Playwright Rachel Bonds crafts most personal work in ‘Sundown, Yellow Moon’
Everyone in the play is dealing with sadness in his or her life. Ultimately, it’s about learning how to talk to each other and begin moving forward.
Playwright Rachel Bonds had just finished her freshman year at Brown University when she headed back to her small hometown, Sewanee, Tennessee, to spend the summer caring for her dying father.
“I was only 19 and I spent this very intense summer with him,” she says. “It was the moment I mark as the time when I fully stepped into adulthood and the role of parent and child fully reversed. Because of this we were able to talk to each other in a way that we had never done before.”
A decade and a half later, Bonds would use this emotional, life-changing experience as inspiration for her 2017 play “Sundown, Yellow Moon” now making its Chicago debut at Raven Theatre under the direction of Cody Estle, who directed Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake” last year at Shattered Globe Theatre.
‘Sundown, Yellow Moon’
When: To Nov. 17
Where: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark
“It’s probably my most personal play,” Bonds, 36, says. “I had to have a lot of distance in order to write it. While it’s absolutely fictional, it’s certainly drawn from a very real time in my life.”
Estle, Raven’s artistic director, was eager to work with Bonds again.
“Rachel’s plays depict a slice of life where it may appear not a lot is going on all the while everything is going on,” Estle says. “Portraying everyday life on stage is quite difficult but immensely exciting.”
“Sundown, Yellow Moon,” set in a small Southern college town, follows sisters Ray (Liz Chidester), an academic about to leave for Berlin on a Fulbright Scholarship, and Joey (Diana Coates), a struggling New York singer-songwriter, as they return home to handle a crisis involving their divorced father Tom (Will Casey) who has been suspended from his teaching job. However, communication between father and daughters does not come easy.
Everyone in the play is dealing with sadness in his or her life. Ultimately, it’s about learning how to talk to each other and begin moving forward. Bonds refers to the play as a “nighttime play with music.”
“A lot of the scenes take place at night,” she says, adding, “I think that comes from an impulse that you can be a little bit more vulnerable at night. There’s something that allows you to say things then you wouldn’t normally say. It kind of works the way alcohol works.”
The music angle comes courtesy of Shaun and Abigail Bengson, married singer-songwriters whose folk tunes offer a way for the family to communicate through music, says Bonds. Having songs, which are performed by the actors, as a part of the fabric of the play was something new for Bonds who called on her friends for assistance with the music.
“I think I was hungry for it, to make something that I had never made before,” Bonds says. “I was ready to have a different kind of process that maybe wasn’t so solitary. It was a really joyful experience.” (The music link also extends to the play’s title, which comes from a line in “If You See Her Say Hello,” a song on Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” album. Bonds’ father was a diehard fan and she grew up with the Dylan songbook.)
Like many playwrights, Bonds was an actor first but words and writing were present from an early age. She credits her high school with its writing-based curriculum as the engine that kept her writing throughout her adolescence.
At Brown and the years that followed as she began acting, Bonds’ attention turned more and more to playwriting. She admits in those early days feeling frustrated that perhaps she was “a really bad playwright.”
“I kept trying because I was so interested in figuring out how to make it work,” she recalls. “Eventually, I just got better at it but it took a lot of practice and a lot of work with nobody paying attention.”
Bonds’ plays deal with the little things that make up everyday life in everyday situations. She cites another hometown influence that helps explain her style: Author James Agee attended her high school and it was in her freshman year that she read his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “A Death in the Family.”
“I think so much of my writing comes out of being influenced by that book at that time,” she says. “It was something about describing the small details of lives with such poetry. Yes, the novel is about life and death, parents and children. But it tells that story through the smallest of details. How thinly the banana is sliced into a bowl of cereal — but that tiny thing carries such enormous significance behind it.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.