‘Lights Rise on Grace’
Through April 26
641 D Street, N.W.
Playwright Chad Beckim dreads the poseur label. In his work, he writes about the personal lives of minorities and down-low lovers. Things a straight white boy from Maine might not know about. But through firsthand experience and research, Beckim has learned a lot and does his best to get it right.
In his gritty chamber play “Lights Rise on Grace,” now at Woolly Mammoth, Beckim tells the story of Grace, a shy Asian girl, who falls in love with Large, an extroverted African-American classmate. But their happiness is interrupted when Large is sent to prison. While locked up, he falls into a relationship with white inmate Riece. Six years later, a released Large reunites with Grace but continues his relationship with Riece.
“Inside prison Large and Riece are definitely lovers — intensely physically and emotionally paired off. When they return to their outside lives they don’t cut that off. They still see each other. And from what I’ve read, this happens a lot,” says Beckim, 41. “Had they grown up in a different more supportive environment, Large and Riece would have been gay men in a same-sex relationship, I think.”
What’s Beckim’s way into these gay characters? “I’m in theater. I’m surrounded by gay people and have always frank discussions with them. Also my uncle is gay.”
The Brooklyn-based playwright and co-artistic director of Partial Comfort Productions, a small but respected New York theater company recalls a particular family vacation. “My uncle and I were out on the lake drinking boxed wine when I asked him about being gay, to tell me what it’s like. That following Christmas when I came home from New York, my mom said, ‘If you’re gay I’ll always love.’ I was confused because I had a serious girlfriend at the time. Turns out my uncle had told my mom that I seemed gay curious and might be afraid to come out. My brother laughed a lot.”
Despite his familiarity with gays, treading in LGBT territory continues to be where Beckim feels the most “interloper-esque.” “When writing, I persistently ask questions to my gay friends: Does this track? Does this pan out? I don’t enter into this lightly, believe me. I take it very seriously and want to get it right.”
“Grace” first ran at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2007 where it was singled out for top prizes, and the revised Woolly production is part of a National New Play Network rolling premiere. This version is the result of a major rewrite (40 out of 51 pages rewritten). It’s directed by Michael John Garcés and features DeLance Minefee as Large, Ryan Barry as Riece and Jeena Yi in the title part.
Beckim’s inspiration for “Grace” was Dael Orlandersmith’s “Yellowman,” a two hander examination of race and sexuality “I read it on a 6 a.m. bus ride home to Maine and was blown away,” he says. “I’m from the whitest state in the country but I’ve always been interested in culture, race, ethnicity and sexuality. I think growing up where everyone looks the same fueled my interest and desire to examine other cultures.”
As an undergrad at Syracuse University where he did a lot of theater, Beckim pledged a black frat. After college, he continued acting and moved New York City where he lived with a Dominican friend’s extended family in rough, pre-gentrified Washington Heights. When he taught in New York City public schools as a teaching artist, his students were mostly minorities. His mentor is celebrated African-American gay playwright Robert O’Hara (“Bootycandy”) who encouraged Beckim to become a serious writer and introduced him to Woolly Mammoth.
For a time he lived in a housing project in Spanish Harlem where “Grace” is set. He remembers walking by a family-run Chinese restaurant where the young daughter was always seated in the window doing her homework, and wondering what her life would be. How would she get along with the black and Spanish kids at school? What kind of life she’d have. That’s where the play started.”
Now focused on writing, Beckim is eager to continue exploring subjects meaningful to him and the varied people to which he’s drawn. There’s nothing poseur about him.