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Behind The Scenes: DNA New Works Series

Blueprints To Freedom’ Among New Plays In La Jolla Playhouse’s Innovative Program

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


Developing new works is in the La Jolla Playhouse’s blood. Perhaps that’s why its DNA New Works Series is so appropriately named.

The La Jolla Playhouse is in the second year of its' creative experiment, the DNA New Work Series. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the material present in nearly all living organisms, carries the genetic code that determines much of what makes us what we are. So using DNA in the name of the program is appropriate for two reasons. First, it reflects what is encoded in the Playhouse’s very being, and second, it refers to the DNA of these new works, which is the text of the plays. The focus of the DNA New Works Series allows for the manipulation of this DNA during rehearsals and between performances as the piece progresses through its run. Much as academic and biotech communities use recombinant DNA technology to manipulate traits at the genetic level, the DNA New Work Series lets artists experiment with their scripts and test the results in front of an audience, driving them to the next level of inquiry and discovery.

Last year's inaugural series proved a success and the second season is now in full swing. That means these days, the printer in the La Jolla Playhouse rehearsal hall gets a constant workout. That’s because the text is in constant flux, says La Jolla Playhouse's artistic director 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."

Photo caption:

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Director Phylicia Rashad and actor-playwright Michael Benjamin Washington work on the text from the DNA New Works Series' play "Blueprints for Freedom: Ode to Bayard Rustin."

It's all about change says actor-turned-playwright Michael Benjamin Washington: "That's where we are right now, change, change, change. I just did a massive rewrite last night and I gave new scripts out and I’m excited to hear it today but nervous."

DNA Series Fact Sheet


"Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin" By Michael Benjamin Washington

Performances: Feb 21 – 23; Feb 28 – March 2; Fri/Sat at 7:30pm; Sun at 3pm


"Let Me Count the Ways" By Martín Zimmerman

Monday, Feb. 17 at 7:30 p.m.

"The Envelope" By Alex Lewin

Thursday, Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m.

"Higher" By Carey Perloff

Saturday, Feb. 22 at 3:00 p.m.

"The Brothers Paranormal" By Prince Gomolvilas

Monday, Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m.

"Tranquil" By Andrew Rosendorf

Wednesday, Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m.

"The Smartest Girl in the World" By Miriam Gonzales

Saturday, March 1 at 3:00 p.m.

"He’s rewriting and refining all the time," says 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.

"For me," Rashad explains, "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."

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

"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," Washington says, "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 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.

"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 states.

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

"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," he says.

Photo caption:

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Playwright Michael Benjamin Washington plays Bayard Rustin and James A. Watson, Jr. is A. Philip Randolph in the DNA New Works Series' "Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin."

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

"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," Washington says.

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

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

"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," says Rashad.

Bayard Rustin

Washington feels passionately about the play and about Rustin.

"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," he says.

The DNA New Works Series helps playwrights like Wasington to do their best by providing the perfect conditions for the kind of experimentation that will drive them to the next level of inquiry and discovery.

"Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin" begins performances tonight. The Playhouse chose it from more than 1500 scripts submitted to them for consideration.

Here is my coverage of the inaugural DNA New Works Series.


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