Jackie Sibblies Drury in The New York Times

Writes Well With Others


From: The New York Times
April 16, 2013

Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times
Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A Google search spurred Jackie Sibblies Drury’s first produced play, and she peppers her stage directions with smiley or frowny emoticons to suggest a line’s emotional color. But these aren’t the reasons this 31-year-old is a playwright of the moment.

Rather, it’s because she manages to bridge the gap between plays that start as scripts and those that are collaborations among actors, a director and a writer.

Her breakout work, the exhaustingly titled “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915,” put that very process onto the stage, detailing the fraught, often painfully funny efforts of six actors to create a play about a little-noted African genocide. Developed as her graduate playwriting thesis at Brown University, it went on to well-received runs at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago and Soho Rep in New York, both directed by Eric Ting. A production is scheduled at Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington next season.

Ms. Drury has returned to Providence and to the Trinity Repertory Company (affiliated with Brown), where she was commissioned to create a play with the theater’s resident acting ensemble. The result, the bleakly comic “Social Creatures,” running here through Sunday, depicts a zombie apocalypse, not a genocide, and it’s not about actors making a show. But in a site-specific twist that influenced the development of the script, the action is set in an abandoned theater very much like Trinity Rep’s downstairs space, where a band of survivors has barricaded itself on the stage.

“For a while, it seemed kind of arbitrary, like she set it in the theater because she was commissioned for us,” said Rebecca Gibel, who plays a meek woman whose husband has gone missing. “But then we realized it would be a great place to hide out. There are no windows and a lot of building materials. And it’s a place the masses don’t think of going.”

Ms. Drury, a quiet, six-foot-tall woman with a sneaky, self-effacing sense of humor, said she got the idea for a horror story from Providence’s reputation as a haunted city, and that she started writing it before the runaway popularity of shows like “The Walking Dead.” The Occupy Wall Street movement was also on her mind.

True to the genre, the play includes internecine suspicions that fray tenuous alliances, and at least one human meal is served extra rare. But “Social Creatures” offers no convincing explanation for the flesh eaters’ appearance or their MO. No helpful news reports are overheard, and none of the eight survivors conveniently happens to be a scientist. The play’s most insistent refrain, offered in response to one hypothesis or another: “You’re not a doctor.”

The play started out as “much more broadly comic” and only gradually got more gritty, said D’Arcy Dersham, who plays the group’s irritable leader. Timothy Crowe, who has the role of a crusty old-timer, said there were still “set-’em-up-and-knock-’em-down laughs, and Jackie wants those, of course, but she’s onto something else.”

“In most of the zombie movies we looked at,” he added, “there is some way out. For these people, there is no way out.”

Sci-fi and horror narratives typically function as allegories by pushing human behavior to extremes, and Ms. Drury’s is no exception. But by layering in elements of class and race, and by leaving so much open to interpretation, she said she was trying “to talk about current politics in a different-circumstance ‘right now.’ ”

Critical response has been positive, with some exceptions. The Providence Journal praised the play as “quirky, fresh and supersmart,” while The Boston Globe called it “diverting but ultimately disappointing.”

Group-originated work typically comes from cohesive troupes like the Rude Mechanicals (“The Method Gun”) and Elevator Repair Service (“Gatz”). Ms. Drury isn’t affiliated with a company as such, but since graduate school she has been drawn to collaboration.

“Really early on, she recognized what it means to create a text that allows for the electricity of an ensemble, makes room for that aliveness rather than shutting it down,” said the playwright Lisa D’Amour (“Detroit”), who taught her at Brown.

Ms. Drury traces the rangy, metatheatrical form of “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation” to a Brown class on historiography taught by Patricia Ybarra.

“She has people do class presentations about serious subjects, and these undergraduates always did them either super-irreverently or superearnestly,” Ms. Drury recalled. “You’d hear students being like, ‘I, as a white man, cannot ever understand the pain,’ and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, just say what you’re talking about.’ There was so much fear in speaking with authority, which I could really relate to.”

Insecurity about speaking with a single voice might explain why this playwright is drawn to relatively large casts and scenes and speeches that collide and overlap.

“I like the musicality of a group of people talking,” said Ms. Drury, who grew up in Plainfield, N.J., as the only child of immigrants from Jamaica. It’s the discord she’s especially listening for, the “musically wrong dialogue” of “having a lot of different voices not saying exactly what they mean to say, and therefore saying something more interesting.”

One moment in “Social Creatures” shows her knack for putting intentions at cross-purposes: While two men are gorily eviscerated by a zombie at the back of the stage, a couple in the foreground have a petty marital squabble, shouting over the melee behind them.

It’s a droll juxtaposition, and it denotes Ms. Drury as a product of our multitasking, wide-sampling age. The subjects of her next batch of plays include YouTube, the Bosnian wars, the United Fruit Company, and Islam and feminism. The last of these, she hopes, will involve a monthslong residency in Morocco with her husband, an anthropologist.

Whether these projects will involve ensemble-based devising or not, Ms. Drury’s work is unlikely to follow a predictable template. In the midst of a daunting technical rehearsal, Curt Columbus, Trinity Rep’s artistic director, said: “I joked with Jackie, ‘Can your next play be a family drama around a kitchen table?’ And she said, ‘Under no circumstances.’ ”

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