Monica McDaniel brings her latest production to the 35below stage

AMAZING GRACE: Despite hard times, “The people in this play gave me so much hope, so much laughter and joy,” says playwright Monica McDaniel of her new production, ‘Left Behind — Reflection.’ “They gave me sunshine through my darker days.” Pictured, from left, are Pastor William Hamilton, Ki'era Gash, Michael Davis, Rasheeda Johnson and Kim Akbar. Photo courtesy of McDaniel

Addiction, family and faith are some of the themes artistically addressed in Asheville-based writer Monica McDaniel’s upcoming play, Left Behind — Reflection. Building on the success of last year’s production of Left Behind at the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center, McDaniel will present this new work at 35below. It opens Friday, Nov. 30.

In Left Behind, the lead character Logan, who struggles with addiction, leaves her young daughters with their grandmother. She returns years later to bury her mother, seeking reconciliation with her family. For Left Behind — Reflection, “I wanted to take a lighter approach. No one will die this time,” says McDaniel. “It’s also about … unity and family, and a mom not giving up on her child.”

McDaniel acknowledges the difficulties faced by the relatives of a person dealing with addiction issues. “I know a lot of times parents give up,” she says. “It hits home because my mom never gave up on my sister during her addiction, even though it was frustrating to myself and my brother. She was still like, ‘As a mom, I can’t give up on her.’”

In addition to family support, in Left Behind — Reflection, Logan finds pastoral guidance and friendship. McDaniel says the play will be “uplifting and funny, but still with a deeper message.”

The move to 35below came as a result of an invitation from the Asheville Community Theatre, which was impressed with Left Behind and enthusiastic about bringing McDaniel’s work to its space. While her first play, The Many Personalities of the Soul…, was staged at the ACT in 2012, McDaniel put it on independently, and tickets were not sold at the box office. To have ACT officially host this play “is a true honor,” she says.

Going from the large stage at the Grant Center to the more intimate setting of 35below required crafting a smaller set and a smaller cast. Actress Ki’era Gash returns as Logan, and she is joined by new characters played by Rasheeda Johnson, Michael Davis and Kim Akbar. For McDaniel, a plus of the black box format is, “[The audience is] right there, so it puts you right into the story.”

Like Left Behind, this play will feature music and singing, this time directed by William Hamilton, the pastor at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Mars Hill.

Her experience with Left Behind taught McDaniel a number of lessons. She says she learned “patience, definitely a lot of patience.” She also learned that “you have to be more business-minded, and even though you have a friendship, you have to realize it is a business and you have to run your business accordingly.”

As a result of this growth, McDaniel is confident that the production will be “a lot more professional this time around.”

The performances of Left Behind at the Grant Center were met with full houses and visible support from the local African-American community. When asked about putting on an all-black theater production in Asheville, McDaniel says, “It’s rare, so when it happens, it’s important and it’s like, ‘Let’s show support to each other.’ How many playwrights do we have who are African-American who are actually putting their stuff on?”

She continues, “Last year, the response was awesome. That was mind-blowing, and it gave me even more motivation to keep going.”

Of black-led theater, McDaniel says, “People want it and people crave it. I think we need it here. You can go to the big cities and see it anytime — the big cities are spoiled. Let’s spoil each other here.”

With her latest play ready to open, McDaniel is already planning her next production. “Next year I’m going to try my best to write a play about the #MeToo movement,” she says. “It will talk about the victims and the perpetrators. The victims are not always women — men are victims, too — so I will cover aspects on both sides.”

The play will “cover the politics of it, as well,” she adds, addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

But back to the current production. “This play has helped me in so many ways,” McDaniel reveals. “While working on Left Behind — Reflection, my daughter and I became homeless through unfortunate circumstances that were beyond my control.” There’s a happy ending: McDaniel is now a homeowner.

She continues, “The people in this play gave me so much hope, so much laughter and joy. They gave me sunshine through my darker days. I want people to walk away with that light. … Even though you’re going through something, that light is there. It may not come when you want it, but it’ll be there on time.”

WHAT: Left Behind — Reflection
WHERE: 35below, 35 E. Walnut St., ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Fridays and Saturdays, Nov. 30-Dec. 8, 7:30 p.m. $20

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