1st STAGE is presenting three plays in its “Logan Festival of Solo Performance” through August 7, 2022—“Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me but Banjos Saved My Live” written and performed by Keith Alessi, “Spanking Machine” written and performed by Marga Gomez and “Wanda’s Way,” written by Caleen Sinnette Jennings. Artistic and Managing Director of 1st STAGE, Alex Levy, gave us insight into these unique productions:
“The Logans gave 1st Stage the resources to bring the country’s most gifted story tellers to the DMV. This unique medium which closes the gap between performer and audience member has such elasticity that it can be approached in so many different ways. Yet, it is always brave, personal and visceral. We’re proud to give a home to those courageous enough to stand on stage alone and create an electrifying performance. It is a festival unlike any other in the area.”
“’Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me but Banjos Saved My Life’ is an award-winning one-man musical that present’s Keith Alessi’s ‘meteoric rise in the boardroom and the startling news that changed his life forever.’ ‘Spanking Machine’ is a ‘funny intense, and heart-rending memoir of growing up brown and queer in Washington Heights.’ ‘Wanda’s Way’ explores the journey of a Black female police officer as she explains how and why she got into law enforcement and is based on real interviews.”
Before taking to the stage, KEITH ALESSI was well known as a successful public company CEO, entrepreneur, and college professor. He has led companies in both Canada and the United States. He has performed in Fringe Festivals and other professional venues across Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom since 2018. A dual CA/US citizen, Keith splits his time between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Meadows of Dan, Virginia. He is a certified public accountant and received his MBA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
100% of the performance fees from the show are donated to cancer and theatres charities. At the end of 2021, contributions exceeded $500,000.
MARGA GOMEZ is the writer/performer of fourteen solo plays which have been presented nationally and internationally at 2017 Encuentro De Las Americas, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival. Her acting credits include: Theatre: American Conservatory Theater’s “Fefu and Her Friends” 2022; Campo Santos production of “Translating Selena” by Richard Montoya (January 2020); Off-Broadway Ars Nova production of “Dr. Rides American Beach House” (November 2019); Central Work’s “King of Cuba“ by Cristína Garcia (July 2018); Television: “Senses” (Netflix); and Film: “Sphere” (Warner Brothers). Gomez teaches solo performance online and in San Francisco at The Kearny Street Workshop, ACT, and Brava. NBC named her one of eleven “Out Latinos You Should Know.”
CALEEN SINNETTE JENNINGS is an actor, director, playwright, and a founding member of The Welders, a DC Playwrights’ Collective. Dramatic Publishing Company has published eight of her plays, and her work has appeared in seven play anthologies. Caleen has received five nominations for outstanding new play from the Helen Hayes Awards, as well as playwriting awards from the Kennedy Center and The Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. In April 2022, her play “Queens Girl in the World” had an off-Broadway run. The other two plays in her “Queens Girl Trilogy” (“Queens Girl in Africa” and “Queens Girl: Black in the Green Mountains”) have been performed at Mosaic Theatre in Washington D.C. and at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore, MD. Arena Stage commissioned her to write monologues for two pandemic-related Zoom plays, “May 22, 2020” and “The 51st State.” She wrote the final episode for Round House Theatre’s zoom series, “Homebound.” In 2015, she was commissioned by the Kennedy Center to write a stage adaptation of Walter Dean Myers’ novel, “Darius & Twig,” which was produced at the Kennedy Center Family Theatre and had a national tour in 2017. She is currently writing the book for a new musical on the life of famous black contralto Marian Anderson and working on two commissions from Arena Stage. Caleen is Professor Emerita of Theatre in the Department of Performing Arts at American University in Washington, DC where she taught for 31 years. During her tenure, she received American University’s inaugural Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Award and AU’s highest faculty honor, the Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award. Caleen is a member of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre. She is currently a senior consultant to the Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. She has been a faculty member of the Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute since 1994 and she was project manager on an NEH grant to the Folger entitled “Crosstalk: DC Reflects on Identity and Difference.”
Can each of you tell our readers a little bit more about yourself?
KEITH ALESSI (KA): I currently live in Meadows of Dan, VA in Floyd County. I previously lived in Richmond and Virginia Beach where I was an executive with companies there. I have also lived in Lexington, VA where I taught business courses at The Washington and Lee University Law School, Virginia Military Institute, and Southern Virginia University.
MARGA GOMEZ (MG): I was born and raised to be a good, Catholic Latina of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent by my quirky, show business parents in Washington Heights, NY. I attended Oswego College near the Canadian border to get a little space from my parents. After “coming out” at 20, I bummed a ride to San Francisco to “find myself” and more importantly, a girlfriend. San Francisco proved to be where I found a diverse community of performing artists and the inspiration to become a solo writer/performer. In 1992, my first solo play “Memory Tricks,” about my mother in her heyday and decline, began a sold-out run in a San Francisco and went on to open off-Broadway at The Public Theater.
Now, as the writer/performer of thirteen solo plays, I have been presented all over the United States including DC’s Wooly Mammoth as well as international festivals—Montreal (Juste Pour Rire), London (ICA), and Scotland (Edinburgh Fringe Festival)
My acting credits include off-Broadway and national productions of “The Vagina Monologues” with Rita Moreno. I can be seen in season two of the Netflix series “Senses.” I use my life and people who have impacted me to create performance, and community and leave strangers with something memorable and a question or two. My latest and thirteenth show, “Spanking Machine,” is a comedy-drama walking the line between my rambunctious adolescent shenanigans and instances of early sexual trauma.
CALEEN SINNETTE JENNINGS (CSJ): I grew up in the borough of Queens in New York City. From ages 15-18, I lived in Nigeria and went to an international school. For college, I returned to the US and majored in drama at Bennington College in Vermont. I subsequently got my MFA in acting from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. I wrote my first full length play to complete a theatre history course requirement and I was hooked. Upon graduating, I auditioned but was not cast. Because my husband had just put me through grad school, it was my turn to put him through grad school and got a full-time consumer research job on Madison Avenue. It was an incredible experience to travel all around the country doing focus groups and listening to consumers talk about motor oil, shampoo, coffee, and other products. I learned the value of crafting a good question and keeping my mouth shut so I could LISTEN. I think the key to being a strong playwright is the degree to which you can listen to people when they are generous enough to share their stories with you.
All of you have had different creative theatrical roles. Do you prefer acting, directing or writing?
KA: My show is the first time I have been involved in theater since high school in 1972! What was intended to be a limited run of my story has turned into a multi-year, worldwide tour, having been performed over 200 times, including a sold out run off-Broadway at the SoHo Theater in 2020.
MG: If I’m talking about “Spanking Machine” or any of my solo plays, I would have to say “performing” is my favored term. Performing includes fully inhabiting a character, and when I make a choice on stage, it is similar to writing. I want to be as real and honest as possible with the audience. My solo shows are a mix of fourth wall scenes and direct address to the audience. I am a storyteller and the story all in 70 minutes.
CSJ: I once interviewed prize-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, and I was so impressed by his knowledge of stage craft. If you are a playwright who is lucky enough to have your play mounted, the realization of your work is the result of an enormously collaborative process involving a wide variety of disciplines. The more you have experience in all these disciplines, the better able you are to work with other artists to illuminate the world of your play. You should know how to speak all the languages of theatre: actor-ese, costume-ese, lighting-ese, director-ese. Your plays are more likely to be selected for production if, on the page, you can stimulate your potential theatrical collaborators. I was trained as an actor, yet I hardly get to do it. I am a self-trained playwright and I write a lot. I was required to direct as part of my contract at American University. Directing is the discipline that terrifies me the most. It is a huge responsibility that impacts so many people and always forced me to conquer my fears, articulate a theatrical vision, speak the languages of all the theatrical disciplines, and problem solve on my feet. I cannot choose a favorite discipline—each is hard and each teaches me about the other disciplines. I wouldn’t trade my journey for the world.
Did any of you know each other before these productions were part of the Logan Festival? If so, how do you know the other person? If not, have you met or talked since your plays were selected? Have you read any of the other playwrights’ work or seen their plays?
KA: I haven’t met the other participants other than in a brief Zoom call but am looking forward to getting to know them.
MG: I haven’t seen their plays yet. I met Keith at a cocktail party—oh no, it was a zoom tech meeting—but he made it feel like a cocktail party. For the longest time I dreamed of playing the banjo. I am super excited to meet Caleen and catch the other two Logan Festival productions.
CSJ: The answer is “no” to all of the above. I love the fact that 1st STAGE set up a squad of playwrights and encouraged us to work together. Sadly, I was swamped and didn’t have the time to meet my colleagues and engage with them as I would have liked to. I look forward to seeing their plays during the festival.
What do each of you want the audience to take away from you play/performance?
KA: My show and artist talkback are about pursuing passions and healing power of the arts. I want my audiences to be inspired and motivated to reexamine their priorities. Don’t wait. It’s never too late to do what you love.
MG: I would like people in my audience to look at how shame affects our well-being and take their power back—and have a few laughs. Laughter is medicine.
CSJ: I am the wife of a black man and the mother of two black sons over six feet tall. I worry all the time about their possible encounters with police. Several years ago, I was surprised to discover that a dear actor friend of mine is a former police officer. I began interviewing him, eager to find out why he left policing and how he came to theatre. I got to know him as a full human being and artist. Had I encountered him years earlier in his police uniform, I wouldn’t have known this side of him at all. “Wanda’s Way” is based on and inspired by interviews with people in law enforcement. I ask the audience to imagine the life of a black female police officer—a daughter, mother, wife who puts herself in harm’s way every day. I hope that my play will allow people to consider and empathize with the human being inside of the uniform.
Do you have anything coming up in the theatre world?
KA: Immediately after my last performance in Tysons, I’m heading to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland where I’m performing 23 shows. I’m working on a follow up show about the journey of the show. It should be ready to take the stage in 2023.
MG: I am workshopping my fourteenth solo show, “All Ages,” a zany one-person review about punk rock, snake plants, and the lockdown of 2020. It played at Brava Theater in San Francisco in June and we are looking at another run in October. I also teach solo performance over zoom. Thanks for your interview.
CSJ: I’m working on the book to a new musical on the life of Marian Anderson. We recently had a staged reading in NYC and we’re hoping to have an even more theatrically rich staging this November at the Marian Anderson Theatre of the City College of New York. I am also working on a piece about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“Logan Festival of Solo Performance’ runs through August 7, 2022 at 1st STAGE, 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA 22102. The plays will be performed in rotation every day but Monday, August 1 and will include some matinees. For information about these productions and to purchase tickets, click here.