If you were going to base a theater piece on the more than 2,000 letters sent between first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her “First Friend,” Lorena Hickok, your initial impulse might be to frame it as a two-person play. But writer Terry Baum took a different approach. Her script, “Hick: A Love Story,” is a one-person show, with Baum playing Hickok, the first woman to get a byline on the front page of the New York Times and later Roosevelt’s closest confidant.
“We talked about making it a two-person play,” Baum says by phone from her home in San Francisco, “but we always came back to wanting to focus on ‘Hick,’ as everyone called her. She’s the person who’s unknown, who’s unacknowledged.
“There’s been a lot of attention paid to Eleanor — not that she’s not deserving of even more attention, but Hick was the person I wanted to reveal. In a way, a one-person play allowed me to be more romantic and physical. I could have Hick describe their affection without having to deal with an audience’s resistance to seeing Eleanor Roosevelt kiss another woman.”
“Hick: A Love Story” will be joined by Juan Francisco Villa’s “Empanada for a Dream” and E.M. Lewis’s “The Gun Show” at the first Logan Festival of Solo Performance, presented this month by 1st Stage in Tysons Corner. All three solo shows have had successful runs elsewhere, and Washington-area audiences will now get to see them in rotating repertory.
It has long been debated whether Roosevelt and Hickok were involved sexually. Baum says the letters she quotes in the play settle that. Even though many of their most embarrassing letters are said to have been destroyed by the two women, the ones that survive are filled with intimate, physical details. Baum got permission from the Roosevelt estate to quote from the letters at length.
“I think it’s only homophobia that keeps people from admitting it,” she argues.
Although a tape of another actress, Paula Barish, can be heard reading Eleanor’s letters, Baum is the only person onstage. The audience is one-half of the conversation with the performer.
“There is a relationship, but it’s with the audience,” Baum says. “So it’s very intense and intimate. One reason I became an actor is I enjoy attention, and in a one-person show, I get all the attention. It’s exhausting, especially in the beginning when I’m learning how to present the material. But you put on theatrical muscles the more you perform it, and it gets easier.”
While Baum’s play is based on well-known historical figures, Villa based his on his childhood during New York’s drug wars of the ’80s and ’90s. Lewis used her personal experiences with guns to explore the national debate over how and whether to regulate them.
Villa grew up as part of the only Colombian family in a neighborhood dominated by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Like Irish and Italian immigrants before them, Villa says, his family fought their way out of poverty by dealing in contraband items — in this case, cocaine. As a youngster, the playwright had a happy childhood centered on comic books, baseball, cumbia dance music and his mother’s renowned empanadas. As he grew older, he realized that his family’s prosperity was based on his uncles’ willingness to protect their drug business with ruthless violence.
“All the characters in the play are actual people in my life,” Villa says. “All the things that happened in the play actually happened to my family. I could have written it as a traditional, multicharacter play, but doing it as a one-person show meant I was taking the ultimate responsibility for it. I knew some in my family would object, not to the truthfulness of it, but to the fact that I was putting it out there. I knew other people would say I was upholding stereotypes of Latin people as drug dealers. But I take you on a full ride in the play, from the best times to the worst.”
Villa hit on the tactic of using food to represent those good times and bad. He waxes lyrical about his mother’s empanadas, but also includes a scene where his uncles encourage him to eat a dozen cheeseburgers at one sitting, only to make him sick. That sets up the later, uglier revelations about his uncles, who eventually succumbed to the same violence they employed.
“The shows I’ve done after ‘Empanadas’ seem so easy now,” Villa adds, “because you have other actors onstage to bounce off of. But in a one-person show, you don’t have that; all the energy has to come from you. And if you get lost in a one-person show, there’s no one there to help you out. In most plays, the actors can complain about the writer, but I can’t do that. On the other hand, even though I don’t have other actors, I have lots of other characters. They’re like the ultimate imaginary friends.”
Whether it’s Baum channeling Hickok’s romantic giddiness and frustration, Villa re-creating bloody murder or the recounting of how Lewis learned to shoot on a first date, these one-person shows provide the same satisfactions of character and plot development as any other play. But they also offer something else: the sheer physical feat of one person conjuring up an entire world for 90 minutes with no help from anyone.
1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons. 703-854-1856. 1ststagetysons.org.
Dates: Through July 16.