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How Lucy Thurber's new drama was inspired by a pair of her pupils
Obie-winning playwright Lucy Thurber is as interested in talking about her teaching experiences as her new drama Transfers at MCC Theater. That makes sense since her world-premiere play is inspired by students she worked with as MCC's Youth Company Playwriting Lab Director. Like these talented yet underprivileged teens, Thurber found salvation in education, which helped her escape a challenging upbringing in rural Massachusetts. Many of her previous works (The Insurgents, Killers and Other Family, The Hill Town Plays) seemed semi-autobiographical, with college-bound female characters trying to break away from family addiction and violence. But in Transfers Thurber expands her worldview with a narrative that examines race and privilege in addition to class.
"Education is the white horse that appeared at dawn and rode in to save me," Thurber says, but adds that she hopes her "lens has gotten wider and my circle of reference has expanded. In my earlier plays I was writing from the perspective of somebody who was trying to enter another class. I hope this play is more successful at making the room round."
Transfers follows Clarence (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Cristofer (Juan Castano), two young men of color from the South Bronx vying for a full scholarship to a fancy fictional college in Massachusetts. This competition kicks up complicated feelings for three adults involved in the process: foundation staffer David (Glenn Davis), college lit professor Geoffrey (Leon Addison Brown) and rugby coach Rosie (Samantha Soule).
In this story about being seen -- by the college, by the community, by wealthier peers -- the students reveal events from their intertwined pasts. But most of the narrative is not about looking back but taking hold of future possibilities. A powerhouse exchange between Rosie and Cristofer toward the end of the play illustrates how well Thurber understands the perspective of the "scholarship kid" at different ages, and how those who view privilege from the outside in their youth carry that mind-set forever, regardless of how their circumstances change.
In addition to being an accomplished dramatist, Thurber is a veteran teacher. She's been MCC's Youth Company Playwriting Lab Director for over a decade, started a drama club at the Bronx Academy of Letter and in 2012 founded Middle Voice: Rattlestick's Apprentice Company, a collective of more than two dozen ethnically diverse young theatre artists looking to hone their skills. "It's a genuinely mixed group of people who are drawn to theatre as a joyful disrupter," she says. "It's a remarkable thing to watch people turn from children to adults, to watch them become themselves and be their beauty in the world."
The protagonists in Transfers are based in part on two specific people Thurber befriended at MCC when they were just kids: Cesar Rosado, who was 11, and Alexander Lambie, who was 14. She recalls that when she met them, "I started not to feel so alone in the world." Thurber has woven their stories, as well as some of her own, into the two main characters. "They are a genuine equal mix of the three of us together," she says. "The play was born out of a decade's worth of conversations with the three of us, and out of the love the three of us have for each other."
While the play's title has a literal meaning -- the young men are attempting to transfer from community college to a swankier institution -- Thurber says it's also about "transferring in different ways, personally and geographically. It's a love song to people trying to get an education but, first and foremost, it's a love song to the three of us. This play is filled with so much hope, because we've all turned out okay."
To read about a student's experience at Transfers, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Top image: Ato Blankson-Wood and Juan Castano in Transfers. Photos by Joan Marcus.