In 1889, gay Irish playwright Oscar Wilde opined, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”
“The Submission,” a play written more than a century later by Jeff Talbott and receiving its regional premiere this weekend at Island City Stage, proves Wilde’s lofty conclusion.
A 2011 Off Broadway hit, “The Submission” is an unsentimental look at race identity and latent affirmative action in the United States:
Shaleeha G’ntamobi’s new play about an alcoholic black mother, her card shark son and their struggle to get out of the projects wins a coveted spot in a prestigious theater festival. The only problem is Shaleeha G’ntamobi doesn’t exist, except in the mind of young gay playwright Danny Larsen, who created the appealing nom-de-plume. He hires Emilie, a black actress, to stand in for him, but quickly, Danny, his boyfriend and best friend get dragged down a dirty path of deception and revelation.
Plot sound familiar?
Three years after “The Submission” won the Laurents/Hatcher Award for challenging topical American plays, Michael Derrick Hudson admitted he used his own minority pen name, Yi-Fen Chou, to get his poems published.
And then last year, there was the baffling case of Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane NAACP activist, who was revealed to be a white woman who darkened her skin and dyed her blonde locks.
Both instances ended in disastrous personal embarrassment. That’s where life imitated art.
“I had this notion to write a satire about theater and the PC (politically correct) attitude of how theater is working today,” said Talbott, 50. “Quite honestly, I became uninterested in that quickly. I’m not a satirist.”
Talbott, who also makes his living as an actor in New York City, set the project aside until he recalled a discussion in graduate school about political correctness and racial intolerance.
“I wondered if I could fold it into the idea and see what the play wanted to be,” he said.
“See what the play wanted to be?” That’s Talbott’s writing methodology.
“That’s a phrase I use,” Talbott explained. “You can muscle a play. Any writer with craft can sit down and force a piece of language. You have to set your ego aside and let it evolve organically. If you can listen to that, you have a better chance that it will become a play.”
He cited one play that he’s been working on for 11 years.
“I realized I’m not listening to it. It said I’m not a comedy and now it’s good,” Talbott said. “That’s half the job. If I’m really in it, working on all cylinders, I have no conscious memory of writing the thing.”
The actor’s extensive experience on stage and screen is also particularly valuable in shaping the dialogue of his plays.
“One of my great strengths as a dramatist is dialogue. I think that comes from my time of saying lines,” he said. “‘The Submission’ is a real anomaly for me. I don’t generally write about the theater. Being in theater you learn a lot about dramatic structure and how a play can spin….it’s a physical feeling.”
Talbott’s play has been performed across the country and, according to its creator, is eliciting strong responses from audiences.
It’s tough and funny and entertaining, but there are people in the audience that it will make uncomfortable. As a theatergoer, I like plays that ask me to engage in a conversation, that send people out into the lobby talking. I’m now kind of used to it. It took some time,” he said.
Back to the whole life imitating art metaphor, Talbott insisted, “It’s a dramatic device. I’m not reinventing the wheel. The shocking thing is that these things are still happening.”
Island City Stage presents Jeff Talbott’s “The Submission,” April 7 – May 8 at Abyss Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Highway in Wilton Manors. Tickets are $35 at IslandCityStage.org.