Motherhood itself will receive a love letter this season at Plan-B Theatre, the downtown Salt Lake City company unafraid to revel in experimental, political, social and deeply personal plays. Emerging Utah playwright Carleton Bluford‘s new play Mama, a weave of monologues and scenes about the complex bond between mothers and children — including some stories drawn from true anecdotes that the author solicited from friends — will run Feb. 12-22, 2015, under the direction of Plan-B artistic director Jerry Rapier.
The writer told me that when he was first conjuring the play his mother, Dawn Bluford, “kept coming into my head.” He explained, “She probably doesn’t know this but she’s often on my mind. So I decided to get it out of my system and write what was on my heart and mind. The [play’s] focus on motherhood was really just to show her that I understand her sacrifice — the sacrifice of most, if not all, women who give up so much for their families.”
The Plan-B Theatre world premiere of Mama is part of the Edward Lewis Black Theatre Festival in celebration of Black History Month come February. The play is the winner of the inaugural grant from The David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists. Bluford is a member of The Lab, Plan-B’s ten-member playwright collective that gives writers development in cold readings with area actors. Feedback from actors and fellow writers is part of the experience, which is lightly moderated by Rapier.
“It’s not a traditional, linear play and I like that,” Bluford said of Mama. “It’s more of a patchwork quilt — looking at each square. Eventually, by the end, you get the overall theme and idea — as well as individual slices of life.”
Bluford is also an actor with credits in television and in theatres around SLC — including Pioneer Theatre Company, where he’ll play Riff Raff in a concert version of The Rocky Horror Show this fall. Here’s more of my chat with him.
I read an early draft of Mama. What was its developmental process? How has it changed or grown?
Carleton Bluford: There have been readings and workshops for the piece. One of the biggest notes I got from the amazing people in The Lab was that they wanted more of me in the play. I had added a lot of other stuff in Mama that I thought would make it provocative and new and exciting, when really all it did was bog down the play and make it longer. A lot of quotes from random people about mothers are gone unless they genuinely affect the play. [An earlier] scene with [a] student and [a] teacher is also cut. Although it’s an interesting topic, it took us away from the truth of the play a little. That subject matter is so strong that it should be a play in itself. Other changes include re-arranging of monologues and stories, and I’ve added more of my own mother in it, which people seemed to crave. She’s a very intriguing woman and, eventually, I’ll have to write something just about her; no doubt it would be a hit.
Were/are your folks in the arts, and what sort of encouragement do you get?
Carleton Bluford: My mother is an actress and, yes, we got lots of encouragement growing up and we still do. My folks are very, very supportive and believe in me so much. A lot of my drive comes from the need to make them proud.
Share some background? Where were you born and raised? Where did you go to school?
Carleton Bluford: I was born in Ogden, Utah, and raised in North Ogden. My mother worked on the television series “Touched By an Angel” for many years, and I went with her, which is where I started my career. I met people like Maya Angelou, Al Jarreau, B.B. King, and sang with Luther Vandross and Natalie Cole. I was and have always been fascinated by the creation of stories in film and in theatre. I went to school at Weber State University and believe I got way more of an education than I paid for. My professors are some of the best in the state and possibly the country. Tracy Callahan and Jim Christian changed my life and perspective on performing. But it was Larry Dooley who initially taught us playwriting and gave us the opportunity to write our own plays to be produced in college. In 2007, I went to Broadway Theatre Project and had the opportunity to workshop with Neil Patrick Harris, Frank Wildhorn, Ben Vereen, Joan Lader, Jed Bernstein and many others.
What’s your relationship with Plan-B and artistic director Jerry Rapier? He’s directing your play’s premiere.
Carleton Bluford: Out of college, I was looking to get into the playwright scene in Salt Lake City, so I found Jerry’s email and sent him a bunch of plays that I just knew he would love and want to produce. Though we kept in contact, I didn’t hear much about those plays, and for good reason — they weren’t any good. He cast me in a show called Wallace about Wallace Thurman, a Negro man from Salt Lake who basically started the Harlem Renaissance. It was at that time that I started a two-year production and advertising internship with Plan-B, which eventually led to a two-year playwriting workshop with Plan-B in conjunction with Meat & Potato Theatre Company. It was there I learned how to better my skills as a writer.
The Lab I’m in now is a little different from the two-year workshop I had done years prior; now, I’m surrounded by Utah’s top playwrights. A piece of work is brought in…and read. The work is critiqued by everyone and you [get] notes and constructive feedback…and come back with a better play. Being involved in a group like this is an education anyone would pay good money for. I’ve grown tenfold because of it and am so humbled to be counted among them. It’s a good time.
Name a couple of favorite roles that you’ve played?
Carleton Bluford: Wallace Thurman in Wallace, for sure, at Plan-B. I played Coalhouse in Ragtime twice at Hale Centre Theatre, and I’d do it forever. Playing Graffiti Pete in In the Heights at Pioneer Theatre Company was also a life-changer and I could do that forever, as well — although I’d like to play Benny. My dream role has always been the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera, though.
What was your first exposure to theatre? Did you know early on that you wanted to be an actor?
Carleton Bluford: In fact, Phantom of the Opera was my first exposure. We would all sit down in the living room and listen to [the score] on — it might have been cassette tapes, was it that far back? Anyway, being able to only listen to it made my mind fill in the blanks of this magical, mystical, scary world. One day my parents took us to see it in Salt Lake City. I sang along the entire time and cried. I’ve almost never been so happy. That’s basically when I knew I wanted to do it.
When did the urge to write plays begin?
Carleton Bluford: In some way, since childhood I’ve been creating stories. I used to have a camera as a kid and I’d film stories with my toys. The creation of new worlds and ideas can be revolutionary. So, yeah, the strongest urge came in high school when a friend of mine wrote a play and it was pretty good. I felt, “I could do that, why don’t I?,” then proceeded to not write for many years until college. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to perform, but I think it takes even more to have your work performed.
At Plan-B, Bluford also appeared in The Third Crossing by Debora Threedy and will surface again in the world premiere of Plan-B resident playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett‘s A/Version of Events March 5-15, 2015.
The Mama company will feature Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, Cooper Howell, Latoya Rhodes and Elizabeth Summerhays.