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Aspiring filmmakers have been known to employ guerrilla tactics to ensure that people see their work. For Maria Jones, this meant jumping ship.
Jones doesn’t have the money to make a movie based on her award-winning screenplay, Missing Pieces; she doesn’t yet have the funding to produce her film for the stage, either. So for now, the Northeast D.C. resident is holding readings around the District. “I’m determined to tell my story,” she says.
Jones, 35, has secured practice space in a conference room in the St. Catherine wing of Providence Hospital, where eight cast members roll tweed office chairs together in various configurations to satisfy the script’s need for beds, a car, and a porch. The lead character bounces an invisible basketball, to honor the silence of the hospital halls. Jones knocks on a black paint bucket: “This is your dresser, Tamika,” she tells one cast member. “Stand by in the wings, everybody,” Jones says as she walks around toting a red binder that holds her script and notes. But there is no stage here, so there are no wings.
In 1992, the Howard University graduate wrote Missing Pieces, her first feature-length screenplay, about a 16-year-old basketball player whose crack-addicted mother abandons her to a group home after her father is imprisoned for dealing dope. But the 80-page script was set aside for eight years, while Jones worked on short films, taught video production to young people, and got distracted by day jobs. Last year, Jones quit her job, blew the dust off Missing Pieces, added 50 pages, and entered it into the first-ever Film DC Screenwriting Competition, sponsored by the District’s Office of Motion Picture and TV Development and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
She won. But the award didn’t come with practical effects such as equipment to help her produce her film; it got her a trip to Hollywood, shoulder rubs with Martin Sheen on the set of The West Wing, and work as an extra walking behind press secretary C.J.
That was a year ago, back when Jones hoped her film would become a made-for-TV movie and before her disappointment with Tinseltown. For a week, Jones sat in meetings with The West Wing’s editors, writers, producers, and directors. “Out of about 200 crew people, I saw two black people,” she says. “It was an eye-opening experience to see that the industry is still hemmed up so tightly. It’s largely white-male-dominated, and that’s the bottom line.” Even her attempts to leverage her award into an internship or research position in Hollywood, she says, were rebuffed.
Before she won the screenwriting competition, Jones had held readings of Missing Pieces around D.C. to gauge audience response. She thought she had invited “the right people” in the District, crossing her fingers that her film would get bankrolled. It didn’t. So after her frustrating trip west, she decided to take a step toward the stage: Putting together a $30,000 theatrical production, she concluded, was more feasible than making a $5 million film.
Jones, who has been mentoring and teaching video production to youth for almost a decade, hopes to mount the play in October 2002. This summer, she began holding readings to raise money.
Her first such show was held Aug. 11the same day as the District flood. “Amps were popping,” says Jones. “The host wasn’t there on time. My DJ bailed out on me. My stage manager wasn’t there.” She and her partner, Joseph Howell Jr., a video instructor and assistant director for Missing Pieces, had secured 15 sponsors, and the show was sold out. But after they paid the actors, the band, and the space-rental fee, they had $5 for their effort.
Still, it earned $25 more than previous readings at HR-57 and Johnny K’s, which both registered deficits. And it even got Jones a commitment from an audience member to produce a Web site. “I’m learning how to be much more aggressive and tell people what it is specifically that we need,” says Jones.
Last month, Jones started answering phones full time as a temp. “You just kind of have to squirrel away money and then let the jobs go,” Jones whispers on the phone from her temp site. “When we go into preproduction in June, I have to let this go. So I have to save a great deal of money and just live like a pauper now, so I can make that happen.” Nefretiti Makenta
There will be a staged reading of Missing Pieces at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16, at the Potter’s House, 1658 Columbia Road NW.