With a title like the one you have, this piece has got to be very, very comedic, or politically serious. Please comment about the title and how you came up with it.
Well, the play is both comical and serious (as well as emotionally moving.) The serious elements in the play are the history of the AIDS epidemic, and the role the Reagans played in it, as well as current struggles over institutional racism. But because we know some of these issues well, and the Reagan years are long past, there’s also room for a little distance, even some laughter. The title comes out of the dialogue, out of a declaration of both comedic exasperation and genuine anger. I know the title can make some people uncomfortable — because of the profanity, and the disrespect it implies — but for me, it captures the feeling that is the trigger for the whole play.
Tell our readers briefly about the plotline of the play.
The play unfolds over the weekend that David, a gay history teacher, turns fifty. His best friend Maggie, a college dean, gathers their friends at her Palm Springs house to celebrate. But their party plans are undone because Nancy Reagan has just died and someone has decided to bring her body to Palm Springs for a day of tribute, wreaking havoc on the traffic and David’s mood. At the same time, a student at Maggie’s college — where Maggie is the highest-ranking person of color — threatens to launch a media protest against the school because of a racist professor. So, by the time the party is underway, David is attacking another friend’s much younger boyfriend who seems to have no knowledge of the Reagans or the AIDS epidemic, and Maggie is feeling anxious and fed up with all of them. So the play seesaws (somewhat comically) between plans for a joyful celebration, and the present day conflicts and painful memories that undermine that.
Discuss the sensitive areas of the play without giving too much away.
The play certainly has its “sensitive” moments. Without saying too much, they have to do with acknowledging the real impact of the AIDS epidemic on this group of friends, and the ongoing pain of navigating racist and sexist attitudes. Confronting those experiences drives much of the action of the play. But the play is hardly exclusively heavy — there is also a lot of laughter, and indeed one of the central themes in it is also the value of friendship, and celebrating how long-term friendships endure.
I understand you have already won an award for the piece. Tell us about that.
Yes, I was thrilled last year when A&U Magazine chose the play for its Christopher Hewitt Award. A&U, stands for Art & Understanding and its focus is on the art and activism that responds to the AIDS epidemic and to a degree, its audience is the HIV-affected community. The award is named for A&U’s first literary editor, and is given annually to the best writing that deals in some way with the impact of AIDS. They always have terrific judges, and so for me to be selected was a real honor. Not to mention, they selected the play based on the script — without there being a full production — so that felt especially meaningful as a writer.
How did Larry Margo and other Group Rep members become involved?
I met Larry through my dad, who twisted Larry’s arm to have lunch with me a few years ago to talk about LA theater. Larry graciously accepted and then, against his better judgment, grudgingly let me give him an early draft of NFR. Fortunately for me, he liked it! Last year he worked with a group of actors to workshop a selection of the play, and this year he decided we should put the whole play on. And I’m so grateful.
Why did you pick the Secret Rose or did you? That's a very wide stage. Does the piece need to be centered like an intimate play or is there room to spread out?
The play is an ensemble piece that mostly takes place in the center of the home that Maggie and her husband share — in the large room that doubles as a living and dining room, as well as out on the patio. And some of the scenes unfold with some of the characters out on the patio, while others are engaged inside. So what’s great about the Secret Rose is that it gives us a large canvas and lets us spread out. We are able to present parallel scenes, as it were. And at the same time, it helps us capture that feeling of airiness and open space in a desert home. So it’s really a wonderful space for us.
Are you involved with the production or are you leaving it in Larry's capable hands?
Larry is definitely guiding the production. I’ve been around for some of the rehearsals, which has allowed me to explain some of the characters’ intentions to the actors, when that’s been helpful. And I’ve also been able to modify lines that felt meandering or not quite right. But how the play looks — how it is moving from words on the page to something alive — that’s all Larry. I’m watching him and learning from him and the actors as they make all of that happen!
What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing the play?
Fundamentally, the play is about history — whether personal or social — and the ongoing role it plays in our lives. The events of the weekend force David and Maggie to look at themselves in mid-life, to think about who they’ve been, and to consider who they want to be going forward. And the question they both wrestle with is how much do they want to stay connected to the past and its profound events, and how much do they want to shed some of that and try something new. The choices they make are not simple, but hopefully for the audience, that effort at self-examination — and the actions they take as a result — will be one of the key things that lingers.
Tell us about your other plays. Is Nancy different from them? If yes, in what way?
So far, almost all of my plays are steeped in history — especially LGBT history. That’s really my background as a writer. So my other two full-length plays, Reclamation and In My Father’s Cabin, are more traditional historical plays. The first is about Bayard Rustin, the gay man who mentored Martin Luther King, Jr., and is set in the 1950s and 60s. And the second looks at a gay party that was raided by the police in the 1930s. So NFR is different in that it is set in the present, and is much more of a reflection on history: in a way it asks, “How do we honor the past without getting stuck in it?”
Anything you wish to add that we have not discussed?
Just that I’m excited that the play is having its premiere here in Los Angeles: that feels so right. And how grateful I am for the encouragement and support of my mentors — Lee Wochner, Jon Marans, Andrea Lepcio, and Poorna Jagannathan — as well as my husband and family and friends!
For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/nancyfreagan/.
For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/nancyfreagan/.