WHAT IS FRESH? It's something raw, untested, unpolluted, organic, maybe even sassy. Fresh is a just-picked piece of fruit, a burst of mint, paint not yet dry. It's the excitement and trepidation of something being done for the very first time.
And fresh is a new play, a world premiere, just emerging after months or years under construction. Remarkably, two theater companies are simultaneously hosting the premieres of three such plays by African American playwrights.
Woolly Mammoth is mounting "Starving," S.M. Shephard-Massat's tale of 1950s Atlanta. The African Continuum Theatre Company, meanwhile, is producing two new plays: "Draft Day," by Marvin McAllister, and "Kingdom," by David Emerson Toney, the first works to emerge from the company's two-year Fresh Flavas New Works Program for young playwrights. All three plays center on the lives of black Americans during different periods of history, the early 1800s, the 1950s, the late '60s and today.
"Starving" provides a peek at the comings and goings of neighbors in an apartment building, where private trials become everyone's business. After a recent performance, playwright Shephard-Massat, director Seret Scott and Woolly Mammoth's artistic director, Howard Shalwitz, answered questions from the audience.
The characters in the play "represented people who were the grandparents and great-grandparents of people I grew up with" in Atlanta, Shephard-Massat said. "These people and their behaviors didn't just spring up from nowhere. They're all starving for something." Scott said she was drawn to the play because of "the largeness of the story . . . set in the 1950s, on the cusp of the civil rights movement, when things were about to break open."
"Starving" opens with Freida Ashby (Lizan Mitchell) railing against her neighbor, Archer Way (Craig Wallace), who plans to grow vegetables in the front yard of their building. Freida's objections, and those of her husband and other neighbors, show "a shift to a new way of life" for black Southerners after World War II, Scott said. "People moved from a small patch of land that belonged to them, and they gave it up to become urban."
McAllister's "Draft Day" explores two time periods at once. In one story set in the present day, two childhood friends (Mark Payne and G. Alverez Reid) wait to see if they'll be picked in the professional basketball draft. A parallel story is set in the early 19th century and concerns a slave trader (Michael Kramer) and his prospective buyer (Anthony Gallagher), who discuss the physical attributes of African slaves. Uniting the two plot lines is a woman, Venus (Dionne Audain), a TV sports reporter in one era and a subversive trader's assistant in the other.
In Toney's "Kingdom," three brothers living above a barbecue restaurant in Cleveland in the late 1960s struggle with painful family secrets and issues of legacy and redemption. A riff on Shakespeare's "Richard III," it's the tale of brothers George Clarence (Addison Switzer) and Eddie-Ray York (Keith Johnson) who have kept their younger brother, the cerebral palsy-afflicted Rickey-Trey (J.J. Johnson Jr.), sheltered in the house. The arrival of the widow of a family enemy (Jess W. Speaker) further complicates the dynamic.
Both plays began as staged readings at African Continuum in 2003, when the company launched Fresh Flavas with the intention of aiding "writers on the fringe of an already marginalized society," according to a news release. Thanks to a recent grant from the Ford Foundation, the company is already planning the next round of workshops, with a staged reading of a new crop of plays in November 2006.
In all three plays, gender roles and social rules are rigorously examined, as is the idea of community. As Shephard-Massat put it, the effort to forge relationships and enlarge the definition of family is largely missing from today's communities: "People were more connected because people weren't so afraid then."
Maybe what's fresh is shedding that fear, if only for a few hours, while watching new plays that cast light on the inner lives of all-new characters: basketball players naming the price of their bodies, brothers unmoored by family tragedy, individuals seeking family in an unfamiliar city. Perhaps the attempt at uniting people across Washington -- black and white, young and old, longtime residents and newcomers -- is the freshest idea of the season.
"STARVING," "KINGDOM" AND "DRAFT DAY" -- "Starving" is at the Woolly Mammoth Theater, 641 D St. NW, through Dec. 18. 202-393-3939. "Kingdom" plays through Dec. 10 and "Draft Day" through Dec. 11 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 800-494-8497 or 202-529-5763.