Such a script is RAP - AAPEX's "Best New Play 2011" by Los Angeles based play playwright Alan Aymie. Maybe it's because I live in "Music City USA" where all is fair in love and stardom, but this scathing satire of the music industry has a very visceral effect on me. And on top of that, it is a very producible script, the kind you can't wait to hand over to the actors and get on it's feet. So I asked Alan to tell us about himself and the play and herewith:
What role did theatre and the arts play in your childhood and upbringing?
Growing up, I was on my own a lot as a child. This was probably a self-imposed exile – at least most times but whatever the reason I often found myself at the center of my own self-created adventures where I, inevitably, served my role as the noble hero fighting off dragons, monsters and demons in whatever new story I had created in my mind to act out. On those times when I wasn’t alone, I was often with my Dad at his record store. My father owned a record store in Boston when I was a kid. He had always loved music and was in a Doo Wop group when he was younger. His first job in the music industry was working for James Brown – promoting his music to radio stations along the East Coast. He had become friendly with James and several other R& B groups during the 60’s & 70’s. It was his love of music – more specifically soul music – that fed my own artistic urgings to express myself as well. Although, I remember being in school plays as a kid, it is those memories of my father’s record store, the performers who would visit it and my dad’s utter joy at singing along to the radio that led to my life in the Performing Arts.
Tell us about your own evolution as an artist.
I evolved as an artist in probably the most backwards way anyone can – growing up I wanted to wear a suit. My father, with a box of 45’s under each arm, was the only dad in my town that didn’t carry a briefcase or wear a suit and I would hate it because growing up as an Arab-American in Boston, I felt we stood out enough already. Certain names I was called – words that were written on our sidewalk left me as a young boy feeling I was “less than” and all I wanted was to find a way to fit in with the status quo. In these pursuits, I ended up going to college to get a business degree and subsequently, a job where I could wear that proverbial “suit”. What is funny and quite ironic now is that the only moments of those college years where I actually felt like I fit in were the few opportunities I had to perform on stage. However, several years later, in my “suit” job – bored and miserable, I found myself being promoted to Baltimore, MD where my future as a well-paid, bored and miserable sales manager seemed certain until a sales trip where I ended up seeing August Wilson’s FENCES at a regional theater in Norfolk, Virginia. That night, I knew I had found what I want to do with my life. On the ride back to Baltimore, I quit my job and called the University of MD to ask for an application to their Theater Arts program. I went on to get my BFA and worked professionally in DC before moving to LA by way of NY. Eventually I started writing and the first “play” I ever wrote and performed was a 45-minute solo piece about a young man that has to kill a rat in his girlfriend’s kitchen. I performed that piece at a very chic jazz club here in LA and ended up clearing nearly the entire restaurant before I finished. As I sadly collected my belongings and prepared to leave in utter failure, a man walked up to me and said, “Congratulations, you are now officially a playwright.” I guess that was the first step.
What inspired you to write RAP and what has been the evolution of this project?
I wrote this piece as a thank you gift for a very dear friend, James Brown-Orleans, who had directed me in a solo piece that I had written. The solo play went on to be produced in LA, NY & the HBO Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, CO and James was there every step of the way. I never paid him a cent for his service and he never asked. I ended up writing my play RAP as a showcase piece for him as a way of saying, “Thank you”. The first reading we did, James sang and played his guitar for the audience for over an hour before the reading. It was a true example of Art imitating Life. That night, there happened to be a casting agent from Disney’s The Lion King in the audience and James was cast in the travelling company for it. He has since been promoted to the Broadway cast and has been performing the show there ever since so I guess I’m all paid up. The play itself, however, came to a halting stop after losing James as the task of finding an actor who could sing, rap as well as create the two very diverse personalities of the African KWAME and the urban African-American rap singer, MC BLING-BLING proved to be daunting – if not impossible. The play was shelved and probably would have never seen the light of day if it weren’t for an impromptu conversation with a casting director here in LA where another actor’s name came up. This actor, James Black, went on to not only perform the role brilliantly but inspire many rewrites of the main character as well and I – and the play - are eternally grateful.
What are your thoughts on LA as a center for African American theatre?
My thoughts on LA as a center for theater – any theater - is that it is quite difficult for a flower to grow in the shadow of a large tree. Here in LA, unlike any other city in the country, there exists a tree - a behemoth known as the Film & TV Industry that casts a fairly large shadow over the theatrical landscape. The theater that is produced here in LA often seems gnarled and twisted, as any living thing would if it were trying to reach the light. There seems to be two very distinct approaches to creating theater here in LA which consists of either a very purposeful attempt to ignore this giant shadow or a more desperate and obvious attempt to cater to it – either of which fails to serve theater’s true purpose, which, I believe, is to shed light onto the horizon of the human condition. In regards to African-American theater – more specifically African-American Theater produced here in LA – the challenge of going beyond the shallow entertainment-generated stereotypes without simply becoming “political theater” is a fine balance. And although the loss of great artists such as August Wilson, have devastated the nation’s theatrical landscape – more specifically, African-American Theater, great voices such as Suzan-Lori Parks continue to shine a bright light onto the horizon.