Playwright Lisa B. Thompson wrote the play Monroe in the nineties, when she was still a graduate student. For years, the work went unproduced, largely because Thompson herself overlooked it, thinking of it, in her words, as "an early play... how good could it be?"
But that changed earlier this year when Thompson finally revisited the play, which is set in rural Louisiana during the Great Migration. "I had a good friend in California who kept saying to me, 'What about Monroe? Send it out! Send it out!,' and I'm glad I listened," Thompson says.
Monroe became one of the winners of Austin Playhouse's 2018 New Play Festival, and was chosen by artistic director Lara Toner Haddock to open its 2018-2019 season. She's directing the world premiere production.
"When I found out that Lisa had actually worked on this play in grad school, I was stunned because it reads as such a contemporary piece," Toner Haddock says. "It's set in 1946 but the themes, the subject matter, the way it deals with the violence against the African-American community feels like this is the play that needs to be told right now."
Thompson notes that the play is not about her own family history, but it was inspired by a question about her parents. "Growing up in California as an African-American, I was always thinking about, 'What made my family decide to come to California, as opposed to going to Detroit, or Chicago, or New York, or Baltimore?’” she says. "'They said, 'No! We're going to San Francisco! That sounds good!' It's also underrepresented in African-American culture, the experience of Black Californians. So it began with that question." Thompson says her parents met in the Bay Area, but were both migrants from Louisiana. "My dad's from Lake Charles, my mom is from Monroe."
This production is the first full staging of Monroe, but it was performed as a staged reading during the New Play Festival earlier this year. Many of the actors involved with that reading have returned for this full production, including Crystal Bird Caviel, who has nothing but praise for Thompson's script. "The reading, it was just so easy," she says. "It was effortless because the words did all the work. It's just so poetic and beautiful and important. It's a pleasure and an honor to be a part of it."
Kriston Woodreaux, who was not a part of the staged reading but has joined the cast for this production, feels much the same way. "The text is just so rich, it gives us so much," he says. "And we don't have to try too hard."
"I am so overjoyed," says Thompson about this long-awaited production. "It's not a play until there's amazing, stunningly talented people reading the words and performing the words, so I'm just very fortunate."