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Michael Bradford’s new play about a thwarted father-child reunion premieres in his hometown of New London

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Michael Bradford has lived in New London since 1995, and during that time, he has become an esteemed playwright, with his works produced off-Broadway and at theaters around New York City and abroad, from London to Cuba.

Next week, one of his plays will be staged in New London for the first time in more than a decade.

Bradford’s “Solace” will premiere at the Hygienic Art Park — which was the last place one of his dramas was fully produced in New London (which doesn’t count a couple of readings).

Back in 2007, Hygienic’s Jim Stidfole asked Bradford to do a run of four of his plays to help inaugurate the Art Park.

Returning now was a function of time and opportunity.

Bradford, who is vice provost for faculty, staff and student development at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, had written a play that wove together four different stories. He had then decided to develop one of those tales — in which a daughter goes to visit in prison the man who killed her father — into its own full play.

“Solace” was part of Bradford’s fall 2019 residency at The Lark in New York City featuring four days of rehearsal and a couple nights of readings.

And now, a year and a half into the pandemic that shuttered so many theaters, Bradford is seeing “Solace” staged in his hometown.

“I love New London, and the arts community here is gritty and great and connected, and I just want to do some work where I live,” he says, adding, “I can only afford time to do one play a year.”

So he thought about a Whaling City performance of “Solace.” Bradford broached the idea to Nathan Caron. Caron earned his bachelor’s degree in theater at UConn and had been a student of Bradford’s (Bradford was head of the UConn Department of Dramatic Arts before taking on his current position at the university). They had also worked on a play together in Hartford.

Bradford says with a laugh, “I was, like, even if it’s a rinky-dink thing, we will make something happen — you know, bubble gum and tape.”

Caron loved the idea of presenting “Solace,” and he is directing the piece.

“Solace” is being presented by the Emergent Theatre Project, a new theatrical production group based in New London that Bradford and Caron created.

In the play, set in East St. Louis, Solace’s father left when she was only 2 years old. He went to buy shoes and just never returned. After 18 years, he finally does come back.

The father says he’s not going to apologize to his daughter but aims to show her what’s outside of the 10 square blocks she’s living in. He explains that he didn’t think he could be a good father or person and left their home because he knew there was something out there beyond those 10 blocks. Now he wants to share with Solace what his life has been.

But, before that can happen, he’s murdered.

A similar situation

As Bradford was originally writing the piece and considering what relationship might exist between the daughter and her father, he decided it was one of a missing parent.

“I was going through a similar situation with a parent who was about to pass, and we didn’t know each other,” Bradford says. “People were giving me a lot of condolences, and I was feeling guilty about the condolences because I didn’t really know this person. Work kept saying, ‘Take time off,’ and I kept saying, ‘No, I’m fine.’ It’s really kind of a weird thing. You don’t know what to tell people.”

He adds, “I feel like this (play) is about that gray area where you don’t really know that person, but they brought you into the world.”

Bradford recalls his wife mentioning the tropes that people have in their communities and pointing out that one in the Black community is of a father who slips away and is not part of his kids’ lives.

“But it’s always more complicated than the tropes,” Bradford says. “I just kind of wanted to tear that (trope) apart and deconstruct it.” 

Life is more complicated 

When Bradford’s daughter graduate from college, he was on the other end of the parent-child equation. His daughter told him she didn’t really know him when she was growing up.

“She said, ‘You weren’t there. You were driving to Brooklyn College to go to school, then coming home and doing the three jobs you had. Then you started at UConn and you were playwriting, so you were always in New York.’ The best summer my kids ever had was when I took them with me every day to Harlem to rehearse a play. I thought I was destroying their lives. Years later, they said that was the best summer they ever had. You think, ‘I’m doing all these things so I can give them a life.’ You don’t know how they’re really accessing that. … To them, it’s just: you’re not here.”

Bradford recalls his daughter saying she appreciated his sending her out into the world without debt for college. She said she knew she was loved; she just didn’t have him as much as she really wanted.

Bradford feels that all those parent-child issues and questions — for instance, as a parent, should I stay home more, even if it means my kid has less and my family has to struggle financially more? — will resonate with people.

Not what you think it will be

The play, Bradford says, “is really about everybody’s evolution back to some part of themselves that they had negated or said they didn’t know had existed.”

In “Solace,” the young women hearing from her long-gone father opens “a box of questions she never knew she had. His murder … prompts a dialogue that puts 10 square blocks of Solace’s East St. Louis neighborhood in stark relief against the endless Pacific Ocean that her father promised to lay at her feet,” according to press info.

Part of that was inspired by Bradford’s visit to St. Louis and East St. Louis, where he was struck by the division he noticed between areas: “You go across that street, you’re in another world. I thought, we have so many things that divide us at this moment. … No matter what side of street you live on, what your zip code is, you might be able to connect with people who are going through this particular situation (in the play). Though maybe nobody left in your family and you all stayed, you felt like somebody was not there. You felt you were in 10 square blocks and didn’t even think about how to get out — that somehow at the end of those 10 blocks, it was the edge of the world.”

For the father in “Solace,” meanwhile, a running motif is that, despite what we learn as children, the ocean is not really blue.

“Unless you’ve been to the ocean and stepped in it or sat down in it or dove below the surface, you can’t even find that color — it changes every second,” Bradford says.

The father comes back to tell Solace that the ocean isn’t blue.

“That’s a metaphor for life, right? It’s not at all what you think it will be until you’ve experienced it,” Bradford says.

Casting from California

When putting this production of “Solace” together, Caron told Bradford he had two actors in California who would be great for the play.

Bradford laughs that his responses was this thought: “We don’t have five pennies to rub together!”

Then he met the actors online and thought, “We can’t do this play without them.”

He had the same response when a New York actor auditioned.

But how to fund their travel to New London and the pay for them and the rest of the creative team?

Bradford helped the production budget by using some of the money he received through an Artistic Excellence Grant and by raising funds beyond that.

Bradford speaks highly not only about the cast but also about the whole creative team, who are “really fantastic,” he says. 

Commissions and ‘Solace’

Bradford has recently gotten some commissions, including one for the Classical Theatre of Harlem and a radio play for The New Black Fest.

“I don’t know what opened the door, but something opened the door, and the work has just started happening again, which feels really good and really wonderful,” he says.

With “Solace,” Bradford is looking forward to seeing a production with an in-person audience again.

“We get to be a community in a communal space again, watching a show all together and going on this ride — you know, whatever that magic is that happens (in a theater),” he says.

 

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