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Eboni Booth talks about premiering her play Paris at her longtime artistic home
Eboni Booth was a teenager when she made her professional acting debut in a stage adaptation of The Cider House Rules at Atlantic Theater Company. Twenty-one years later, she's marking another milestone at the same theatre with the world premiere of Paris, her playwriting debut.
While Booth is best known to audiences as a busy Off-Broadway actress (Dance Nation at Playwrights Horizons, After the Blast at Lincoln Center Theater, Fulfillment Center at Manhattan Theatre Club), she's been pursuing a concurrent career as a dramatist. She wrote Paris as a playwriting fellow at Juilliard, from which she'll graduate this year.
Set at Christmastime in 1995 at a big box store in Vermont, the keenly observed play centers on Emmie (Jules Latimer), one of a handful of black people living in the fictitious town of Paris. She's taken a job as a clerk out of desperation after failing out of college. Beyond having to survive the soul-sucking work, she also has to deal with class and racial tensions, as well as an illegal scheme that threatens her livelihood and her safety.
"I find myself wanting to write about a certain kind of isolation, vulnerability and loneliness," says Booth, who grew up in New York City but attended the University of Vermont, which influenced her choice of locale. "In this case, I was able to find an isolation that was both racial and economical."
For anyone who's ever toiled in a low-level retail job, Paris is liable to spark flashbacks. Under Knud Adams' direction, Emmie and her ragtag crew of coworkers slave and squabble on David Zinn's depressingly realistic split-level set of their storage and break rooms, complete with fluorescent lighting, drop ceilings and unpainted Sheetrock walls. "I wanted to write about work," says Booth. "I wanted to write about the camaraderie of being in the trenches with people, and the difficulty of customer service."
It's an experience Booth knows well. In between acting gigs, she kept herself afloat by taking restaurant jobs, including a five-year stint waiting tables. During that fallow period, she started writing to indulge her creative impulses. After honing her skills in writers groups at Clubbed Thumb and Two River Theater, she applied to Juilliard with an adaptation of a short story and got accepted. Yet even now, with increasing work on screen and stage, she concedes, "I always feel two jobs away from being back around the bar."
Booth says her performing background has helped her as a dramatist. Having done new play development as an actor, "I understand the rhythm of the process, how it feels at the beginning of rehearsal, the middle, and how cruddy it feels when you're about to go into tech," she says. "I can take the roller coaster and know that this is all part of the work."
She credits her peers at Juilliard and her collaborators on Paris with giving her the support she needed to get the show where she wants it to be. "The cast has been really wonderful," she says. "They've been really open and certainly flexible with me as I've been writing… and rewriting."
She's especially grateful for her relationship with the Atlantic Theater, and the guidance of longtime artistic director Neil Pepe, who's watched her grow up, both as an actress and an author.
"He's really provided me with an artistic home," she says. "It's really nice to feel taken seriously by the company." Back when she was in The Cider House Rules, Booth thought performing was her sole calling. Now she's expanded her artistic passions. "'This life as an artist is really long,'" Booth recalls Pepe telling her during rehearsals for Paris. "'It can take a really long time to get what you think you want.'"
Allison Considine is a senior editor at American Theatre magazine. Follow her at @theatric_ally. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Eboni Booth.
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