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In the lobby of the Lincoln Theatre on a chilly March evening, about 30 junior-high kids are getting restless. They’ve just sat through a two-hour reading of a play comparing pro basketball’s draft to slavery—and now their teachers want them to talk about it?
But as a girl in a puffy jacket speaks up, playwright Marvin McAllister is all ears. Slung low and anonymous in his seat, wearing a knit cap and sweat suit, the 34-year-old McAllister’s had the play—called Draft Day—on his mind in one form or another for over a decade. And he’s soaking up every tentative, soft-spoken reaction, some of which will later spur him to drop a few of Draft Day’s more obscure literary allusions and bring some offstage dialogue onstage.
“I’m at the stage where I’m a fairly unsuccessful playwright,” says McAllister, an adjunct drama teacher at Howard University and a volunteer dramaturg for the African Continuum Theater Company. “Typically, unsuccessful playwrights are very hungry for feedback.”
Draft Day juxtaposes the lure of the NBA draft with the sounds of a 19th-century slave market. Scenes of players pondering their viability as high-priced hoops stars are interwoven with a slave trader pitching his “product.” While a TV commentator assesses the players’ skills, the trader speaks frankly of his slaves’ attributes. McAllister says it was the language of pro sports itself that first led him to make the athlete-slave connection, when he was still a theater grad student at Northwestern University in the early ’90s.
“Somebody’s the owner, somebody’s the product, somebody’s on the trading block—it’s just too easy,” he says.
Draft Day also draws on McAllister’s graduate-school research of antebellum African-American theater, which led him to include slave characters as well as graphic dialogue about the perceived skills of people from different African tribes. And a 1999 trip to the NBA draft at the MCI Center drove home to McAllister the cultural appeal of pro basketball to young African-Americans.
“What’s wild about these drafts—it’s a big holiday, a big event,” he says. “Primarily the folks that were there were young black male professionals…they were here to support this economically empowering movement.”
A Chicago native who moved to Alexandria last year, McAllister says that Draft Day’s long gestation isn’t the result of crippling perfectionism. He’s had a few other plays produced, including I Got Hundred Dollar Gym Shoes (I Ain’t Got No Job) Tell Me How to Do It When Times Is Hard, which was given two separate runs by Chicago’s Pegasus Players. And a substantially different version of Draft Day was a 1999 finalist for the prestigious Theodore Ward Prize.
After that honor, though, McAllister discarded one of the play’s protagonists and added elements—such as a subplot that addresses homosexuality, pro sports’ biggest taboo—that make the work more “morally dangerous.” And, though McAllister says Draft Day still isn’t ready for production, he insists its subject is still fresh.
“Twice this year, I’ve heard some comment from an athlete or an analyst, a theorist that makes this link between sports and the slave trade,” he says. “Sometimes I’m ready to reject it myself, but I keep hearing it.” —Mike DeBonis