First, the bad news:
One of the more disconcerting recent developments on the Atlanta theater scene is Theroun Patterson’s decision to stop acting, at the relatively prime age of 37. After some 10 years establishing himself as a smart and sophisticated stage presence around town – in the Alliance’s Day of the Kings, Georgia Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Actor’s Express’ Burn This and Dad’s Garage’s Skin – he ultimately shattered that image with his chilling performance as a ghetto thug in Synchronicity’s 1:23.
Talk about going out with a bang. No one else may have known it at the time (2009), but Patterson says he realized that his days as an actor were ending – and just when he’d started landing parts on TV (“House of Payne”) and film (Madea Goes to Jail), no less.
“It took me those 10 years to get it out of my system, but I’d known for a while that I wanted to stop one day,” he recalls during a recent interview. “I hadn’t had that succession of roles where it felt like I’d said everything I wanted to say as an actor, but once I did Skin and Voices Underwater (also with Synchronicity) and 1:23, I was like, OK, I’ve done these three really different roles and stretched myself in three really different ways. At that point, I didn’t really have the desire to keep doing it anymore.”
Now, the good news:
Our loss as an audience is, well, our gain as an audience, too. That Patterson decided to step away from acting doesn’t mean he’s stepping away from theater altogether. “I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember and I always knew that I eventually wanted to write plays, to create characters and stories from the other side of the equation. It was just a matter of making the time to do it,” he explains.
Roughly five years ago, Patterson started making up in earnest for “a lot of lost time,” and since then he has already penned more than half a dozen plays – as he describes them, “dark comedies that contain elements of magical realism, about relationships and the difficulty of love.” Most of them have been developed under the auspices of Working Title Playwrights, an Atlanta organization that fosters local dramatists by presenting public workshops and readings of their scripts.
The logical next step for Patterson: the first full-fledged production of his work. His family drama A Thousand Circlets, winner of the 2011 Essential Theatre Georgia Playwriting Award, will serve as the centerpiece of the company’s 13th-annual New Play Festival. Running June 30 through July 31 at Actor’s Express (887 W. Marietta St. at the King’s Plow Arts Center), this year’s rotating repertory will also include regional premieres of Lee Blessing’s Great Falls and Melanie Marnich’s A Sleeping Country.
A Thousand Circlets (the title refers to a Coleridge poem about the rippling effects of love) reunites an affluent family for a celebration that turns somber, as skeletons emerge from the closet and startling revelations are made. The father is an aging, ailing architect who recently landed his dream job of designing a Manhattan skyscraper. He and his second wife welcome home the three grown children they share from their earlier marriages – his-and-her sons (both of whom went into the family business, to drastically different ends) and his daughter, a floundering journalist.
Patterson says, “It’s a story about family. It’s about how we all inevitably go off to live our lives and how we eventually come back together to deal with hard things. The family in the play is at that point, figuring out a way to live with each other, redefining who they are and what they mean to each other. The basic theme is about what legacy we leave behind, what mark we make in the world.”
Incidentally, and yet quite intentionally, Patterson’s characters are also African-American. “There’s nothing in the story that speaks to them being African-American, but I specified that in the script, because if I didn’t, nine times out of 10 – nine-and-a-half times out of 10 – it would be cast the other way,” he elaborates.
“Traditionally, plays with African-American characters are all about issues of race and racial experiences, but this play deliberately doesn’t deal with any of that. I purposely stayed away from it. I just wanted to write a universal family drama. That they happen to be African-American isn’t related to what they’re going through.”
What must that mean to Essential Theatre Artistic Director Peter Hardy, who has done such an admirable job of producing plays that do speak to the African-American experience? (In just the last few years: Leaving Limbo, about the 19th-century slave trade; The Darker Face of the Earth, set on a post-Civil War plantation; Fix Me So I Can Stand, about the wrongful conviction of a black man in the Depression-era South; and Jim Crow and the Rhythm Darlings, set on the segregated jazz circuit of the 1940s.)
Does the matter-of-factness about the racial identity of Patterson’s characters make Circlets a harder sell to African-American audiences? “It’ll be interesting to see. I’d hope they might find that refreshing,” Hardy replies.
What’s more important, he continues, “It’s a very strong, well-crafted, intelligently written drama. There’s a determination in this family to hold on to their success, and that may have a special resonance because they’re African-American. At the same time, though, there are subtle conflicts between the characters as individuals and a lot of different dynamics challenging them as a family, and that isn’t race specific at all.”
Directed by frequent Essential collaborator Betty Hart, Circlets features veteran actor Tony Vaughn as the self-made patriarch. Yvonne Singh portrays the wife, with Tony Goolsby, Precious Bright and Olubajo Sonubi rounding out the ensemble as the wayward kids.
As this year’s winning playwright, Patterson will receive a $600 check. Even so, he admits the real thrill will be seeing A Thousand Circlets come to fruition – from the page to the stage.
“Essential has always been dedicated to doing new works by local writers every year, and that’s huge,” Patterson observes. “Opportunities like that are sorely lacking, so giving writers that kind of a shot, it’s invaluable. How else are you supposed to grow?”
After a pause, he smiles and adds, “Nobody writes plays just for them to be read. You write them to be produced.”
For more information about performance schedules and tickets for the 2011 Essential Theatre New Play Festival, visit the company’s website at essentialtheatre.com or call 866-811-4111.
Bert Osborne has written about Atlanta theater for more than 15 years. A former critic with Creative Loafing and The Sunday Paper, he currently reviews theater for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.