'This play wants to be heard': 'Tender Rain' makes world premiere at Syracuse Stage
Syracuse Stage had a world premiere of the play "Tender Rain" written by playwright-in-residence Kyle Bass. The play is set in the American South in 1956. It depicts the relationship of a white man named Milton Millard and an older Black woman named Ruthie Mimms who has served as his maternal figure since he was young.
"It's a familial relationship, it is mother and son," Bass said. "They share not only a long sort of history because Ruthie has known him all his life but they also share a secret that has a profound impact on their present-day circumstances and threatens their relationship."
Bass described it as a version of family drama.
"For me at least, there's a deeper metaphor going on," said Bass, "that is about really our American identity, the things we choose to look at, the things about the past we choose to ignore and how, in fact, they don't let us ignore them. They're sort of always they're behaving as ghosts."
Tender Rain runs through May 21 at Syracuse Stage.
On the development of bringing "Tender Rain" to its world premiere at Syracuse Stage
I began writing "Tender Rain" 20 years ago. In fact, it is my first play. I wrote it as my graduate thesis when I was seeking my MFA in playwriting. My first saved draft of this play, of anything that was to become this play, is from August 1, 2004, at 2:38 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon. It's interesting to be looking back at it now. That idea of developing has really been about returning to the play, encountering the playwright that I was when I first brought it to the page. I'm no longer that playwright. In coming sort of face to face with sort of the original intentions of that playwright — the playwright I was 20 years ago and seeing what still speaks to me, what I will let stand, what I will revise.
The development process has been interesting because the play, although new to the world, because it's it's a world premiere, it is not sort of new to me. It's been in my life for 20 years. I haven't been working on it for 20 years. I sort of put it aside when I when it was ratified as my thesis, but now have returned to it for this production.
On challenging the audience to look at a juxtaposition of Milton and Ruthie
It's really easy to think about ideas of the mammy figure come up, but that's not what this relationship is. The audience is really being challenged to think beyond sort of the simple ideas about relationships at that time between Black people and white people, an older Black woman and, in relation to her, a younger Black man in this sort of familial situation, relationship situation. It is much deeper than that. It is about that. It is about family and ultimately, that becomes a metaphor for sort of the family that we are as Americans, whether we accept it or not. Our connectedness, our interconnectedness is extraordinarily deep, has been from 1619.
On music informing his writing
At the front of the script, in addition to the character names and the location and any sort of playwright notes about how I imagine this piece, I list the catalog of music that has informed or inspired me in the writing of the piece. Because I was classically trained as a musician, that music comes out of that Western classical sort of tradition. Symphonies and concerti, choral pieces that really sort of inform the shape of the work and the sort of emotional life of the work and to a degree, even the language.
I always mean to write musically — I want the dialog to sort of sing if it can. I like to recall that there was a time where people didn't say, "I went to see a play last night." They said, "I went to hear a play last night." I think this play wants to be heard, wants to be seen, but it equally wants to be heard. You must listen.
I think of it as a symphonic play. Music has really always informed my life, it informs my writing. The very sort of structure of the piece is really sort of symphonic, like a symphony. It has movements. Those movements are related by key and musical motif and the play is very similar in that way. In one scene we have this sort of issue or dramatic idea dealt with and then maybe three scenes later, it's a variation on that now in the relative minor key.
As for what he hopes audiences take from the world premiere
I can only write the play I want to see. I don't want to guess and I have no business guessing what the audience wants to see. I'm writing a play I want to see. I'm writing the play that I want to hear. That said, I hope the audience has an emotional experience and response, whether that be negative or positive. I don't fail if people don't like it — I'm happy if they do. The real failure is in producing indifference.