Playwright Linda Ramsay-Detherage of Detroit received top honors Sunday, July 27 at the 24th annual Dayton Playhouse FutureFest of new plays for her World War II-era Southern family dramedy “Sugarhill,” a compelling exploration of race, heartbreak and hope.
Set in the fictional titular Louisiana town in December 1941, “Sugarhill,” also named the Audience Favorite, scored highest among a commendable field of six original, developing plays adjudicated within criteria including theme, style/language, dramatic structure, character development, story/plot, pacing, page-to-stage, and the next stage. Delicately directed by Debra Kent, the engaging, whimsical play, which requires the audience to take a great leap of faith in its final moments, featured an excellently authentic cast consisting of Cassandra Engber as the grieving, mentally unstable Marietta Trudeau, Dave Nickel as Civil War veteran and Marietta’s imposing grandfather Captain John Youngblood, Lynn Kesson as the family’s devoted French nurse Yvette Degas, Franklin Johnson as black runaway Mr. Franklin, an impressively tranquil Rick Johns as Marietta’s injured, unresponsive husband Tom, Cheryl Mellen as Marietta’s testy sister-in-law Laurel, and Jamie McQuinn as Laurel’s merciless husband Davis. The family ultimately defies the racist Jim Crow laws of the period due to the transformative nature of Mr. Franklin’s impactful presence and influence in their lives.
“It really feels wonderful and I’m very delighted that so many people were entertained by ‘Sugarhill,’” said Ramsay-Detherage, who received a $1,000 prize for her accomplishment. “It’s so nice to have been able to put something beautiful out there for an audience. Good plays, especially the ones I have had the good fortune of performing in, tend to be less about what the characters are thinking and more about what their behavior is. It’s up to the actors and directors to figure out what their inner life is. My job was to look at the situation of the play and also find the right time period. I really wanted to create a character that lived through the Civil War and came out of it with some kind of positive conclusion. How long does it take to change your point of view over owning slaves? Does it take 100 years when it’s all ingrained in you? So, it suited my purposes to create a character who remembered the Civil War while also creating someone like Marietta who experienced electroshock therapy, which began in 1937. In the end, I chose to set ‘Sugarhill’ right before Pearl Harbor started because the characters being unaware that event is coming changes the way we see their point of view.”
As a professional actress, Ramsay-Detherage has participated in many staged readings, but viewing the FutureFest experience left an indelible mark. After all, the Playhouse’s mission to produce six plays in three days, a daunting task overseen by FutureFest program director Fran Pesch, places the organization in a league of its own within the national theater scene.
“I’ve never seen a theater do what the Playhouse did in my entire life,” she said. “The atmosphere is so full of love as well. My fellow playwrights felt the same.”
“There were some well-written, directed and performed scripts over the weekend so we had our work cut out for us,” added Kent, who staged last year’s FutureFest co-winner “A Position of Relative Importance.” “But my cast’s love for our play never faltered. They were focused and ready to go at performance time. I am so proud of them and their dedication. During rehearsals, there was more than one discussion about the futuristic or magical quality in our play. Neither my cast nor I had a problem believing in the magic. The actors portrayed the characters in the play as real people with real problems. We all need some magic in our lives from time to time. Sometimes things happen that we cannot explain.”
Kent, who will stage the local premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People” for the Dayton Theatre Guild this fall, particularly embraced FutureFest with familiar excitement. She enjoys the discoveries that arise from working with a fresh script.
“I have been fortunate to direct a couple of terrific new plays for FutureFest,” she said. “I love the thought that my actors and I are breaking new ground and putting a brand new work on its feet for an audience to see. We break open a new script and look for the treasures and new ideas the playwright has given us. There is such love for the craft in the FutureFest crowd, and it comes not only from the playwright but also the people on the stage, behind the scenes and from the audience. Not everyone would give up literally weeks of time to rehearse a play that will only be seen once or purchase a ticket to see six full-length plays in just one weekend. FutureFest attendees are exceptional theatergoers.”
Chosen from 151 submissions from across the country, the remaining finalists were: “Wash, Dry, Fold,” a terrific account of Louisiana sisters coping with past heartache while caring for their disgruntled uncle emotionally wounded by the Vietnam War by Nedra Pezold Roberts of Atlanta; “The Humanist,” a contemporary, intelligent and stinging look at the foibles and tenacity of a humanities professor by Kuros Charney of New York City; “The Killing Jar,” a story of art and feminism by Jennifer Lynne Roberts of San Francisco; and Dayton native/Woodland Hills, California resident M.J. Feely’s “The Paymaster,” an Irish-centric story of heritage and loyalty, and “Masterwork,” concerning an ailing playwright’s final endeavor.
This year’s adjudicators were Roger Danforth (artistic director of the Drama League Directors Project), David Finkle (theater critic for “Huffington Post”), Faye Sholiton (a Cleveland playwright who won the 1997 FutureFest for “The Interview”), Helen Sneed (who has held numerous artistic posts in New York City and has judged FutureFest for over 20 years), and Eleanore Speert (Speert Publishing).
In addition, first-rate performances extended beyond “Sugarhill.” Sharp, wonderfully layered portrayals were delivered by Mike Beerbower, Megan Cooper and J. Gary Thompson (“The Paymaster,” directed by Saul Caplan), Sarah Gomes, the aforementioned Thompson, Annie Pesch, Jon Hung, and Geoff Burkman (“The Killing Jar,” directed by Kathy Mola), Dorothy Michalski, Stefanie Pratt, David Williamson, Wendi Michael, and Scott Knisley (“Wash, Dry, Fold,” directed by Teresa High), Shawn Hooks, Jennifer Lockwood, the aforementioned Pesch, and Matt Lindsay (“The Humanist,” directed by Jim Lockwood), and Charles Larkowski, Debra Strauss, Val Beerbower, the aforementioned Mellen, and Dave Gaylor (“Masterwork,” directed by Fran Pesch).
For more information about FutureFest, visit www.daytonplayhouse.com.
My FutureFest Rankings:
1. “Wash, Dry, Fold”
3. “The Humanist”
4. “The Killing Jar”
5. “The Paymaster”