SALT LAKE CITY — When you buy a new car, you suddenly see the same make and model everywhere. It’s as if nearly all the world’s drivers had been driving your car this whole time.
Jenifer Nii felt the same way. Instead of a car, though, it was love and relationships.
The Salt Lake City playwright’s intriguing new production, aptly titled “The Weird Play,” opened her eyes to the different phases of love happening all around her. There’s the initial honeymoon period, where everything is expansive and anything seems possible. Then, later on, it’s no longer about the macro, but the micro (see: when your partner loses the toothpaste cap). Nii's production “lives in the space between romance and devotion.”
“And those things, I started to realize, weren’t male or female, or gendered in any way,” Nii said. “They weren’t Christian or Buddhist. It was just this universal thing that people were trying to understand.”
“The Weird Play” premieres Thursday, March 1, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center and is produced by the Plan-B Theatre Company. Nii and Plan-B were recently awarded a $10,000 Writer’s Alliance Grant from the Dramatists Guild Foundation, a national group that gives 10 such grants each year to nonprofit theaters nationwide that show “outstanding commitment to both the writers’ work and livelihood.”
This is Nii’s sixth play at Plan-B, and she said “The Weird Play” challenged her in ways no other play had before. As she began writing it and noticing the seemingly universal nature of love itself, she wanted to push that hypothesis to its theatrical limits. As such, there are no age or gender requirements for the play’s three characters — they could be played by anyone. Nii and Plan-B have workshopped “The Weird Play” a few times, each with different cast demographics.
“And with each of those readings, the play became a different animal,” she said. “Different things would pop.”
Some audience members, she said, were sure “The Weird Play” was about parents and children. At other readings, audiences were certain it was faith. For others, they thought it was about an abusive heterosexual relationship.
“And it was so interesting because they were so sure,” Nii recalled. She likes it this way, though. Her goal, she said, was to have each audience member step into the story and find themselves in it.
All of this didn’t come easy for Nii, though. “The Weird Play” began at a personal crossroads.
One day, Nii made a list of her shortcomings. One column was dedicated to professional/technical weaknesses — utilizing sets, using props, getting characters to physically move and interact. The other column focused on her personal, nonprofessional fears. At the top of this second column, she said, was love.
“I (wondered) … whether I really knew what it was,” she admitted. “So I took all these questions I had, both professional personal, and smashed them all together.”
She started leaning into those professional weaknesses, writing characters and scenes that at first seemed clumsy, amateurish and untidy. That exercise, she said, required that she not be so hard on herself. As it turns out, that self-criticism wasn’t just Nii’s professional shortcoming, but her personal one as well. As she’s worked on “The Weird Play,” Nii said she’s learned to loosen the tension on herself and her own expectations — though she doesn’t claim to have any big “aha” answers for anyone. Love still baffles and eludes her.
“I think when you look at fear, and when you let fear look at you, it can either be really, really devastating or it can help you,” she said. “You can let yourself ask the questions, and maybe allow yourself ugly answers — or to admit that you don’t have them.
“This is not going to sound like a good thing, but I feel like it is,” she added. “I understand now how I have broken.”
_Content advisory_: “The Weird Play” contains instances of strong language.
If you go …
What: “The Weird Play,” a new production by Jenifer Nii and Plan-B Theatre Company
When: March 1-11, dates and times vary
Where: Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South
How much: $20