Kelli Kerslake Colaco’s fact-inspired crime drama with folk songs, you are my sunshine, will get a six-performance Equity developmental staging in San Francisco by Alma Theatre Company April 19-28. The playwright, who co-directs with Cristina Anselmo, took a page from her own painful, if distant, family history for the drama about a murder that left her grandfather an orphan. She answered a handful of my questions in the weeks leading up to the test staging.
Narrated with original Woody Guthrie-style folk songs — accompanied by Bay Area music favorites Chris Haugen (arranger/guitar) and Trevor Marcom (vocals/guitar) — the ensemble drama focuses on “the search for truth behind a dark family legend,” according to Colaco. The play spans 1927-1956. It’s “a character study of a man of mythic American proportions whose passions and demons lead to tragedy.”
Colaco says the play is based on “a long-worn, much-hushed rumor in my family that my great grandfather, Ernest Fletcher Hodge — a semi professional baseball player with the Detroit Tigers — lost his mind one hot summer night in Blytheville, Arkansas and killed his wife, his mother-in-law and then himself.”
She says the play asks whether we should pursue the truth of our family histories or if it’s best to “simply believe what we are told.”
The cast features Colaco and fellow Bay Area actors Tim Fullerton, Elliot Hansen, Andrea J. Love, Trevor Marcom, Ray Renati and Valerie Weak.
The production team includes Denise Savas (stage manager); Ian Walker (lighting design); Robert Gaulding (set design); Mark McCandless (lighting design); SolarJet Productions (sound/video); Sean Jeremy Palmer (creative consultant); Ray Renati (Photography); Ty McKenzie (Phoenix Theatre managing director). Shannon Slaton created the soundscape for the play’s prologue. The play has original music and lyrics by Colaco, arranged by Chris Haugen.
Colaco’s writing credits include the plays Underbelly, The Meeting and Hazardous Materials. Film: award-winning documentary, “The Mad Hannans,” directed by Martin Shore, and the web series “The Meek Shall Inherit.” Select acting credits: Helen in Have Mercy at Manhattan Theatre Source; Marta in Late Fragment at Tristan Bates Theatre, Covent Garden, London; Carver at London’s Arcola Theatre, directed by Bill Gaskill; and roles at Goodspeed Opera House, Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Texas Shakespeare Festival, P.C.P.A Theaterfest and beyond. She is a founding member of The Independent Shakespeare Company and member of The 72nd Street Gang, a New York City playwriting collective. She earned an M.F.A from P.T.T.P (The Professional Theatre Training Program) at the University of Delaware and completed studies in the Actor Training program of P.C.P.A (The Pacific Coast Conservatory for The Performing Arts) in Santa Maria, CA. She is a teaching artist with The Marin Theatre Company.
Learn more about plays by Colaco on the New Play Exchange website.
Performances of you are my sunshine play the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St. at Geary St., 6th Floor, Union Square, San Francisco.
Tickets are $30 general admission (or $15 for April 19 preview). Get tickets online here.
Here’s my quick chat with actress and theater maker Kelli Kerslake Colaco.
When did you first hear about this violent chapter in your family history?
Kelli Colaco: It’s vague, but I remember being quite young, maybe eight or nine, hanging around my grandparent’s house in their kitchen. The adults were talking about it when my sister and I came in the room. They hushed up soon after we entered. Then I have another memory at around 13 when my mom and grandma were taking about it more openly. Like most things when I was a teenager, I acted like it did not phase me. The memory of the family story came crashing back to my consciousness when I was 25 living and working as an actress and waitress in New York City. It literally stopped me in my tracks and took my breath away. I immediately phoned my mom to ask her about it. It was her father, my Grandfather Bill — and his brother Howard — that were made orphans by the events.
Was there solid family documentation of events?
Kelli Colaco: My mom informed me that my grandmother (already then deceased) had gone to great lengths to research exactly what had happened. She did this in effort to put my grandfather’s mind at rest. She discovered in her research that Ernest was no mad man. And that the events happened in very different ways than had been rumored for decades.
Does the writing of this exorcise something out of you?
Kelli Colaco: Like my grandpa, prior to discovering my grandmother’s research with court documents and prison sentences included, I was very worried that I could potentially have my great grandfather’s madness coursing through my veins. I felt somewhat stained by the idea that someone could do what Ernest was rumored to have done. I was very relieved when I found out things had fallen out so differently than we had thought. Ernest responded horribly to the cards he was dealt in life. But he was no mad man. I actually understand his responses to his fate. And on another level I have felt pulled to tell his truth — like a force coming from somewhere else helped to fuel my inspiration. In particular, the folk songs that I wrote for the play almost seemed to write themselves.
During your research, was it difficult talking to surviving family members about this?
Kelli Colaco: I am very close to my Grandpa Bill. It was important for me to get his permission to write the play. He was very open to it. He had an extremely difficult first 16 years of his life and he seems to find sharing stories of what he remembers — mostly of the orphanage, as he was only three when everything happened — cathartic. He says he is very proud of me. I am “his fighter.”