Brooklyn Heights playwright Paulanne Simmons
explores the relationship between a troubled black teen and an
elderly, blind, white woman in her ambitious new play "The
Volunteer," opening Jan. 30 at the Theater for the New City
The volunteer in question is Claude Johnson, assigned to perform community service in a nursing home because of his misbehavior in school. In the process, he forms friendships with retired teacher Katherine Wood, and the other residents at the home who believe that he is aiding them for altruistic reasons.
While Claude tries to keep his nose clean, his buddy Tyrone gets him into situations that may not be in his best interest, and his mother - bitter after being abandoned by her husband and having her oldest son wind up in prison - expects only the worst of him.
"Most of what I write about is the curative power of love," Simmons told GO Brooklyn. "Ultimately, that’s what it’s about, and the pain of being without love.
"Also, you are what people think you are. It’s about Claude, who’s not a volunteer, but in the end what happens to him because [Katherine] thinks he’s a volunteer, and what happens to him through her faith and love of him. It also shows what happens to Claude when his mother doesn’t think he can do [right]."
"The Volunteer" is Simmons’ second play to be produced by Theater for the New City. Her first, "Basketball Lessons," was staged in March 2001. Simmons, 52, is also a freelance journalist and theater critic for several publications including GO Brooklyn. For the last year, she has also been a substitute public school teacher in Brooklyn.
"It helped me write the Claude part," said Simmons. "The whole idea of the play existed before I was subbing, but the job helped me to refine it - A, the speech patterns of young kids, and B, the way they thought. Claude is totally typical, unfortunately, actually, of many kids in the New York City school system."
Simmons also volunteers at the Village Nursing Home in Manhattan, and that experience helped her to create the realistic portrayal of nursing home life and the interactions of its residents.
She said she did very little of the writing at home around her family - two sons, Alex, 15, and Mark, 20, and husband, Dwight - and wrote most of the play longhand at the Montague Street Connecticut Muffin cafe.
While she wrote some of the play from her own experience, Simmons said many of the issues were universal.
"You don’t have to be black to know what anger and humiliation feels like," said Simmons, who is white. "Although I am not black, I know what it feels like to be frustrated, to be angry and feel humiliated.
"One of the reasons I wrote this play - what gave me the courage - is when I did my last play ["Basketball Lessons"], my director was a young black man, and I realized when talking to him, he thought all the characters in my play were black.
"In this play, I’ve heard the actors saying their lines, and I don’t think I gave them lines they wouldn’t say. But at the risk of comparing myself with William Styron - he wrote ’Confessions of Nat Turner,’ and he’s not black, and he wrote ’Sophie’s Choice,’ and he’s not Jewish.
"But he got a lot of flack for them," she said with a laugh.
The role of Simmons’ character, Claude, is being performed by Park Sloper Shannon Bryant.
"He’s an excellent actor," said Simmons. "He’s a Harvard graduate, he’s nothing like Claude, and he’s excellent in the role."
"The Volunteer" is directed by Mary Catherine Burke, who was assistant director to Arthur Penn for last year’s Tony Award-winning production of Ivan Turgenev’s "Fortune’s Fool" on Broadway. Burke’s past Brooklyn credits include directing "Dr. Wills," by Traci Parks, at the Gallery Players last summer and directing "Anna Christie," by Eugene O’Neill - which began at the Gallery Players - at the Storm Theatre in Manhattan last fall.
Burke said "The Volunteer" stood out from the pile of scripts she’s read.
"I think it’s actually one of the best new plays I read in a long time," said Burke. "There’s a lot of maturity in the writing and it’s very funny - not overly sentimental or overly dramatic. The writing has a good sense of both of those genres. It’s a compelling story that I would want to watch for two hours in a theater.
"I think it’s an interesting story because it deals with people that society deems as not mainstream. You get pushed into this group as undesirable. These [characters], instead of trying to fit into a role society has made for them, turn to each other and give of each other, particularly the character Claude."
"It’s a really touching story," said Burke. "I think it’s a beautiful story, and it’s well told and it’s important."
"The Volunteer," by Paulanne Simmons, will be on stage at Theater for the New City Community Space (155 First Ave. at East 10th Street) Jan. 30-Feb. 16. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets are $10. For tickets, call (212) 254-1109.