Jenifer Nii’s play-in-progress DONNA opens the 2018/19 Script-In-Hand Series on October 24 – click here for details and free-but-required tickets. Jenifer has premiered six plays at Plan-B: WALLACE (the first world premiere by an Asian American playwright in Utah history, co-written with Debora Threedy), THE SCARLET LETTER and SUFFRAGE (both nominated by the American Theatre Critics Association/Steinberg Award for Best New American Play Produced Outside New York), RUFF! (our third annual Free Elementary School Tour), KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (music by and co-lyricist Dave Evanoff) and THE WEIRD PLAY (a co-production with Sackerson and a recipient of one of inuagural Writers Alliance grants from the Dramatists Guild Foundation).
The deadline was looming and, as usual, I had nothing. It was my turn next to present something in The Lab at Plan-B, and…nothing. Which, if you know me, you know isn’t necessarily unusual in itself. I mostly write frantic, last-second drafts, fueled by panic and adrenaline.
That said, I usually have something bouncing around in my brain when I know I’ve got something coming due. Little whispers in the corners of my brain, snippets of characters or nuggets of story. Just not this time.
Thank goodness for public radio. One afternoon, our local affiliate carried an interview with a man who’d written about Cervantes’s classic Don Quixote. A new translation had recently hit the shelves as well, so the novel was experiencing a bit of a resurgence. Embarrassingly, I realized that my exposure to the story was limited to an alarming community theatre production of the 1965 musical, and about 20 minutes of the film featuring Peter O’Toole in the titular role.
And there, off in the grey-matter distance, a little whisper. Something about that goofy Don Quixote…
Working at the Salt Lake City Public Library has many benefits, among them being many available translations of Quixote. I picked up the newest one, and finished it in about a week. The experience was…illuminating and befuddling at the same time. I had heard that this novel had changed literature, introducing one of the world’s – and history’s – most enduring and influential characters and a story that continues to move and inspire people around the globe.
And yet? Again and again, I found myself shouting at the page. Why is anyone enabling this man? This man of relative means who, instead of using his free time and relative means to do useful things, pfaffed around reading silly books until his brain “dried up”? Who decided he was a conquering hero, who managed only to get himself pummeled by goats and conned by criminals until his friends had to come and cart him home. Who persuaded one of those friends to leave house and family in the lurch so he could have a squire.
I read another translation, and another. The questions mounted. I read essays and scholarly papers, extolling the genius of this baffling, frustrating work. I was critical and snotty and completely unwilling to see what was groundbreaking and relevant and inspired about it. That would come later, in the writing of DONNA.
All the humbug aside, Don Quixote IS about many things: finding meaning in life, refusing to succumb to the mundanity of Common Life, enlivening our aspirations. My own brain fixated on the notion that it might also be what we’re now calling “toxic masculinity” – a cultural idea of “manliness” which, in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, made me wonder in a pointed way: how would the story be different if Don Quixote was a woman? How would we respond to, question, and judge the character?
DONNA is my attempt to explore these. It’s not a direct adaptation, and I don’t presume to have any unique insight or commentary on the original. I’ve cherry-picked certain elements I found interesting and used the story’s framework to explore the notion of gender in what I hope makes for an entertaining, question-asking night of theatre. I’ve played with time, language, and characters, and conjured modern-day “windmills” and battles. These are the technicolor fever dreams of my own and observed experience as a single, working, middle-aged woman of color in America. If Quixote is a quintessential “masculine” tale, my hope is that in some small way, DONNA asks some relevant, pertinent questions about what women experience – women who refuse to succumb, who dare to aspire, who fight to build the world they believe in.
Jenifer Nii’s play-in-progress DONNA opens the 2018/19 Script-In-Hand Series on October 24 – click here for details and free-but-required tickets. Featuring Colleen Baum, Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, April Fossen & Yolanda Stange, stage managed by Cate Heiner and directed by Alexandra Harbold.