Playwright Idris Goodwin thinks right now is one of the best times for plying his craft. He feels demand for content has never been greater and theater can be a part of a renaissance. People want to experience new stories, new ideas and different forms of art.
It’s certainly a good time for him. This weekend B Street Theatre stages the world premiere of his play “Bars and Measures,” which the company commissioned. The play already has bookings next year at prestigious regional theaters in Los Angeles, Chicago and Minneapolis.
This spring the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced it had chosen Goodwin for one of its coveted commissions in its “American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle.” The program’s goal of creating 37 new plays dealing with moments of change in America’s past has reached 24.
Goodwin, 38, a Detroit native who teaches writing at Colorado College, also will have a November world premiere at Jackalope Theater in Chicago of his play “The Raid,” about John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harper’s Ferry, Va., with the aim of starting an armed slave revolt. In 2016, Goodwin’s play “The Realness,” a hip-hop love story set in 1996, debuts at Merrimack Theatre in Massachusetts.
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While in Sacramento for early rehearsals of “Bars and Measures,” Goodwin talked about how he senses the culture shifting.
“Even in this moment of digitization and virtualness, there’s a boom that’s been created around new work and that hunger extends into the live arts,” he said. He doesn’t see why theater couldn’t be part of festivals such as Coachella or Outside Lands.
Hip-hop music and culture have become enduring subjects for Goodwin. His disarming breakthrough play “How We Got On,” about Midwestern teens discovering themselves through hip-hop, was produced at B Street in 2013, bringing together Goodwin and producing artistic director Buck Busfield.
“I was so charmed that he could write a really lovely play that involved the historical aspect of hip-hop,” Busfield said. “He made it accessible to people like me who didn’t really know anything about it.”
They wanted to work with each other again, so Busfield pitched an idea to Goodwin. Busfield had read a story about two African American brothers who were musicians; one played jazz and one played classical. One was in jail. Busfield sent it to Goodwin, who was fascinated.
“I’m writing a series of plays about hip-hop and America and race and culture, but really beyond that I’m just interested in music,” Goodwin said. “American music, the people who make it and the bonds that they form. Contemporary African American stories. Stories about multiple allegiances, around music.”
Plays rooted in the African diaspora aren’t at the heart of B Street’s mission, but the theater has maintained a stealth edge since developing the B3 space and plays programmed there. “Bars and Measures” was originally planned for B3, but with the one-woman drama “Grounded” doing well on that stage, Busfield decided to shift “Bars and Measures” to the main stage and close “The Best Brothers” early.
New plays are inherently risky for theaters but also the life blood of the art form. For Busfield to get in early with a playwright such as Goodwin, whose star is rapidly ascending, benefits the company exponentially. Still, “How We Got On” did not draw big audiences and reaching beyond core subscribers is a marketing challenge for all Sacramento theaters. Busfield hopes B Street has a safety net for its experiments, but there are no guarantees.
“We look at our programming holistically,” Busfield said. “We can always do one or two things that are really risky – and then we go back to the well and do our Norm Foster comedies and fill up the bank account.”
B Street has a direct approach to bringing new work to the stage.
“We have a prejudice against play development that leads to nowhere,” Busfield said of the process in which some plays never make it to production. “We tend to just write it ourselves or just commission it and produce it. We think the playwright benefits much more from a production so they can see it.”
“Bars and Measures” went through some development. There was a reading at a theater in New Mexico and another at a new works festival in New York. In New York, Goodwin hooked up with director Jenny Koons and actors Darian Dauchan, who plays Eric, and Jahi Kearse, who plays Bilal.
Goodwin was complimentary of Busfield’s involvement.
“He’s very trusting and gives me the space I need. I think that’s because he’s also a playwright. He knows I’m going to get it done.”
Goodwin is on his way to becoming a noteworthy generational voice, yet he seems both focused and disciplined for a long run.
“This makes me very excited as a playwright because these are the kinds of plays that I’m going to keep writing,” he said. “Plays about relationships, the macro and the micro, music and culture.
“It’s starting here in Sacramento, which is testament to Buck and his foresight and his vision. I would not have come upon this story on my own, and even if I had, I might not have thought, ‘Oh, there’s a play here.’”
Bars and Measures
What: The world premiere of a B Street Theatre-commissioned play by Idris Goodwin, directed by Jenny Koons.
When: Previews: 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday; opens 7 p.m. Sunday; continues through Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m. Saturdays; some Sunday matinees
Where: B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2711 B St., Sacramento
Cost: $15-$35, $5 student rush
Information: 916-443-5300, www.bstreettheatre.org