The Elm Theatre can be an uncomfortable place. Since 2010, the theater's lineup of gritty dramas and provocative comedies has pushed boundaries. This week, the company debuts Venom, a new play by emerging Chicago playwright Clint Sheffer that reveals the destructive nature of poisonous relationships.
"People say all the time, 'Why are you picking these plays that are so dark?'" says Garrett Prejean, founder and artistic director of Elm Theatre. "But I actually don't see them as dark. The characters are flawed, but there's love in the plays, and it opens people's hearts to people that they never thought they could love."
Prejean, a Baton Rouge native now living in New Orleans, spent a decade working in Chicago as an actor, where he collaborated with Sheffer on several occasions. In 2011, Prejean asked Sheffer to create a new work specifically for Elm and laid out a few basic ground rules: The play should feature both black and white characters, include some kind of racial tension and be set somewhere around New Orleans.
The result is Venom, a show about interracial newlyweds Waylon and Meadow (Becca Chapman and Matthew Thompson), who leave Missouri and head to New Orleans to start a new life. When they run out of gas in rural Louisiana, the couple encounters Rocky (Moses) and Gumdrop (Matt Story), a corrupt black cop and his redneck sidekick. The pair holds the newlyweds captive in a motel room and the truth begins to unravel bit by bit, as each character's allegiances are put to the test.
"You don't know what's coming next, and things aren't what you expect," Sheffer says. "I like theater that's really intense and edge-of-your-seat. To do that, you have to provoke and poke an audience a little bit."
For Sheffer, an Illinois native, writing a play set in south Louisiana posed some challenges. He wanted to capture the language and the dialect of the region, but he also wanted to represent the people accurately without stereotypes. After a few short visits spent riding around New Orleans and the surrounding bayou towns, Sheffer returned to Chicago and went to work.
Pamela Davis-Noland, the show's director, says Sheffer got it exactly right.
"Once I got the script, I was sold," says Davis-Noland, who is black (Sheffer is white). "Clint, he's from nowhere around here at all, but he hit the nail on the head. The attitude of Rocky, the African-American cop, pulled me into the story more than the other characters because he was just dead-on."
Davis-Noland, a Louisiana native, broke into the New Orleans theatre scene through the city's Fringe Festival, an annual showcase for unconventional theater that started in 2008. A few years ago, she says, it would be less common for black directors to work with white playwrights, or to have black actors and white actors confronting each other on the stage.
"It's not black theater and white theater, it's just theater," she says. "And it's good work. Some powerful pieces of work are being put on stage now."
Davis-Noland says the power of Venom comes from the tension that runs throughout the play, whether it's Meadow and Waylon arguing vehemently through a bathroom door at the beginning of the show, or a standoff between Waylon and Rocky that happens later. As a director, she says the tension gives her a chance to bring out the ugly side of the show's characters. It's exactly the kind of hard truth that Prejean had in mind when he commissioned the play.
"I didn't want it to be pretty," Prejean says. "I wanted it to be honest about couples and blacks and whites here in the South — how we talk to one another."
Venom follows another difficult play at the Elm Theatre, The Adventures of Butt Boy and Tigger, a show about two gay men indulging in online fantasies, which was successful enough to merit an extended run. Despite Butt Boy's success, Prejean says, there were detractors — but, like Venom, the play gets to the heart of the company's mission.
"One of our goals here is to try to mix as much as possible and do different kinds of stories," Prejean says. "Why do I have to tell stories that are just about white people? Or just about straight dudes? I want to tell stories that are about everyone because I believe we're all in this together."