By Alejandra Enciso Guzmán
Playwright Sheri Wilner was intrigued by a 2006 article she read in The New York Times about a controversial high school theatre department in a small Missouri town. She explained her impressions of the article during an interview with San Diego Free Press, how it triggered her play “Kingdom City” which opened with a world premier at The La Jolla Playhouse on September 4th.
“The article talked about how ‘Grease’ created some controversy in the school. And the next play that was being done was ‘The Crucible’; the principal was worried that that might cause controversy too, so he preemptively cancelled the play. I consider ‘The Crucible’ a masterpiece, I think it is one of the most important plays ever written. But if it where my 14 year old niece in the play, it becomes a different story. That was the fear I could understand.”
Wilner also explained that her play “Kingdom City,” directed by Jackson Gay, illustrates two sides of a culture war. “I tried to take the other person’s side and make the character that represents my point of view and show how each side would take this kind of battle. My goal was to write it as even [handed] as possible.”
The plot centers around Miriam, a displaced New York theatre director who finds herself in Kingdom City, Missouri. She reluctantly agrees to direct a high school production of “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s fictionalized drama about the Salem witch trials. As the school’s production unlocks the students’ repressed desires, a local youth minister threatens to cancel the play, creating a firestorm in the small conservative town.
“Miriam is very urban, liberal and from the world of the theatre and the principal of the school, living in Missouri, is conservative and evangelical… Part of my point was that these cultural wars are really about personalities. The kids in Kingdom City never get to do ‘The Crucible,’ but during a purity ceremony (that does not go well) they end up reciting words from it.”
“Everybody is evangelical about something”
“Kingdom City” presents a touchy and interesting subject for San Diego. It is interesting to see how audiences have been reacting to it as a reflection of this city’s own conservative tint. “Everyone is evangelical about something. I am evangelical about theatre and my liberal politics. It is interesting the people sort of recognizing how it sounds when you are so steadfast in a point of view. Liberals can be just as judgmental as conservatives can be. I really hope people come out and see the play.”
During this last week of “Kingdom City”–the play closes on Sunday, October 5th– the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre will hopefully be at capacity because it is a play well worth seeing. Each piece of theater resonates differently in everybody. That is the beauty of the performing arts. Wilner’s work touches upon three themes: teaching, religion taken to the extreme and the power of theatre.
The play explores how far of a reach a teacher’s lessons can have, the way they can influence a student to continue seeking answers and grow. It reveals how confusing religion can be when taken literally and to the extreme, instead of as a spiritual guide that changes as well with time and growth. It ultimately reveals how theatre can change the perspectives of audience members who sit down and watch the play. This unique form of human expression on the stage can help us understand (as well as question) aspects of life.
Wilner is very pleased with Jackson Gay’s direction of her work. “She is amazing. I was just watching her in action. It is a very detailed work with the actors. Everyone really understands what they are saying and the journey they are on. Every single line gets discussed.”
It has taken seven years to get to this point and Wilner is happy to hear the lines that have been “rattling in her skull’”out loud. “The production values are so high, I mean just the props. When you see something come out that was just a word on a page, it is really incredible. Everyone dreams; and it’s like one day a dream that you had starts happening in front of you. Three-dimensional. Outside of my head.”
Wilner is looking ahead to broaden the play’s audience, exploring other stages like New York where she is currently based. She is also a Visiting Professor in Playwriting at Florida State University’s MFA Dramatic Writing Program in Tallahassee. “The Playwrights Development Program selects three playwrights to work with‘a master playwright and I always have trouble calling myself ‘a master playwright’. We meet several times a year over the course of two years.” She will be headed there at the end of the month and is also working on her next play. “All my plays come about in where I am in life. I am 45 right now so, it is kind of a life transition about being in your forties.”
Wilner has also taught playwriting at the Primary Stages Einhorn School of Performing Arts in New York and has conducted playwriting classes and workshops at University of California, Santa Barbara; Cornell University; University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program; and Whitman College.
“Kingdom City” will have performances Tuesday thru Sunday October 5th. For more info on these click here. Tickets start at $15 dollars.
Editor Note: The article was corrected to reflect that Arthur Miller is the author of “The Crucible” and not Henry Miller, as originally stated.