For Kemp Powers, 2021 has already been quite the year—and it’s only February. After over two decades of writing, Powers has finally had the chance to experience what so many aspiring creatives can only dream about with the celebration of two debut screenplays. “It’s been surreal, to be honest. It’s weird to have your work out there in the world when you can’t be out in the world,” Powers told us during a recent interview. He is the brain behind Disney-Pixar’s Soul and One Night in Miami..., which is now streaming on Amazon Prime and is directed by the award-winning Regina King. In just a couple of months, he’s become a household name. And both films have received multiple Golden Globe and NAACP Image Awards nominations this week. But, despite his newfound success in the glitz and glam of Hollywood, he hasn’t forgotten about his love of the theatre.
“I think my first Broadway show that my mother took me to was La Cage Aux Folles, which I believe was in 1983. I was 10 or 11 years old. I didn’t even know what Broadway meant then,” Powers said of growing up in New York. “That was a pretty powerful, impactful moment in my life...if you grow up in New York, theatre is just part of the culture. But I never thought it was something I’d actually be able to do.” And although it wasn’t until this last year that Powers came to work with Center Theatre Group, he’s been seeing productions at the Ahmanson, Taper, and Douglas since his move to Los Angeles in 2004.
Sixteen years later, he joined us as a participant in our 2019/2020 L.A. Writers’ Workshop, a program designed to foster important voices, inspire playwrights to create their best work, encourage bold writing, and build relationships among local playwrights, Center Theatre Group, and the L.A. theatre community. Powers has joined a community of more than 100 other playwrights who have worked with us over the years, including Luis Alfaro (The Greek Trilogy of Luis Alfaro, Digital Stage 2020; Electricidad, Taper 2005; St. Jude, Douglas 2003), Dominique Morrisseau (Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, Ahmanson 2018), Ngozi Anyanwu (Good Grief, Douglas 2016), Eliza Clark (Quack, Douglas 2018), Herbert Siguenza (Chavez Ravine, Taper 2003, Douglas 2015; Water and Power, Taper 2006), and more. Powers has been grateful to have this community of writers, especially during this time of such unprecedented isolation.
“Writing in general is such a lonely profession,” he said. “One of the greatest things about big theatre cities like New York City and Chicago is that there is such a strong sense of community among playwrights. And the wonderful thing about having this program is being able to create a community here in Los Angeles. Although there are many playwrights, they are kind of isolated. So it’s great to have this comradery and be exposed to one another’s work, and to people who are doing exciting things.” And now with a strong cohort of L.A. playwrights and theatremakers at his side, a filmed reading of his play Christa McAuliffe’s Eyes Were Blue will appear as the first offering of our 2021 L.A. Writers’ Workshop Festival: New Plays Forged in L.A. on the Digital Stage, beginning February 4.
Christa McAuliffe’s Eyes Were Blue follows Bernard and Steven Gentry, twins who have lived starkly different lives—although they grew up together and might be genetically the same, one is plagued by racism because of his dark skin while the other passes as white. The story spans their '80s New York City childhood to a Minnesota courtroom in 2006, in which we witness the power of race and privilege in America.
Filmed live at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, this digital presentation will give audiences their first chance to hear this new play. “The whole idea of a digital streaming reading is completely new, so this idea of setting up, recording it like a television show, and editing it together later was all very exciting and definitely a new working experience for myself,” described Powers. “The show is a very personal and important piece to me, so it’s also a great opportunity to have more people see it than if we had just done a traditional reading at the theatre.”
Along with all the industry buzz, Powers has also become the first Black co-director of an animated Disney film with Soul—a history making moment that took a moment to fully resonate with the playwright. “I didn’t realize I was the first until someone else told me. Coming to that realization makes you sad, but after you get over the sadness, you get more motivated. I want to see more people step up to the plate and see what you can do with these opportunities I’ve been able to take advantage of in Hollywood. And as for theatre, I’m anxious to see what it will be like when everything comes back. I hope theatres have not only heard the complaints but also the constructive ideas about moving into this more inclusive world.”
Christa McAuliffe’s Eyes Were Blue, directed by Jennifer Chang and with a cast featuring Giovanni Adams, Jovan Adepo, Amaia Arana, Lorena Martinez, Connor Paolo, Adam J. Smith, Cory Michael Smith, Larry Bates, and Justin Lawrence Barnes, will be available on demand through Center Theatre Group’s Digital Stage February 4 through April 4.