3/5: Seeking SANCTUARY at NJ Rep

NPR radio host, performance poet and playwright Al Letson recaptures a SUMMER IN SANCTUARY, in his solo show going up this week in Long Branch.

Actor, writer, producer, “multi-disciplinary artist,” dyslexic, son of a preacher man — Al Letson is all those things and then some; a real one man show who made his mark as a nationally competing Poetry Slam champion on stages as big as the 2004 Final Four Pre-Game to Def Poetry Jam.

To a burgeoning body of listeners, he’s a familiar presence on the radio dial; not as a shoot-from-the-lip talker with three daily hours to fill, but as the host of NPR’s State of the Re:Union, a series of exquisitely produced and provocative hourlong documentaries that took shape when the native of Plainfield won the nationwide Public Radio Talent Quest in 2008.

The 39 year old Letson is also a prolific playwright — an author whose “poetical” blends of song and story include Griot (a “three centuries of culture in 90 minutes” exploration of storytelling, from precolonial Africa to hiphop America) and Julius X (a “mash-up” of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with the life of Malcolm X). Beginning with previews this Thursday and opening on Saturday, March 10, Letson comes to Long Branch for an extended stay, when he brings his solo stage piece Summer in Sanctuary to New Jersey Repertory Company for an engagement that continues through March 25.

Sanctuary, it turns out, is not just a concept but a very real place — The Sanctuary on 8th Street community center in Jacksonville, FL to be precise. It was there, in the midst of the poverty-ravaged Springfield section, that Letson wore yet another hat over those trademark dreadlocks — that of educator, during a 2006 interlude in which the once-shy kid who never went to college endeavored to teach Creative Writing to a classroom of inner city teenagers. The extent to which he succeeded or failed sits at the heart of Sanctuary, a work about which the author says, “This is a play in which the bad guy is me…the person named ‘Al’ is the anti-hero.”

For his stint on LB’s lower Broadway, Letson teams with director Rob Urbinati, whose Minstrel Show caused something of a stir at NJ Rep back in 2007. Performances will take place in the playhouse’s intimately scaled Second Stage space, and tickets are being offered at a substantial discount to full time students age 25 and under.

UpperWETside caught up with the continent-crossing creator of compelling content, somewhere in America…

upperWETside: I guess the first question would have to be, Where in America is Al Letson? When they told me you were “in the field” this week, I visualized you being literally out in a field with some 1930s, WPA-style recording equipment…

AL LETSON: We’re in Jefferson City, Missouri right now, putting together an hour-long show on the Ozarks; how certain things can bring a community together. We need to think about things like poverty and unemployment in this country.

We do a 12-episode season now, and it takes a while to put an hour documentary together…about a month to research; then we’re in the field for a week, then three weeks to assemble in post production.

Since you’re gonna be parking it in Long Branch for a little while, any plans to do a show from there?

I’m just concentrating on doing the play right now, but…maybe in the summertime. We’ll wait until there’s more happening around the Jersey Shore.

Now, as opposed to the majority of the things that New Jersey Repertory Company presents, this is a piece that’s been seen in some other places on the map. What are some of the cities where you’ve presented SUMMER IN SANCTUARY, and has the piece evolved appreciably since you first performed it?

I did it for the first time in Baltimore…I finished the first draft an hour before I went onstage. I did it in Jacksonville, as a fundraiser for the Sanctuary, and at the All For One Fest in New York. Abingdon Theatre last year went good, although it didn’t have the promo push that I felt the show needed. But by the end of the run I felt really good about it; like this is the form that the show should be in.

Anyway, I’m really looking forward to Long Branch; stages excite me, and Rob Urbinati’s an excellent collaborator. I’m forcing myself not to fiddle with it anymore!

Now, from what I understand an underlying theme in your piece is the idea of the outsider coming in to a community with a certain degree of idealism, and finding out in short order that it’s not gonna play out like, you know, insert name of inspirational inner-city teacher story here. Did the fact that you yourself were a preacher’s son from Jersey; from a close knit, two-parent, middle class household, make it difficult to “relate” to your students as they used to say?

You know, a lot of our national conversation these days revolves around statistics like the jobless numbers, but after being in that community, getting a first hand look at poverty and the reality behind the numbers…it was a real eye opener.

Most of the kids that I was working with, I’d say 60 to 70 percent were living with just one parent, or with their grandparents. These were kids who would beg for extra lunches and take them home so they’d have something to eat later that night. Everybody else in their lives had dropped the ball, and I figured out soon enough that I wasn’t going to turn their lives around for them overnight.

My life was foreign to them; it became more about my having to learn where these kids were coming from, and understanding how poverty changes everything. The experience became mine, in a way; where I came from, how I changed. My journey in understanding poverty.

The kids I was teaching lived in the Deep South, and while there are similarities to a lot of other places in America, there’s a difference to how they respond and react to things in the Deep South…there are nuances that made it that much more of a challenge for me.

Rather than think of myself as a dreadlocked Jesus, come to save their poor Negro souls, it helped to realize that I play just one part in a greater machine. My job was to open the door of possibility…(their) job was to walk through. And at the end of my time there I felt like I’d failed.

That sounds a little harsh! You’re not giving them the Hollywood ending they need to option this thing.

I’m proud that it doesn’t end in any Hollywood fashion…like Dangerous Minds, or Freedom Writers, movies like that. Going into it I might have thought that it was gonna be something where everyone sings ‘Kumbaya’ at the end and paints a mural on the wall. But in real life, the kids just look at you when you’re done, like… ‘So?’

About ten years ago I was commissioned to do a play on relation aggression; about girls bullying each other. The play ends in a tough place, where things are not resolved.

If you wrap things up nice, people feel like whatever problem you addressed is fixed. But if you don’t tie it up neatly, you make people think about solutions…’cause you haven’t given them one.

Have you ever gotten any updates on any of the kids that you worked with? Any indication that at least one or two are pointed in a more positive direction? 

I still keep in touch with most of the boys I worked with that summer…a bunch of us had dinner together recently. One of them has a football scholarship, and has been achieving academically…playing in the NFL is not his goal; he wants to be an engineer. But you know, I believe that he was going to get to that point on his own…he just needed a little help getting there. I like to think I helped each of those kids, and that with loving people in their lives things can happen for them.

One of the things I find interesting about SUMMER IN SANCTUARY, sight unseen, is that you’ve said it was inspired by the work of the late Spalding Gray. I get that he was a real trailblazer as a storyteller, but beyond that he had quite a different style and delivery than you do…and even though he was pretty much America’s only famous monologist, ultimately he did not consider his life to have been a successful one.

Different things that I’ve done have been inspired by different writers, like Crumbs…which is based on my time spent working undercover at a bread factory…was based on Well, by Lisa Kron. Swimming to Cambodia just blew me away…just the way that the writer can shape those thoughts and experiences into something that kind of takes on a life of its own.

…and Monster in a Box kind of hits home for anyone who’s ever struggled with being a writer. Do you have your own collection of monsters in boxes?

I’ve got five plays I want to do; a screenplay…in the next two years I’m gonna write this damn novel that’s been eating my brain up. All these ideas are gonna get into a ring and duke it out with each other in a death match!

Summer in Sanctuary presents matinee and evening previews on March 8 and 9; opens March 10 at 8:00 p.m., and continues until March 25 with performances Thursdays through Sundays. Ticket reservations, showtimes and additional information can be obtained right here.