Controversy follows playwright Robert Alexander everywhere his plays are produced. A critic in Vermont once called him “the Malcolm X of theater.”
“My response was, ‘Damn, Malcolm is dead. I don’t want to be 6 feet under for something I wrote,’” says Alexander. “But you have to be willing to offend people sometimes.”
His willingness to offend has garnered him much critical acclaim;and a love-hate relationship with the subjects of his work. An unsympathetic portrait of the Black Panther Party, Servant of the People, drew the ire of many former party members. Ex-Panther Kathleen Cleaver called it a travesty in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But former Panther Bobby Seale, who also took issue with the play, later hugged Alexander onstage during a public forum on the play.
Alexander, a Virginia native, first made a name for himself in the Bay Area theater scene, and over the past two decades he has had plays about everything from neo-Nazis to L.A. gangstas produced at theaters around the country. Now he’s back home serving as the resident playwright for the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, whose associate artistic director, Tom Prewitt, calls him “the most fearless playwright in America.”
Prewitt first encountered Alexander’s work at the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut. Together they produced I Ain’t Yo Uncle, an irreverent version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
“It alienated and excited people….It had them talking and debating in a way that theater doesn’t do anymore,” says Prewitt. He immodestly expects that Alexander’s new play, The Last Orbit of Billy Mars, which opened this week, will be a “theatrical detonation in this town.”
Alexander jokingly calls Billy Mars a “family play,” but theatergoers should definitely leave the kids at home. The plot centers around a woman, Rita Mae, who returns home to live with her hypochondriac mother and her older brother, a struggling musician. When her lover, Billy Mars, tracks her down from L.A., tensions mount and violently erupt. The first act has its share of romance as Billy Mars tries to win back Rita Mae’s affections, but the second act is a blow to the senses.
“After the staged reading, a woman said, ‘This play is like being seduced, seduced, seduced, and then pushed down the steps,’” Alexander recalls. “I like to write plays that push people down the steps. A mind is a terrible thing to fuck. I do mindfuck theater ’cause I’m a mindfuck playwright.”;Holly Bass