It’s a dream of aspiring playwrights to hold a reading of their work and have an artistic director come to them and say, "I want your play for my upcoming season," but it’s not that easy. Yet, it’s happened to Lisa B. Thompson twice.
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The first time was her comedy Single Black Female, which launched her career and has been produced all over the country for the past twenty years. The second is her work Monroe, which has its world premier at Austin Playhouse on September 7.
Set in 1946, during the great migration north, Monroe depicts the impacts of a lynching on both the victim’s family and the community at large, and how those same people still strive for a better future.
Although it deals with serious subject matter, interactions between family members and close friends infuse the play with humor. The language reminds you of Sunday dinners, extended families and church homecomings. The cast includes Austin greats Carla Nickerson, Marc Pouhé and Crystal Bird Caviel. The production is directed by Lara Toner Haddock, Austin Playhouse’s Artistic Director.
Thompson, who describes herself as a scholar/artist, is an award-winning playwright whose work has been produced throughout the US and Canada. She is also a professor in the department of African and African Diaspora Studies at UT Austin. Her play Underground, a psychological thriller, was voted one of Austin’s 10 most memorable theatre productions in 2017. Look for a staging of her latest comedy, The Mamalogues, next summer at the Vortex.
Although this will be the play’s first production, Thompson wrote Monroe for a class when she was in graduate school. She wanted to work with the concept of a black woman impregnated by immaculate conception. The character she created, Cherry, is till central to the play. The rest of the story unfolded around that original idea.
For 20 years, a friend encouraged Thompson to get Monroe out again. She finally relented and entered it into the Austin Playhouse’s new play festival. Following the applause at the staged reading, the artistic director asked what he’d need to do to get the play for the upcoming season. Evidently they worked it out, because Monroe is the Austin Playhouse season opener.
Monroe, Louisiana, from which the play gets its title, is a very real place. In fact, Thompson’s family comes from there, but migrated to San Francisco decades ago. After writing the play, Thompson learned the town was one of the top five places for lynchings between 1850 and 1950.
It seems like a good time for a play like Monroe. The parallels between the piece and what’s happening now with shootings of unarmed citizens and the pushback against the resulting activism are clear. “Many black lives activists have been found burned in their cars since Ferguson,” Thompson said. “It’s striking to think of what that [lynching] does. It’s meant to terrorize, change and shape people.”
These ghosts are lingering
The opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the National Lynching Memorial, have again put lynchings and the need for change in the forefront of many minds. As Thompson said, “These ghosts are lingering. Until we put them to rest properly, it will be something we will keep wrestling with.”
Monroe runs Thursdays through Sundays until September 30. For more information about the production or the Austin Playhouse season, visit their website.