<i>Hand to God</i> playwright Robert Askins.
Courtesy Photo

Religious fundamentalism and the strange, destructive ways it can alter one’s behavior. The unique and often perilous journey faced by black women in America. The fairness, or unfairness, of affirmative-action policies.

Tonight’s lineup of topics on The Rachel Maddow Show? It could easily be, given the recent murders of military personnel in Chattanooga, the death of Sandra Bland in Texas, and the decision by the Supreme Court to revisit the issue of racial preferences in college admissions.

But in fact, they are all subjects that will be explored at this year’s Ojai Playwrights Conference. The four-day event, which opened on Thursday, August 6, with a staged reading of Robert Askins’s Broadway hit Hand to God, continues through Sunday, August 9, with readings of eight provocative new plays.

“It’s always our conscious choice to pick plays that address burning issues of a social, political, or ethical nature,” said artistic director and producer Robert Egan. “That’s our mission. There’s a hunger out there for writers who are addressing those issues.”

“Race, class, polarization, economic injustice: You get the feeling that our 11 writers this year — eight workshoppers and three writers-in-residence — are extremely concerned, maybe even alarmed, about forces percolating beneath the surface of our society that could erupt in potentially dangerous and divisive ways — and probably will erupt if they’re not addressed,” said Egan.

Being a showcase for art rather than journalism, those issues will be “addressed in all different ways: dramatic, poetic, comedic,” Egan said. The latter adjective particularly applies to Hand to God, which is currently shocking and delighting New York audiences.

For Thursday’s reading, playwright Askins assumed the lead role of Jason, an emotionally repressed young man in a Christian puppet ministry whose alter ego — a sock puppet named Tyrone — suddenly starts spouting profanities and heretical views.

“Robert is a member of the family; he’s been here twice [in previous years],” Egan noted. “We took notice of him with Hand to God, but when he submitted the play to us, it felt so finished we felt it really didn’t need us. He ended up workshopping two other plays. Robert has a lot to say and is fearless about commenting on where he feels we are in terms of particular challenges as a people and a culture.”

One such challenge — the racial divide that revealed itself again with this year’s riots in Missouri and Maryland — will be addressed directly in 3 Women by poets/performers Gina Loring, Sunni Patterson, and Jaha Zainabu.

“Gina is a political artist in the best sense of the word,” Egan said. “She is extremely concerned, from an African-American woman’s point of view, about what’s occurring in the country. She has aligned with these other two women to express a black woman’s perspective of race in the United States through poetry and song. She sent me a fragment of the piece; we thought it was very exciting and offered her a slot. It won’t have a beginning-middle-end narrative. It’s more associative, utilizing movement, song, monologues, and poetry to tell its story.”

In contrast, Jiehae Park’s Peerless is a more traditional play — a dark comedy about a pair of Asian-American twins who seek revenge when a classmate who is one-sixteenth Native American gets a spot in a prestigious college they feel belongs to them.

“It’s not only about issues to do with affirmative action. It’s also about the ruthless competition that impacts today’s kids much earlier than it used to,” Egan said. “As the economic situation in our country becomes more disparate and polarized, you see what is trickling down is not wealth but rather a set of values — in this case, a ruthless sense of competition, a desire to get ahead at all costs.”

That’s another issue we need to come to grips with — preferably before our obscenity-spouting sock puppets decide to step in and speak for us.


The Ojai Playwrights Conference runs through Sunday, August 9, with most readings in the Zalk Theater, 703 El Paseo Road, Ojai. Tickets are $30. For more info, call (805) 640-0400 or visit ojaiplays.org.


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