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Behind the Scenes DNA New Works Series 2014

February 21, 2014 9:41 a.m.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando checks in on the second season of the La Jolla Playhouse's DNA New Works Series.

Related Story: Behind The Scenes: DNA New Works Series


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ANCHOR INTRO: Developing new works is in the La Jolla Playhouse’s blood. Perhaps that’s why its DNA New Works Series is so appropriately named. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando checks in on the second season of this innovative play development program at the Playhouse.

DNAPLAY (ba).wav 3:50

TAG: Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin begins performances tonight. Watch for Beth’s video feature tonight on Evening Edition.

The printer in the rehearsal hall at the La Jolla Playhouse gets a constant workout. That’s because the Playhouse is in the midst of its DNA New Works Series says artistic director Christopher Ashley.

CHRISTOPHER ASHLEY: DNA is really about first time hearing material, first time words are ever spoken… The script you will see on day one and the script you will see on the final day of performances is going to be different.

Every day is different says actor turned playwright Michael Benjamin Washington.

MICHAEL BENJAMIN WASHINGTON: I just did a massive rewrite last night and I gave new scripts out and I’m excited here today, and a bit nervous.

PHYLICIA RASHAD: He’s rewriting and refining all the time.

That’s director Phylicia Rashad. She is the calm at the eye of the storm. No amount of changes, pressure or time constraints phase her. She is completely focused.

PHYLICIA RASHAD: For me the exciting thing is always to find what is beneath what’s on the page. That’s the way I work, that’s how I’m trained, that’s how I develop what I do and that’s what’s happening here. And I like it very much because it informs the delivery of the text.

CLIP No economic Freedom, the march would have… if not the preamble to a full… how do I not break the rhythm… you just did… if not the preamble…

The text Rashad is working on is Washington’s play Blueprints for Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin. Washington also takes on the role of Rustin in the play.

MICHAEL BENJAMIN WASHINGTON: He was a great proponent of the civil rights movement who taught Dr. King all the edicts of non-violence and civil disobedience as taught to him by Gandhi and I always wondered why I had never heard of him. Upon research I found out that he was an openly gay man at a time when that really wasn’t a looked upon favorably, it really opened up my eyes to the possibilities of 50 years later would Bayard Rustin be able to exist now. Everyone says he couldn’t exist then so do you think he could exist now?

But Rustin did exist and did make an impact on the civil rights movement, which presented Washington with a choice.

MICHAEL BENJAMIN WASHINGTON: Are you going to present this as the outsider who’s relegated to the shadows because he was gay, or what were his great accomplishments in spite of that…So for me it wasn’t about showing why he was relegated, it was about showing when he was elevated.

Washington says gay rights is the civil rights conversation of the moment and that makes Rustin’s struggle especially relevant.

MICHAEL BENJAMIN WASHINGTON: It seemed more than appropriate to bring him out of the shadows and into the spotlight and to examine what his true brilliance was… I want an audience to have a revelation about tolerance.

DNA affords Washington the opportunity to find out if his message is getting through.

MICHAEL BENJAMIN WASHINGTON: So over the course of three weeks and six public performances and talkbacks we get to see what it would look like, not as a production but as a living breathing thing off of the page.

Performances employ minimal sets and production values but offers audiences a peek behind the curtain of a work in progress, says Ashley.

CHRISTOPHER ASHLEY: This is really not about the sets, not about the costumes, this is about the words, the script, the acting values, it’s really about people and the ideas and the language.

There talkbacks after each show but Rashad is careful to point out the the audience is not the one rewriting the play.

PHYLICIA RASHAD: I don’t think it’s so much that this process was designed for the audience to change the play as much as it is that it’s illuminating for the playwright to hear how the audience receives it.

Washington feels passionately about the play and about Rustin.

MICHAEL BENJAMIN WASHINGTON: This story of a forgotten hero, 50 years later it’s time for Bayard Rustin’s name to be told and I’m gonna do my best to honor him.

The DNA New Works Series strives to help take Washington’s raw material and bring it into clear focus.

Beth Accomando, KPBS News.