WATERFORD, Conn. — The harrowing daily events on America’s southern border were also playing out this month on a seaside New England theater campus. There, in the quiet of a rehearsal studio, actor Carlo Albán was working to harness his emotions to portray a security guard in a new one-man play, set in a Walmart converted into a prison for refugee children.
How quickly can an American dramatist get inside the fences of a humanitarian disaster to expose audiences to its anguishing consequences? It’s likely that the subject matter of George Brant’s “Tender Age” — an imagined account of the cruelty inflicted on the children in a detention center in Brownsville, Texas — could soon make it a hot property for theater producers around the country. But first, it was being whipped into stageworthy shape at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, a venerable summer haven for playwrights and composers, who come to this pastoral retreat on Long Island Sound to see their new work on its feet for the first time.
Brant, who gained traction a few years ago with “Grounded,” a solo play about a female fighter pilot that starred Anne Hathaway, became intrigued with migrant experiences a couple of years ago after reading about the refugee crises in Europe and then researched the issue of young immigrants residing in this country under the auspices of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, policy. But it was in the reports of dire conditions in detention centers on the U.S. border with Mexico that he finally found his narrative path to humanizing an immigration calamity from the inside.
“I thought a guard might be someone who could be the eyes for us,” Brant said of the character of Martín, a Texan of Latino heritage who takes a job as a security officer, not realizing his charges include preschoolers and preteens.
The ecosystem of the O’Neill, a 55-year-old nonprofit organization named for one of the nation’s greatest dramatists, is designed to nurture a brainchild of this sort. August Wilson’s “Fences” and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” are among the plays and musicals that received an early boost here. With its stark poetic language and raw engagement with a disturbing topic, “Tender Age” makes the kind of urgent appeal to the imagination and the conscience that has propelled into the limelight other recent O’Neill projects. Last summer, for instance, playwright Jeremy O. Harris , a student at the Yale School of Drama, was invited to work here on his scathing satire, “Slave Play.” A mere 12 months and a successful off-Broadway run later, “Slave Play” is headed to Broadway, where it begins performances Sept. 10 at the Golden Theatre.
“What’s most important to me is the story being told,” said Wendy Goldberg, artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference, the signature professional program among several the O’Neill offers for musical-theater writers, cabaret performers, drama critics and puppeteers. “Sometimes, the story is so captivating, but the voice needs work,” she added, referring to the eight plays chosen each summer, among the 1,500 annually submitted. The plays are staged as readings, and audiences are invited to the pair of public performances each receives.
This summer’s plays at the O’Neill — a $6-million operation that draws the bulk of its income from a year-round accredited curriculum for college-level drama students — reflect the diverse pool of writing talent that theater companies now expect to draw on. Four of the eight playwrights are women and three are writers of color. Their experience levels range from Broadway-tested (Craig Lucas, here with “Death of the Republic”) to just out of school (Laura Neill, working on her “Winter People”).
Agents, actors, directors and theater literary managers regularly make the pilgrimage to Waterford to get a snapshot of where the field is headed, and Brant’s “Tender Age” is one of the offerings they’re buzzing about. Goldberg is intensely interested in seeing the work live on; the O’Neill seeks no financial participation in the future of the plays, whose authors are provided a stage, director, actors, designers and free room and board. “Lloyd and George had the impulse that our allegiance is to the writer,” said Preston Whiteway, the O’Neill’s executive director, of the organization’s originators, Lloyd Richards and George White. “Are we going to encumber the writer, when we are here to serve the writer?”
Brant was one of those Goldberg wanted to serve; a team of 100 readers winnows down the submissions, but she makes the final determinations. “If I’m honest about the work that is exciting — it’s the work I’m doing,” she said. And “Tender Age” is among the pieces she’s excited by.
“What George wrote,” Goldberg added, “needs to be out there.”
In the basement studio of the Dina Merrill Theater, one of the black-box theaters on a campus dotted with indoor and outdoor performance spaces, Albán worked on Martín’s monologue, as Brant and director Henry Godinez offered encouragement and suggestions. Martín is no bleeding heart, and therein lies the tension in the piece, between the outrage of audience members and Martín’s own harder line on the plight of immigrants.
Nevertheless, the images conjured during the monologue are wrenching, particularly as Martín describes the spectacle of frightened boys and girls, arriving in the detention center with red, white and blue balloons — as if that somehow sugarcoats a passage into captivity — and of the nighttime wailing of the tiny inmates.
“This is so personal. I have found myself so paralyzed by what’s happening,” Albán, who made his Broadway debut in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat,” said during a break. “I’m so close to it that I’m paralyzed.”
The 40-year-old actor said he was a child when he and his parents arrived in the United States from Ecuador. After their tourist visas expired, the family lived in the Northeast, undocumented, for 12 years. He received his green card in 1998, but before that, Albán spent five years as a cast member on “Sesame Street.”
“It was my first paying job, and I was undocumented,” he said.
The process of casting and rehearsing occurs so quickly in the run-up to the Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill that Albán had little time to decide whether to take the job, but he did have some misgivings. Brant is a middle-aged white guy, and these days, the question of who has the authority to tell a story, given the nation’s racial and ethnic sensitivities, comes up frequently.
“My initial reaction was looking at it with a bit of side eye,” Albán said. “Who is this person who wrote this? Are they Latinx?”
Brant and Godinez, a Cuban American actor and director and resident artistic associate at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, talked over this issue themselves, as well as one of the more provocative political aspects of “Tender Age”: that Martín espouses a conservative view of immigration that is shared by some other American Latinos.
“A lot of people would say to George, ‘Who are you to write this play?’ ” Godinez said. “But I pick up on the fact that this character reflects so potently what is happening in the Latino community. That’s something that’s not talked about.”
Ultimately, Albán decided Brant’s greater emotional distance from the subject might have been an advantage. “Maybe it’s good that some people writing about it are not so close to it,” he said.
In the version of the script that the actor was working from, the play takes on a hallucinatory quality that underlines the children’s tragic limbo. Somehow, placing the story of this average Joe in the center of a nightmare felt right, too.
“He’s incredibly flawed,” he said of Martín. “He feels like a real, conflicted human person. And that makes great theater.”