Plan-B Theatre Company closes their 25th anniversary season with an all new original musical written by Jenifer Nii (Suffrage, The Scarlet Letter, and this year’s touring children’s piece Ruff!) and composed by longtime Plan-B contributor Dave Evanoff. Kingdom of Heaven opens March 31 and invites audiences to join lead character Mary Jane on her journey to authenticity. True to Plan-B’s mission of producing socially conscious theatre, this new piece touches on hot-button topics like gender identity, societal roles, acceptance within religious communities, and defying conventional expectations. Here, Nii reveals some of her influences and inspirations that contributed to the process of writing her first musical.
I understand we both love a certain reality show about drag. You have written that it was after a “binge-watch” of this show that the idea for Kingdom of Heaven sparked. What was it that caught your imagination?
NII: I think it was the sheer drama of the competition. Seeing big personalities performing under incredible pressure. It made me wonder, if I were competing on a show like that, what MY biggest test might be – what “challenge” would I fear the most? And it was, without question, the challenge of a musical.
As a playwright for Plan-B you have been an incredibly diverse storyteller. How did you approach writing your first musical?
NII: Oh, I flailed around quite a bit and for a long time! But then Jerry at Plan-B told me that we weren’t aspiring to do a traditional musical, or to conform to any set form. That gave me permission to put down all the “how to write a musical” books and focus on story and theme. I also knew I was incredibly blessed to be able to rely on the immense talents of Mr. Evanoff.
Did you have any favorite musicals or musical styles that influenced your process?
NII: There are musicals I have liked, but I am certainly not an aficionado. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
What kinds of music do you listen to? Did anything end up influencing your writing?
NII: Oh gosh, I listen to a variety of stuff, from Lady Gaga and Bowie to Mozart and Beethoven (mostly the piano concertos by the latter two). During the Kingdom process, I listened to some Adore Delano and Alaska (contestants from the aforementioned reality show), and probably too much Eminem.
Did the genres of music you like end up in Kingdom of Heaven?
NII: Dave brought in a lot of influences I really loved, from rock anthems to 80s fun, even some hymns. He’s really remarkable, that Mr. Evanoff.
How did you and composer Dave Evanoff find your “groove” during the creation process?
NII: Oh my goodness. This may be the first play with music written via text message and email. We never wrote in the same room! It was crazy. I’d send over some ideas – lyric samples, a note about tone, etc. Then he’d work his magic, send back an .mp3 file, and we’d refine via txt/email before running through the songs with the actors.
What was the most challenging part of the process? The most rewarding?
NII: The most challenging thing was finding the story for each of the main characters. This play could have gone a ton of different ways. It could have been a drag king story, a coming out story, a religion story, etc. Clarifying the characters’ questions, and then bringing those stories together, was incredibly difficult.
The most rewarding moments, so far, have come when I felt like the words I was scribbling down were true to the characters, capturing and honoring the depth of their points of view.
How would you describe Kingdom of Heaven potential audience members?
NII: It’s a play with music, about self acceptance in the face of all the many forces that would have us shrink, a plea for compassion for our fellow beings.
Which character from Kingdom of Heaven would you hang out with in real life?
NII: (Supporting character and local ward member) Liz. She seems like a hoot.
How do you think you have progressed as a playwright from Wallace ( co-written with Debra Threedy for the 2009/10 season) to Kingdom of Heaven?
NII: Oh gosh, I don’t know. I think I ask more questions now. I ask my characters WAY more questions.
What would you like to try next?
NII: I’ve got a couple of ideas bouncing around, but nothing that makes any sense yet!
What would you like more of in the world (theatre scene and beyond)?
NII: Hm. One of the things I love most about theatre is the sense it fosters of community. I think a lot of times people talk at one another, in reaction to one another. I love when theatre can gather people around a common experience, question, or conversation and send them away more curious, eager to share, respectfully considering another point of view. I’d love more of that.