NEA Arts Magazine

From Page to Stage

Center Theatre Group Presents Of Equal Measure

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Tanya Barfield

Playwright Tanya Barfield, whose play Of Equal Measure is being produced by the Center Theatre Group with support from the NEA. Photo by Bjorg Magnea.

Commissioning a play and mounting a new theater work onstage are two very different endeavors. In 2005, Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Center Theatre Group (CTG), commissioned a new work from up-and coming playwright Tanya Barfield. The commission was a milestone for two reasons. It is the first script Ritchie ordered via his New Play Production Program after taking over the Los Angeles theater consortium from its founder, former National Council on the Arts member Gordon Davidson. And second, Ritchie was backing only an idea in Barfield's head: a play about segregated federal offices in the Wilson administration.

"Once CTG decided to commission me, they let me develop my own structure for working on the piece," Barfield said. "They let me lead my development and agreed to produce it before it was finished. That's rare." But such an open arrangement can make fundraising for a new production difficult because so many questions remain unanswered: How long will it take the playwright to craft a script? What if the new play needs five workshops before it's ready for a full production? When will the finished product best fit into the theater's season?

By March 2007, Ritchie had a first draft of Barfield's play sitting on his desk. He liked what he saw and was convinced that Of Equal Measure could be ready for CTG's 2007–2008 season. He decided to seek grant funding to mount the show, and last fall, received word that CTG would receive NEA grant support to stage the play in the summer of 2008. The grant will cover roughly one-tenth of the total production costs, including a final workshop scheduled for February 2008 and salaries for 10 actors.

Two sets of characters will share the stage in Of Equal Measure. While Woodrow Wilson and his cabinet wrestle with how to integrate the United States into fractious global politics, African-American federal workers prepare to serve the war effort in newly segregated offices. The protagonist, Jade, is a White House stenographer torn between her duty to family, country, and the Civil Rights cause.

"During the Wilson era, things took a step backwards for blacks," Barfield said. "I find underexplored issues of African-American history particularly compelling, especially the dichotomy of Wilson, because he was so forward-looking in terms of his vision for the free world, but so retrograde in terms of many domestic policies."

Ritchie agrees that this lapse of judgment by Wilson, the president lauded for laboring in vain to establish the League of Nations, should make for a compelling play that addresses an African-American issue but intrigues a broad audience. The show is scheduled to premiere June 29 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California.