Allison Gregory set out to write a play inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, generally considered one of the great stage works of the 20th century. The only thing is she knew almost nothing about it.
“I had never read it or seen it. I knew zero about Brecht, really,” concedes Gregory. “I’ve never even seen a Brecht play. I’ve never studied Brecht. And in a way that helps. I didn’t know what was sacred and what wasn’t. I just took it all in and then ran it through my own experience and point of view.”
The result is Motherland, which receives its developmental premiere — a work in progress — this Friday at Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab, which gave the play its first public reading in 2015.
So what drew Gregory to the play, a timeless anti-war statement about an amoral war profiteer who loses her children, one by one, to the 17th century Thirty Years War? “When a friend of mine, a phenomenal actress, said that someday she’d love to do the role, I was immediately interested in it,” she explains. “And she being a woman of color, I wondered why she would want to do it. What would give it resonance for an African-American woman to do it?”
Stumped for a satisfying answer, Gregory decided to write her own contemporary version of the play, specifically with her actress friend in mind. “Once I kind of blatantly, brashly stole the play from Brecht — and I really did, I took his exact set-up — as I started to write it, it definitely took on a life of its own, which had to do with my putting an African-American family in today’s world. What are they up against? What does that feel like? What does that sound like?”
With several ongoing wars to choose among, Gregory chose to set her play within the war on poverty. “And then I couldn’t help but be absolutely influenced by the headlines,” she says. “With what was going on in this country with young African-American men being assaulted and many of them killed and silenced by authority figures, by the police.”
In that sense, the play speaks very personally to Gregory, for she and her husband, playwright Steven Dietz (This Random World), have a 16-year-old African-American son. Soon after he got his driver’s license, Gregory recalls the two of them sitting the lad down for The Talk, “saying, ‘Now, you need to really be careful, because you’re going to be treated differently.’ And he is. So he needs to be careful what neighborhoods he drives in, he has to be careful about how he responds if he’s pulled over for any reason.”
In that sense, Mother Courage’s reflex protectiveness is something Gregory well understands. “Absolutely. Her maternal instinct to gather her children and keep them close, and teach them as much as she possibly can. (To) impart as much of her maternal knowledge as she can before the world gets to them.”
Gregory’s character, known simply as Mother, was built on “the idea of a woman who will fight tooth and nail for her kids on the one hand, but on the other hand is trying to make a living. And just like any mother, she doesn’t always make what would be perceived of as the right decision.”
The play is set firmly in America today with the use of such familiar icons as McDonald’s. “I think they land the play in the experience of a large part of the population, regardless of your social or economic status,” says Gregory. “People understand what McDonald’s is, what it stands for and what it means. I personally have a very fond place in my heart for McDonald’s from when I was a kid. But I haven’t been to McDonald’s in 30 years.”
Several regional theaters where Gregory has had her plays produced expressed interest in Motherland, but she decided to develop it at FAU Theatre Lab because of its artistic director, Louis Tyrrell. “Lou was the bravest. His was the first reading, back in December of 2015, the first time it was read out loud to the public. So when he said, early on, ‘I want to do this play,’ I absolutely said, ‘Yeah, you took first chance on it.’ My fingers are crossed that someone will take the bait and run with it after Lou’s brave steps forward.”
Playing the role of Mother will be South Florida actress Karen Stephens, who has been associated with the character since last year’s reading. “She’s just terrific as Mother, even though she is a tiny woman. But she is fierce,” says Gregory. “She commands that stage and she is funny.”
Funny? In a play set in wartime, where one by one Mother’s children become casualties of war? “It’s ultimately a comedy,” insists Gregory. “It may not read that way, but it plays that way. It’s a funny play and the actors are quite, quite funny.
“It’s about real people, real situations, real concerns. But the bottom line is, it’s full of humor and humanity. And I think that’s something we need a lot more of now.”
MOTHERLAND, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall on FAU campus, 777 Glades Rd., Boca Raton. From Friday, Jan. 27, through Sunday, Feb. 12. $35. 561-297-6124.