrical Outfit, 84 Luckie St. N.W. 678-528-1500. theatricaloutfit.org .
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