Mid-afternoon on Oct. 16, director Marion McClinton headed to Washington for the Million Man March. Center Stage couldn't find him, he says with a grin. "I had a day of absence."
The phrase "day of absence" is one that was used by Louis Farrakhan in calling for the march. Its origin, however, is the title .. of the play McClinton is directing at Center Stage, Douglas Turner Ward's "Day of Absence."
A broad farce about what happens in a small Southern town when all the black residents leave for a day, "Day of Absence" was written in 1965. McClinton says: "At first I was concerned about it being dated. But the events of the last few weeks have certainly taken care of that."
This timeliness also applies to "Open Admissions," the other one-act play about race that Center Stage is pairing with "Day of Absence" to make up the double bill that opens in the Head Theater on Wednesday.
In "Open Admissions," written by Shirley Lauro in 1981, the issue is the erosion of social programs, such as affirmative action and the program the play is about, which declared all New York City high school graduates eligible to attend college.
"This play is not about that early optimistic time [when those programs were created]," says its director, Tim Vasen. "This play is about: This system is failing. The background of all this for me goes along with what's happening in Washington now. Are we saying we're just going to give up?"
The two directors -- McClinton, 41, with an established career as a director and playwright, and Vasen, 31, just starting out -- have been collaborating on aspects of the production to make the double bill a unified evening of theater.
The most obvious manifestation of their joint efforts is their decision to eliminate the intermission. This move might seem unlikely, since the two plays are dissimilar in many respects. "Day of Absence" -- which opens at Center Stage 30 years to the day after it opened off-Broadway -- has been described by playwright Ward as "a reverse minstrel show." That means it is performed by black actors in white face.
What Ward is doing, director McClinton explains, is "taking white stereotypes and exploiting them." He compares the performance style of this 90-minute, 26-character piece to the type of comedy the Marx Brothers called "controlled anarchy."
As the play continues, the lives of the white characters become more and more out of control. McClinton hopes the result will be a wild comedy that offers a serious commentary on the interdependence of the races.
"The events of the last few weeks say there's a great divide," he says, referring not only to the Million Man March, but also the reaction to the O. J. Simpson verdict. "But in truth, I believe the history of this country [shows] the two races have been joined at the hip like Siamese twins -- two separate entities, but one blood flow."
Different and similar
Contrasted with the anarchic humor of "Day of Absence," "Open Admissions," which runs only 30 minutes, is a small, poignant, realistic two-person drama about a white college speech teacher and a black student.
"One reason we don't want an intermission is, before we have time to recover from the satirical, farcical energy of 'Day of Absence,' we get slammed into this intense, personal experience," "Admissions" director Vasen says. "The whole shape of the evening, going from this large thing to this small thing, suggests that we've got to look at individuals and stop looking at each other as representatives of groups."
The two one-act plays use the same basic set, designed by Neil Patel. A chief feature is three walls that revolve on wheels, serving multiple purposes in "Day of Absence" and creating classrooms in "Open Admissions." The partially mobile set will allow the directors, as McClinton puts it, to "choreograph" the transition from one play to the other.
Despite their stylistic differences, the two plays cover some similar thematic ground, McClinton says. "In 'Open Admissions,' " he explains, "people are trying to find a common place of understanding. 'Day of Absence' speaks to how inseparable we really are."
"Open Admissions" was chosen largely because of its suitability as the premiere production in Center Stage's new Encounter program, which is funded in part by the five-year, $1.4 million grant the theater received in 1993 from the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund. Created to introduce young people to live theater, Encounter will present eight morning matinees of "Open
Admissions," followed by discussions and workshops. These will attended by 2,500 eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders from 27 city and county schools.
Director Vasen believes "Open Admissions" is an excellent first-theater experience, in part "because it is about the process of education," a subject with which student audiences should readily identify. "Also, we've got a black student and a white teacher, and that dynamic is radiating from every shore these days," he says.
In addition, one of the Encounter program's goals is to show students how live theater differs from television and movies, and Vasen feels this play will be especially effective in demonstrating that distinction: "Because you're in the same room with the actors, it's hard to put their characters in categories -- villain, victim."
While Center Stage hopes "Open Admissions" will have an impact on the lives of young theatergoers, "Day of Absence" also has a history of changing lives. Baltimore-born actor Charles S. Dutton read the script when he was incarcerated in the Maryland Correctional Institution at Hagerstown in the early 1970s. Though Dutton had never seen, or even read, a play, "Day of Absence" turned his life around. He staged the play with fellow inmates, went on to study theater in a college release program and eventually became a professional actor.
The play also had a formative influence on the black theater movement. Largely because of the success of "Day of Absence," its author, Douglas Turner Ward, co-founded New York's prestigious Negro Ensemble Company, which has served as a role model for theaters across the country.
"I wouldn't be here working if he didn't pave that way," says McClinton, who has been an associate artist at Center Stage since 1992 and who is writing a new play, "Hannibal Jim," commissioned by the theater with funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts. "I'm hoping people will go back and do [Ward's] other plays," he says.
McClinton's belief in the relevance of Ward's work, and particularly in "Day of Absence," was increased by his experience at last month's Million Man March.
"Day of Absence" began rehearsals the next day, and McClinton says, "I came back with a renewed belief in this piece and its timelessness." For example, when the plot deals with the disappearance of the black townsfolk, he says, "It gave me an idea of where people might have gone." He hints that he's managed to work this idea into the final scene, though he is leaving the details a surprise.
Similarly, Vasen, who is in his second year teaching acting at Princeton University, has found personal experience helpful in his directing. In "Open Admissions," the character of the student complains that although he's getting B's, he's not learning anything. "The kid realizes there's one set of standards applied to him and another to others. I deal with that all the time," Vasen says, referring, in particular, to his students' varied levels of familiarity with Shakespeare.
He hopes the evening as a whole will open the audience's eyes to the importance of introducing young people to the arts.
"Problems don't stop happening because at a certain point you say, 'We'll stop funding it.' Spend a little money on arts education, and I think you save money in the long run on prisons and police and parole officers," Vasen says. "You make people feel they're part of society, that there's more to life."