By the time you read this, you will have missed the opening act—unless, of course, you were in the know. The halls have been abuzz for awhile now beneath Popejoy Hall on UNM campus. The costumes have been hemmed, the stages built, the props have been set and reset again. All the lines have been fumbled and are now gracefully recovered. The graduating MFAs of the UNM Experimental Theatre department's Dramatic Writing program have pulled the curtain again. Words Afire! is the program’s annual send-off for graduate students in the Theatre Department, and for the graduating playwrights, it is now their turn to sit in the audience and watch their works come to life.
Currently in its 13th year, the Words Afire! Festival is seeing three graduate students from its three-year-long program end their studies with new productions of original plays. This year, the graduates are Kevin R. Elder, Zee Eskeets and Christina Hjelm. Each has a unique background and each has come to this point through a different path—but all share a common love—the power of theater.
Fadeaway is Zee Eskeets’ play. It comes from a personal place for the playwright and addresses a subject that is sadly familiar to many of us. Ms. Eskeets’ play is drawn from real life and follows a Navajo teen named Jason Black as he struggles with his darkening demons. The title of the play is drawn from the fade away move in basketball, a jump shot from which the player recoils or fades away. The arc of the play closely follows this theme. Early in the story’s construction, Jason Black takes a personal effect from the coffin of his dead sister; it is an act for which he is haunted ever after. His sister’s ghost plagues him and leads to his mental destruction and finally to an act of domestic violence. This is a story that is close to the experience of the playwright herself as her cousin was a victim of domestic violence perpetrated by her cousin’s boyfriend.
Ms. Eskeets fought with her identity for a long time leading up to Fadeaway. Being a Native American herself, she was worried about being typecast as a “Native Issues” writer. Recently, however, the rising level of domestic violence in Native communities has alarmed her. She views it as a crucial issue that demands attention, particularly in the case of violence perpetrated upon women. “I didn’t want to be a Native writer but the violence issue made me want to give voice to my people,” she said.
Christina Hjelm’s play comes from a similar place. The Invasive Kind is about two sisters who struggle with the absence of their father and their estrangement from one another. It is also a searching look at our memories and how they differ from one person to another. Themes of memory are explored in different ways, but the most startling and unique is through Polaroid photographs which are a continuing motif throughout the play. Hjelm’s characters start off at odds, but through the course of the play they find a common ground.
Hjelm’s previous play, entitled Casualties of Dreams and Sand, won her the National Latino Playwriting Award, a very prestigious honor given by the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. “I’m interested in making roles and stories from Latino women but which can be broad enough not to alienate anyone,” said Hjelm. “There’s a need for plays by women playwrights about strong women characters and the bonds created between women.”
Kevin R. Elder’s offering is called Disposable Boys. Elder is a vetted theater personality and has had a long and rich career as an artistic director for the Tricklock Theatre Company. His work previous to his enrollment in the Experimental Theatre program at UNM was action-based. Inspired by Harold Pinter’s use of silence and action-based Eastern European theater companies, Elder has worked on several very experimental forms.
Disposable Boys is a newer direction for Elder who, during his time at UNM, has become interested in the more dialogue-heavy works of playwrights like Tennessee Williams. His play focuses on two brothers living in a trailer park somewhere in the Midwest. Abandoned by their mother, the two brothers are forced to care for their drug addicted father.
Elder's play focuses on the dialogue of his characters. Realistic tones of voice, stutters, impaired speech, and half-finished sentences carry a stilted, yet realistic dialogue of how two characters in an intimate relationship speak to one another.
The three playwrights have operated in cohort throughout their three-year program, so it is no wonder that their plays have a common turning point around family issues. The three have discussed their works with one another from beginning to end and have learned from each other throughout the process.
“I bang [the plays] out at 5 a.m., battling with the keyboard, writing and crying and watching the sun come up,” said Eskeets. “Plays are too often all dialogue while movies are all action, and I want to strike a balance. I want to keep the audience on their toes.”
This season of Words Afire! differs from previous seasons in that it is a send off for long time faculty member Jim Linnell. Linnell has been with UNM since 1975. His book of poetry, The Menu, is subject matter for short vignettes that will supplement this season's play. The Menu is being brought to life by Elsa Menéndez and the Tricklock Company. Mr. Linnell plans on continuing to teach playwriting and to find a publisher for his book.
Words Afire! is a must-see theatrical festival filled with talent and excitement—and a studied eye towards what it means to be a family and a community—both off-book and in real life.
Words Afire! Festival Brings Student Theater to Life at UNM