There’s been something of a love-fest going on at Manbites Dog Theater in preparation for the upcoming opening of “The Miraculous and the Mundane.”
Durham-based playwright Howard L. Craft’s script is a love letter to the generation of African-American men who came back from serving in Vietnam and are now dealing with various health issues, including Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s also a nod to local audiences because of the play’s Durham setting, which includes references to familiar streets and businesses.
And finally, the production celebrates Craft’s longtime collaboration with director Joseph Megel – a bond of trust that allows the pair to portray the characters’ foibles with loving truth.
The play, which opens Jan. 19, centers on Percy Nelson, whose wife died years ago, leaving him to provide for and guide his two children. Now he’s beginning to show signs of dementia. His Marine buddy, Bone, tries to help Percy through his forgetfulness and battle nightmares by reliving their good times together and having some laughs.
But there are rising tensions in the family. Percy’s son Junior, a slacker and dreamer, has always depended on Percy for financial help – and he’s back for more. Chloe tries to be the perfect daughter, but her failing marriage and the prospect of becoming Percy’s caretaker are breaking her spirit. The siblings clash with Percy and each other as they try to figure what to do about his situation and their own futures.
The play had it first public exposure last March in workshop performances at Manbites Dog Theater. From the strong audience reactions and positive local reviews, Megel and Craft knew they were on the right track.
They’ve now tweaked transitions, cut some lines and mined the script for further insights.
“It’s the sign of a good writer when you continue to find new layers,” Megel says. “In Howard’s work, you can deepen the interpretation with each new staging.”
Craft gives Megel equal credit. “Joseph continually asks questions about a script, forcing me to make sure the play is actually doing what I’m intending,” Craft says.
Forming a partnership
Megel, 60, is artist-in-residence at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Communications, where he created The Process Series, a program for developing new theater pieces. He was introduced to Craft a decade ago by a UNC colleague – Craft’s wife, Renée. Megel liked Craft’s early work and began working with him on developing his scripts. When Craft penned “Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders,” about his own military coming of age, Megel agreed to put it through his development process.
Before “Caleb,” Craft said he had written 10 plays, including eight full-length, grant-funded works done on tight six-week deadlines.
“It was great to slow down my writing with Joseph and really look at it,” said Craft, 47. “That opened up a whole new realm of possibilities.”
“Caleb” had its premiere at Manbites in 2009, quickly establishing Craft as an estimable talent. Reviews emphasized Craft’s ear for natural dialogue and vivid characterizations. Megel and Craft found they had similar artistic visions and have been working together ever since.
Their most successful collaboration so far has been “Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green,” a look at the African-American experience during the 20th century. After rave reviews for the 2015 premiere at UNC by StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance, it has been presented in New York City in 2015 and 2017, garnering praise from The New York Times.
Now Megel and Craft are putting the final touches on “Miraculous,” honed by what they experienced during last year’s workshop performances.
“Having the opportunity to hear audiences’ responses to Howard’s humor, rhythm and musicality has affected how I build to certain moments now,” Megel says.
Craft thinks Manbites’ audiences are ideal for gauging his writing.
“There is great diversity in race, gender and age,” Craft says. “My characters are African-Americans but the themes are universal.”
In a joint statement, Manbites’ co-founders Jeff Storer and Ed Hunt said, “It’s been an honor to work with Joseph over the years and a delight to host Howard’s work here.
“They are a natural fit for each other, committed to illuminating the humanity at the core of Howard’s characters.”
What: “The Miraculous and the Mundane”
Where: Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham
When: 8:15 p.m. Jan. 19-20, 25-27, 31, Feb. 1-3; 2 p.m. Jan. 28
Tickets: $12-$20 (Jan. 18 preview $5); seniors/youth/military discounts
Info: 919-682-3343 or manbitesdogtheater.org