Stories about the creative process — much like the creative process itself — can be tricky. Characters are often reduced to tropes of tortured geniuses or idealized muses. At worst, stories about creative people feel like an excuse for the writer to vent about how misunderstood they are.
At their best, though, stories about artists can do what “How to Catch Creation,” playing at Geva Theatre Center, achieves. Playwright Christina Anderson masterfully explores how the desire to create — whether it’s art or children — can both tear people apart and bring them together.
The play mostly centers on four Black people in San Francisco in 2014. Griffin is ready to adopt and raise a child as a single man, but first must overcome his anxiety with the legal system. Tami is a queer painter who has stopped painting. Riley is determined to find out why her boyfriend Stokes got rejected from the local art program, while Stokes finds a box of books that inspires a new dream.
Threaded throughout are flashbacks to the 1960s, in which a Black lesbian writer, struggles to balance paying attention to her lover with writing the novels that will shape Griffin and Stokes’ lives.
To say how these six characters are connected would ruin the joy of watching the play unfold. The stories overlap in both literal and thematic ways. Story elements like unfaithful partners and artistic ambitions get remixed among characters and couples. Sometimes the past and present duet with overlapping dialogue.
This dynamic and comedic script comes to life under Daniel J. Bryant’s direction with an impressive attention to detail, in both design and acting choices.
Sydney Lynne Thomas’ set is, as the recorded pre-show announcements say, “dope.” A gorgeous abstract quasi-religious arch looms over two levels of stage. The 1960s writing studio is always visible while below it, present day locations ranging from an office to a bar to an apartment with a Lauryn Hill poster on the wall slide in and out of view. A shelf of books and other knick-knacks divides the two levels. The audience can’t possibly see all the book titles, but I’m willing to bet that if you could fly up to the shelf and read the spines, you’d find a carefully curated selection of works by the same Black writers who are featured in the dramaturgical displays that greet audiences in Geva’s lobby.
The costumes, designed by April M. Hickman, are a delight. Griffin’s jeans and button downs give him a non-assuming air that makes him look ready to be a dad, while Tami and Riley wear brightly colored pants and sweaters that are works of art in their own right.
The storylines are easy to follow, although many of the plot mechanics require a suspension of disbelief. Based on the audience’s reactions, the people around me enjoyed the extreme coincidences as much as I did. More enjoyable, though, are the gorgeously captured moments of everyday connection between people. There’s nothing like watching two strangers in a park bond over books.
The second act meanders and doesn’t live up to the most magical moments of the first act, but the cast is so compelling that spending over two hours with them is a joy.
Cedric Mays captures the complexities of Griffin, balancing an undercurrent of trauma and grief from 25 years of incarceration with a kind gentleness that leaves no doubt he is ready to be a father. Torée Alexandre plays Riley with intoxicating confidence and has electrifying chemistry with Libya Pugh’s Tami, who can draw laughs with a raised eyebrow and win sympathy in morally gray situations.
I recommend anyone interested in the show check out Geva’s 30-minute video prologue for context on the production. Pugh and Mays chat with local artist Terry Chaka about the Black Arts Movement and racism in American theater.
In the video, the actors express their hope to speak to and inspire Black audiences. I was unsurprised but disappointed to be one of almost entirely white faces in the audience.
This production is a compelling tribute to Black people making art, falling in and out of love, and enjoying the spark of Black creation. These actors deserve to have that spark reflected in their audience as well.
“How to Catch Creation” runs through Sunday, March 20, at Geva Theatre Center’s Wilson Stage, 75 Woodbury Blvd., Rochester. $25-$69. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test required; masks required. For performance dates/times and tickets, go to gevatheatre.org.
Katherine Varga is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to Daniel J. Kushner, CITY’s arts editor, at [email protected].