“In the beginning” is the opening phrase of the Bible and connotes the start of all things. The Crossroads Theatre Company, in New Brunswick, has done that just about every year since 1990 with its Genesis Festival, a week-long series of play readings. The reading is the start, the “beginning” for a drama, and not only lets the author know how the play sounds but, in the Crossroads Festival, gets a second layer- audience reaction at post play symposiums.
The Crossroads Genesis Festival for 2022 opens April 15 and features six separate play readings over a nearly two week long period. All of the play readings will be followed by an audience conversation with the authors.
This “beginning” is indeed a new beginning for Genesis and Crossroads, and most American theaters, following the Pandemic, that shut down most of them.
“We were within a week of debuting a new play at Crossroads – a week! – and then the Pandemic hit and shut down the theater,” said Ricardo Khan, the artistic director of Crossroads. “Now Crossroads, everybody, is just edging back to normalcy. Genesis is, too.”
Khan sees Genesis as a “kitchen.” He laughs. “What’s brewing in the kitchen?” he said. “Whatever we have at Genesis each year is just that – what’s brewing in the theatrical kitchen.”
He has always seen Genesis and Crossroads as special, “It’s a theater where African American writers can express themselves and tell their stories and a chance for audiences of all backgrounds to enjoy them,” he said in a phone interview from Alabama, where is working in rehearsals to bring the Crossroads play, Freedom Riders, to the New Brunswick stage in June. He is in his fourth week of rehearsal there (the play will be jointly sponsored by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival).
The Genesis plays are written by really different authors. There is the noted playwright, Richard Wesley, but there is the woman who played the bass for Beyonce’s musical shows, an acclaimed director, Seret Scott, and the Ghanian ambassador to Brazil.
“One thing we are proud of at Genesis is that we have readings by veteran writers and brand new ones. It balances things out. Sometimes I’ll meet somebody and think their life is really interesting. I’ll them to write a play about themselves, or something interesting in their life, or somebody, or something, special. Sometimes it turns out to be a good play and some times it does not, but that’s what the theater is all about,” said Khan.
He thinks the Genesis Festival is important for writers because they get immediate feedback from the audience, but it works the other way around, too.
“People in the audience want to be a part of the theater world they are in. They enjoy the chance to be at a reading and then talk to the playwright and contribute their thoughts on the work. This makes the theatergoers feel like a part of the play. They helped it, in a way,” said the Crossroads chief.
The Genesis festival kicks off April 15 with Scott’s Footsoldier, the story of her mom’s work as a civilian social worker during the Vietnam War, as well as Scott’s work as an activist.
The second production, on April 16, is Sugarbelly and Other Tales My Father Told Me, by Guy Davis, a blues musician and Grammy nominee and former Crossroads playwright. It is a play about “tall tales and medicine shows.”
Third up, on April 19, is di.stance, by Gabrial Bamgbose. It is a series of poems about distance and our distance from people and place affects the way we think and the way we are.
Next is the Mapmakers, by Ghanian ambassador Abena P.A. Busia, about a mother’s search for her different daughters. It will be staged on April 20.
Busia’s play will be followed on April 22 by Inherent Resolve, by Richard Wesley, the veteran playwright. It is the disturbing story of a group of Afghan war veterans from the U.S. and how they question, ten years later, the medals they were awarded for bravery in the war.
Finally, on April 23, there will be The Ballad of Debbie Walker, by Beyonce bass player Divinity Roxx, who has worked for several famous performers. She writes about her childhood as the daughter of parents determined to get what is best for their children. The play covers her move to a west coast college, where she learned music.
Do these plays, staged at Crossroads’ Genesis Festival as readings, do well later? Yes, they do.
“We’ve had readings for over a hundred plays and some have done very well, such as Spunk. Many, many other plays are done here as readings, then somewhere else as readings, then staged in local and regional theaters. The system we have works and works well. We’ve also met a lot of writers, directors and actors in Genesis. I met Anna Deavere Smith and she later became one of the top artists in the entertainment world. We had a woman here years ago as a playwright, Sydne Mahone, who went on to become a theater professor at the University of Iowa. Now, coming full circle, she’s back here again as the artistic director of our Genesis festival this year,” said Khan. “Our Genesis Festival has, over the years, developed into a spirited little world of theater.”
All the readings are ASL – Interpretive (sign language). Ironically, I interviewed Khan the day after the movie CODA, about sign language, won the Best Picture Oscar.
“It’s impressive that already a movie about signing does that well,” sad Khan. “Who would predicted that nine or ten years ago?”
Crossroads, like other arts venues, such as the George Street Playhouse and Rutgers University, is a part of the newly re-opened New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. “We are a partner to the arts there. We stage plays (such as the Freedom Riders), have Saturday arts days, work with community groups in the fall and spring. Through Crossroads, I think, lots of people get involved with the theater in a way,” said Khan,
Genesis is part of the New Jersey Theatre Alliance 2022 Stage Festival. All tickets are $20.
And what brand new plays will be at the Genesis Festival next year? Who knows? Maybe that’s the beauty of the festival.