Berkshire Playwrights Lab 'hops tha A' with James Anthony Tyler

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GREAT BARRINGTON — It's reportedly the longest one-seat ride in the New York City subway system — the A train — just over 32 miles from its northern terminus at 207th Street in the Inwood section of Manhattan to either of its southern terminuses at Far Rockaway and Lefferts Boulevard, both in Queens. By day express; by night a local, ridden primarily by workers coming off their night shifts.

It's a train playwright James Anthony Tyler knows well. The Las Vegas native moved to New York in 2005 and rode "tha A" every night to a stop in Harlem.

"I' get off my shift at midnight," Tyler said by phone from his apartment in New York. "I remember one night. I had been socializing with friends after work. It was about 2 a.m. I was on the train and this guy was chatting with this girl [in a manner that] was cringe-worthy."

Little things can mean a lot to a playwright. That incident, years ago, was the inspiration, Tyler says, for his new play, "hop tha A," which is being given a staged reading 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.

The play, whose scenes all play out at night on the A train, focuses on the relationship that develops between two virtual strangers on a train, Niesha Lyons (Jayme Lawson) and Tyrone Corey Smith (Gabriel Lawrence), who happen to work at the same night club.

"'hop tha A' is the latest presentation of Berkshire Playwrights Lab's 2018 season; the third overall involving a James Anthony Tyler work. The association with BPL began in 2016 with "Dolphins and Sharks," which went on to a world premiere at Labyrinth Theater Company in New York in 2017 and continued last season with "Some Old Black Man," which had a fully staged presentation last summer at St. James Place with Lee Addison Brown and Roger Robinson. The play moved to New York where it opened in January at 59E59 Theaters with Wendell Pierce replacing Brown.

"['hop tha A'] came to us in such good shape," Berkshire Playwrights Lab co-founder and co-director Joe Cacaci said by phone. "It has plot, themes, characters you care about. The play is almost there."

The beauty of Tyler's writing, which has earned him the 3rd Annual Horton Foote Playwriting Award, is that "(while)it certainly reflects that he is black ... I never feel it is only about that," said Cacaci, who directed "Some Old Black Man" and is directing "hop tha A."

"In 'Artney Jackson (which had its world premiere earlier this summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival), you have a father-son relationship and a workplace setting in which the employees are being exploited but not because they are black.

"'Some Old Black Man' again is about a father-son relationship and 'hop tha A' is about a young man trying to reach his full potential. {Tyrone is unsure] how to talk to women. He's struggling with the loss of his mother (played by Natalie Venetia Belcon) and he is projecting that out to Niesha."

Tyler, who now lives in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood and still "hops tha A" on occasion, says his characters come as much from his imagination as they do from people he has known."There is also a little of me," he says.

"We all know about love, loss, falling down and trying to get back up again," Tyler said. "It's common stuff in humanity."

It's that kind of thinking, that kind of viewpoint that firms Cacaci's conviction that Tyler's plays broad interracial appeal and meaning.

"He's tied in to the human condition," Cacaci says. "He writes from the heart."

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at 413-496-6212 or jborak@berkshireeagle.com


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