Nothing brings out Americans’ anxieties about race and class quite like the topic of children. Whether we are talking about the appropriate amount for a teen’s allowance or how African Americans feel they must train their boys to avoid triggering violence in their encounters with law enforcement, deep feelings quickly rise to the surface, and previously unacknowledged values often assert themselves.
How much more fraught, then, is the subject of adoption? That’s what playwright Jane Anderson set out to discover in 1989 when she wrote The Baby Dance, a drama that examines what happens when a wealthy Los Angeles couple unable to conceive a child turn to adopting an as-yet-unborn infant from a working-class family in Shreveport, Louisiana. That version of The Baby Dance became a theatrical triumph, opening at the Pasadena Playhouse and going on to run at Williamstown Theatre Festival, the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, and then off-Broadway in New York City. In 1998, Anderson reshaped the material into a successful television movie starring Stockard Channing and Laura Dern. The film version was nominated for multiple Primetime Emmy Awards.
Now Anderson and Jenny Sullivan, who directed the original play in 1990, are back with a new, revised script and a mixed-race cast for The Baby Dance: Mixed, which opens on Saturday, May 5, at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura. When I spoke with Sullivan last week, she praised Anderson’s tendency to “always go where you don’t expect her to go” and Rubicon Producing Artistic Director Karyl-Lynn Burns’s decision to expand the rehearsal period in order to allow for cast input on the new draft. “It was originally about class,” said Sullivan, “but this time around it’s much more about race, and we learned so much from working on it with our actors.” In The Baby Dance: Mixed, the wealthy Los Angeles couple seeking to adopt are Regina, an African-American woman, and Richard, a white man. The couple who feel they are too poor to afford a fourth child are Wanda and Al, African Americans who live in a trailer in Louisiana. The “baby dance” of the play’s title refers to the complex negotiations conducted by an adoption attorney and to how the deal he brokers eventually spins out of control.
Sullivan occupies a special place as one of the brightest stars in our regional-theater sky. She’s a multiple Indy Award winner, a prodigiously gifted director, and an unequaled repository of knowledge about actors, theaters, and plays that have been produced in Southern California and beyond. Listening to her talk about The Baby Dance in all its variations, one can’t help but feel that this project represents something essential not only to her, but to a whole cohort of theatrical women — Jane Anderson, of course, but also Stephanie Zimbalist, Linda Purl, Bonnie Franklin, and others, right up to the women of the cast of The Baby Dance: Mixed, Tracey A. Leigh and Krystle Simmons. Santa Barbara audiences will remember Leigh’s marvelous performance in Ensemble Theatre Company’s 2013 production of Good People, which was also helmed by Sullivan.
Any chance to see what Anderson can do as a playwright demands attention. She wrote the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, starring Frances McDormand, which won an incredible eight Primetime Emmy Awards in 2015, and she received the Writers Guild of America Award for her work on the second season of Mad Men, so she could easily rest on her laurels as one of the greatest scripted television writers working today. But her passion for the theater, and in particular for this project, has brought her back not only to the stage but also to her longstanding relationship with Jenny Sullivan, and that’s something to celebrate.
The Baby Dance: Mixed previews May 2-4 and then runs May 5-20 at the Rubicon Theatre (1006 E. Main St., Ventura). For tickets and information, call (805) 667-2900 or visit rubicontheatre.org.