WAM Theatre's "Noms de Guerre" draws on love and war


WEST STOCKBRIDGE >> Mira is an unlikely star in conservative politics, an African-American woman who has risen to become a state attorney general with plans to run for governor. But as Jacqueline E. Lawton's play, "Noms de Guerre," opens, Mira's rise has reached an uncertain crossroads as news breaks that her war hero Marine husband may have been involved in a war crime in Afghanistan — a story told by an investigative journalist who happens to be her best friend.

WAM Theatre will rpesent Lawton's play in a staged reading Sunday as part of the Fresh Takes series, which brings new work by and about women to the Berkshires with an eye on raising awareness of social issues facing women and girls. This reading is also a part of the Lift Ev'ry Voice Festival, which celebrates the Berkshires' African-American heritage, music, art and culture.

Christina Gordon, who will read the part of Mira, said the ethical knots at the heart of the story leapt out at her.

"Everyone in the play has to make a choice," she said, "how to protect something near and dear to them at the expense of something else near and dear to them."

Lawton said her play is about "the evolution of a friendship between two women," and it touches on issues of gender, race and the lingering social cost of war, especially in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

She was working on the piece in her home in Washington, she said, when a gunman went on a shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard in September 2013, killing 12 people and himself. As Lawton watched the coverage on the news putting the horrific event in context, she thought about how the U.S. still fails to address the consequences of war on those who serve.

"We train these men and women to be warriors, and we don't have ways to de-program them back to being regular citizens," she said. "We haven't figured out the right balance."

"The play presents a very deep and multi-faceted view of war and those who come back from it, and their families," said Jayne Atkinson, who will diirect the reading.

A Berkshire mainstay who directed "Can You Hear Me Baby?" at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge in March, Atkinson responded to the way Lawton's script explores this difficult conversation — the intersection of personal and private politics, and how to manage career ambitions and the expectations of being a woman.

Gordon, who appeared as Jan in WAM Theatre's production of "In Darfur" last fall, said that depth and complexity is part of the appeal of Mira, a caring and kind woman and an ambitious one. Gordon has played hard-charging "alpha" women before, as well as doting mothers and love interests. Lawton's play captures the reality of how most women have to strike a balance between the two.

"That's what women are doing every day," she said.

In the breadth of its issues, "Noms de Guerre," fits in with WAM Theatre's ongoing mission of bringing to light new voices that illustrate issues of social justice.

Lawton said those ideas have shaped her own writing as well. In hr work, she explores a more complete view of the African-American experience, including the perspectives of the middle class and the powerful.

"There's more of us out there, and we can get our stories out into the world," she said.

She worked on "Noms de Guerre" last year as part of the new play development workshop at the Arena Stage in Washington and was nominated last year for a 2014 "Kilroy" recognition, which draws attention to innovative work by up-and-coming women playwrights. This year, she began teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Lawton met WAM Artistic Director and Co-founder Kristen van Ginhoven through her work on diversity issues for the Theatre Communications Group, a networking and advocacy association of regional non-profit theaters. Van Ginhoven invited Lawton to pass along any scripts she was working on that would fit.

The play has appeared in several reading series, but it has yet to receive a full theatrical production. For Atkinson, this presents a specific kind of directing project. She likened her role to being the conductor of a piece of music — her job is to hear the whole piece and help the individual players find the right harmony together.

She said the stripped-down, bare-bones approach can make for a fascinating audience experience: "There's a freedom and flight that can take place that can be amazing to watch."

The reading series is heading into its second summer of performances, held at the No. Six Depot and Roastery in West Stockbridge. WAM Artistic Associate Molly Clancy, who curates the series, said the events aim "to have a book-club feel," intimate performances followed by a discussion of the play.

WAMTheatre hopes to introduce Berkshire theatergoers to new voices and material, she said, and to build relationships with them.

"Part of this is to start a dialogue to get to know our audiences better," she said.

If you go ...

What: 'Noms de Guerre' by Jacqueline E. Lawton, part of WAM Theatre's Fresh Takes series

When: 3 p.m. Sunday, June 14

Where: No. Six Depot Roastery and Café, 6 Depot St., West Stockbridge

Admission: $20

Info: 413-274-8122, wamtheatre.com


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