Of all the characters in her recently completed play Red, playwright Letitia Guillory says 17-year-old Gabriel was the hardest to fall in love with. It makes sense — he's a fanatical white supremacist who makes his entrance in Act 1 shouting racial slurs and swinging a tire iron at a car full of black kids. His room is papered with images of Hitler, he's an avid fan of the extremist hate book The Turner Diaries, and he spends his time plotting a violent revolution to return the country back to its "white roots." His lower-middle class parents, who are dealing with unemployment and the threat of foreclosure, are too preoccupied — or maybe scared — to deal with what's happening to their son.
It's subject matter guaranteed to turn anyone's head. And yet, Guillory says, extremism is not what Red is really about. "It's very easy to connect it to race, class, politics, but it's really about this young man Gabriel and what's being missed," she says. "We need to take a stronger, more honest look at mental illness. It's so important if you know there's something amiss, not to ignore it, especially with young people. That's what I'd like people to dialogue about."
Guillory began writing Red about eight years ago, revisiting it from time to time. The root of the play lies in an experience that the African-American playwright had as a child, when she was growing up in Texas. Her mother had arranged for Guillory to carpool with the daughters of a white family who lived in their neighborhood. "You remember your first moments of otherness," she says. "I was seated in the living room of this house, and there was lots of tension. The parents were arguing in the other room, and I remember a distinct feeling of them not wanting me there. I suppose those moments, those feelings — I wanted to explore them from another point of view, and understand what that family felt."
That family became Gabriel's family in Red — a father who spent the first years of Gabriel's life in prison, a mother with a major case of denial when it comes to her teenage son, a grandfather who was a member of the KKK, and a sweet little eight-year-old brother.
Over the years that Guillory worked with Red, it grew from a way to explore her own personal experience with racism to something much bigger. "Red went from dealing with race and economics to very much dealing with the weight of [what happens] when everything you've been told has been reversed. You're told you're entitled to certain things because of who you are, and then you find out that's not the American way. Then you add the mental health aspect and it's a very different play from what I started out with."
Though Guillory is based in New York, local director Jeffery Jelks has been working with Red and is planning to stage a full production of it in the fall. Jelks hosted a reading of the play at PURE Theatre on June 15, where it played to a full and appreciative house — rare for a reading. The cast was only three rehearsals in, but one can tell that they've thought a lot about their characters and how each, in his or her own way, is partially culpable for Gabriel's downward spiral.
Jelks has staged Guillory's work before, and is excited to bring Red to Charleston. "Letitia's work appeals to me because it is very honest and doesn't shy away from that honesty," Jelks says. "She doesn't write to be controversial or to shock — she just writes the truth."
Even when that truth is hard to watch.