Theater / Film

‘Summer Shorts’ is back with diverse ‘Homegrown’ plays from the 305

Written By Christine Dolen
June 5, 2023 at 2:28 PM

Brette-Raia Curah, Lauren Cristina Lopez and Chabely Ponce are going for a social media makeover in Ariel Cipolla’s “The Vultures,” one of the plays featured in City Theatre’s  “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition.” (Photo courtesy of  Morgan Sophia Photography)

Since 1996, when City Theatre founders Susan Westfall, Stephanie Heller and Elena Wohl dreamed up an event to celebrate the art of the short play, the annual Summer Shorts festival has been a much-anticipated part of the South Florida theater season.

The Miami company’s programming has broadened over the years to include a full-length play, myriad readings at different locations, a middle school tour, a national playwrights’ conference and a host of developmental programs. After two dark years during the pandemic and its aftermath, City Theatre bounced back with its postponed 25th anniversary festival last June.

The playwrights of City Theatre’s “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition” are Sefanja Richard Galon, Chris Anthony Ferrerr, Ivan R. Lopez, Luis Roberto Herrera, Phanésia Pharel, Ariel Cipolla, Lolita Stewart-White and Joel Castillo. (Photo courtesy of Gregory Reed)

This year, the festival is returning with yet another evolutionary twist:  The world premiere plays that make up the festival have all been written by emerging BIPOC  Miami playwrights mentored by Vanessa Garcia, whose play “#Graced” had its Zoetic Stage world premiere at the Arsht in  May.

Previews for “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition” are Thursday, June 8 with the opening date Friday, June 9 and running through Sunday, June 25 in the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Arsht Center.  Eight new plays performed by an eight-actor company are in the lineup, with four directors at the helm and City Theatre artistic director Margaret M. Ledford overseeing it all.

City Theatre has long given opportunities to diverse playwrights and actors, aiming to help create a sustainable arts ecosystem that will keep Miami artists living and working here. The difference this year is that the playwright cohort, the actors, the directors and much of the behind-the-scenes talent are BIPOC artists.

“Philosophically and ethically, South Florida is so rich in many different cultures. But what so often floats to the surface at major theaters are white voices and mainstream voices,” says Ledford. “We have to ask, ‘How do we represent Miami?’  This festival isn’t about the ‘tourist’ Miami.”

Margaret M. Ledford, left, is artistic director of City Theatre and master playwright Vanessa Garcia leads City Theatre’s “Homegrown “playwrights program. (Photos courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography and Gregory Reed)

Although past festivals have featured work by a lengthy roster of well-known playwrights – including Paul Rudnick, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Dominique Morisseau, Michael McKeever, France-Luce Benson, Christopher Durang, David Ives and many more – Ledford says Summer Shorts aficionados will experience the kind of festival they’ve come to know and love.

“Nobody knows the plays they’ll be seeing, going in. This is not less than. We’re exalting and amplifying what we have in our own backyard . . . I would hope that there’s a pride that this is coming from the 305,” she says.

Ledford says theater is, and should be, a social leader.

“We have a lot of different theatrical tastes in Miami, but it’s important to remind people that a shared theatrical experience is not like anything else, particularly in a state that’s making it harder to speak out . . . We have to start the hard conversations.”

Homegrown master playwright Garcia credits City co-founder Westfall, who left her day-to-day leadership role in November and now serves on the company’s board, with the vision of finding “ . . .BIPOC writers, putting their work onstage here and pushing it out into the world.”

During the 18-month program, Garcia is working with the eight playwrights on their short plays, full-length plays and a collectively written piece to be titled “The Unbound.”  She has also brought in a variety of theater professionals to talk to the participants about different aspects of achieving success as a playwright.

“City has always given voice to people who needed it in a particular moment.  It has brought the voices of women to the forefront; same thing with BIPOC and Latinx writers,” says Garcia, who adds that this year’s “Summer Shorts” features a collection of what she dubs “calling card” plays. “This cohort is going places.”

The eight playwrights of “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition” are diverse in terms of age, experience and background.

Toddra Brunson and Brette-Raia Curah debate a vow renewal in Lolita Stewart-White’s “7,” part of “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Lolita Stewart-White is an African American poet and filmmaker who is adding playwright to her skill set with “Summer Shorts.” Ariel Cipolla, a Mexican-Argentine playwright and dramaturg who recently graduated from Florida International University, was part of City Theatre’s Next Gen Young Playwrights program in 2017.

Chris Anthony Ferrer, who played Lewis in Garcia’s “#Graced,” is a New World School of the Arts alum who made his professional playwriting debut with “Swindlers” at the Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville, Ga.  That piece was directed by another “Homegrown” playwright, Ivan R. López, a Cuban American actor-playwright-director from Miami who is an FIU faculty member.

Phanésia Pharel, whose bio notes that she grew up on a dragon fruit farm in Miami, is a Haitian American Barnard College grad living in San Diego where she’s a full-time graduate student; she has also had numerous fellowships, commissions and residencies.  Sefanja Richard Galon, who was born in Miami and grew up in Suriname, is an actor-director-playwright who graduated from New World School of the Arts and recently made his professional directing debut with the Main Street Players’ production of Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat.”

Luis Roberto Herrera, a Columbian American playwright and actor who graduated from the University of Florida and The New School and who teaches at New World, is a prolific playwright who performed his solo show “As I Eat the World” at New York’s Frigid Fringe Festival in February.  Joel Castillo, a Cuban American University of Miami graduate, has been writing plays since high school and now writes mainly for his students at the arts magnet Coral Reef Senior High School.

As they get ready for the more intense focus that “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition” will inevitably bring to their work, the writers are juggling fears, excitement, anticipation – the gamut of feelings that any playwright has on the way to an opening.

Actor-director Alex Alvarez, left, is staging a pair of plays and actor-director Maha McCain is staging two of the plays in “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition.”
(Photos courtesy of Diana Garle and Taylor Hooper)

“I have not written this much in my life. I like to write papers, essays, presentations for school. I like to write long paragraphs. But I realized that’s not how people talk,” says Galon.  “I’ve had to switch up my writing style.  It’s terrifying, but you have to find it . . . I’ve rewritten my ending four times. And every time it got better.”

Herrera, who studied playwriting with Carbonell Award winner McKeever at New World, says that writing a short play for the festival is “like going home.  I’m used to writing plays that are 50 to 120 pages.  Now I’ve written 12 pages. It was a relief that I didn’t have to worry about anything being complicated.”

Pharel, who like Cipolla was part of City’s Next Gen program in high school, says she was inspired to become a playwright when she watched Benson’s “Risen from the Dough” at an earlier “Summer Shorts” festival.

“That was the first time I witnessed the Haitian community of Miami be honored. It was specific, true and made me really happy.  I dreamed of being a ‘Summer Shorts’ playwright because it’s a big deal,” exclaims Pharel.  “So many great writers have passed through this festival. . . It means the world and makes me feel like I need to raise the bar.”

After living in New York and now California, Pharel is beginning to see career possibilities in her hometown.

“This is happening in large part because of Margaret Ledford and (executive director) Gladys Ramirez, (who) are unrelenting in advocating for BIPOC voices and making sure City Theatre Miami reflects Miami,” she says. “I partially left Miami because all the writers I knew from Miami (felt they) had to leave.  This festival proves you don’t.”

Ferrer believes the possibilities for Miami’s BIPOC playwrights are getting better – but he feels the need for further change.

“The community is reflecting a lot more diverse work. This is really more about professional clout,” says Ferrer. “When I graduated from college, theaters would say their subscribers wanted to see ‘Oklahoma!’ for the fifteenth time.”

Herrera has felt the bias toward the traditional and the safe in programming too.

 Melissa Almaguer is directing two plays and filmmaker and director Joshua Jean-Baptiste is directing two plays in “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition.”
(Photos courtesy of Jayme Gershen and Dave McMahan)

“Plays that get chosen are by white playwrights or playwrights who have a previous relationship with a company.  South Florida doesn’t feel like a place for new playwrights. I came back (after grad school) because I wanted to be part of the change,” he says.

Herrera points to what’s happening in other cities, particularly New York.

“It’s so sad and frustrating.  Off-Broadway, you have all these stories by BIPOC and Latinx writers getting rave reviews.  ‘Fat Ham’ (by James Ijames) is a queer, black adaptation of ‘Hamlet’ that won the (2022) Pulitzer Prize. The lack of opportunities is what makes people in this area leave.”

Expanding audiences by telling more inclusive stories will pay off down the line, the playwrights believe. Cipolla thinks that, while audiences that turn out for theater don’t often reflect Miami’s broad diversity, Homegrown will demonstrate what theater can be.

For “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition,” the acting company and the festival’s four directors are as diverse as the playwrights’ cohort.

Playing multiple roles are Toddra Brunson, Brette-Raia Curah, Samuel Krogh, Lauren Cristina López, Evelyn Perez, Chabely Ponce, Raul Ramírez and Roderick Randle. The performers were found both through auditions and through a conscious effort by Ledford, Garcia and Ramírez to seek out the region’s BIPOC talent.

Brette-Raia Curah and Roderick Randle consider the future in Phanésia Pharel’s “And Other Dreams We Had,” one of the plays in “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

“We spent a lot of time making sure we saw a lot of theater, and not just at the major companies,” says Ledford. “These playwrights are writing for younger voices, so we saw plays at FIU and went to New World’s showcase. We wanted to find emerging actors too.”

As for the multifaceted directors – they are teachers, actors, filmmakers, writers – each is staging two plays.

Alex Alvarez, a Cuban American artist who has acted in five editions of Summer Shorts and Winter Shorts, is directing López’s “I Found This on the Web” (a comedy about dating in a world permeated by AI) and Stewart-White’s “7” (a play about a jittery bride who might or might not recommit to her husband of seven years).

Joshua Jean-Baptiste, a Haitian American filmmaker and co-creator of the digital series “Grown,” is staging Ferrer’s “2201:  Xibalba” (a wild sci-fi comedy involving a space cadet and a wormhole) and Galon’s “Banana Bread” (a dramedy about a friendship torn asunder by corporate maneuverings at a banana bread shop).

Maha McCain, an actor-director who teaches at the University of Miami, is directing Pharel’s “And Other Dreams We Had” (a young couple is on the cusp of a dream or nightmare) and Herrera’s “Plastic Flowers” (about estranged friends arguing as they visit a comatose pal in the hospital).

Melissa Almaguer, a Cuban American actor-director who teaches at Felix Varela Senior High School and who most recently starred as Catherine in Garcia’s “#Graced,” is staging Castillo’s “Ballóo(n)” (in Havana, a honeymooning Miami couple encounters a balloon seller) and Cipolla’s “The Vultures” (a trio of teens is set on doing a social media rebrand before starting high school).

In working on “Homegrown,” Alvarez has felt City Theatre’s intention becoming reality.

“It doesn’t happen that often that your values align with the story you’re telling. It’s great to give new voices a chance, to uplift those who are just starting,” he says.

Raul Ramírez and Roderick Randle in “Banana Bread” by Sefanja Richard Galon, part of City Theatre’s “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Jean-Baptiste believes that change needs to start with the people leading companies, and not just artistic directors.

“Other companies should take a page from what City Theatre does, from M Ensemble and Miami New Drama,” he says. “Real conversations need to start at the top and trickle down. Do you have a board that reflects a diversity of thought? Miami is hella diverse.”

Almaguer adds, “I know what it’s like to feel that a lot of stories I see onstage are not my stories….There is so much talent here, so many stories that deserve to be told. For me as an artist, that’s the most exciting thing.”

For herself and anyone else who loves theater, McCain advocates broadening perspectives and taking chances.

“We’re in a time now when we can’t have fear about pushing back, especially in this state, where it can be terrifying to be an artist and a teacher,” she says.  “I need to be taken out of my comfort zone. I can learn things that are different from me. I don’t want everything to sound and feel the same.”

As the playwrights of “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition” get ready for their cohort’s first milestone, they’re continuing to bond, network and figure out how to build on the opportunity City Theatre has given them.  Stewart-White, for one, is confident they will.

“We’re not waiting for anybody; I think Vanessa Garcia is the model for that.  We’re the new ambassadors of what can be done,” she says. “Everybody is super talented, super energetic.  The door is cracked, and now we’ll come through.”

WHAT: “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition” by Joel Castillo, Ariel Cipolla, Chris Anthony Ferrer, Sefanja Richard Galon, Luis Roberto Herrera, Ivan R. López, Phanésia Pharel,  and Lolita Stewart-White

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. June 8, opening 7:30 p.m. June 9; regular performances 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through June 25

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

INFORMATION:  305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org

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