Kurt McGinnis Brown on “Broken and Entered”
The Wisconsin playwright describes the inspiration for his latest play, and how Milwaukee Chamber brought it to the stage.
The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, through its Montgomery Davis Play Development Program, has brought a number of new plays by Wisconsin writers to the stage. The latest, Kurt McGinnis Brown’s Broken and Entered, opens Friday at the Broadway Theatre Center.
Broken and Entered is about two brothers who move back to their family home after their mother’s death. They begin stealing furniture from wealthy families to survive.
Brown, of Madison, spoke to TCD’s Matthew Reddin about the play and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s development program.
Third Coast Digest: What inspired Broken and Entered?
Kurt McGinnis Brown: I was in my workroom, and I imagined sitting in a dark theater and the play starts but the lights don’t go up. I was pulled by the idea of having this dark stage. At that point, I thought, “Okay, well, they have to have lighting,” so I imagined lights popping on and off, and then I thought “What’s going on? – These are penlights.” Penlights suggested burglars, and that’s what started the play.
TCD: Broken and Entered has three characters: Vern, Wally, and Jamila. Can you describe them and their relationships?
KMB: Vern is the older brother of Wally, and their relationship provides most of the dynamic of the play. Vern is a desperate character. He’s hyper-rational and he has these plans for how to get even [with their neighbors]. And he has a definite motive, and that’s not so much to get stuff, but to be able to get rid of all their stuff. He wants to get away from his past, and this is his plan on how to do it. It’s a mad logic.
Wally is a more romantic character; he believes in more “fuzzy” things. He’s always in love and that’s where Jamila comes in. Jamila grew up in the only black family in this white, lower-middle-class neighborhood. She moves back, and now is a wealthy, conservative activist. Her plan is to take back that neighborhood by buying up the properties, and she even wants to buy Vern and Wally’s house. So she moves back to the neighborhood and Wally immediately is attracted to her.
[Vern and Jamila’s relationship] is very antagonistic. They actually don’t come into contact until Act II, and Act II starts with a long scene where all three characters are there and Vern and Jamila are in conflict. What’s interesting is they’re really similar, so they’re butting heads because they know what the other person’s like.
KMB: Well, one is simply being together again as adults. They haven’t actually lived together in a house since they were both teens. Being together and being brothers there’s a threat of physical violence – we have a fight coach because they have two or three actual fights.
TCD: How did Broken and Entered end up in the hands of MCT’s development program?
KMB: Well, Chamber is one of the theaters that’s part of the Wisconsin Wrights project [an annual playwriting competition based in Madison] and it was selected as one of the finalists. Chamber got to choose one of the three finalists and put it in their reading series. It got a great reception during the reading, so then Michael [MCT’s artistic director, C. Michael Wright] got interested. He and I started meeting about some last specific revisions and then he put it into the season.
TCD: What were some of the changes you made as a result of the reading process?
KMB: Chamber always has these great audiences for these readings, and they were very into it, very alive, and they saw how comic it was, which was encouraging. So when I went back in I was playing more with the comedy. I planned it to be a comedy with an ominous strain throughout, and I was really gratified to see that it came out in the reading.
TCD: Have you stayed involved with the play since director Susan Fete and the cast started working on it?
KMB: In general with plays, it’s usually about 50/50 whether the director wants to see the playwright anywhere near the rehearsal process or not. Chamber’s been very open to having me in, so I’ve actually been going to a lot of rehearsals. But even then, I’m pretty hands-off. The actors will look at me for answers and I just point to Susan. I do get involved with some of the thought process about the character development, but generally at this point I’m sort of an interested spectator.
TCD: Two of the overarching tensions in this play seem to be racial dynamics and class dynamics. Would you say those are equally important or is one more prominent?
KMB: One is definitely more prominent. Let me put it this way: If Jamila were white, the play would still work more or less the same. Making her a black woman was to wrench it up a little bit, have more of a contrast between her [and the brothers]. Plus it’s fun to play with stereotypes, because she’s wealthy and a Republican, and that’s a reaction to her upbringing in the neighborhood. So the racial component was layered on, whereas the class component of this neighborhood and where these guys and Jamila grew up, and then her coming back with wealth – that’s really what drives this play more than race.
Broken and Entered runs Sept. 28 through Oct. 14 in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets are $31-$36, and can be ordered at (414) 291-7800 or their online box office.
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