My play “Alligator Road” will premiere at Mad Horse Theatre in Portland, Maine, from March 12-29, directed by Reba Short. It centers around a white woman’s act of reparations for slavery. It’s set in central Florida’s oldest hardware store, where Kathy, a recent widow, has yarn-bombed all the hammers, saws, and paint cans. It’s a gesture of whimsy before she hands the store over to a stranger. But when Kathy’s daughter arrives, she’ll do anything to stop her mother from throwing away the family store. It’s a comedy that unravels ideas about entitlement and the price of freedom.
Working on this play with Mad Horse Theatre has been a thrill in terms of community engagement. Because the set is a yarn-bombed hardware store, we have an army of knitters working feverishly to create cozies for all of the tools and props in the store. We have only four actors in the play, but nearly a dozen knitters.
But before I get to how we’re folding in the knitting community into our process, I want to share the spark for my play and what it sprang from, so that when I tell you how the play is operating in our community, you’ll have context.
A FUR COAT, A TRAIN TRACK, AND YARN.
The spark for the story that became “Alligator Road” came in 2012 while I was still in New York. I was living with no kitchen and two cats in a studio apartment on the Upper East Side, and had just finished grad school while working full-time.
I had long noticed in my neighborhood that the people running the grocery and drug stores and guarding the boutiques along Fifth Avenue were mostly people of color, while the customers were mostly white. No one seemed to comment on this, everyone just stood on both sides of the cash register, accepting that this was how things were.
One day, I was on my way home from a spa on Madison Avenue, thinking how weird my life was, that I was actually a person who had just been at a spa on Madison Avenue. (As a writer, I have a knack for feeling like an outsider no matter what.) It was a beautiful day, and as I walked I thought about the neighborhood I lived in compared to more diverse neighborhoods like the Bronx or Washington Heights, where I lived when I first moved to New York. I remembered how invisible I had felt in the Heights, until someone took care to explain to me that no one wants the kind of trouble that comes from messing with a white woman.
As I was walking and thinking how people of different races are treated depending on context and geography, I passed a white lady in a fur coat. And suddenly, I realized I assumed that people like her didn’t think about race other than whatever stereotype you might ascribe to a White Lady in a Fur Coat. And I wondered what would happen if such a woman were to believe in reparations for slavery, and decided to give away her family fortune. How would her children react? This seemed like the spark for a play I could spend some time with.
I soon realized that the story would have more relevance if the white woman were resolutely middle class, a small business owner. I knew that if I made her wealthy, it would be too easy to dismiss her, to write her off. Rich people are great for satire, but not for what I hoped my play would do.
A few days later, I was in Long Island City to see a show at the Secret Theatre. One of the things I love about New York is that because you walk everywhere, you get a peek at bits of the city’s infrastructure. I was walking beneath an elevated train track, and I realized everything on that street had been built by working-class men, men who brought their lunches and drank coffee and took smoke breaks while they built everything I was walking on and past. And I started thinking about my play, and how a woman who owns a hardware store might have something interesting to say about reparations, about buildings, about entitlement and inheritance.
And then the yarn-bombing just hit me. I always look for layers to fold in, and I especially like to take juxtaposing elements and push them up against each other. That’s how one of my favorite beats in the play came to be:
KATHY: Well see, here’s the thing. The men, they go and build everything. I mean every home or store you see, that you drive by, has been put there by the hands of men, brick by brick, block by block. They’ve poured the concrete and hung and sanded the drywall. And these men, they die, but the buildings, they stay. And that got me to wonderin, what do women make? Well, women make clothes and pretty things–
CANDACE: Oh my god you are SO.
KATHY: No I know I know, not every woman, and there are women carpenters and they’re not all lesbians, et cetera et cetera I know–BUT in the traditional way of things for thousands of years up until real recent–I mean your Gram sewed all my clothes when I was little and that was as late as the seventies. So back to my point, all these men die but their buildings live. But women die, and the things they make die, they fray and disintegrate into thin air. There’s nothin left, their legacy is invisible. And they made everything with such love. And sometimes anger, but mostly love I think. And so it just seemed kinda, I dunno wild to me, just a lark, really, I thought what if I cover all these tools and ladders and buckets of paint with beautiful bright yarn. It just seemed…I dunno…You have anything like that? A hobby?
LAVINIA: I like to press dried flowers into pictures.
KATHY: Oh! I’ve never heard of that. You mean like…
LAVINIA: Into designs. Like, patterns.
KATHY: Oh. That sounds nice.
What’s curious about this beat is that Kathy never once considers, in her contemplation of what women make, that they make babies. They make people. But being a mother doesn’t really track for Kathy, and that part of her character is revealed by what she leaves out.
So. Now you have the ingredients that sparked my play—a white lady in a fur coat, an elevated train track, and yarn-bombing.
Fast forward to January of this year, when we start rehearsing. Through several advance chats, my director Reba Short and I quickly discover that we are on the same page about how to work together to serve the script. It basically involves top-notch phone and email skills, respecting each others’ swim lanes, and more than a few bottles of wine aka Collaboration Juice. One of the glorious gifts Reba gives me is two weeks of table work in January so that I can hear the play, bring in new pages, and listen to the actors as they make discoveries and ask questions. This is gold. I don’t always get this, but when I do, boy will I use that time.
Simultaneously, this was when The Knitters Arrived. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of people more excited about having a reason to knit. A big reason. This was a big job that only they could do for us, and we all knew it. People like feeling needed—sometimes we forget that, I suppose.
The knitters were at our first few readings, and they got to hear new pages as I brought them in. Our Knitter Wrangler, Megan Tripaldi, gave instructions and checked in with them on breaks, but otherwise the knitters all quietly worked and listened. It was an unexpectedly lovely thing to have women of all ages (and one man!) surround us, a ritual circle between our creative work and the world outside.
The knitters would respond and laugh just as an audience would, which was a terrific gift to my playwright’s ear, confirming certain choices and pointing me in new directions. After each reading, a few knitters might offer thoughts or questions before scurrying into the chilly dark with their knitting homework.
Of course, the time soon came to let the knitters have their own space where they could gather and knit and learn and get to know each other—what they call a Bitch-n-Stitch. We started rehearsing in earnest in February, and since then, the knitters have met in a different room than us at the theatre, and I confess to feeling torn about which room I wanted to be in some nights.
Bit by bit, pictures of their creations would make their way to the rehearsal room, where we would squee over them. A photo of one of the most fantastic pieces, a knit cozied sledgehammer, made its way into our publicity materials.
Having a committed group of knitters creating the set dressing and being part of the process from Day One added an unexpected layer of meaning to the process. The fact that some knitters were beginners, while others were more experienced and had fancy knitting tools didn’t matter, because Kathy, the woman in the play who’s knitting everything, certainly doesn’t have to be a good or even consistent knitter.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!
We’re now heading into tech and wondering if we have enough tools, but we definitely have enough knitted material. Megan is taking all of the knitted rows and stitching them together to wrap each tool in the store, including a table saw!
We’ve invited our group of knitters to a special preview performance of the play next week, so they can see the result of their hard work, and also how the play has changed–it has a whole new ending from what they heard in January.
Another unexpectedly fun thing that’s happening is that an English teacher at Southern Maine Community College is having her students read my play and then come to the show. On March 30, the cast and director and I will visit her class to talk to them about their response to the play.
We have even more outreach happening—we’re going to be featured on a local TV news arts segment the day we open, and we’ve reached out to our local NAACP branch as well. We’re having a talkback after one of the matinees, and while we discussed inviting experts or scholars on the topic of reparations to participate, I think because we’re still figuring out the play and how to frame the discussion, we’re treading lightly. I do think there is a huge opportunity for future productions of the play to involve a larger and more diverse community in audience engagement events.
It’s been exciting to be a part of something that has grown in unanticipated ways, that has had a groundswell of interest and support from pockets of our community who might otherwise not come to the theatre. My hope is that by watching characters they might identify with, our audience might leave the theatre with a curiosity and a fresh sense of how to talk about the complex issue of reparations.
Callie Kimball’s plays have been produced or developed at Washington Shakespeare Company, Lark Play Development Center, Project Y Theatre, The Kennedy Center, and The Brick Theater. She teaches playwriting at Maine College of Art. “Alligator Road” premieres March 12 at Mad Horse Theatre in Portland, Maine; “MAY 39th” will be produced at Hollywood Fringe this summer; and “Dreams of the Penny Gods” will be produced at Halcyon Theatre next year in Chicago.
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.