ONAJE, a new play by playwright Robert Bowie, Jr., makes its debut tomorrow (October 13, 2018) at the Fringe Festival in New York City. The play is “set in two worlds: the open road in Maryland 1980, and the civil rights riots in the Eastern shore in 1967.” Its performances are selling out, suggesting a hunger for the kind of uplift a story chronicling the “long journey from violent racism to the seed of a hopeful future” might offer. 

We spoke with producer Sue Marinello about the appeal and importance of this play and of theatre in general.

Leona Laurie: What drew you to ONAJE?

Sue Marinello: Three things drew me to ONAJE: The beauty of the language; the depth of the characters; and the thought-provoking and explosive storytelling. While this story is set against the backdrop of the Cambridge riots on the Eastern shore of Maryland in 1967, ONAJE is a timeless story that captures and examines a way of life that continues to influence the nation and its ongoing struggle to confront racism. ONAJE is an unflinching look at complicated relationships, social norms and the cost of complicity.

Beautifully written, ONAJE is riveting. I could not put the script down when I read it after meeting Robert Bowie, Jr. at the CTI (Commercial Theater Institute) Producers’ Workshop at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center during summer 2017.

Playwright Robert Bowie Jr with Producer Sue Marinello

Playwright Robert Bowie Jr. with Producer Sue Marinello. Image courtesy Sue Marinello.

LL:  Is this your first experience with the Fringe Festival? 

SM: This is the first show I have been involved with from a production standpoint at FringeNYC.

Robert Bowie, Jr. is a new playwright. To help him bring a professional production of his new play to the stage in NYC is a gift. I have long admired the festival’s ambitious commitment to presenting new voices and new artistic perspectives in alternative theatrical settings. There is an excitement to enjoying a variety of shows; all performed within a calendar month, in unusual NYC spaces. FringeNYC is an event in and of itself, and being one of the works selected to participate is extremely exciting. The very nature of the festival is a uniquely NYC theatrical experience.

FringeNYC has provided an opportunity to work with an extremely talented group of theatre professionals such as Elena Holly, founder of FringeNYC, director Pat Golden, Robert Bowie, Jr. and an outstanding cast, crew and design team.

LL: You have been involved with a number of arts organizations, and you’ve also worked in politics and conservation. How do these parts of your life go together? 

SM: To me it is all theatre. All of life is about communication, and that is what theatre is. I don’t say that to minimize politics or environmental initiatives or to suggest that a play is as important as world peace, but human beings are compelled to communicate; that is why we form communities and share our experiences with one another. That is why we write. That is why we speak. That is why we perform. Communication is at the center of everything we do as people.

As a political speechwriter, my job was to explain any given issue in a way that people could understand – a way that could allow them to relate. Theatre helped me do that. As an environmentalist it is important to open a dialogue about the impact conservation and stewardship have on people today and in the future. Theatre helps me do that. In theatre, the basis of the art form is communication. The difference is that in theatre, the story, whether serious or comedic, must be told with a component of entertainment. In real life, that is not necessarily the goal.

LL: Some might weigh politics or conservation as more important than the arts, especially at a time like this. What would you say to that?

SM: I would say all are important. The arts support politics and conservation and every other human issue, by helping people learn empathy and develop understanding for the complexity of any issue. Humanity has always needed the arts. It is apparent that civilization is rooted in communicating about the past, present and future. The arts capture those moments in time and allow each generation to share and learn from the past as a way to define and inform the role of the present, and to imagine and create the future. Writing, performing, storytelling, painting, sculpting – all art forms – are an opportunity to record developing knowledge, educate future generations and preserve cultures. Presumably, human beings do this to help each other learn from the past so that communities can make policy and decisions that will protect people and make the future of the nation and the world a better place. The arts are an important vehicle for the development of effective communication and empathy.

LL: Have you had a sense of your gender affecting your experience in any of the arms of your career? 

SM: Absolutely. I have always been acutely aware that women are treated differently than men. But my mother has been running a successful business for nearly 65 years in Maryland, so I learned at an early age to engage in opportunities on my own terms. I approach all endeavors with a plan, optimism and energy.

In politics, where I worked most closely with a NJ State Assemblywoman, I was often astounded by how many people, particularly women, do not vote. For myself, I have always tried to be involved, and to do the work I am passionate about. I have produced new work in professional theatres, saved a mountain, been a political speech writer, taught theatre to children, created an award-winning K-12 water conservation education program and raised funds and awareness for a variety of educational, theatrical and cultural organizations and initiatives. I gravitate toward the work I am interested in and I enjoy meeting challenges. I also work hard to develop relationships with creative and passionate people.

I try not to listen when someone, man or woman, tells me that a woman cannot do something, I am not afraid to stand up for myself, and I work hard at setting and achieving goals. I guess I am driven and empathetic to others because I have often experienced the dismissiveness toward women that is very much a part of the American culture.

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LL: Based on your experiences as an insider, who most needs the arts right now? 

SM: People always find a way to create in order to communicate. Communication is a basic human need. If communication becomes diminished, or if people fear communicating, history shows us how oppressive and dangerous that can be on quality of life.

The arts help us learn to effectively communicate, and the arts develop empathy and understanding.

I think now, and always, everyone benefits from the arts. I particularly feel that schools should be encouraged to teach history, languages, current events and literature through the lens of the performing and other fine arts. Tapping into that level of creativity engages students, encourages them to problem solve and allows them to comprehend the material by imagining themselves from other perspectives.

I believe all of us benefit by looking at the world from the perspective of others. And, when one creates something, one takes ownership of it.

LL: You recently produced the world premiere of Pryor Rendering, a musical about coming of age and coming out in rural 1960s Oklahoma. What pulled you towards that show?

SM: I grew up in a small town that was very similar to the setting of Pryor Rendering. I fell in love with the characters in the story — some of my favorite people are in this narrative! I also could not stop humming and singing the haunting score. After listening to it a few times one afternoon, I found that later I would be walking down the street and I would be singing a Pryor Rendering song.

Pryor Rendering is, at its heart, a love story. Nothing is more exciting than first love – it is a universal theme. I love how audiences fall in love with the love story that is Pryor Rendering. Audiences cheer and laugh and cry and catch their breath as the main character, Charlie Hope, tries to understand what it is to be gay, fall in love, find himself and become the best person he can be, despite a culture that expects him to deny who he is. It is actually a story that has not been told, about a generation of people growing up at a time where the word gay did not exist, where it was unheard of to ever speak of homosexuality and where those who were gay were forbidden to embrace their true identity. We all feel on the outside in adolescence. It is much harder to grow up when one has to pretend to be someone else. 

LL: What are some of the positive ripples you’ve seen come from the work you’ve done, or been part of, in the arts?

SM: I love new work. I love the alchemy of it, and the risk. It is the hardest thing to produce, promote and perform. And that is precisely what I like about it. I think back to when I was 23 and working as the Marketing Director at Circle Repertory Company on 7th Avenue South in Manhattan, and we were producing As Is by William M. Hoffman. As Is helped to change the dialogue of the AIDS crisis in NYC. With that play, audiences were able to understand that gay couples, like straight couples, support and care for each other in sickness and in health.

With Pryor Rendering, many audience members who came of age in the 1960s, left the theatre with tears of joy, saying, “This is my story. I’ve never seen my story.”

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These are gratifying moments in professional theatre, especially when you see what statements like that mean to the playwright, composer, director and performers. But equally gratifying are the moments when you are working with kids, and they master a dance step or perform for the first time before a live audience, and they feel that thrill of excitement when the audience enthusiastically responds. I remember one very shy 11-year old boy in an elementary school play of 120 students that I directed. He ran off the stage after the curtain call and threw his arms around me in a hug. “That was awesome,” he shouted as he leapt into the air. Today he is a very confident 31-year old professional. His parents still tell me what that experience meant to the entire family.

And most importantly, with my own children, who are adults, they know how to communicate. They know how to put on a show, they know how to run a conference, promote an event and organize important things like citizenship clinics and 90th birthday parties.

The ripples from the work I have been involved with are both big and small, as well as public and personal.

It’s all theatre.

LL: ONAJE opens tomorrow. Do you know what your next project will be?

SM: I am very excited to see ONAJE premiere at FringeNYC. I hope to work with this creative team again soon. Robert Bowie, Jr. has two more world premiere plays ready to be produced. FringeNYC has been an amazing creative opportunity. I also am looking forward to teaming up with playwright Shawn Churchman and composer Frank Schiro again. They have completed rewrites on Pryor Rendering, and I am working with them to help produce the next production of this unique musical.

ONAJE Cast by Gerry Goodstein

ONAJE Cast by Gerry Goodstein

ONAJE runs at FringeNYC from Saturday, October 13, 2018 – Sunday, October 21. Tickets are selling out fast, so click here if you want to be there for the world premiere!

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Featured images: On left – Producer Sue Marinello with ONAJE director Pat Golden, photo courtesy Sue Marinello. On right – Tinuke Adetunji as Faith, Jay Ward as Dan, Curtis M. Jackson as Onaje and Mary E. Hodges as Sarah, photo by Gerry Goodstein