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Humana Festival Lineup: Anne Bogart and SITI Company, Jordan Harrison, Kimber Lee and More

Craig Schwartz

Actors Theatre of Louisville has announced the lineup for the 38th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. The festival, which coincides with the company’s 50th anniversary, features six world premieres from playwrights and ensembles both new and returning to Actors Theatre. The Humana Festival opens Feb. 26 and runs through April 6.Notable veterans presenting new work in the festival include long-standing Actors Theatre collaborators Anne Bogart and the SITI Company, who have partnered with four playwrights (Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux and Regina Taylor) on “Steel Hammer,” a play with music by Julia Wolfe about American folklore legend John Henry.“Anne and her company have been a major part of the history of this building,” says artistic director Les Waters. “Anne has asked four African American writers to write a short piece that deals in some way with the John Henry story.“That’s all I can tell you at the moment,” he adds. “What Anne and her company will make of it is yet to be known. I think the writers who are contributing to the piece are spectacular, and Anne, I have complete faith and trust in that she will make something exciting.”The SITI Company last appeared in the 2009 Humana Festival with Charles Mee's "Under Construction," directed by Bogart. Last month, the company announced that Lucas Hnath will premiere his new play "The Christians" in the upcoming festival as well. The play was commissioned by Actors Theatre and will be directed by Waters. “I think he’s just the most wonderful writer,” Waters says. “There are very strict stylistic rules with his plays that I’m interested in exploring. What we think of a play being like is something that Lucas is constantly examining.”Hnath made his full-length professional debut in the 2012 Humana Festival with “Death Tax,” which won a Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award Citation. Last year, his tense astronaut one-act "nightnight" was part of "Sleep Rock Thy Brain," the innovative, high-flying apprentice showcase about the brain science of sleep. “He is a writer we’re all very excited about and has a working relationship with this theatre,” says Waters. “I was in my first year in this job, just terribly excited by ‘Death Tax’ and offered Lucas a commission and said we want to continue this relationship, we want to be a champion of your work.”Another Humana veteran putting up new work is Jordan Harrison, whom Waters calls “part of Actors Theatre’s artistic family.” Harrison’s play “The Grown-Up” will be his fifth festival premiere (his most recent is 2011’s 1950s social oppression satire “Maple and Vine”).  Two acclaimed playwrights will make their Humana Festival debuts. Dorothy Fortenberry’s comedy “Partners” examines marriage, personal finance and the complications of contemporary adulthood.  Fortenberry won the 2011 Helen Merrill Award for Emerging Playwrights, and her work has been produced and developed by Yale Repertory Theatre, Arena Stage, Geva Theatre Center and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, among others.Kimber Lee’s elegiac “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” explores the grieving process of a Brooklyn family after a young man’s senseless death.  Lee is the current recipient of the Lark Play Development Center and Playwrights of New York fellowship, one of the most sought-after development fellowships in the field (recent recipients include Katori Hall, whose “The Mountaintop” just closed a run at Actors Theatre, and Samuel D. Hunter, whose “A Bright New Boise” won the 2011 Obie Award for playwriting).In a nod to the company’s golden anniversary, the theater commissioned five playwrights to create “Remix 38,” a collection of short works inspired by iconic plays from Humana festivals past, to be performed by the acting apprentice company.These aren’t re-makes, they’re remixes — original works by returning Humana playwright Idris Goodwin (“How We Got On,” 2012) and festival newcomers Jackie Sibblies Drury, Basil Kreimendahl, Justin Kuritzkes and Amelia Roper riffing off existing works.Which plays will get the remix treatment? That remains to be seen.“I will tell you that Chuck Mee’s ‘Big Love,' which I directed and which started my relationship with Actors Theatre, is being looked at by these five writers and will be remixed,” says Waters.A bill of three ten-minute plays to be announced in January.So how many plays are read by Actors Theatre’s artistic and literary departments before the final lineup is chosen? Six- or seven-hundred, says Waters. The plays that rise to the top of each reader’s stack are then passed around the team for discussion.Here’s a look at the productions:“Partners” by Dorothy FortenberryDirected by Lila Neugebauer.  Feb. 26 – April 6 in the Bingham Theatre.Clare has big plans with her best friend Ezra—starting a food truck, making him marry his boyfriend—until an unexpected windfall forces them to face how they truly feel about money and commitment. Two young couples struggle with personal finance, the meaning of marriage, and the deeply human capacity for self-sabotage as they decipher the ongoing mystery of how to be an adult.“A writer new to me, I didn’t know her work,” says Waters. “The play focuses on two couples in their 20s and 30s. It’s about what marriage means, and how money affects relationships.”“The Christians” by Lucas HnathDirected by Les Waters. March 4 – April 6 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium.Twenty years ago, Pastor Paul’s church was nothing more than a modest storefront. Now he presides over a congregation of thousands, with classrooms for Sunday School, a coffee shop in the lobby, and a baptismal font as big as a swimming pool. Today should be a day of celebration. But Paul is about to preach a sermon that will shake the foundations of his church’s belief. “[Hnath] was interested in writing something about faith and decisions of conscience, and once you’ve made a decision, how that affects the rest of your life and your community and your family,” says Waters.“To do a play about a church and about faith, and to do it in a way that is not ironic or satiric in any sense whatsoever, I think, is wonderful,” he adds.  “The Grown-Up” by Jordan HarrisonDirected by Ken Rus Schmoll. March 7 – April 6 in the Bingham Theatre.Kai is a 10-year-old boy sitting at his grandfather’s feet, listening to a story. Or else he's a young television writer weathering the humiliations of the Hollywood rat race. Or else he's a salty old man in a wheelchair, receiving an award for “not being dead yet.” Has Kai run afoul of some powerful magic, or is he just living an ordinary, too-quick human life?  A time-bending adventure about how to survive growing up.“It’s about the act of telling stories on stage," says Waters. "It’s not a realistic play. It starts with a group of actors telling you a story about somebody and that story keeps changing.”“brownsville song (b-side for tray)” by Kimber LeeDirected by associate artistic director Meredith McDonough. March 14 – April 6 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium.Tray is only 18 when an act of senseless violence in his Brooklyn neighborhood brings his young life to a halt, leaving his family to grapple with the weight of his absence. In “brownsville song” time moves in scattered rhythms, pivoting between before and after.“It’s a very lyrical piece. It’s intensely humane,” Waters says. “It’s about going through the loss of losing somebody, and how you find hope and move forward.”“Steel Hammer,” original text by Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux and Regina Taylor; performed and created by SITI Company.Directed by Anne Bogart.  March 19 – April 6 in the Victor Jory TheatreThe legend of John Henry, deeply rooted in Appalachian folklore surrounding the construction of the American railroad, has existed in many variations and forms—from illustration to tall tale, political polemic to popular song. With music from Bang on a Can’s Julia Wolfe, and incorporating text from four acclaimed contemporary playwrights, Anne Bogart and SITI Company explore the human impulse to tell stories through the rich tales surrounding this American folk hero.“That story, like all stories, are open to interpretation, and shift according to who’s telling the story,” says Waters.   “Remix 38” by Jackie Sibblies Drury, Idris Goodwin, Basil Kreimendahl, Justin Kuritzkes, and Amelia RoperDirected by Ian Frank, performed by the 2013-2014 Acting Apprentice Company.  March 21 – April 6 in the Bingham Theatre.In honor of Actors Theatre’s 50th Anniversary Season, five writers have been commissioned to craft an evening of short pieces inspired by iconic plays from throughout the Humana Festival’s 38-year history. Created for the Acting Apprentice Company, this experiment pays homage to the groundbreaking work of festivals past, while celebrating singular voices blazing new trails of their own.The Ten-Minute PlaysApril 5 and 6 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium. To be announced in January.