Those of you who attended JAGFest 2.0 back in February 2018 might remember a riveting staged reading of Nathan Yungerberg’s play Esai’s Table, where destiny meets eternity for three young black men atop an ancient magical table in a mythic tale of black lives, friendship, family, and love. Back then, we volunteered at JAGFest and were able to do a brief interview with this remarkable, thoughtful playwright.
This month, Esai’s Table is back as a full production at Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vermont, and Nathan kindly took time out of his incredibly busy schedule to answer a few of our questions about his experience in moving from a staged reading to a full production. We love his reflections on the process and hope you will too. Thank you so much, Nathan, and Jarvis Green of JAG Productions for bringing this incredible production to the Upper Valley. Break a leg!
The world premiere of Esai’s Table is at Briggs Opera House from October 10 to 17, starring Dimitri Carter, Cornelius Davidson, Marcus Gladney, Jr., and Benton Green, and directed by Stevie Walker-Webb.
Literary North: How would you describe Esai's Table to someone coming to it for the first time?
Nathan Yungerberg: Esai's Table is an Afro Surrealist fantasy that explores the humanity of young black men. It is hard to explain too much without giving away crucial elements of the story, but I would say be prepared for an otherworldly dimension jumping emotional rollercoaster!
LN: How did JAGfest and the work you did there shape the final creation of Esai's Table?
NY: Getting away from NYC for one week and having a chance to breathe allowed me to see the play from a whole new perspective. I ended up making a significant change to the ending of the play that is much more subtle on some levels but packs an emotional punch and wraps up the themes of the play.
LN: What do you think of the process, in general, of doing staged readings? Have you found it helpful (or essential?) to developing a full production?
NY: Staged readings can be helpful for so many reasons. This day and age, when it is so challenging to get a production, it is beneficial to be able to share your work in a simplified, cost-effective setting. I appreciate readings because I can learn the most when I can hear it. I also find it a great way to introduce people to my work. I can say that over a decade of writing and numerous readings, I am a fan of the process and find it helpful. I have found it useful in the developmental process that leads up to this full production. I have learned so much about the play over the past five years, and each reading I have done, I learned a little more.
LN: Were there things in the staged reading version (themes, characters, scenes, lines, etc.) that you ultimately decided to cut or change for the full production but were sorry to lose? If so, can you tell us about an example?
NY: There was a numerology theme that existed in the staged reading. While I loved it, I felt it was confusing for the audience. I had also not fleshed out the idea enough to warrant its place in the play, so it had to go. I wouldn't say I was sorry to lose it, but it is always a process of letting a creative aspect go. The good thing is that I recycle aspects of my stories that don't make the cut, so I will probably use it in another story one day.
LN: What special gifts do each of the individual actors bring to the production?
NY: First of all, the actors are so amazing, and I love them so much! When Benton Greene, who plays Esai, came into the audition room, he brought this air of mystery and otherworldly energy that was scary, but it was exactly what we wanted for the character! He also brings a lot of compassion and love to the role, which balances out the dark sides of Esai. Benton is also brilliant, and when he comments about something that isn't sitting right, I listen!
Dimitri Carter, who plays Adam, brings a level of optimism and innocence that is crucial to the character. We knew Dimitri was our Adam from the moment he walked into the audition room and melted our hearts.
Marcus Gladney, Jr. IS David. He has this authentic air of self-esteem and self awareness that is so beautiful.
Cornelius Davidson brings both the vulnerability and the sharp edge of Michael into the room. You get the sense that the character has a lot going on deep inside because Cornelius understands the revealing of layers that are required to make Michael believable.
LN: What are you working on next?
NY: I decided a few months ago that I am going to start calling myself a storyteller, and I am launching my own storytelling company, Mercurri. I will be producing a national tour of my play THEA (about Sister Thea Bowman) and an international tour of my play Mother of Pearl, which is a metaphysical love letter to the house music scene. I am also working on a play with music with Larry Waddell, one of the founding members of the R&B group Mint Condition.
Nathan Yungerberg is a Brooklyn-based playwright whose work has been developed or featured by The Cherry Lane Theatre (2017 Mentor Project with Stephen Adly Guirgis), Roundabout Theatre Company, The Playwrights’ Center, JAG Productions, Crowded Fire Theater, American Blues Theater, The Brooklyn Museum, The Nuyorican Poets Café , The Lorraine Hansberry Theater, and many others. Nathan is one of seven black playwrights commissioned by The New Black Fest for HANDS UP: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments, which was published by Samuel French.