A few years ago, director Stevie Walker-Webb was in the audience during a talkback at the end of a new play he’d just seen. It was called “Esai’s Table,” and its effect on the audience was audibly evident by the pitch of conversation. But Walker-Webb felt that playwright Nathan Yungerberg’s work had been misunderstood.
“There were some people pontificating about what the play was about,” Walker-Webb said by phone Monday. “I had this deep conviction in my gut that we as an audience had misunderstood what it was that Nathan was attempting with the play.”
Walker-Webb felt compelled to stand up suddenly from the audience, and impulsively speak from the heart about how the play had affected him, and what he thought it was really about.
“I started crying,” he recalled. “And before anyone could respond I stormed out of the theater. It sounds dramatic and I wasn’t trying to be dramatic, (but) the play had triggered something deep in me.”
Some time later, Walker-Webb got a call from the playwright and Vermont’s JAG Productions Producing Artistic Director Jarvis Antonio Green, asking if Walker-Webb was interested in working on the play, because the conversation sparked after he left the theater had stuck with the playwright.
“I was horrified,” Walker-Webb admitted. “I was terrified to say yes to this thing because of the power of it and what it could open up in me. And it’s been the biggest blessing of my life that I did say yes. And now I’m here in Vermont and we’re a few days away from seeing what we made.”
JAG Productions is partnering with New York City’s Cherry Lane Theatre to present the world premiere of “Esai’s Table,” directed by Obie Award winner Stevie Walker-Webb. The play opens at the Briggs Opera House Oct. 10 and will run through Oct. 27. Then it will be presented at Cherry Lane Theatre March 26-April 25.
“This is the first Off-Broadway contract in Vermont, ever,” said Green, who is producing the show. “It’s our first co-production, our first world premiere, and it’s the first play we’ve taken out of our new-works festival and put on the main stage.”
“Esai’s Table” was developed at Cherry Lane Theatre — one of the most renowned theaters in the country, which has produced plays by writers from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Harold Pinter — and at JAGfest, Green’s theater festival with the mission to produce classic and contemporary African-American theater and new work.
“I chose ‘Esai’s Table’ because it was one of our most talked about shows during JAGfest,” Green said. “I got a lot of emails and calls about it and the impact it had.”
When Green mentioned to Yungerberg that he was interested in developing it, he learned Cherry Lane was having similar conversations, and the collaboration began.
“What’s special about Vermont,” Green added, “is it’s a great place to incubate, for artists to unplug and get clear and create amazing art. I think that couldn’t happen anywhere else.”
The play focuses on three teenage African American boys who find themselves in a basement together. They’re invited to a dinner by a man named Esai, where it’s revealed that they can’t leave the basement. But an epic surreal journey follows, and we learn the awful truth of what happened to them, how they got where they are, and the hope of where they can go from here.
“It’s a really beautiful story, and I’m tearing up talking about it because it focuses on the dreams and the hopes of these young men and the possibility of healing,” Walker-Webb said. “The style of writing is Afro-surrealism, and this art is about the belief that something positive can be possible.”
The cast is comprised of New York City Equity union actors, and Walker-Webb said they start rehearsals by playing games to “open it up.”
“I don’t like to use the term director,” he said. “I use creative midwife, because I feel like my job is to hold the hand of the story and help push it into existence. I’m not telling them who or what to be, I’m just trying to help them pull out what’s already inside.
“The work is so strong I would say just come and bless yourself with it, because it is definitely a baptizing,” Walker-Webb concluded. “And it’s also really funny. It’s amazing how (Yungerberg) has taken painful events and turned (them) into something beautiful and fresh. It’s a ride. The audience will go on a ride.”