Kutumba Plans Julie Johnson, Plus New Play, Outlaw Jean

Valentina Izarra (left) plays Julie Johnson and Casey Dressler plays Claire ijn Kutumba Theatre's Julie Johnson

Valentina Izarra (left) plays Julie Johnson and Casey Dressler plays Claire ijn Kutumba Theatre’s Julie Johnson

By Michelle F. Solomon There are theater companies, when planning a season, that pick a theme, but for Kutumba Theatre Project, the coincidence was kismet — or in true Kutumba fashion, plucky luck. In September, it opened its season with The Beebo Brinker Chronicles. “A woman’s name carries the title, and it’s set in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” says Kim Ehly, founder of Kutumba Theatre Project. For KTP’s second show, opening Jan. 16, Ehly produces and directs Julie Johnson, set in the late 80s, another era-specific piece, and another female-named title. However, it’s the regional premiere of a script she’s procured to complete what’s shaping up to be a trilogy. In April or May, Kutumba will present the first fully staged production of Outlaw Jean, an “ultra modern script” that Ehly says is set in the “current ever present.” A woman’s name dominates the title and we chronologically proceed into another era. This season has been presented in Kutumba’s new theater space at the Galleria FLCT Studio Theatre in Fort Lauderdale’s Galleria Mall that is “working out quite well,” according to Ehly. “FLCT has become a home base.” A fundraiser for Kutumba held in December was a last-minute idea, which sold out its initial run, prompting an additional performance. Titled A Naughty Holiday Extravaganza, Ehly presented The Eight Reindeer Monologues, a dark comedy written by Jeff Goode, that the director presented in what she describes a “staged reading like no other reading.” There was lighting, sound, costumes, music, and direction. “It was sold like a regular show with all the money going to help fund Kutumba’s work.” Actors were paid a stipend for their time. With such a short lead time to put the show together, six actors playing eight parts read from scripts while negotiating some minor blocking and stage directions.  Goode’s script, a holiday satire, is less than jolly, a dark take on what really goes on in Santa’s workshop after Vixen accuses the Jolly Old Elf of sexual harassment. Yet it was all in good fun with complimentary “cheer” served. “Most theaters ask donors and patrons to open their wallets and donate money. But my thought was, hey, we’re a theater company, let’s entertain people,” she said. Her choice of Goode’s show fit Kutumba’s bill of “providing a work that isn’t so familiar to audiences.” “And,” Ehly adds “it’s definitely brave.” She would have liked to have added one more Monologues performance because of demand, but it was time to get Julie Johnson into rehearsal. Ehly first saw Julie Johnson performed at the Humana Festival in Kentucky in 1994 and was immediately drawn to it. Ehly also played the title character herself in 1998 in a production at Florida Playwright’s Theatre in Hollywood and in 2006 in Sol Theatre’s production in Fort Lauderdale. In the introduction to the script, author Wendy Hammond talks about her about her title character: “I needed to write about someone who isn’t living truthfully, who begins to live truthfully, and how wonderful and terrible that is. Terrible because sometimes change means giving up one’s whole world, everything one holds dear. But wonderful, too, because living authentically, is, well wonderful.” This is what Ehly says has become a throughline in her play selections and, it is what her own semi-autobiographical play, Baby GirL (which was Kutumba’s inaugural production in August 2012), is built on. “This goes from Baby GirL to Beebo to Julie Johnson and even to Outlaw Jean. I seem to be drawn to plays where there are characters that are not living their truth. But they figure out a way to do that — to really live an authentic life no matter what their struggle is to get there. Usually, there’s humor involved in the process, too” she says. A dramedy, Hammond’s Julie Johnson is about an undereducated woman living with her husband and children in Hoboken, N.J. When she decides she “don’t wanna be stupid no more,” she leaves her abusive spouse and goes back to school. Julie uncovers untapped talents there and discovers an unexplored interest in her best friend, Claire. The cast includes Casey Dressler, Julianna Rector, Skylar Voelker, Doug Wetzel, and Valentina Izarra as Julie Johnson. Two of the parts call for an 11-12 year-old boy and a 14-15 year old girl that ended up being cast with young actors from the Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theater. Ehly’s capturing of the script for Kutumba’s final outing of the season, the regional premiere of Outlaw Jean, was more than a perfect fit. “Outlaw Jean is someone who needs to accomplish certain things before she can become the Outlaw King.” In MJ Kaufman’s play, there’s a $100,000 reward for Outlaw Jean’s capture, dead or alive, but before she can claim the crown, she’s has to make peace with her mother, Mama Mystery. Kaufman wrote the play while at Yale School of Drama receiving an MFA and mentoring high school playwrights, where the students were given a challenge to write an “outlaw story.” Kaufman decided to write one, too, researching Sam Shepard plays, Billy the Kid, and even Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series. Ehly believes that the next two shows continue to add to her mission of giving a voice to the LGBT community, women’s interests, and other underserved communities. She said that the mission of Kutumba has also taken another shape. “The people that I’m able to reach aren’t customarily theatergoers. The company is drawing and developing a whole new crop of theater patrons. Many times, they’ll say, ‘this is the first live theater I’ve ever seen.’ ” Julie Johnson runs from Jan. 16-Feb. 9. Preview Jan. 16, opening night Jan. 17. Shows are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., 5 p.m. Sunday. No performances  Jan. 25 or 30.) Performed at Galleria Studio Theatre located in the Galleria Mall (also known as The Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre), 2542B E Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Parking in LIME PARKING of the mall garage, section 3J or 3H. For tickets visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/511855 or call 954-646-1000. General Admission $30. Premium seating (1st two rows) $40. Seating is limited. Advance purchase recommended. Cash only at the door.

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