- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 23, 2002

Caleen Sinnette Jennings says that it is scary to hear her plays read aloud but that it is worth it if the experience helps her to improve her craft.
"It's barely controlled terror and panic," Ms. Jennings of Derwood says. "You never know what you've got until the actors and directors come together and create this world. Then, the audience tells you how they were touched and when they were bored. You learn so much, which lets you develop a second or third draft."
Ms. Jennings' new play, "D.C.: Darker Circles," premieres at 8 p.m. tomorrow at Arena Stage's Old Vat Room as part of "District Views," a series of dramatic readings featuring playwrights who live or have lived in the Washington area. They were commissioned by the Arena Stage in the fall to complete a new work either about the District or set in it.
Ms. Jennings has written more than 60 plays for adults and children. She also teaches as a professor of theater at American University. She says "D.C.: Darker Circles" contains three acts, which serve as separate plays. The first is set in 1797 Georgetown, the second in 1897 in the Northwest part of the city, and the third on Sept. 29, 2001, on Capitol Hill.
"There is a narrator who walks us through the time periods," Ms. Jennings says. "One of my questions to the audience will be, 'Do you see a theme or a thread that links them together?' That's the kind of thing you can never really be sure about until an audience tells you how they feel about it."
Ms. Jennings reveals a possible link between the three parts of the play in that the characters in the second and third acts are distant relatives of those in the first.
The first act in 1797, Ms. Jennings says, examines the relationships between "free Negroes," former slaves and abolitionists. The second looks at the black aristocracy of Washington in 1897, touching on issues of class and color.
The third act features three women trying to cope with the September 11 attacks. One is an 80-year-old black woman who is a longstanding, respected member of the community. Another is a 40-year-old black woman who is a professional; the third is a white woman who is a professional in her late 30s.
"I originally thought I'd set it in one particular community and watch how it changed over time," Ms. Jennings says. "I didn't have this idea until late in the process."
When New Yorker Stephen Belber wrote his play, "A Small Melodramatic Story," he mulled it over in his head for many days before putting it on paper. Mr. Belber, who writes episodes for NBC's "Law and Order," lived in Washington until he was about 23 years old.
His work, which premiered as part of "District Views" last night, tells the story of a woman who falls in love with a Washington police officer and then has to decide if she can still love him when she learns about his past. The theme is about trust and how falling in love allows someone to learn about another person as well as about oneself.
Mr. Belber says he usually experiences the first draft of his plays when actors present dramatic readings of his work in his living room without an audience to give feedback. In the theater setting, the actress directly addresses the audience, and he is hoping she will develop an intimate rapport with listeners.
"This will be a sink or swim situation," Mr. Belber says. "I'm a little nervous."
Wendy Goldberg, artistic associate at the Arena Stage, says "District Views" is part of the "Downstairs in the Old Vat Room" series, an artistic initiative dedicated to the development of new American plays. The theater wants to provide a nurturing environment for American playwrights in all stages of their careers.
"This is a theater that is committed to producing new work and being a home for new writers," Ms. Goldberg says. "It keeps us moving forward."

WHAT: "D.C.: Darker Circles" by Caleen Sinnette Jennings, part of the "District Views" series of dramatic readings.
WHERE: The Old Vat Room at the Arena Stage, in Southwest
WHEN: Tomorrow at 8 p.m.
TICKETS: $5 plus applicable fees
PHONE: 202/488-3300



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