Racism per­vades ‘Miller, Mis­sis­sippi’

2016 fes­ti­val item re­turns as full pro­duc­tion at Long Wharf The­atre

New Haven Register (Sunday) (New Haven, CT) - - A+E - By E. Kyle Mi­nor

“You re­ally see how racism and white supremacy es­sen­tially in­fects and haunts this fam­ily. It poi­sons them.”

Chris­tine Scar­futo, lit­er­ary man­ager, Long Wharf The­atre

Play­wrights more of­ten than not write about clas­sic themes rather than head­lines for the sim­ple rea­son that top­i­cal­ity stales quickly. On the other hand, Boo Kille­brew, whose “Miller, Mis­sis­sippi” of­fi­cially opened Wed­nes­day at Long Wharf The­atre, didn’t ini­tially re­al­ize in 2014, when she started writ­ing her play about racism in Amer­ica, that it could be­come more timely with age.

“Be­ing raised in Mis­sis­sippi,” the Gulf­port-raised Kille­brew said be­fore a re­cent re­hearsal, “racism wasn’t a cur­rent event. It was in the air you breathe. It was in the dirt and in the ghosts that haunt that place.

“I al­ways knew I lived in a racist state in a racist coun­try,” said Kille­brew, who in­tro­duced “Miller, Mis­sis­sippi” to

Long Wharf au­di­ences in the 2016 Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Voices Fes­ti­val. “I re­mem­ber when I first showed the play to peo­ple in New York they were like, ‘I just don’t buy it!’”

Kille­brew, a Lila Ach­e­son Play­writ­ing Fel­low at The Juil­liard School cur­rently moon­light­ing for “Long­mire” on Net­flix, started writ­ing her play af­ter her grand­fa­ther’s fu­neral in Gulf­port five years ago. “Miller, Mis­sis­sippi,” which con­tin­ues through Feb. 3, is rather epic in that it ex­am­ines the Miller fam­ily as it strug­gles through rad­i­cal civil rights con­flicts from the 1960s well into the 1990s.

Kille­brew’s char­ac­ters, com­pos­ites of fam­ily, friends and the play­wright’s choice ob­ser­va­tions, are per­formed by Char­lotte Booker (Mil­dred Miller); Rod­er­ick Hill (Thomas Miller); Leah Karpel (Becky Miller); Ja­cob Perkins (John Miller); and Benja K. Thomas (Doris Steven­son/Ruby). The de­sign team in­cludes Kris­ten Robin­son (scenery), Oana Botez (cos­tumes), Amith Chan­drashaker (light­ing), and Daniel Kluger (sound).

Theater­go­ers who saw “Miller, Mis­sis­sippi” in the Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Voices Fes­ti­val should know that Kille­brew hasn’t stopped work­ing on her script, which The Dal­las The­atre Cen­ter pro­duced in 2017.

“It’s to­tally dif­fer­ent,” said Kille­brew, who has worked on her play with di­rec­tor Lee Sun­day Evans all along. “I think my craft and skill and all that hope­fully has im­proved. My heart and who I am as

“I think now that the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate is, sadly, re­veal­ing how deeply racist, sex­ist and big­oted it is, (this play) be­comes more rel­e­vant.”

Boo Kille­brew, au­thor, “Miller, Mis­sis­sippi”

a per­son hasn’t changed.”

“Miller, Mis­sis­sippi” was the first script that lit­er­ary man­ager Chris­tine Scar­futo read upon ar­riv­ing to work at Long Wharf three years ago. She was in­stantly drawn to the rich­ness of its writ­ing.

“I think it’s re­ally rare to read a new play that con­tains the com­plex­ity, the depth, gen­eros­ity and am­bi­tion of a play like ‘Miller, Mis­sis­sippi.’” I think it mar­ries the is­sues (of) the state with the is­sues of the na­tion and with this per­sonal story of the fam­ily — in a way that’s in con­ver­sa­tion with some of our great­est Amer­i­can play­wrights. It kind of em­braces this great tra­di­tion of South­ern Gothic sto­ry­telling.

“It re­ally casts a spell,” Scar­futo said.

Though the play clearly de­lin­eates good and evil, so to speak, Scar­futo suggested that the play­wright truth­fully de­picts her char­ac­ters as com­pli­cated, even if their ap­par­ently re­pug­nant be­hav­ior sug­gests oth­er­wise.

“You re­ally see how racism and white supremacy es­sen­tially in­fects and haunts this fam­ily,” she said. “It poi­sons them.”

Just as Scar­futo de­lighted in Kille­brew’s script, Kille­brew de­lighted in ac­cept­ing one of three spots in Long Wharf’s Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Voices Fes­ti­val. It pre­sented a wel­come op­por­tu­nity to fur­ther de­velop her script with Evans at a lead­ing re­gional theater. Re­turn­ing to Long Wharf for a full pro­duc­tion is yet an­other op­por­tu­nity, just as wel­come, to tweak as needed.

“That’s the best thing about theater: each pro­duc­tion is a new ex­pe­ri­ence,” Kille­brew said. “It’s (ba­si­cally) the same script, but each pro­duc­tion has some­thing else to say. I think theater is the only medium that’s ca­pa­ble of that be­cause it’s a one-time event.

“I think that ev­ery pro­duc­tion is to­tally dif­fer­ent and there’s so much to play with, and so many drafts to write,” said Kille­brew of her col­lab­o­ra­tions with Long Wharf, and of her pro­duc­tion in Dal­las in be­tween, for that mat­ter.

“I’m al­ways learn­ing some­thing new about it,” she said. “It’s such a big play in scope, and it’s epic in its use of time. And it deals with themes and is­sues that are in­cred­i­bly chal­leng­ing and take a lot of brain­power. So I think hav­ing more than one chance at it is re­ally great.”

The heat of racism that serves as the play’s cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem has only in­ten­si­fied since “Miller, Mis­sis­sippi” be­gan its re­turn to Long Wharf.

“I think now that the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate is, sadly, re­veal­ing how deeply racist, sex­ist and big­oted it is, (this play) be­comes more rel­e­vant,” said Kille­brew, not­ing that Cit­i­zen Coun­cil of Amer­ica and other ex­treme right or­ga­ni­za­tions were very much a pres­ence in her Gulf­port days. “The pres­i­dent uses the word ‘na­tion­al­ist,’ and peo­ple be­come em­bold­ened to act on their fear and ha­tred.”

Kille­brew’s pas­sion for the sub­ject seems as fer­vent now as when she first con­ceived “Miller, Mis­sis­sippi,” though the play­wright would love to see racism erad­i­cated from our cul­ture.

“(Racism) changes form, but never goes

MOVIE GUIDE & FAM­ILY RAT­INGS: away,” she said. “I’ve never thought we could just walk over it and not look at it.”

Con­trib­uted photo

From left, Benja Kay Thomas, Ja­cob Perkins, Leah Karpel and Rod­er­ick Hill in “Miller, Mis­sis­sippi.”

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