Real people talkin' 

Jeffry Chastang’s Full Circle might be subtitled The Play That Almost Never Was. Round about the eighth draft of the playwright’s first drama, Chastang, who is also an actor, left the typewritten script on the bar at the Detroit Repertory Theatre after a long night of rehearsal. When he returned the next day, the script was gone. Tragedy was averted once Chastang dug the document out from under some coffee grounds at the bottom of a wastebasket. Now, as Plowshares Theatre Company presents the world premiere of Full Circle, Chastang’s long days of writing and revising before, during and after a full-time job and rehearsals – not to mention his quick-witted Dumpster diving – have begun to pay off.

An unfinished version of Full Circle was one of three winners in Plowshares’ 1998 New Voices Competition, the African-American theater company’s prestigious national competition, and the script was completed through the theater’s New Voices Play Development Program. Full Circle went on to receive second prize in the 1999 Kennedy Center Forum for New American Plays. A second play, Continued Warm, about the 1943 Detroit race riots, earned Chastang a finalist position for a coveted residency at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut, which has fostered works by such luminaries as Wendy Wasserstein, John Guare and August Wilson.

Plowshares producing artistic director Gary Anderson, who directs Full Circle, says Chastang’s deft hand with dialogue sets his drama apart from many others being produced today.

"Jeff displays a lot of ability in regard to the creation of dialogue and the ability to create interesting characters. If you can do that, you’re halfway there," says Anderson. "The words that come out of the actors’ mouths sound like language that people actually use. The artifice isn’t there, and yet he’s still able to create great poetry."

Chastang says he discovered his playwriting talent almost by accident.

"I started writing out of frustration at not being cast after auditioning," he explains. "I decided I’d write myself a play, and it kind of grew out of that."

Now that he’s written several impressively well-developed characters, however, one of whom appears to be at least slightly autobiographical, he’s opted to remain in the wings. The caliber of the actors who perform in the Plowshares production – well-known Detroit names such as Council Cargle, Herman McCain and Jennifer Jones – are further testimony to the play’s strength. Chastang performed with Cargle, McCain and Jones in the 1998 production of August Wilson’s Fences at Detroit Repertory Theatre, and the reunion of this group for Chastang’s work is altogether appropriate.

Wilson’s influence pervades Full Circle both stylistically – from the strong ensemble cast, to the seamless dialogue, to the careful balance between humor and gravity – and thematically. As with Wilson, inner turmoil, familial and generational conflict, and the complexities of day-to-day life, particularly (but not exclusively) as they are experienced by working-class African-Americans, all feature prominently in the play.

"He’s one of my favorite playwrights," Chastang says of Wilson. He cites O’Neill, Walter Mosley and OyamO as additional influences, and says his interest in theater was initially sparked by reading Amiri Baraka.

Anderson finds it laudable that Chastang chose a traditional form for his first work.

"A lot of other young playwrights are trying to break out of structured formats just for the sake of breaking them, and unfortunately that doesn’t always equate into innovation," he says.

The next step will be to branch out. "What Jeff needs to find is his own voice and the ability to have that conveyed," he continues.

At that point, Anderson predicts, Chastang’s career will soar.

"I think the sky is the limit for him," he forecasts. "I don’t think there’s an opportunity that isn’t available to him."

Click here to read another feature about Full Circle.

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