Theater / Film

Local Playwrights Flip the Script for City Theatre’s ‘Summer Shorts’

Written By Michelle F. Solomon
June 3, 2024 at 6:04 PM

Toddra Brunson and Kimberly Vilbrun-Francois in a scene from Neressa Street’s play “Leaving Jamaica,” part of City Theatre’s “Summer Shorts: Flipping the Script,” with a preview night Thursday, June 6 and opening Friday, June 7 through Sunday, June 23. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

It’s a summer theater tradition. City Theatre at the Adrienne Arsht Center has been putting on its short play fest for more than two decades. This year, it’s flipping the script.

“This is the 27th annual Summer Shorts,” says Margaret M. Ledford, the artistic director of City Theatre.

Last year, City Theatre spotlighted eight local playwrights participating in its inaugural Homegrown writers’ development program. This year, “Summer Shorts: Flipping the Script” features four original plays from Homegrown, a City Theatre initiative where the selected quartet cohort collaborates with a master playwright in a year-long intensive. The other four plays were selected from the Susan J. Westfall National Short Playwrighting Contest. Westfall is a playwright and co-founder of City Theatre.

“Summer Shorts: Flipping the Script” has one preview night on Thursday, June 6 then opens on Friday, June 7 and runs through Sunday, June 23 inside the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.

The company actors of “Summer Shorts: Flipping the Script” are, from left, Therese Adelina, Devon Dassaw, Chris Anthony Ferrer, Kimberly Vibrun-Francois, center, Toddra Brunson, Diana Garle, and Alex Alvarez. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

“City Theatre started with Susie, Stephanie Norman and Elna Wohl sitting around their table on Key Biscayne and at that point, and that was 1996, theater was dead in the summer. Miami was very seasonal. You came down for the winter and then you left,” says Ledford. “And so this was a great opportunity to employ a bunch of artists who wouldn’t be working otherwise. I think that totally changed the Miami landscape of what could be done in the summer, which I attribute 100 percent to these women.”

It was presented in association with the University of Miami’s Department of Theater Arts at the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre. The first program touted: “18 plays. 12 actors. 11 directors. 1 fantastic festival.”

“Now, we employ over 40 artists for summer shorts because it’s very important to us at City Theatre to help sustain the ecosystem of the South Florida artists’ community because they tend to leave. We really try to employ as many people as we can,” says Ledford.

The festival puts out a call for short plays, which has since developed into a national contest, where Ledford says they receive about 1,000 submissions each year. And now it has incorporated its Homegrown development program, which works to develop the voices of Miami-based writers from historically marginalized communities.

This year’s Homegrown playwrights began their training in October, according to Ledford. “They’ll develop a short play and a full-length play through us,” she says.

Homegrown playwrights Nerissa Street and Maleeha Naseer. (Photos courtesy of the artists)

The local playwrights are Nerissa Street, Maleeha Naseer, Brandon Urrutia, and BK King.

What they all say they have in common is that they are “storytellers.”

“I started out as someone who just loves stories,” says Street, whose play “Leaving Jamaica” was inspired by what she says was a different kind of immigrant experience.

In 2021, she says she began a project called Building Black Utopias. “I was telling the story of joy and prosperity and healing that is experienced in historic Black neighborhoods in South Florida. What I started to find was that the stories they were telling about sending their children away for education . . . .mirrored the story of Caribbean immigrants who also sent their children away for better opportunities. In Jamaica, where I am from, it’s a kind of thing that’s done. Once a child graduates from school, they find their way off the island – many for education heading to the UK or Canada or the United States, they just leave home . . leaving the island by choice. At any point, they can hop on a plane and go back home. So, I thought about other immigrant stories where they don’t have that option; that for whatever reason they can’t go home.”

She says that the idea sparked to have her short play look through the lens of immigrants who are able to go back and forth, to go home.

Her play, Street says, is written in the genre of comedy of manners, a bit of a satire. “There is humor in it and because it’s a Jamaican play, the humor will be understood by the Jamaicans. As a non-Jamaican, you’ll get a slice of Jamaican life and a different lens into Jamaicans. And what has been really fun is having that conversation with everyone involved with the production.”

For Naseer, her inspiration for “Swordfish Grilled (So I Don’t Get Sued)” came from the restaurant where she works, which takes place at the fictional Swordfish Bistro in West Kendall.

“Swordfish Grilled (So I Don’t Get Sued) by Maleeha Nasser with, from left, Diana Garle, Devon Dassaw, Chris Anthony Ferrer and Therese Adelina. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

“I work at a chain restaurant. There’s nothing I love more than listening to the things that happen in that place. Life is really colorful there and I thought that I should share that with an audience,” she says.

The 23-year-old who grew up in Miami says she, too, has always been interested in storytelling. “My father is from Pakistan and my mother is Cuban and one of the common grounds in my household was a love for movies. My mom loved to show my dad her movies and he loved showing her Bollywood and I loved watching all of it,” says Naseer. She says she remembers going to school and recounting tales of the Bollywood films to her friends. “I had to do it in a way to make it interesting, so I got very good at talking to people and I think that’s why I enjoy writing.”

While a student at Florida International University, Naseer wrote a one-woman show about Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. “I have kept working on it over the years. Once I’ve established myself a bit more here in the South Florida theater scene, I’d like to do it again because I feel like this is a part of the country that needs that kind of exposure and who better to hear it from than somebody who speaks Spanish, too?”

Alex Alvarez and Toddra Brunson in BK King’s “This Week in the Land of Democracy.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

King describes her play, “This Week in the Land of Democracy,” as an absurdist comedy. The plot is about two sisters whose pizza night takes a bizarre turn when an algorithm reveals uncomfortable truths.

“One is a computer programmer in her third year in college and she’s writing an algorithm that would show people the type of world they would live in or the type of person they would be if money wasn’t a concern. We meet her as she’s getting notes from her professor who is claiming that the project is too radical and he wants to change it and then the story kind of goes from there.”

She says she’s been working on it since early 2020 and it was initially meant to be a radio play. “Some friends I met on an app called Clubhouse, we were supposed to perform it together but then things went awry as they often do.”

King then turned to her friend Terrence “T.M.” Pride, the producing artistic director of Brévo Theatre, and they began working on it together, but she says, when she started in Homegrown, she thought it would be a good piece to “take in another direction.”

She says that playwrighting for her is an “apparatus” she uses for storytelling as well as photography, podcasting, and other mediums. “I see myself as an artist, not just as a playwright. I like to tell stories about the future, very much in the way of (American science fiction writer) Octavia E. Butler . . . Trying to figure out what our future could look like in the hands of people that really want to care about it and not just exploit it for its resources and people power.”

In Urrutia’s “Dickery Pokery,” a husband’s quest to bring his wife joy brings him to the local mall.

City Theatre’s Homegrown playwrights Brandon Urrutia and BK King. (Photos courtesy of the artists)

“It’s a fun little, short about a nice gentleman doing whatever he can bring love back into his life. The “doing whatever he can” is going to the local Claire’s to get what’s known as a “Prince Albert” penis piercing.

For Urrutia being in the Homegrown program has added another level to the work he says he is doing with the local theater company where he is artistic director and co-founder, Miami Lakes based LakeHouseRanchDotPng, where the focus is on original absurdist and experimental new work.

Like many of his creative endeavors, Urrutia says ideas can spring out of nowhere. In fact, the catchy title of his “Summer Shorts” comedy was just one of those moments.

“It came to me in the middle of the night. Funny, that’s all I remember,” he says.

Kimberly Vilbrun-Francois in Brandon Urrutia’s “Dickery Pokery.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

The other playwrights and their plays in “Summer Shorts: Flipping the Script” are “Manic Pixie Dream Girl Goes to Brunch” by Rhiannon Ling, “Search for an Ending” by Karissa Murrell Myers, “An Awkward Conversation in the Shadow of Mount Moriah” by John Bavoso, and “Pros and Cons of Implosion” by R.D. Murphy.

Gladys Ramirez, City Theatre’s executive director, says the theme, “Flipping the Script” really can give audiences a hint as to what they are going to see.

“We’ve had themes in the past in terms of sets, for instance, but we started using these kinds of subtitles last year. “So ‘Flipping the Script’ are short plays that are unexpected, that are out of the norm, where you’re experiencing things that might surprise or challenge you. We think all of the plays in this lineup have a little bit of an unexpected take.”

WHAT: “Summer Shorts: Flipping the Script”

 WHERE: Carnival Studio Theater in the Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

WHEN: Preview 7:30 p.m., Thursday, June 6, opening 7:30 p.m., Friday, June 7. Regular performances 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through June 23. Opening night party with live music and food for purchase on the Arsht Center’s Thompson Plaza for the Arts.

COST: $50 and $75 (student tickets $15 with ID)

INFORMATION:  305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org

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