“Tennis in Nablus” by Ishmail Khalidi
Jan 29-Feb 21. $25-$30. Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., 404-733-5000, www.alliancetheatre.org.
By Pierre Ruhe
Never mind attempts at witty conversation and flirting. Everyone knows there is just one measure of a successful first date: It leads to a second, and a third.
So it is with the world premiere of a play. No matter how smartly conceived and brilliantly acted, no matter how critically acclaimed, the play’s opening run is usually make-or-break. Will it get revived? Will another theater, one that’s not affiliated with the funding and politics of the original, pick it up and bring it into the repertoire?
These are a few of the burning questions for the Alliance Theatre’s nationally recognized Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition. Now in its sixth year, the Kendeda boasts a higher-than-expected success rate, with follow-up productions (of its winners and, just as essential, its finalists) in smaller Atlanta theaters and at least one major triumph in New York.
“Ideally, the competition is not a reflection of what’s been going on in theater but a glimpse of what’s to come,” says Celise Kalke, an Alliance dramaturge who administers the Kendeda program. “We’re disappointed if the submissions are too traditional.”
The latest Kendeda world premiere opens Friday at the Alliance’s Hertz Stage. Ismail Khalidi’s “Tennis in Nablus” is set in the embattled Palestine of the late 1930s — before the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe and a decade before the creation of the state of Israel — when the Palestinians were fighting for independence from the British Empire.
Playwright Khalidi was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and raised in Chicago. He was merely “an OK actor,” he recalls, but his time on stage tuned up his ear for dialogue and taut plot structure — essential elements of any winning Kendeda play.
As a kid, he absorbed dinner-table tales about the early Palestinian independence movement, about the displacement of his family when Israel was created, and about the brutalities and massacres that destroyed his hometown and ravaged Lebanon through the 1970s and ’80s.
These were told as complex stories that didn’t yield to simplistic arguments. His father, a historian, is Muslim. His mother, Christian.
“The Palestinian story in Lebanon is a big part of my identity,” says the 27-year-old playwright, who nevertheless describes himself as more American than anything else. “We have a lot of sympathy for anti-colonial struggles — in India, Ireland and the American [colonies] — and Palestine fought the same battle.”
With a large cast — 12 characters played by nine actors — “Tennis in Nablus” centers on a Palestinian family where one is an idealistic freedom-fighter and another is an Anglophile who does business with Jewish merchants.
“In the violence and the looming history of the time,” he says, “are the seeds of the [Middle East] conflict today. But I don’t try to persuade anyone of anything.”
His aim, Khalidi says, “was to write a historically-accurate family drama that provokes people to think. I call it a tragi-political comedy.”
In addition to the Atlanta staged premiere, “Tennis in Nablus” has won several prizes, including one from New York University, where he was a graduate student, and another from the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
The success hasn’t inflated Khalidi’s ego: “My play won’t make everyone feel comfortable, and this isn’t the sort of play every theater is dying to produce. It’s not going to Broadway. It’s an honest expression from this time in my life.”
It’s that spirit of playwriting adventure — writing with conviction and aloof to commercial pressures — on which Alliance administrators say the Kendeda competition thrives.
“In the first few years of the competition,” says Alliance dramaturge Kalke, “you could see the playwrights were trying to game the system, guessing what would work in Atlanta. As the prestige of the competition has grown, I feel now we’re getting their best plays.”
Funded by the Kendeda Foundation, which supports local causes from the arts to Trees Atlanta, the competition costs about $30,000 and starts with the Alliance asking some 30 graduate playwriting and musical theater programs across the country — none in Atlanta — to submit new works.
Typically more than 50 viable scripts arrive, and these are read “blind,” without names or any revealing information about the author or school, and then evaluated by an in-house panel at the Alliance, led by Kalke. The best five become finalists, which are given public readings in Atlanta and New York.
Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth, with advice from three outside judges, declares a winner, which is then produced on the 200-seat Hertz Stage.
Kalke says they juggle several factors during the evaluation process. They’re looking for a “finished” play that doesn’t sag in the second act and doesn’t peddle stereotypes or the author’s obvious hang-ups, such as youthful angst or anger. They’re looking for a “produceable” play that doesn’t require excessive dialogue or scenic re-writing to get its message across, and one that’s not too expensive to mount (this last requirement likely weighs against large-cast musicals). And, not least, they’re searching for plays that challenge an audience without shocking or excluding any group of theater-goers.
The list of Kendeda picks has proven remarkably strong. The winner for the 2007-08 season, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In the Red and Brown Water,” was glowingly reviewed at its New York premiere in November 2009 and the author was lauded as the next major playwright on the scene.
“Mr. McCraney,” wrote a New York Times critic, “writes with a passion and urgency that can’t be faked and in a style that makes artifice feel like instinct, even as it invests ordinary lives with the grandeur of ancient gods.”
Beyond the Alliance, the competition deepens the repertoire of smaller Atlanta theaters, and several local troupes have produced either Kendeda-discovered material or tapped those playwrights for other works.
Sarah Gubbin’s “Fair Use” only made it to the finals last season (the winner was Julia Brownell’s comedy “Smart Cookie”), but Booth felt it could find a home elsewhere. She e-mailed “Fair Use” to director Freddie Ashley at Actor’s Express, where the play became a popular and critical hit for the theater, including an AJC best-of-the-year mention.
“As a lesbian twist on the Cyrano story, ‘Fair Use’ was a smart, warm, intelligent comedy for grown-ups,” Ashley says, “and it would have never come to my attention without the Kendeda pipeline.”
Pierre Ruhe blogs about the arts on www.ArtsCriticATL.com.