By Roz DeKett
The first piece was a little girl doing her homework night after night in the window of a Chinese restaurant in Spanish Harlem, New York.
A second piece fell into place when his girlfriend at the time, a Chinese woman, told him her family had disowned her after she refused to participate in an arranged marriage, and at nineteen or twenty she was out on her own with her dog.
Then there was his interest in prison culture, in how young men form intense relationships inside that follow them onto the street when they’re trying to find their way back into their former lives.
These things “collided” and Chad Beckim wrote his award-winning play about love, acceptance, and redemption, Lights Rise on Grace. It runs November 7 through November 22 at the Azuka Theatre in Philadelphia, as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere in three cities.
“This play’s really challenging, I think,” Chad says. “It’s going to be challenging to audiences, it’s challenging in how the structure works, it’s challenging with the characters and the subject matter.
“For savvy theatre goers I think it would be a really great adventure. For folks who don’t come to the theatre that much, give it a chance, because I think it will surprise.
“I think it will unfold and land on you in a way that you didn’t expect.”
Following the rules of another family
Chad’s life itself unfolded and landed on him in an unexpected way. He grew up in Maine, “the whitest place in the country” where everybody looked alike, including him. Despite this, or maybe because of it, race and culture fascinated him. He moved to New York City to work, taking a teaching job in Spanish Harlem.
“I had no money,” he says. “I lived with a friend’s family, a Dominican family, for two years, in their apartment. I was basically part of the family. I had curfew. I didn’t have chores, but I had responsibilities. I’d go out and get milk for the mom, or whatever. You don’t bring girls home, you don’t stay out all night, you call and tell them where you are.”
The street Chad lived on in Spanish Harlem at the end of the nineties is still known as one of the leading streets for arrests in New York City, 105th street between First Avenue and FDR Drive. But as long as he stayed on his street, he was fine.
“You don’t go off the street,” he says “his” family would tell him. “You’ll be fine if you stay on 105th street, everybody will know you.”
After two years he moved, still as white as when he left Maine, to a housing project with a black family for two years, living with a former school friend and his family. In those first four years of living in New York, he was the only white person in his circle of friends outside his acting and writing life. That’s one river of experience that flows through his work. Another is his family; Chad’s wife is Asian. They have a son and, on the way, a daughter.
Telling stories about people “not like me”
“I think before I had a child I would have said I’m interested in writing about the people who walk by the theatre instead of those in the theatre,” Chad says.
“Theatre today is white, middle-class. There’s a certain economic background and that’s kind of how it is. When you think about theatre, the theatre-going public, that’s what you think of. Now that I have a child, I’m really committed to having my son on stage.”
Chad does not mean he wants his child treading the boards, nor that he wants to write plays for a “white-slash-Chinese person” as he puts it. What drives his writing is exploring the lives of people not like him.
“One way for theatre is to tell stories about people who are not like me, people who might not typically be on the stage,” he says. “You want to see yourself. You should see yourself.”
The girl he saw in the Chinese restaurant window in the largely black and Latin Spanish Harlem—Chad was teaching at a school there, and he passed the restaurant on his way home—stuck with him.
“This girl, I’m assuming, went to school in this neighborhood, and I started wondering, what is it like for this girl to be the only Asian kid, or one of the only Asian kids?” he says. “What is that going to look like as she gets older, how is she going to adapt to the culture and the language and the heritage?”
“And at the same time I was also really interested, working as a teaching artist, in prison culture, and reading about these young men who go to prison at a very young age and form these very intense relationships, but don’t consider themselves gay. And then they get out, and they try to resume what they knew, but a lot of times those connections continue after they get out. So those kind of things collided.”
Writing about people who are different from him gives Chad another dimension to explore: the way different people speak.
“I’m really interested in the way language functions, and slang in particular,” he says. “I’m very interested in the way slang looks on the page. Dominican Spanish has a sing-song quality to it. When Dominican-Americans speak English, there’s a sing-song lilt. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s so different from the way a white person speaks.”
“I love listening to people talk. I’ll tell my friends or my wife, whoever’s around me, I might take exactly what you said and use it. My wife tells me I steal her lines.’”
More on the way
Chad has recently finished a commission with the Old Vic Theatre in London, and is now looking for a home for that more “commercially acceptable” play. And he has other plays waiting in the wings.
Meanwhile, he’s excited about the Azuka Theatre production of Lights Rise on Grace.
“I’ve been getting really fantastic emails and questions from the director [Kevin Glaccum] and the dramaturg [Sally Ollove] and it excites me to think what they’re doing,” Chad says. “They’re asking really smart questions. I spoke to Kevin after the first rehearsal, because there are two monologues that need to work a certain way. If they’re misinterpreted it takes the air out of the scenes, and it seems like they’re on the right track.
“And I think it’s a rare opportunity to go to three cities in one year and see three productions.”
And maybe, see yourself.
© Roz DeKett
About the playwright
Chad Beckim is a New York City based playwright whose writing credits include …a matter of choice, `nami (which received its West Coast premiere at the Hayworth Theatre in Los Angeles in October, 2007), Lights Rise on Grace (Winner, Outstanding Play, 2007 NY Inti’l. Fringe Festival; Finalist for the 2007 Princess Grace Award; Finalist for Ojai Playwrights’ Conference), The Main(e) Play (Semi-Finalist, The O’Neill Festival), That Men Do (Member of The Lark’s 2009 “Playwright’s Week” and Naked Angels “Out Loud” Series), Mercy and most recently the critically and audience acclaimed After. He has also authored a number of shorts and one-acts, including The Fluffer and Marvel Super Hero Squad (both produced at Ars Nova), Tha Bess Shit, Alexander Pays a Visit, Blac(c)ident, and Last First Kiss, which was adapted into a Columbia Grad film and produced in July, 2008. Chad holds an MFA in Playwrighting from Mac Wellman’s Brooklyn College’s Program, and in July of 2007 was named one of “50 Playwrights to Watch” by the Dramatists Guild. His work has been published by Samuel French, Playscripts, Smith & Krauss, and in the Plays and Playwrights 2007 collection by NYTE. He is a proud member of Ars Nova’s acclaimed “Play Group,” and is currently finishing an original pilot script entitled “The Fam.” Chad is a co-Founder and co-Artistic Director of Partial Comfort Productions
About Azuka Theatre
Located in Philadelphia, Azuka Theatre was founded in 1999 by a group of young artists participating in the Arden Theatre Company’s nationally recognized Professional Apprentice Program. Azuka has built a reputation for accessible, thought-provoking and socially conscious theater and been hailed as “a company to watch” and a “major player on the Philadelphia alternative theatre scene’” by Philadelphia Weekly. You can learn more and buy tickets at www.azukatheatre.org
Lights Rise on Grace is A National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere and runs from November 4-22, 2015 at the The Adrienne Theater, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Written by Chad Beckim, directed by Kevin Glaccum. Cast: Ashton Carter (Large), Keith J. Conallen (Riece), and Bi Jean Ngo (Grace). Lights Rise on Grace was first produced in a rolling world premiere by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (Washington, DC), Stageworks Theatre (Tampa, FL), and Azuka Theatre (Philadelphia, PA) as part of the National New Play Network’s Continued Life program.