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Is “The Flower Thief” a “Black Play?”

Playwright Pia Wilson pushes the notion of “ethnic stories”

“There has to be an access point in New York for new artists trying to get a start in the city,” says Horse Trade Artistic Director Heidi Grumelot.

Accordingly, Horse Trade has made a name for itself in recent years for its willingness to produce interesting new voices, often via festivals such as FRIGID and Fire This Time. In fact, Pia Wilson’s The Flower Thief , now playing at the Red Room, is the first full production to emerge Fire This Time, a fest dedicated to early career writers of African and African-American descent.

“What’s interesting about Pia is she doesn’t write what people consider ‘the black play,’ which is a play about urban struggles or slavery or whatever,” says Grumelot, who also directs this production. “She’s just writing about people who happen to be African-American.”

In The Flower Thief, Wilson follows a young man named Clark who is still struggling with the loss of his twin brother in a drowning accident when they were 17. The play darts between Clark’s adult life and his adolescence, with different actors playing characters at different ages.

According to Wilson, very little has changed in the script since it was workshopped in Fire This Time in 2011, though she suggests that without that festival, there might not be a play.

“As an African-American writer, I would say that Clark and the rest of the black characters in The Flower Thief might not necessarily fit into people’s idea of what a traditional black play is,” Wilson says. “And so that’s the whole purpose of the Fire This Time fest, exploring the idea of what a ‘black play’ is.”

As the first playwright to receive a fully-realized production from the festival, Wilson says she’s been given the freedom to develop her voice. “I can go with my instinct and say, ‘I think this play is ready to go,’ without having 100 really smart people telling me what to do with it,” she explains, though she did relish the chance to work with dramaturg Heather J. Violanti.

Months before rehearsal, Violanti was poring over the script with Grumelot, discussing its complicated structure and multiple narratives. “The way [Wilson has] done it is very evocative,” Violanti says, “but it also took a lot of time to understand it from a production standpoint.”

As the production’s dramaturg, Violanti researched any real-life references in the script. “There’s a lot of references to old films [in The Flower Thief],” she says, “and I made a list of these films and created a YouTube playlist that we could look at together as a company.” After Violanti screened the clips from films such as White Heat and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, the designers took notice.

“The film research in particular really helped us create a visual and emotional world,” Violanti says. “I know that influenced some of the costume choices, because one of the worlds is entirely costumed in black and white. Whether you inspire the designer to make a color choice or the shape of a dress, you bring so much to how the world of the play is created. And not every company has room for a dramaturg, so it’s great when you get to have that impact.”

While Horse Trade keeps alive the tradition of utilizing a dramaturg, Grumelot also sees the company and the Fire This Time festival as being at the forefront. “Our goal with Fire This Time is get rid of this notion of an ethnic slot in your programming,” she says. “There are so many amazing playwrights from different walks of life here, I just think it should be based on quality and not your ethnic background. Sometimes it kind of blows my mind when I think about who gets on to the main stages of theatres around town and who doesn’t.”

Mark Peikert is the New York Bureau Chief of Back Stage
Photo by Heidi Grumelot

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