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Arts & Life

'BlackTop Sky' Marks Young Playwright's Homecoming

The world premiere of the play BlackTop Sky, opening this weekend at the Unicorn Theatre, marks a homecoming for its author. Christina Anderson grew up in Kansas City, Kansas and eventually attended the Yale School of Drama, a journey dependent on how she made early connections between the stage and the page, and one which emphasizes the value of arts education for reaching young minds.

Anderson says she knew about theater at a young age and recalls how in middle school, her first visit to a play at Kansas City's Coterie Theatre both opened her eyes to what theater could be and corrected a misunderstanding about the art form.

"I believe the play was My Children, My Africa," she says. "I was in 7th or 8th grade. But it had never occurred to me during that show that a playwright had written that play. I had read Shakespeare in high school, who was long dead, but it never occurred to me that there were living playwrights, or a sole person who wrote a piece that went on stage."

The Writing on the Wall

That naïveté was soon lifted by her involvement in the Coterie's Reaching the Write Minds program and its Young Playwrights Roundtable, where artistic director Jeff Church took her under his wing.

"It blew my mind," Anderson recalls of her involvement with the program.  "It never occurred to me that being a Kansas City 15-year-old girl, I could have the power and access to write in that way. And you know the great thing about Jeff (Church), I remember him saying he wasn't going to censor us in any way, which is exciting as a teenager.

"And also I remember him asking a question: 'And then what happened? 'And then what happened?.' There was no right way or wrong way to write the plays. He was really committed to us expressing the things we wanted to say. It was a real gift to gain the confidence that I could do it."

Breaking the Mold

With her new play BlackTop Sky, Anderson returns to the Unicorn Theatre where her first play as a teenage writer was staged. The Unicorn's Cynthia Levin recalls that Anderson was one of the more promising young voices she'd witnessed.

"We were just waiting - 'What is Christina going to do with her life ?' -  because there was so much promise.  She went off to school, went off to graduate school, and she studied with Paula Vogel, who is one of my favorite playwrights, so I sort of was tracking her," Levin says.

"I connected with her a couple years ago and said, 'I really want to do something of yours.' She sort of broke a lot of molds. She doesn't write a traditional play with a very - you know you sit down in a kitchen and have a beginning, middle and end. She just takes a different look at different subjects, and with a different way to attack them. And a different way to look at certain issues in contemporary life. Which I love. I'm always looking for stuff like that."

A Trifecta of Influences

BlackTop Sky depicts a triangle between an 18-year-old girl, a mechanic, and a young man who's homeless by choice. It is set in the public courtyard of a housing project and addresses their varying perceptions, suspicions, and motivations.

Anderson says the play arose out of a workshop Vogel conducted with her students whereby three separate entities become one idea. For this show, Anderson is melding the myth of Leda and the Swan, Tracy Letts' claustrophobic play Bug, and an incident at a Puerto Rican parade in New York City where women were videotaped being accosted.

Public Access

Inspired by what Cynthia Levin said she likes about Anderson's work, the playwright is asked if it's important to her to give voice to characters who regular theatergoers don't always get to see in their lives.

"Yeah, absolutely," she says.  "One of the gifts I've received over the years is reading a lot of plays and stories that do just that. And it's not necessarily black stories or African-American stories. It's access to seeing and hearing different kinds of people and seeing them on stage. It's empowering for me personally.

"And I also think it's important for the community to see it as well. While it's important to have these different images on the stage, I also think it's important to have these  conversations and ask the tough questions and put up the tough images. That way, we can have conversations about it and argue about it and hopefully make things better."

With Anderson's new play, Kansas City audiences have the opportunity to measure  the accuracy of American Theater magazine's assessment of her as one of the fifteen up-and-coming artists "whose work will be transforming America's stages for decades to come."

BlackTop Sky, January 23-February 10, Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main Street, Kansas City, MO 64111. 816-531-7529.

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