Janine Nabers was studying to be an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and had an intense craving to play iconic roles in Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller’s works, but was told that she could not be Anna Christie or Abigail Williams because she is black. Disheartened at this notion, Nabers started writing a script with characters that she would like to play, and the result was called She’s Unraveled. She submitted the play as a part of her application to The New School for Drama’s playwriting MFA program and she was accepted.
The 33-year-old Houston native started school in the fall of 2005 and then Hurricane Katrina happened. She remembers looking down at her phone and seeing 26 missed calls from relatives who lived on the Texas coast and in Louisiana. The havoc that Katrina wreaked, not only on New Orleans but on the American psyche about whose lives matter to whom, inspired When the Levee Broke and Annie Bosh is Missing, two plays about people who lose themselves in despair after a disaster and the impact of that despair on their families.
Now, an earlier historical event serves as inspiration for the world premiere of her play Serial Black Face, running at Actor’s Express April 2-24. The play is about the Atlanta Child Murders that took place between 1979 and 1981, where 29 people, most of them preteen and teenage boys, were kidnapped from Atlanta’s black working class neighborhoods and murdered. A man named Wayne Williams was tried and convicted for two of the murders in 1982 and remains incarcerated today at age 57. His conviction, however, has been the subject of much debate, and most of the cases remain unsolved.
Serial Black Face, which won the Yale Drama Series Award in 2014, is about a single mother named Vivian whose son has been missing for two months. Succumbed to depression and anger, she sends her fast teenage daughter Latoya to boarding school and makes a point of shutting the world out.
Then, one day at the diner where she works, she meets a man named George who wants to win her affections. But George may not be who he seems. As the years pass, and her son does not come back, Vivian has to learn how to love again in this “Lolita type story about a mother and daughter,” as Nabers describes it.
Nabers, who is an alumna of the Alliance Theatre’s Kendeda competition, lives in Los Angeles with her husband Victor Lesniewski who is also a playwright; they met at Juilliard during a playwriting fellowship. She will be doing a talkback on Sunday, April 3.
Arts ATL: What inspired you to write a play about the Atlanta Child Murders?
Janine Nabers: I was visiting home in Houston when I stumbled upon a newspaper article about it. Lee Brown, who was appointed as the first black commissioner of public safety for the City of Atlanta right before the murders, was also the first black mayor of Houston. I found an article from a Texas newspaper that mentioned it as a part of his past, and I had never heard anything about it. This was around the time when all of the killings of young black men started making the news.
Nabers: It is about repetition. It’s a story of black people, black faces, that are repeatedly being taken away and there’s no way to stop it. After Katrina, when I was writing Annie Bosh is Missing, I researched the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which was just like Hurricane Katrina. History repeats itself. The Atlanta Child Murders then is Black Lives Matter now. A lot of people are angry, but no one is taking the blame. I use these historical moments as the background to write domesticated stories about how these events impact someone’s life.
Arts ATL: What type of research did you do to write the play?
Nabers: I hadn’t talked to anyone who was there until after the play was workshopped at the Alliance in October 2014. I spoke to family members of some of the people who went missing during the talkback, and that was the first time I sat down with people who were a part of it. Pearl Cleage was also tremendously helpful during that time, because she is so deeply connected to the city. I still haven’t been to Mechanicsville, so when I am in town I am going to go there. I also really want to talk to Wayne Williams.
Arts ATL: What are you working on now?
Nabers: I am working on a musical commissioned by Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts about Sylvia Plath and her relationship with her husband Ted Hughes, and it shows what their marriage was like before he met another woman. She was a struggling poet who was married to a world renowned poet, but when their marriage deteriorated because of the affair, she wrote The Bell Jar and that launched her into being famous. She was also bipolar and wound up killing herself, which solidified her as being legendary. It takes about five years to nail down a musical, so it’s still very much a work in progress.
I am also shopping around a television series about the Atlanta Child Murders cases called Dogwood, based on what it was like to live in Atlanta in the late ’70s and early ’80s when the murders were happening. It is a more fleshed out version of some of the themes in the play and really delves into what the city was like before the murders started when all of these black people were coming into positions of power in the city government.
Arts ATL: What do you want audiences to take away from the experience of seeing Serial Black Face?
Nabers: A lot of my plays are about mourning, and whether it’s about the loss of yourself or the loss of a person. The message is really about not blaming yourself for what happened, because it was bigger than what you have control over. Vivian is longing for the son that is gone instead of loving the daughter who is still there. It is a love story about a mother’s journey to forgive herself.