Addiction in a New Light
Lead actor, Sean Mann (left) and supporting actor, Christopher Aruffo (right) on opening night.
It's not everyday you imagine an addict as a charismatic guy, who makes you laugh, but Cris Eli Blak did just that. Last weekend I went to see, "The Addict's Love Letter to His Prayerbook" written by Cris Eli Blak and directed by Kelly Hamlin. It premiered at the Morgan Wixon Theatre in LA and ran for only two nights. I've never been big on sharing what I'm currently watching, or cared about anything enough to recommend it to others. The acting and subject matter however, was enough for me to do just that. The play itself focuses less on the hardship of addiction and more on the judgement everybody is passing onto everyone else along with the secret battles people go through that no one knows about. This play became very personal for me, from death to loss to religion, heavy subjects were explored very quickly. As someone who spent this past year silently drowning in loss, as I think many people did. The subject matter grounded me in my emotions and reminded me what being human really is. Blak dedicated the play to another director he knew from Florida who had sadly passed after an overdose. The raw emotion from the actors, the dialogue, and the creative direction are what had me leaving the play feeling empty once it was over, yet uplifted with a new outlook on the world. It was almost as if for a brief moment I got to walk in someone else's shoes, which is exactly what director Kelly Hamlin wanted.
Playwright, Cris Eli Blak @criseliblak Director, Kelly Hamlin @halloween.hamlin
"They shouldn't feel like they're watching a stage play. They should feel like they have a little window into someone else's world", Hamlin said, when sitting down to talk to me about her journey to this directoral debut.
The play itself follows a young man named Jaxon (Sean Mann) and his journey to self awareness and faith on the path out of addiction. He attempts to reconcile with the only family he has left, after being encouraged by his counselor, Penelope (Marci Urling). That family being, the daughter of his deceased brother, Bianca (Ashley Amezcua) and her mother, his sister in-law, Samaria (Diana Cabuto-Lopez). His return to their lives sparks controversy and Samaria calls on her good friend Father Price(Christopher Aruffo) to speak with Jaxon and see what his intentions are.
From the very first scene, the tone of the play is set. Jaxon delivers an intriguing message through his lines about the way we view people and how easy it is for everyone to be critical of those around us based on personal bias or stereotypes. This later becomes ironic, because when he discovers his sister in-law, Samaria is working as a stripper, he himself is critical. Though, it's further proof that everybody judges despite exclaiming to others not to.
An interesting plot point was the exploration of Jaxon's talents. Every character in some way, shape or form encouraged him to revisit his love of writing. I found it riveting as a writer and person in the arts; how much our passions can help us escape. This is no secret to first time director Kelly Hamlin, the dancer turned choreographer turned director shared, "I think without dance I would be a shell of a person. If it weren't for dance, I'm afraid of who I might be." Hamlin grew up in Richmond, VA and moved to NYC in 2002 to study at Alvin Ailey. She danced internationally and nationally with different companies and then returned to Richmond to begin KrasH!Dance Productions. She served as a stage manager, taught an open community dance class and was an artist in residence at Dogtown Dance Theatre. Much like the lead Jaxon, she never knew she could expand on her talents, until she was encouraged to.
"I wanted to be a stand-up comedian as a kid, not a ballerina. My first ever scholarship that I won at a dance convention, was to study at Joffrey ballet for a summer and I thought hmm maybe I can do this", Hamlin shared. One day it dawned on her that there was even more space for dance in film and she packed up and moved to California. She always had a strong interest in film, so she began making dance shorts centered around dancers of color and giving them a platform. She was already involved in Morgan Wixon's festival when she was approached to direct the play. She was familiar with the script, because she had been helping with callbacks.
"It was a challenge because it was the most dialogue heavy play I'd seen. I had to get creative with the blocking and broke the third wall. We had specific light cues to enhance the performance, which you can do with film, but it's more challenging on stage to bring the mechanics to life in real time, whereas with film you have more control over the atmosphere and post production", Hamlin exclaimed. The blocking to me was one of the most entertaining aspects, as there were different locations, but they were all set up on the stage with furniture, rather than large moving sets. Often times when plays do this, during the transitions of scenes I get taken out of the performance. However, Sean Mann's performance was so captivating, I found myself engaged the entire time.
At the age of twenty-two, Blak has had work performed in theatres around the world and won numerous awards. Raised by a single mother in Huston, Texas, Blak kindly thanked his mother after the show. He exclaimed one of the lines where Samaria is pleading with her daughter to understand why she kept a secret, came from the wonderful woman who raised him. The line being, "In every picture you are smiling". This monologue and moment stood out to me as I thought about the sacrifices many parents make to ensure their child has food on the table and are happy. I could hear their hearts beating, I could hear every heartbeat as the audience sat there taking this same thought in. I could hear my friend next to me scared to breathe as she reflected on her own childhood.
So how did Blak create such a universally relatable and interesting piece? The twenty-two year old believes it is his job to fight and bring representation for unheard voices and allow them to control their narrative. He explained simply,
"I am someone who likes writing about people, who likes writing about the many and not the few. The regular people who usually have their stories set aside or are not told at all. The people who fall in between the cracks. Those are the people I find fascinating, because that's where humanity lies."
The story about someone dealing with substance abuse disorders had been boiling in his head for a long time. He finally sat down and wrote each act in two days and polished it in a week. He went against the stereotypical junky who needs a fix and instead paved way for a new kind of addict. One whose internal battle is fueled by a proper moral compass and comedic chops. Sean Mann's charismatic approach to the character drew audience members in from the very first walk on stage. Throughout the dramatic play, Mann's character Jaxon offers comedic relief. Another well developed character that seems to offer a breath of fresh air, was the Father Price. Typically members of the church are written in a negative and judgmental light. Blak's choice to make the priest deploy empathy to all the characters without judging them, was the most accurate depiction of christianity and flaws being accepted. The Father's backstory follows him as a former addict to alcohol, who found God and turned his life around(a story many Christians know all too well). Though in him turning his life around, he never forgets the sins and mistakes he himself made, which makes him empathetic to the other characters. This well rounded development of a human being who encourages their faith, while being able to step outside of their viewpoint and listen to others, is exactly what connecting with others and living is all about.
Blak said, "I say, less religion and more faith. Faith always finds it's way into all of my work somehow. The idea that no one is alone and someone is always looking after you, whether that be a greater being or someone literally standing beside you. Talking about things greater than ourselves helps put things into perspective. All my plays are about people trying to find that thing that makes life worth it."
Making some pop culture references to the film "Spotlight", "All Dogs Go to Heaven" and Nina Simone, the play is very with the times. Blak grew up embraced and inspired by Nina Simone's work and even set the stage with a photo of her in Samaria's house. The way the dialogue is written and the characters are developed, gives me the impression this play will become a timeless one. Interestingly enough, the lead character, Jaxon's drug of choice was pills. An intriguing choice, that a majority of people are unfortunately familiar with, in the current opioid epidemic in the U.S. Perhaps that's why this play was a truly heart-felt journey. As I have lost more friends than I'd like to count the past few years to this global issue.
I remember it hurt, as the show ended, it hurt. As if the well lit window into the lives of a neighbor were turning off for good, as if I had borrowed someone else's shoes and they were asking for them back. Only I didn't give them back. I left the theatre feeling fulfilled, because for the first time, I understood the alternative. It wasn't until I turned the key into my door, that everything hit me. As human beings, we simply crave to connect with one another, while finding the beauty in the saturated fact that we are all, deeply flawed.