At some theaters, a big musical or classic comedy is the major part of the season. But you won’t find Rodgers and Hammerstein or Neil Simon onstage at a production by Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective.
This group goes another route, mostly doing shows that haven’t been previously performed in Asheville, and its productions often touch on serious and provocative issues. Different Strokes is opening its seventh season on Thursday, Feb. 9, with The Submission by Jeff Talbot, about a young white playwright who has written a piece about black life that he has no personal knowledge about. Is that OK, or has he stepped over a racial barrier that should not be crossed?
Director Steph Hickling Beckman first encountered The Submission when she was asked by a friend to direct an out-of-town production of the play. “There was no way I could do that, take a month and a half to go and direct a play,” she says. “But then I thought, ‘Why don’t I direct it here?’” She assembled her cast — Jon Stockdale, Kirby Gibson, Travis Lowe and Maximilian Lee, and began developing this powerful story.
The tale centers on the character of Danny, a struggling playwright whose years of rejection might have come to an end. His new show seems destined for greatness. But should he hide behind a false identity and go forward with the production hoping that no one will catch on that he is white? Or is it better to be honest about who he is?
The entertainment industry has recently been forced to confront racial issues. The Academy Awards were accused of overlooking outstanding minority performances. After outrage at 2016’s “white” Oscars, there are many minority performers up for the awards this year. “Since #OscarsSoWhite, the theater and Hollywood have been criticized for their lack of diversity and whitewashing of characters,” says a press release for The Submission. “But is the attempt to diversify the stories we tell just another example of cultural appropriation? … Throughout The Submission, [characters] Danny, Pete, Trevor and Emilie must confront the ugliness of casual racism and the shock of how deeply they misunderstand each other.”
In Asheville, there is a similar racial situation, though few ever speak about it, Beckman says. “Asheville theater is exceptionally white,” she says. “We have few actors and actresses of color who get picked [for parts repeatedly]. Asheville is not that diverse.
“I have not wanted to say that [minority performers] are not welcome, but I would audition and get offered the role of the maid,” Beckman continues. “It has gotten better in recent years, [but] it has a long way to go.”
She has been able to break down barriers with Different Strokes, and other local companies such as Anam Cara and Attic Salt “have had more diverse casting, and we’re excited to see that,” Beckman says. “And the Montford Park Players has made it their mission to have more diversity in their Shakespeare productions.”
Beckman says she wants her audiences to think after seeing a Different Strokes production. The Submission may make some feel uncomfortable, but hopefully those viewers will also reconsider their thought process and perspectives.
After Friday and Saturday night performances, a post-show discussion offers the audiences an opportunity to pose questions. Part of the proceeds from the run of performances goes to Asheville Writers in the Schools, a local nonprofit program that links working writers with students, teachers and community members.
WHAT: The Submission by Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective
WHERE: The BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce St.
WHEN: Thursdays-Saturdays, Feb. 9-25, at 7:30 p.m. $15 opening weekend (online sales only)/$18 advance/$21 door. differentstrokespac.org