Karamu House Tackles Aging with Eric Coble's 'Velocity of Autumn'

Imani Khiri as Chris and Jeanne Madison as Alexandra in the Karamu House production of Eric Coble's "The Velocity of Autumn" [photo: MySonia Shorter-Little]
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Local playwright Eric Coble's "The Velocity of Autumn" has played several dozen times from the Beck Center to Broadway to Israel and South America.

Up until now, however, the acclaimed comedy about aging had not been staged with African-American actors. 

Karamu House CEO Tony Sias has long wanted to produce one of Coble's plays. This one centers on 79-year-old Alexandra, who's locked herself in her Brooklyn brownstone refusing to move to a retirement facility. 

Jeanne Madison and Imani Khiri [photo: MySonia Shorter-Little]

Her adult son, Chris, comes to convince her otherwise and drama ensues from their struggle to compromise given Alexandra has filled the apartment with molotov cocktails.

"As an afterthought I said, 'hey, I don't think this show has been performed by actors of color. So how great would this be to have actors of color in these roles telling this universal story.' You know each actor brings his or her experiences. Each culture group brings their own experiences," Sias said.

Coble didn’t write the play to be confined to a single race.

"In my casting notes, unless the play is very specifically written to be about racial issues or something like that where it's really particular that a character be played by an African-American actor or by a white actor or an Asian actor, usually I just put down 'all roles are open to all ethnicities.' My goal is to always help a director find the best actor possible regardless of what ethnicity they may be," Coble said.

Jeanne Madison and Imani Khiri [photo: MySonia Shorter-Little]

Sias knew the Karamu audience would appreciate a story about the dilemma of caring for an aging parent.

"One of the things that was really clear to me in reading it was that these themes are universal. These stories are about life and so it does not have a color," Sias said.

For Coble, the issue of elder care is a complex one, perfect for a dramatic play.

"The idea that the inevitable role reversal that comes along when it's expected that the parent will become the child or the child become the parent to some degree and how awkward that is.  How it's built into the system, and yet how fundamentally wrong it feels when it starts happening," Coble said.

Imani Khiri and Jeanne Madison [photo: MySonia Shorter-Little]

Actor Jeanne Madison plays Alexandra. During rehearsals she and her co-star Imani Khiry discussed the play's relevance with director Nathan Lilly.

"One of the things we talked about was the fact that this can lift up and stimulate discussion of some of the themes that are in this show that for a lot of cultural reasons I think African-Americans don't always talk about.  For so many centuries we were not to bring forward any of the things that was wrong with us.  If you wanted to keep the job you better be quiet about anything that was wrong with you or going on in your personal life," Madison said.

Staging The Velocity of Autumn also fits into Sias's vision for Karamu.

"I'm a proponent of non-traditional casting that if an actor is cast in a role that was not written for that particular race or culture group we need to be able to justify why this particular actor is being cast in that role," Sias said.

Jeanne Madison and Imani Khiri [photo: MySonia Shorter-Little] 

No matter who's reading Alexandra's lines, growing old is hard, as evidenced by one of Alexandra's monologues.

You think old age will be this fine, knowledgeable time, the sum of everything you've spent three-quarters of a century learning.  But now I find out, 79 years too late, that old age is just one constant game of surprise!

Eric Coble [photo: Betsy Molnar]

"When I'm writing a play I very rarely see the characters faces on it," Coble said.  "I don't write for particular actors, almost never. So I'm writing and I'm picturing the characters on stage but I don't have a particular voice for them or a particular look on their face or something. I know what their emotional life is like. So that's what I'm trying to capture."

Karamu audiences seem to identify with the play’s themes.

"Our theater goers, our audiences are loving it," Madison said. "They're coming out in tears. They're coming out laughing. They're coming out in simpatico saying, 'I'm going through this with my mom or I'm going through this myself.' I think it creates a very safe forum where you can discuss the play, but you're really talking about what's going on in your own life. "

Tony Sias and Jeanne Madison [photo: ideastream]

Sias received an email from one of Karamu's patrons who'd seen the show.

"[He] said that he and his family had come to see the show and it allowed them to experience a 'seminar' and some 'healing' together as a part of seeing the play. So the play not only was entertaining but educational, as well as seeing life and art working together to begin to move them in a way towards healing in working with their elderly family member," Sias said.

Coble had a similar experience when he saw the Karamu production.

"I was just delighted with the amount of things that seem to really resonate and the rhythms of the piece that felt right. It felt like the universality of it came through," Coble said.

Eric Coble’s play 'The Velocity of Autumn' is onstage at Karamu House through Sunday, April 21.

Jeanne Madison performs Alexandra's monologue on aging:

 


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@karamuhouseinc stages “The Velocity of Autumn”

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