Through Feb. 28. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; 2:30 p.m. Feb. 13 and Feb. 27. $35. Theatrical Outfit, 84 Luckie St. N.W. 678-528-1500, www.theatricaloutfit.org.
By Bert Osborne
A girl’s camping trip sets up a topical discussion of race and motherhood in Theatrical Outfit’s “Brownie Points,” a new comedy by successful Atlanta playwright Janece Shaffer. A winter storm strands them overnight at a cabin in the Georgia mountains, and while their kiddies sleep in a nearby room, five diverse women open up about their different walks (and views) of life.
“Living in Atlanta, it’s inevitable that race becomes a part of your life, so I wanted the play to start a conversation about it,” Shaffer acknowledged during a recent lunch interview.
“I look at the older generation, and then I look at the younger generation, and they have completely different experiences with race. My generation, we’re the ones who are really straddling the fence, and sometimes I wonder if that doesn’t make us the most ill-equipped to deal with it.”
Over the four years Shaffer has been developing “Brownie Points,” there have been workshop readings at Horizon (to predominantly white audiences), True Colors (predominantly black) and Theatre J in Washington (predominantly Jewish). “The play continues to evolve as more people with other voices respond to it, and that only makes it better,” she said. After a pause, Shaffer elaborated, “One thing everyone seemed to respond to was the humor, and that’s what let me know it was OK to be bringing it up. It’s a comedy, but it’s about how these women learn to listen to each other, what it takes for them to be their best selves. They’re struggling with the same things I do. To be worth all the time that goes into writing a play, it always needs to speak to me on a personal level like that.”
After grad school at Georgia State, Shaffer spent the early years of her theater career as marketing and media relations director at the Alliance Theatre. Her first play, “He Looks Great in a Hat,” premiered there in 1999, followed by productions of “The Genes of Beauty Queens” and “Wishful Thinking” at Horizon. Most recently, the Alliance’s Susan Booth staged Shaffer’s “Bluish” and “Managing Maxine.”
By day, the 46-year-old Atlanta native is communications director for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Her husband of 14 years is Bill Nigut, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Under the direction of Jasmine Guy, the promising ensemble of “Brownie Points” features Terry Burrell, Carolyn Cook, Mary Kathryn Kaye, Courtney Patterson and Nevaina Rhodes as the disparate mothers, who gradually form a mutual trust — “one story and conversation at a time,” Shaffer said.
There are aspects of Shaffer in each of the roles, but especially in Patterson’s Jamie, the playwright admits — mainly because the character and the playwright are Jewish. (Patterson is the only member of the cast to have worked on another Shaffer play — she had a supporting part in “Managing Maxine” — two, if you also count a voice-over bit she recorded for “Bluish.”)
Patterson sees more to it than just that. “Jamie is sweet and funny and laid back, but she also has really profound thoughts and perspectives,” she said. “Not that the character is completely Janece, but Jamie says those hard things that sometimes we think and feel, but are too embarrassed or nervous to say or ask out loud, and that’s essentially what Janece is doing, too, through her play.”
Shaffer has formed a host committee of women to lead “talk back” discussions after each performance of “Brownie Points.” As Shaffer puts it, “My hope is that the play will embolden people to have conversations they’d normally shy away from. For me, success would be if ‘Brownie Points’ provoked a serious dialogue among different people, because that’s what compelled me to write it in the first place.”