2 1/2 Years with Cori Thomas’ Imagination

By Gita Reddy, who plays Nirmala in When January Feels Like Summer

It was after the very first reading of this play back in the fall of 2007 that I remember thinking… there is something very unusual about this piece.  When I try to put it into words, I fear I sound so earnest or clichéd, or biased (since I have been with it so long) or just a bit insane.  But during my 2 ½ years with this play, and after so many fascinating conversations with audience members and theater colleagues who have seen it, read it or worked on it, it has become increasingly clear that Cori and her wonderously wacky, brilliant or perhaps just astute imagination have created something that taps into all our most surprising reserves of optimism and joy. 

I had thought I wanted to write about what exactly that is, or why that is, but… well there I go again.  I end up deleting all my attempts at articulating this as they all read as… kinda goofy!  But I have to say, this play—and this gorgeous Pittsburgh April that suddenly feels like August (sorry, couldn’t resist)—inspires me to just delight in giddily tromping around some random thoughts on what it’s been like getting to meet the many audiences who have shared Cori’s unique world with us.

I remember sneaking a surprised look with my buddy Debargo Sanyal (who also currently plays Ishan/Indira) in the lobby of Ensemble Studio Theater in New York as several wonderful ladies poured out their hearts to us about how much our characters meant to them.  It was after the very first reading of this play, on September 28, 2007, as part of EST’s annual Going to the River festival of African American women playwrights.  At our intermission break, the other actors and I had suddenly shared a smile as we stopped to take in how much the audience was enjoying the piece.  I later heard a rumor that one audience member laughed so hard he literally fell out of his chair (I love that rumor!).  Then after the show… well, now thinking back, I realize that I probably rather superficially assumed that because my character was not African American, perhaps she might be less compelling or memorable to the audience.  As I headed to the door, I was totally proven wrong in the most moving way.  After saying our thank yous to Cori, whom I had only recently met, Debargo and I were each like enveloped with these hugs and heartfelt congratulations, and sometimes very personal, even whispered words of gratefulness.  I remember reflecting quickly back on my character Nirmala’s journey, both her complicated sadness and her equally complex reaching for joy, and I felt a bit overwhelmed at realizing that these women were taking the time to share with me that they understood all of that. 

As I left the theater that night, I felt speechless.  It was as if I had been given the gift of getting to put aside my hard-earned cynicism aside for a few hours, and I almost didn’t know what to speak of instead.

In July 2008, Gita was in the cast for the Sundance workshop–an inspired and inspiring setting for creating art, as is clear from the mountain background above.

The following summer, I had the privilege of going to the Sundance Institute’s Theatre Lab on a gorgeous mountain in Utah (near where they hold the film festival during the winter) to workshop and help develop the script of this play for 3 weeks.  When we did the play’s next staged reading there near the end of July 2008, I was amazed that the reaction was similar, even though the audience this time was all of our colleagues, people who work in theater and see new plays all the time, often on an almost daily basis.  After it was over, there was no backstage in the little theater, so the cast just stepped off the stage into the audience, and we were all astonished as people started lining up to talk to each of us.  There were folks with tears in their eyes, some who were still laughing, sometimes both at the same time.  Cori later told me the same thing happened to her.  Sometimes, back in New York, when I run into these lovely people who were at that reading, I get a little teary (though of course I try to hide it) as they recount to me their reactions that day, and their sincerest hope for the future of the play in this tough industry.  So many folks sent their overjoyed well wishes for our world premiere here with the great folks at City Theatre. 

Gita in costume as Nirmala on opening night at City Theatre.

Now, as we head into our final week with this show here in Pittsburgh in April 2010, I am so grateful for my time with this play, and getting not only to live each show in this magical world that Cori has created, but to get to hear how it has affected those of us who have encountered it.  My castmates are simply phenomenal, and I still am in constant amazement at how each brings such humanity and craftsmanship to their roles each and every performance.  It has been a blast getting to know them and to talk with them about this special play, and I learned so much watching each of them work their unique mojo in the rehearsal room.  I will also admit to never tiring of sneaking peaks from the wings at their work onstage!  The backstage staff and City Theatre staff make an ambitious production like this come off so smoothly, all done with such gracious humor and professionalism.  And I think we all find ourselves quoting lines from this show constantly, even eight weeks in.

And of course the audiences here in Pittsburgh have been so welcoming, and just continue to amaze me with their generosity and joyful spirit!  My mother visited from California and told me she was just delighted with the show, and even she engagingly chatted up her seatmates in the audience both times she saw it.  And we continued to talk about it as I proudly showed her around beautiful Pittsburgh, buying spices in the Strip District and… making that wrong turn that landed us amidst some Heinz buildings…?  (But even those were picturesque—I meant to show those to you, Mom!) 

As I start to prepare to head back home to New York, I find myself feeling inspired and speechless all over again.  Getting to re-encounter that first, rather magical experience of Cori’s play with each performance has reminded me that joy is always worth striving for, perhaps especially when it seems the hardest to see, much less grasp.  These are moments I hope to carry with me for the next 2 ½ years, and hopefully much beyond.

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