The Ensemble Theatre Series Hosts Collaborative Staged Reading of RELATIVELY CONSCIOUS, A Historical Fiction Set Against the 1998 Execution of James Byrd Jr.

The Ensemble Theatre Artistic Director, Eileen J. Morris, and BOLD-Artistic Associate Rachel Dickson, recently announced the collaborative staged reading of Jon-Marc McDonald’s urgent and controversial play, RELATIVELY CONSCIOUS.

The stage reading is slated for March 18, 2019, at 7:00pm., at The Ensemble Theatre, located at 3535 Main Street, Houston, TX 77002.

The staged reading, directed by Gerald vanHeerden, will be produced in association with JFA Theatrical, and has been included in The Ensemble Theatre’s “Celebrating the Creative Journey” special project series designed to cultivate new and developing works. Celebrating the Creative Journey” will present more than 16 stage readings, film screenings, and artistic showcases during its current season.

“To have The Ensemble Theatre Houston behind this reading is something I could not have envisioned in my wildest dreams,” said McDonald. “It’s an honor to have such a solid, storied, reputable institution of the city extend an invitation to our play, and our ineffable gratitude about sums it up.”

Set against the backdrop of the real-life 1998 lynching of James Byrd Jr., the play fictitiously confronts polarizing issues—race, homosexuality, AIDS, populism, nationalism, gender equality—that are as relevant to our current strife and division in the United States as they were then, perhaps more so. Billed as historical fiction, RELATIVELY CONSCIOUS is set in Jasper, Texas, the town in which Byrd was chained behind a truck and dragged until his body split in two and tells the story of four discordant characters brought together by chance at a diner the morning of the murder. As the plot unfolds, each character grows increasingly suspicious of the others while the manhunt for Byrd’s killers takes place all around them. The original sin of a nation takes center stage, dark secrets threaten old relationships, gathering hatred spurs new rivalries, all the while, the world’s media descends on Jasper to cover the murder of Byrd.

Featured cast members include: Wynne Anders, Luke Fedell, Kit Fordyce and Stanley Andrew Jackson III. The playwright, who, in 1998, resigned as campaign manager from the congressional campaign of Brian Babin (R-TX-36), intended his play to create controversy and incite debate.

“This play is for James Byrd, and the nameless others whose lives and deaths never make the news,” said McDonald, a Texas native and current MFA candidate in the writing program at Columbia University in the City of New York. “We owe them the elevation of their stories. We, the living, are their keepers. May we, in all we do, be sentinels of their truth.”

He is the grandson of a prominent Southern Baptist minister and, in May of 2016, presented his paper, Relatively Conscious: The Enduring Rage of Baldwin and the Education of a White Southern Baptist Queer, at the James Baldwin Conference in Paris. The paper was the impetus for writing the play.

The staged reading of RELATIVELY CONSCIOUS will be directed by theatre veteran, Gerald vanHeerden, who has been with the play since its run at the 2018 New York Theater Festival. New York City stage favorite, Wynne Anders, who has been with the play since its first reading, will reprise her award-nominated role of Lily, the owner of the fictitious Jasper diner. The three other characters will be played by Houston area talent: Stanley Andrew Jackson III will play Jimmy Arthur, the reporter sent from New York City to cover the murder; Kit Fordyce will play the incorrigible Tony P.; and Luke Fedell will play Preston-Scott, the recently outed campaign manager loosely based on the playwright.

The director, Gerald vanHeerden, a graduate of The Boston Conservatory and an alumnus of Webster University Theater Arts Conservatory, has a long career working in the New York City theatre community. Asked why he wanted to direct the play, vanHeerden responded, “First and Foremost is the story and the place it holds in my consciousness as a theatrical director and human being. This story brings little pieces of all of the many hopes, wants and abilities, together as a person centered in soul…practicing his profession.”

The reading is open to the public (with ticket), and will serve two functions. The first is for the playwright, after extensive script rewrites following the successful run of the play at the New York Theater Festival in 2018, to get a better idea of dialogue, pacing, and flow of the play. The second is for potential investors who might be interested in helping to take the play to full production, hopefully in the Houston area in late 2019, and then to other cities.

Congressman Babin’s imprint on this play extends beyond just the playwright. Dayna Steele, Babin’s Democratic opponent in 2018, is an executive producer of the play along with her husband, former NASA pilot and author, Charles Justiz.

“From the moment I met Jon-Marc, I knew I had to see this play come to life. His writing and the message need to be heard and seen by all,” said Steele.

The Ensemble Theatre was founded in 1976 by the late George Hawkins to preserve African American artistic expression and enlighten, entertain and enrich a diverse community. In addition to being held as the oldest and largest professional African American theatre in the Southwest, it also holds the distinction of being one of the nation’s largest African American theatres that owns and operates its facility with an in-house production team.