This Season at the Playhouse

This Season at the Playhouse

May 1, 2024
by Gwyn McAllister, The MV Times

From an African American neighborhood in 20th century Oak Bluffs to 1800s Colorado Rockies, and with a Black New York City schoolteacher and the British author of “Peter Pan,” the plays and characters in the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse 2024 calendar will carry audiences near and far this spring and summer.

“Ten years ago, in 2014, we reopened the newly renovated and restored M.V. Playhouse with three world-premiere plays. So 2024 is a 10-year anniversary of sorts in our space,” says artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo. “This particular season also features premieres, and our creative teams at the theater have worked hard to develop these new plays.”

The season will kick off with “To Fall in Love,” a celebrated two-person play rescheduled from last summer. “After their marriage is splintered by tragedy, a couple comes together for one night in the hopes of finding something worth saving,” according to the Playhouse website. There are a number of Martha’s Vineyard connections to the play and its writer, director, and actors.

That production will be followed by two weekends of solo shows. “The Lesson,” written and performed by Tyrone Davis Jr., focuses on what happens when a schoolteacher at an elite New York City school responds to a student’s question about her body, and propels the school into controversy and into the press. The play “details a community’s charged response to a well-intentioned lesson,” according to the Playhouse site.

The long-titled “Courage: A Play Based on the Life of ‘Peter Pan’ Author J.M. Barrie” was written and will be performed by playwright, screenwriter, and novelist John Lawrence Pielmeier. “Courage” is the story of Barrie’s remarkable life, in Barrie’s own words. Pielmeier’s awardwinning work includes the play “Agnes of God,” and three other Broadway shows.

At the heart of the season, the Playhouse will host two new productions. One is by playwright, television and film writer, and part-time Oak Bluffs resident Kathleen McGhee-Anderson. The other is a new musical — a collaboration between three members of the successful musical Mason family, Willy and Sam, and their mother Jemima James, longtime Martha’s Vineyard residents.

The first of the two summer productions, “Miss Maybelline’s Nocturnal Flights of Fancy,” was presented as a reading last year. The action takes place solely on the Vineyard, primarily Oak Bluffs, and centers around a 110-year-old Black woman and her friendship with a 13-year-old autistic boy.

Playwright Kathleen McGhee-Anderson based some of her characters on friends of her mother who lived on School Street when that neighborhood was largely populated by African Americans, many of whom had been forced to move their homes from the Oak Bluffs Campground due to race restrictions.

McGhee-Anderson calls the play a “homage to a way of life that is gone. People would sit on their porches and visit with each other,” she says. “That personality and culture has vanished. The character of the street has changed, and many of those characters have died.”

Describing the theme of the play, McGhee-Anderson says, “While Miss Maybelline is passing on her knowledge to this young boy, she is also helping shepherd him into manhood and develop his sense of self-worth. He doesn’t understand his own value. He is marginalized both as an autistic child and as a Black boy.”

The second summer production, the Masons’ musical “Billy Baloo,” is set in 1879 in a small Colorado gold-mining town, where a supply chain crisis threatens to lead to the demise of the town’s only provisions store and the downfall of the town itself. Eventually the play’s hero finds a solution — and true love. A production of the fun, upbeat musical was performed to sold-out audiences at the Playhouse last fall.

The charming tale features folk- and blues-inspired songs written by the late Michael Mason, Jemima James, and their son, Willy Mason, an international touring artist and critically acclaimed singer-songwriter. The younger Mason plays the lead, and delivers his lovely ballads in his unmistakably unique soulful style.

“Billy Baloo” was 50 years in the making, with Bruder Munafo shepherding the work along and

collaborating with James and Mason in bringing the production to life.

Of the two summer productions, Bruder Munafo says, “We’re so proud of both of these shows that have been developed here at the Playhouse.”

“Celebrity Autobiography,” a star-studded benefit performance, will take place in July when the Drama Desk awardwinning show hits the stage at the high school’s Performing Arts Center (the PAC). The multi-character, critically acclaimed show (a New York Times “Critics Pick”) has played at venues around the globe — from Broadway to London’s West End to the Sydney Opera House. Described as “a unique theatrical experience,” the show is based on funny anecdotes about A-listers in their own words. Traditionally the show is performed by celebrities taking on the various roles, and the Vineyard production will be no exception. Participating stage and screen stars are to be announced.

Also in the lineup this season, the Playhouse will present its annual Shakespeare production outdoors at the Tisbury Amphitheater. “Much Ado About Nothing” is on the bill this time around.

With M.V. Playhouse and its indoor and outdoor performances, the Island can share in a nationally recognized professional theater that once again will stage a season of engaging and uplifting work, performed by international and local talent.

“I am particularly excited about the local connections in all the shows we are presenting,” says Bruder Munafo. “Some actors who are returning to our stage this summer performed here very early in their careers. There is much to celebrate.”