Playing with 'Crumbs'

Al Letson performs in "Crumbs" at Theatre Project.
Al Letson performs in "Crumbs" at Theatre Project.(Handout photo, Baltimore Sun)

If life is a banquet, playwright and actor Al Letson doesn't let a crumb go to waste.

"I do a lot of autobiographical work," said the author of "Crumbs," currently on the boards at Theatre Project. "I am concerned with the truth, if not the literal truth. I want to make things dramatically effective."

Billed as "a possibly true story," "Crumbs" is a 2009 piece based on an experience Letson had about eight years ago.

"I worked for a private investigation agency in a bread company," he said. "My job was to see if a guy was sexually harassing employees. So a lot of the play is true. I mean, where would you get an idea like that from? That's got to be something happening in real life."

A lot has happened to Letson since his stint as a floury spy. He also worked at a summer camp for disadvantaged youths in Jacksonville, Fla., where he lives; that led to his one-man play "Summer in Sanctuary," which had its premiere at Theatre Project in 2008.

Letson, who first gained attention in the Poetry Slam Movement and HBO's Def Poetry Jam, has lately been immersed in the world of radio. Three years ago, he and about 1,500 other people took a shot at the Public Radio Talent Quest. Letson was one of three finalists.

That success earned him funding to host and produce his own show, "State of the Re:Union," a documentary program that explores stories of communities around the country. It just started a second season airing on NPR stations.

In addition to all of that, Letson squeezed in an acting gig Off-Broadway earlier this year, performing "Summer in Sanctuary."

If it weren't for the New York show and the radio work, "we would be presenting 'Crumbs' with Al Letson playing Al Letson," said Anne Fulwiler, producing director of Theatre Project. (The role of Al will be played by Brandon J. Price.) "We've really had a great relationship together. I'm sure we'll do something with him again."

Since 2001, Theatre Project has presented four Letson works, among them three premieres, including "Julius X," a mash-up of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" and the life of Malcolm X.

"He kept saying, 'I have an idea,' and I kept saying, 'Write it and we'll present it,'" Fulwiler said.

Letson also came to the attention of the Baltimore School for the Arts, which commissioned "Chalk," a fusion of poetry and hip-hop, in 2003. He'll give a workshop for students at the school on Friday.

"I'll always find a way to do work at Theatre Project," Letson said. "I love that stage. And Baltimore is like a second home."

Early on in the preparation for the "Crumbs" production at Theatre Project, Letson attended a reading with the cast and director Dwight R. B. Cook.

Fulwiler considers "Crumbs," which has a cast of nine, a "perfect example" of Letson's craft.

"All of his works are about serious subjects," she said. "This one is about sexuality and race, yet he writes with a very light-handed touch that's comic. I also particularly like this piece because things are not black and white; there are many shades of who's prejudiced against whom?"

Letson plans to continue mining incidents in his own life for theatrical products. One is particularly personal.

"I'm 38," he said, "and I have a son who is 21. He was born when I was 17, but I didn't know I had a son until he was six years old. So I was 23 when I became a parent. I had no idea what that meant. I don't know how to frame it yet, but the play will be about his, and my, learning. I'll just follow it where it takes me."

Letson also plans to follow an idea for a graphic novel churning in his head. And there's still "State of the Re:Union," which airs in more than 200 markets and is being considered for development into a TV show on PBS, Letson said. But there's always the threat that Congress will cut off money to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds the show.

"I've heard people say that if the marketplace can't support [public programming], let it fail," he said. "But if we just got all our news from for-profit sources, you can imagine the news and information we're going to get. And I'd feel this way even if my paycheck didn't come from this."


If you go

"Crumbs" will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; also 8 p.m. May 12-14, 3 p.m. May 15, at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. $10-$20. Call 410-752-8558 or go to theatreproject.org.

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