Contributed by Lynette Braxton
I met up with the cast members of the stage reading of Arthur Wooten’s Birthday Pie at the bustling information desk in Grand Central Station waiting to board the train to Irvington, New York. The train swiftly escorted us along the majestic Hudson River that flanked a timeless view of the Palisades’ autumn hues. The scenery provided a peaceful backdrop to the evening we were about to experience.
Arriving at Irvington Town Hall Theater, we were met by the theater manager, Gregory G. Allen. He shared his anticipation and enthusiasm for the evening as Birthday Pie would be the first play to launch the new 2014-2015 Irvington Stage Door Reading Series. Allen’s excitement was also shared by the New York based playwright, Arthur Wooten, and producer, Marcinho Savant, who flew in from Shreveport, Louisiana.
Wooten and Savant shared how they originally met in 1998 at Birthday Pie’s award-winning premiere as part of the Key West Theatre Festival. Savant worked lights and sound on the production and immediately fell in love with the piece. He still remembers how moved he was by the heartfelt and relatable story of Birthday Pie so many years ago. Not too long ago, Savant reconnected with Wooten via social media and they decided to revive it with future plans of producing it for Broadway, film, and/or television.
Birthday Pie is based on an archetypal, grand but dysfunctional Southern family now living in squalor. It blends dark comedy with social commentary from the world in which Wooten grew up in. “It was easy writing the play. It took me six days of continuous writing—fast and furious. It has comedic physicality that dances with high drama and gives the audience room to breathe.”
Wooten shared that he drew inspiration from his Scottish grandfather and Alabamian father whom he lost to cancer. During the time of his father’s illness he kept a journal. After his father passed, Wooten thought it was a “no-brainer” to write a play that dealt with familial relationships in the twenty-first century.
When asked if the characters in the play represented other members of his family, his response was “Not necessarily, but it is a reflection of the universal condition of families.” The 1998 premier in Key West featured an all white cast; however, this stage reading hosted an all black cast. It was important to Wooten and Savant that not a single word of the script be changed to reflect this. Not seeing the original production, I was surprised to learn that Birthday Pie was not written specifically for a black cast. Wooten had successfully captured the voices of a contemporary family regardless of race.
After the reading, Wooten said he was, “very pleased”. He attributed the success of the reading in part to the director, Marcus Dargan, and how he encouraged the cast to find new meaning within the text and not to settle for the obvious choices. Wooten especially liked the choices made by both Denise Spann-Morgan (Anastasia Battles) and Nefertiti Warren (Clairese Martindale).
“Denise was Anastasia incarnate—very feisty. I was at the first rehearsal and Denise had it then. This woman understood instantly and that’s a gift that is a joy to watch. The entire cast brought things to this reading that I’ve never seen before or thought of.
“I never imagined that Clairese Martindale could be so devious. When Clairese, realized that she brought the wrong dish to the birthday dinner she said, ‘I thought you were going to do carrots and turnips.’ That line had always been read as if she honestly thought she was supposed to do carrots and turnips, but Nefertiti read it like she knew exactly what she was doing. In her own way she knew she could ruin the birthday dinner, because a little thing like that would set off this family. I thought that was delicious!”
Birthday Pie is truly an authentic slice of life. With universal themes and voices that allow for it to remain as relevant and engaging today as it was for Savant in 1998. It is sure to be a must see whether on stage, in film, or television.
Become Creatively Connected
Become a potential supporter in the development of Birthday Pie by contacting Marcinho Savant, C.E.O. of Iron Violet Productions at 646-688-4461 x705.