The Timely Tragedy of "Memorare"

Kerry Breen 

  • OnStage Blog News

Memorare, a new play by Steven Carl McCasland, will open at Saint John’s Lutheran Church in New York City on Jan. 10, 2018. The 90-minute production will run for fourteen performances, with the last show on Saturday, Jan. 27.

“It’s inspired by an event that happened in New York City in 1964,” McCasland explained in an interview. “A young black boy was killed, he was unarmed, he was shot and killed by a white police officer and that started the Harlem race riots. So in this play, a white convent in New York City is a little shell-shocked by what’s going on.”

Untitled.png

“At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church sends a Nigerian postulant to live with them and inside the church walls, their own sort of race riot occurs, because it takes place at a time of great change for the church, the same year as Vatican II, when nuns underwent a complete schism,” he continued. “And so, these women are faced to look at their innermost demons, because of the world changing around them, if you will.”

The play, which has been in the works for more than two years, was inspired by both an interest in exploring the lives and decisions of women who choose to become nuns, as well as current events in the world and United States.

“I think what’s happening in the world right now, or at least in America with police brutality, crept its way into the play,” McCasland said.

The play was also influenced by research done into various facets of the production.

“I read a lot about nuns, and I also had to do quite a bit of research into Nigeria,” McCasland said. “That was really eye-opening. It’s funny, we say a lot in America that we feel like nothing has changed, but I think in some ways, it’s the same thing for other countries too. A lot of us are stuck repeating our history.”

Another aspect of the research, a specific Zulu phrase, became an important influence on the play as well.

“It’s a Zulu word that I discovered while reading about Africa,” he explained. “It’s sawubona, and it’s the way they say hello to each other. Instead of saying hello, they say ‘I see you,’ and I thought a lot about how every time we go to the store and we say hello to a cashier, when we get down the block, can we actually describe what that cashier looked like? I don’t know that I can, all the time. And saying ‘I see you’ to someone as a greeting – it just felt kind of empowering to me. And that crept its way into the play.”

The play was first seen in a professional reading at the Arthur Seelen Theatre at the Drama Bookshop in New York City in July 2015. Five members of the cast from the reading will be in the world-premiere production, with only three new actresses joining the cast. The entire cast of the production is women, something that McCasland notes happened intentionally.

“Most of my plays – actually, I would say all of them focus on women of a certain age,” he said. “Not necessarily that all of the characters are women, but that the central character and themes revolve around women over usually fifty or maybe forty. I think there are roles for women. I feel like I always see the same ones. But we do have a cast of eight women, all different ages, all different backgrounds, and it’s really great to see them in rehearsal. It’s really, really special.”

McCasland’s other works, which include the acclaimed Little Wars, the Kennedy-family based 28 Marchant Avenue, the Billie Holiday exploration Shades of Blue: The Decline and Fall of Lady Day, and several other plays, are typically historical fiction.

 Steven Carl McCasland

Steven Carl McCasland

“In this case, the only thing that’s factual is that James Powell was shot and killed by a white cop. Everything else is imagined,” he said. “My other plays are mostly historical fiction… these are just kind of the lives I really enjoy exploring – not their whole lives, just little pieces of them that I find really interesting.”

Other than adding new members to the cast (additions for the new production include Ashleigh Awusie, Janet Fanale, Joyce Nolen, and Sabrina Petra), McCasland says little has changed since the 2015 reading.

“For the most part, the play is very similar,” he said. “There’s no new characters, no new structure, but I have raised the stakes a little bit for some of the characters. Their backstories are a little fuller, and we learn a little bit more about each of them, but for the most part, the arc of the play is the same.”

Despite the “perfect opportunity” of performing the play in a church, McCasland said that such staging was not in the original vision of the production.

“We were actually trying to raise money to rent a theater, and we raised some, but we couldn’t really afford a theater,” he said. “And Mark Erson is the pastor at Saint John’s. He’s so wonderful to artists. He’s a playwright and a director himself, and he really transformed that space into a safe haven for everybody, not just anybody who wants to go and worship, people who want to go and create their art whether they believe in God or not. And he’s giving us that space, and giving us a home to do this play, and it’s real blessing.”

The production will be directed by Peter Darney, a London-based director. The full cast features Helen Hayes Award-winner Patti Mariano as Sister Mary Cecelia (Broadway: Original Cast of The Music Man, George M!, The Full Monty and more) and newcomer Ashleigh Awusie as Sister Mary Azu (Ain't Never Been Easy), with PennyLynn White (Little Wars, What Was Lost, TV: Louie, Bull) as Mother Superior, Janet Fanale (Forbidden Broadway National Tour) as Sister Mary Eugenia, Kristen Gehling (Little Wars, neat & tidy) as Sister Mary Agnes, Joyce Nolen (Broadway: Smile, Stop The World, I Want to Get Off) as Sister Mary Bridget, JoAnn Mariano (The Patti Duke Show, Out Cry) and Sabina Petra (NYMF - Forest Boy, Outstanding Individual Performance Award) as Sister Maria Celeste.

McCasland recommends that those interested in tickets book in advance due to the limited seating of the space. He also noted that while tickets can be sold at the door, the church has a small lobby and the cold weather may make the option less appealing.

“I think it’s a timely piece,” McCasland said. “I hope it creates a positive discussion in the right direction.”

Title Photo: NewYorkNatives.com