NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
Playwright Kermit Frazier has been sticking close to home, so its fortuitous that the protests have come to him Black Lives Matter demonstrations at Grand Army Plaza and outside the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, which he can see through the front window of his apartment in Park Slope.
Yet Frazier, whose little-known first play, Kernel of Sanity, will get a profile boost Thursday night when it leads off the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogels new online reading series, hasnt headed out to march. The author of 25 works for the stage including a docudrama about the covered-up police killing of a young black man in 1958 Milwaukee, which Frazier noted comes to mind every time we get into this kind of situation has poured his activism straight into his writing.
Thats how I participate, he said by phone on Juneteenth, then instantly checked himself. Most people say thats not enough. The writers are out in the street. Everyones out in the street.
Not everyone is under orders from their two grown daughters to be vigilant about the pandemic, though. Frazier is, and he has tiny grandchildren he wants to see.
So at 74, he starts his days with a long, early-morning masked speed-walk through Prospect Park, then stays in to avoid the crowds and, lately, to gear up for the reappearance of Kernel of Sanity, a psychological drama he wrote in 1978 when he was just out of the graduate acting program at New York University, performing in a downtown revival of Native Son.
In Kernel of Sanity, a young Black actor named Roger shares a bit of Fraziers résumé. Fresh off the same small part in seemingly the same production of Native Son, Roger pays a surprise visit to Frank, a self-involved older white actor who starred a few years earlier in a New York production of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Roger, playing an aide, would watch Frank from the wings.
Written some months after Frazier had an acting experience that made him feel used, Kernel is about marginalization and predation, white privilege and long-simmering rage. Even in the drama that unfolds between Roger and Frank, the white guy has by far the largest role.
Theres no space for Roger, Frazier said. Sometimes white people take up all the air in the room. How do you get recognized? How do you navigate that?
To Vogel, an ardent advocate of Kernel since she plucked it from a slush pile as a 27-year-old secretary to the artistic director at the American Place Theater, it is a work that examines racism in the theater, and that still holds the charge it had for her when she first read it straight through, electrified.
I encountered a play that for the first time made me see what whiteness was, she said.
Thus her urgent elevating of it now in what she has dubbed the Bard at the Gate series of overlooked plays, in a taped reading that will star Josh Hamilton as Frank, Matthew Hancock as Roger and Abigail Breslin as Rita, Franks girlfriend. Kernel will be followed by three other plays in a series united by themes of race and gender: Meg Miroshniks The Droll on July 15, then Eisa Davis Bulrusher and Dan LeFrancs Origin Story, with dates to be announced.
A Pulitzer winner for How I Learned to Drive, Vogel, 68, is a vocal champion of scripts she loves, and the series is her way of furthering that. But she and Frazier are acquaintances rather than friends, and he had no idea she was pushing Kernel until she mentioned it in The Village Voice in 2003. Kernel by then was 25 and hadnt been staged professionally.
Then again, its first reading at Williamstown Theater Festival in the summer of 1978, when Frazier was a member of the acting company pointed to a structural obstacle in the mainstream American theater. As the playwright, Frazier didnt want to be in the reading, but he was the only Black actor there. So the first time he heard his play, it was with an all-white cast.
The next summer, artistic director Lloyd Richards brought Kernel to the National Playwrights Conference for development, on a roster that included David Henry Hwangs F.O.B. and John Pielmeiers Agnes of God. Still, Fraziers first professionally produced play was Shadows and Echoes in 1981, with a cast that included S. Epatha Merkerson.
That was when he realized, with some relief, that he could stay in the theater without having to be an actor. He had come late to the stage anyway, after going to college and graduate school for English. During an Air Force stint in Wichita Falls, Texas Larry McMurtry territory, he calls it he fell in with the Backdoor Theater, a local amateur troupe, for lack of other things to do.
Already set on a path toward teaching, he only auditioned for NYU because a couple of Texas friends urged him to. In 1974, at 28, he started acting school. Gregg Daniel, the director of Thursdays Kernel reading, was a classmate.
On the phone the other day, Frazier mentioned that he was born in 1946, the same year as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and the dummy whos president now, which is one way of suggesting the arc of a life.
Here is another. At NYU, he studied with Olympia Dukakis. Ron Van Lieu directed him in Othello. Kristin Linklater, his voice teacher, nursed her infant son, Hamish, while she listened to the class. In the years that followed, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Laurence Fishburne were all in readings of Fraziers early work.
It has always been difficult for him to get his plays produced, though he said most of them have been. In the 90s, he segued to television writing, notably for the childrens crime-solving series, Ghostwriter. Then came academia. Retired from teaching three years ago and returned to writing full time, he is a professor emeritus at Adelphi University.
In between, in 2009, Kernel was staged by Woodie King Jr.s New Federal Theater. Reviewing the production in The New York Times, Rachel Saltz detected mystery in it, but Marilyn Stasio, in Variety, gave it a furious pan.
Then, mid-lockdown, came an email from Vogel, proposing the reading.
In preparation, she has been catching up on the rest of his catalog, which includes An American Journey, written with John Leicht and based on the police killing of Daniel Bell; and Modern Minstrelsy, about what Frazier calls the contentious relationship between African Americans and Irish Americans.
Much of the stuff of his plays is the stuff of living while Black, and he finds it strange to see the wider culture just waking up to the history of racism that he has long known.
As for the theater, he thinks its past time that it open its eyes.
Theater has to be about truth, he said. And theater has to live up to the origin of the word theater: the seeing space. If were not allowed to see, then whats the point?
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