A 1978 play plucked from the slush pile gets a timely new reading
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A 1978 play plucked from the slush pile gets a timely new reading
The playwright Kermit Frazier in front of the Brooklyn Public Library in New York, on June 21, 2020. With its themes of white privilege and black rage, Frazier’s “Kernel of Sanity” resonates powerfully today. That’s why Paula Vogel is giving it a boost. Douglas Segars/The New York Times.

by Laura Collins-Hughes

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Playwright Kermit Frazier has been sticking close to home, so it’s 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 Vogel’s new online reading series, hasn’t 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.

“That’s how I participate,” he said by phone on Juneteenth, then instantly checked himself. “Most people say that’s not enough. The writers are out in the street. Everyone’s 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 Frazier’s 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 Cuckoo’s 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.

“There’s 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, Frank’s girlfriend. “Kernel” will be followed by three other plays in a series united by themes of race and gender: Meg Miroshnik’s “The Droll” on July 15, then Eisa Davis’ “Bulrusher” and Dan LeFranc’s “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 hadn’t 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 didn’t 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 Hwang’s “F.O.B.” and John Pielmeier’s “Agnes of God.” Still, Frazier’s 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 Thursday’s “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 who’s 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 Frazier’s 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 children’s 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 it’s 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 we’re not allowed to see, then what’s the point?”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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