South Florida Native Draws on Experiences Living in New York

Playwright Jason Mitchell

Playwright Jason Mitchell was a self-described “theater kid.” The Plantation native attended the magnet performing arts program at Dillard School of the Arts in Fort Lauderdale, spent his summers working in local theaters and went on to major in theater at the New World School of the Arts in Miami. 

 It was no surprise that he packed his bags and headed to New York City upon graduation, determined to make his place on Broadway. Life in the Big Apple was exciting for the young gay man and those experiences would eventually make their way into his play, “The Boys Upstairs,” a runaway hit at the 2009 New York Fringe Festival.

 “It was inspired by the life I was living,” Mitchell recalled. “I was young and new to New York, navigating new friendships, seeking a career and dating life.”

His story centers around three roommates living in Hell’s Kitchen: Seth is dating an older man and seeks approval from his single best friends. Ashley is playing the field, enjoying the variety, availability and accessibility of men in Manhattan. Josh finds inspiration from their antics, but focuses instead on developing a new phone app. Then, an incredibly hot neighbor moves in downstairs and they find their worlds upended as they ponder his sexual orientation over craft cocktails.

Village Voice critic Rex Reed called his play, “Sex in the City meets Boys in the Band,” and productions would follow in Los Angeles, London and Chicago.

“It’s definitely a comedy with a lot of heart. I’d even call it a romantic comedy. It’s the second play that I wrote; the first was a historical drama about homosexuals living in the holocaust. I wanted to write something much lighter in tone that reflected the life I was living,” he said.

A decade later, “The Boys Upstairs” is getting its Florida premiere at Empire Stage in the playwright’s home town.

Mitchell is 10 years older and his characters are still 25. But, he pointed out, they’re not frozen in time, as he always feels free to update the play for each production.

“The fun thing is that it was always meant to be reflective of being 25 in New York City, but it takes place in 2019. So much has changed in a decade. Oh, my god, I feel so old,” quipped Mitchell. “I’m not living that life anymore.”

Audiences will quickly notice references to the political climate and current events that would have been unimaginable in 2009. Dating has also changed with the advent of hookup apps and, of course, there’s the legalization of same-sex marriage in the intervening years.

There’s so much material, Mitchell has considered adapting his story and characters into a television series, but, in the end, stuck with the theatrical setting, primarily because of the opportunity to collaborate closely with other creatives.

“I love every time this happens—a new director and a new set of actors—seeing what new life we bring to the piece,” he explained. “I, as a writer, can discover [nuances] I’ve never noticed before.”

 Mitchell’s storytelling isn’t limited to the stage. As a struggling writer in New York City, he supplanted his income as an event planner and eventually became a celebrity wedding planner. Five years ago, he penned “Getting Groomed,” the first wedding guide for gay grooms, and now he splits his time in Los Angeles, planning glitzy ceremonies and receptions for stars of stage and screen.

“They’re just like shows,” he said. “Each couple brings a new story and then I get to write the script. It’s a wonderful combination.” 

“The Boys Upstairs” will be performed Jan. 31 – Feb. 27 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Dr. in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $35 at EmpireStage.com.