Last Night and the Night Before make its World Premiere at Denver Center for the Performing Arts...
The play at a glance:
When Monique and her 10-year-old daughter Samantha show up unexpectedly on her sister’s Brooklyn doorstep, it shakes up Rachel and her partner Nadima’s orderly New York lifestyle in this poetic, powerful and remarkably touching drama.
Playwright and R&B slow jam aficionado Donnetta Lavinia Grays brings her Southern charmed, poetic and love steeped style of writing to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts with the world premiere of her newest play Last Night and the Night Before. Denver Urban Spectrum had a chance to talk with the Columbia, S.C., raised and Brooklyn-based actor and playwright, in advance of the show’s January 2019 debut.
Denver Urban Spectrum: Can you speak about how the play was developed?
Donnetta Lavinia Grays: I did the first draft a little over four years ago. On the heels of completing a separate play I just started writing [Last Night and the Night Before] and I just kept writing myself into a corner and was excited about it. I was like, oh, I don’t know what they’re gonna do. Now, I don’t know what’s gonna happen.
And that was enjoyable to me. And so I figured that out. And then I wrote myself into another corner. And I figured that out. So it sort of came to bear that this sort of mystery started to unfold.
DUS: Music is essential and often inspirational while writing this play, what songs/music inspired you?
DLG: Well, I’ll give you a little inside information here. All of my plays have soundtracks to them. I have a soundtrack of about 20 songs on Spotify for this particular play. But for me, I listen to all kinds of music, and I try to find inspiration anywhere. But my number one favorite kind of music is R&B slow jams. I have a slow jam collection of about 36 hours of slow jams. But I’m also influenced by country music, by folk music, gospel, and jazz, anything that’s rooted in the Black musical experience.
People are surprised I like country, but when you grew up in the south there’s gonna be some country jams that you like, you know what I mean? And I trend toward storytelling singers. So if you have a compelling story, I’m always willing to listen – it doesn’t matter the genre.
DUS: For this play, do you have a favorite character or a character that’s just been fun to write for?
DLG: I kind of hesitate on that word favorite. But I will tell you who was fun to write for; Nadima. She disrupts the sort of “romantic notion” of the family. She has a great perspective and she calls it like she sees it – and brings light to the way the family structure is operating; and the fact that the structure is not particularly healthy. Nadima has a really sharp wit, she’s very passionate, and she has a kind of love that’s rooted in practicality. She’s also just really taught, and she doesn’t take too much BS.
DUS: Can you tell us about the cast that has been chosen for the play?
DLG: I will definitely say that the actors we’ve cast are absolutely gorgeous and they do all of the heavy liftings out of my imagination and into their bodies. I’m excited to see what they do on stage. I’m really excited I think we have a tremendous cast and crew!
DUS: What is your character relationship with Sam? Because we know sometimes that kids are often at the mercy of the adults around them, and that’s not always good.
DLG: And that is absolutely the root of what it is. This child is interesting because she makes decisions about her existence before anybody realizes it. But she is at the mercy of these adults – and that’s frustrating for her. I’m often curious as to what point did we forget that we were children, you know? I wonder when do we start believing that children don’t see or hear certain things. That they won’t imitate us; that they don’t pick up things like a sponge. In this play I’m asking “like, is anybody seeing this child?” Because she’s definitely seeing the world around her.
DUS: How do you develop/nurture an environment to get the best performance from the cast?
DLG: I’ll tell you, we have a really exciting leader in Valerie Curtis Newton, our director. She creates. I’ve worked with her since the 2017 New Play Summit and I just think that she is just an incredible human. She’s exact, and has a calming presence. And she is also really generous, and just a wonderful artist in her own right. I think the room takes on the energy the leader has. And we’re going to follow her lead in that. We’ve assembled such a positive cast, crew and designers and the hope is that everyone will be open to what this play is presenting.
DUS: What should the audience expect from Last Night and the Night Before?
DLG: I really hope that audiences come ready to see what the work of love looks like. This is a play that does not turn away from that – it is a hard-earned kind of love inside of this play. I want people to come to see what that looks like.
About the playwright: Donnetta Lavinia Grays, born in Panama and raised in Columbia, S.C., is a Brooklyn-based actor and playwright whose plays have been staged, read or developed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, National Playwrights Conference, the New York Theater Workshop, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Portland (Maine) Stage Company, Classical Theater of Harlem and more. She is the inaugural recipient of the Doric Wilson Independent Playwright Award.
Editor’s note: Last Night and the Night Before performs Jan. 18 to Feb. 24 (Opens Jan. 25) at the Ricketson Theatre. For more information or tickets visit, www.denvercenter.org/tickets-events/last-night-and-the-night-before/