A Question of Faith: Thought-Provoking Readings at Bay Street Theater

The production and talkback session of "Medea" as created by the Kilbanes, during the 5th Annual New Works Festival at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor on Friday, May 4, 2018. Michael Heller photo.

For a time, Hope Villanueva found herself inundated with plays in development — reading at least one per day for weeks on end to see which floated to the top for “Title Wave @ Bay Street: The New Works Series,” kicking off this weekend at the Sag Harbor theater.

Without realizing it, during the selection process, a common theme emerged among the four finalists: the exploration of faith, which Villanueva said she imagines is no accident, given the state of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For “Tent Revival” by Majkin Holmquist and “The Right Here, Right Now” by Peter Macklin, it’s quite literal — each with religion central to their stories. But for “Between/Time” by Dane Figueroa Edidi, it’s about faith in other people and relationships, and for “Princess Clara of Loisaida” by Matthew Barbot, faith in one’s destiny and future.

“I think that a lot of people just looked at their lives and looked at what was important and asked questions,” explained Villanueva, literary manager at Bay Street Theater and a curator of the upcoming series. “I don’t know how many of us found answers — maybe there aren’t real answers when it comes to questions of faith, it’s different for everyone. But it certainly made us ask the questions.”

With variety and diversity a priority — of stories, characters, and the writers themselves — the slate of plays offers four completely different perspectives on the world, explained Scott Schwartz, artistic director of Bay Street Theater. For the first time, this seventh iteration of the festival will give the playwrights two readings with a talkback in between, allowing audience members to ask questions and give feedback that may change the script before the second performance the following day.

Playwright Dane Figueroa Edidi. Photo courtesy Bay Street Theater.

“You get to see four writers who are thoughtful and excited and playful speaking from their own experience,” Schwartz said, “and we get to see this huge range and rainbow of what American writers are thinking of right now, and how they’re expressing it, and how different that can be — but, of course, the commonalities that are there.”

Starting off the series on Friday night is “Between/Time,” which centers on an artist named Rhonda, who falls in love with Alex, a CEO, during the pandemic, despite the fact that they can only communicate via their apartment windows, separated by an alley.

“I almost was weary of including a play about COVID, just because it’s so fresh and so raw for so many of us still,” Villanueva said. “But the one that we found touches the subject without dwelling on it in a way that was a problem. It uses this time of isolation that we’ve all been in to find its story.”

It was the quarantine that led Dane Figueroa Edidi to begin writing what, ultimately, is a Black love story, she explained from her home in Washington, D.C. “I was, at the time, very sad,” she said. “I wanted to feel some joy and I was inspired by the stories of people singing to each other outside their windows. I thought, ‘How beautiful is that?’”

Playwright Majkin Holmquist. Courtesy Bay Street Theater.

The act of writing and creating did prove to be cathartic, Edidi said, and as she prepares for the reading — and portraying Rhonda herself — the playwright contemplated what it means to bring Black voices into the historically whitewashed world of theater.

“What it teaches, in a larger context, is that Black stories are actually universal stories,” she said. “It’s a very basic, mundane, but mind-blowing truth. It’s so simple. Black stories are universal stories.”

As Schwartz likes to say, there is universality through specificity, and for Brooklyn-based playwright Matthew Barbot, it starts with Latinx brother and sister José and Clara, who question their reality once a fantastical prophecy they created comes true in “Princess Clara of Loisaida” — transporting them from their bleak, poverty-ridden life on the Lower East Side and into José’s fanciful stories about fairies and hidden worlds.

“I think that young characters of color are often allowed to dream of a better life, or getting out of whatever their circumstances are, because the stories are often told from outside of those groups and based on a set of assumptions,” Barbot said. “Certainly, it’s true for some people, but what was important to me was that I saw characters of color that were also whimsical and can play make believe and be creative — because that wasn’t something I ever got to see a lot of.”

Playwright Matt Barbot. Photo courtesy Bay Street Theater.

Experiencing an unfamiliar world through a play can, oftentimes, shed more light on our own, Schwartz said, which was his takeaway after reading “Tent Revival” by Majkin Holmquist. Set in rural Kansas, 1957, a woman’s astonishing miracle sets her husband, a farmer-turned-preacher, on a path toward becoming a revivalist faith healer — while their daughter confronts the cost of deeds done to inspire devotion.

“By looking into another person’s life and another person’s world, sometimes we learn more about own,” he said. “And I felt that this world of the tent revivals — which is a real thing — was just a fascinating culture in America for us to explore.”

In the final play of the series, “The Right Here, Right Now” by Peter Macklin, when defense attorney Adam Stein — who was born Jewish, but is now vehemently atheist — finds himself representing a devoutly Christian mother, who is on trail for murdering her young child, it tests his family, marriage and what it means to be Jewish.

“This case and the relationship that the lawyer develops with his client changes his whole life, and changes his world view, and changes his relationship with this family, and changes everyone’s understanding of their own faith and their own beliefs,” Schwartz said. “It’s very powerful.”

For Villanueva, with every play she read during the selection process, they only emboldened her faith in the power of theater, she said, hailing from green to seasoned voices that shine a brighter light on the human experience.

Playwright Peter Macklin. Photo courtesy Bay Street Theater.

“I hope that people not only come and enjoy themselves — and enjoy going on the ride for each of these stories — but that they leave thinking and talking with each other about what they saw and what those experiences were, and how they could tie back to their own lives,” she said.

“I feel really confident that each of these plays have people who are familiar to us, whether they are personally in our own lives or in the world around us, and that they’ll be accessible yet incredibly diverse. I hope that opens doors and conversations.”

“Title Wave @ Bay Street: The New Works Series” will kick off its seventh year with readings of four new plays, live and in person, at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. “Between/Time” by Dane Figueroa Edidi will stage on Friday, September 10, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, September 11, at 2 p.m. “Tent Revival” by Majkin Holmquist will have readings on Saturday, September 11, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, September 12, at 2 p.m.

Next weekend, “Princess Clara of Loisaida” by Matthew Barbot will stage on Friday, September 17, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, September 18, at 2 p.m., followed by “The Right Here, Right Now” by Peter Macklin on Saturday, September 18, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, September 19, at 2 p.m.

Bay Street Theater is on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. Masks and proof of vaccination are required. Tickets are $20 per reading, or $65 for any four showtimes. For more information, call 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.