Playwrights Lori Roper ’96 and Gab Cody are a self-described odd couple. Roper is an African-American woman who grew up in New Jersey, and Cody is a white, Jewish woman originally from Alaska. Instead of letting those differences create barriers in their relationship, the pair has leveraged them to explore topics of race, religion and “otherness” in the “The Sisters Grey.”
“In a way, we are the face of the play. We’re two very different women, two very different people, from two very different places, and we’ve come together to create this story about understanding, compromise and forgiveness.” said Roper.
Next week, Roper will return to her alma mater to work with students, Theatre Professors Artisia Green and Laurie Wolf, and Cody to produce a staged reading of the play. The free event, co-directed by Green and Wolf, will be held at 7 p.m. Oct. 8 in Phi Beta Kappa Hall.
“It’s a delightful honor coming home to William & Mary, especially given my vivid memories of days of sprinting from Old Campus to New Campus, papers in tow; those are distant, yet fond memories.” said Roper, who majored in English and sociology at the university.
The idea for the play grew from a discussion in the national news about whether racism still exists in America, said Roper.
"We want to balk at the idea that our country is ‘post-race,’” she said. “Because we finally have a black president does not mean racism has magically evaporated. We show that not only does bigotry and bias exist it still thrives and manifests at interethnic, interreligious, interracial and international levels too.
“I think the way that we come to understanding is by admitting that this stuff still lingers, nefariously, and not delude ourselves into believing that fireworks and parades provide erasure. History is too fraught with tragedy to delude the public imagination to sheepishly follow the wave of a magic wand which postures the eradication of injustice can happen in the space of a news bite about kids of different backgrounds playing soccer together.”
Roper and Cody both drew on their own experiences with otherness in writing the play. For instance, Cody attended a predominantly African-American high school in North Carolina. Similarly, Roper was often the only African-American student in her high-school classes, she said.
“So we have that similar fish-out-of-water experience that we were able to bring to ‘The Sisters Grey,’” Roper said.
The play focuses on two women – sisters-in-law – who are reunited at a funeral. The widow of the man who died, Victoria, is an African-American woman who converted to Judaism to the chagrin of her mother, a very active member of the Christian church. The sister of the man who died, Rebekah, is a member of a Jewish family that doesn’t believe in conversion; they insist one can only be Jewish by birth. Rebekah has come to the funeral with an ulterior motive: to get back the Victoria’s wedding ring, a family heirloom that survived the Holocaust.
Last year, the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, commissioned a workshop production of the play, and a portion of it was also produced for Luna Stage's New Moon Short Play Festival in New Jersey.
“The Sisters Grey” is coming to William & Mary next week thanks to another William & Mary alumnus, Russell Taylor ‘96, who connected Roper and Green. Roper asked Green to read the play, and Green sent a copy to Wolf.
“I fell in love with it,” said Wolf. “It’s a really good play.”
It’s also connected to both co-directors on a personal level, they said.
“For me, the play contains all of my favorite things: ideas about memory, ritual, ancestry,” said Green. “A lot of the conversations that arise about race and religion and family are ones that I have had with my own mother.”
Although many productions at William & Mary are led by just one director, Wolf and Green saw a unique opportunity to collaborate on this piece and mimic the working process of the playwrights. Like Cody and Roper, the professors have different backgrounds – Wolf is white and Jewish and Green is African-American and an alumna of W&M – but they are utilizing those experiences to offer the actors “a wealth of information to draw upon,” said Green, while also learning from each other.
Although discussions about race and religion can be difficult, the reading is part of a progressive shift in the Department of Theatre, the professors said.
“I think anytime we bring something that’s challenging, something that’s going to be difficult for a Williamsburg audience, we’re ahead of the game,” said Green. “We’re making them think, and we’re making them question their own personal credos.”
Having an alumna’s work be the catalyst for that conversation is just representative of the kind of investment W&M makes in its students, said Green.
“I love when we have an opportunity to work with an alumna, and the institution supports that by giving them space to showcase the investment that they made,” she said.
Roper hopes to do some investing of her own in W&M’s current students next week as they get ready to present the play that she and her “odd-couple” partner wrote together, despite -- or maybe because -- of their differences.
"The Sisters Grey" is a logical next step in the examination of the African Diaspora, Roper said.
“Beyond the legal equalities finally achieved in America after years of struggle remain the following questions: How united are the people of the United States? How integrated are we as a people? What remnants of African culture remain in African American culture centuries after the Diaspora? The play will also examine the question of economic class and the resulting cultural divides.”
Through the development of this work, both Roper and Cody contribute to the on-going discussion about racial separation, which they hope will, in turn, provide clarity and further breed community and understanding.
“The reason that this play exists is because we’re both passionate about generating understanding and compassion, and I know that sounds cheesy but it’s just the truth,” said Roper. “We really are both committed to being a part of anything we can that will inspire clarity and healing; connection and community. As writers, we've utilized the creation of this play to implement change.”