Robert Thompson and Jared Giles in "River City" | Photo by Bill Brymer
Robert Thompson and Jared Giles in “River City” | Photo by Bill Brymer

When Theatre [502] presents the Louisville premiere of Diana Grisanti’s “River City” on Friday evening, it will be a homecoming of sorts.

It’s a play with big ideas about the racial aspects of Louisville’s difficult past. Despite the fact it is explicitly a Louisville play, it’s taken a long journey to get to the local stage.

Grisanti is a Louisville native, but when she first got the idea for “River City,” she was in graduate school for playwrighting at the University of Texas in Austin.

“We read several articles around the idea of cultural haunting, the sort of idea that geographical spaces are haunted by their history — specifically their racial history,” said Grisanti in a phone interview with Insider Louisville. She felt it was especially true for Louisville, a city whose current population still exhibits the segregation of the past.

Angela Williams in "River City" | Photo by Bill Brymer
Angela Williams in “River City” | Photo by Bill Brymer

As she considered cultural hauntings, her mind returned to the most famous Louisvillian.

“I kept getting the image of the Muhammad Ali poster downtown that says ‘Louisville’s Ali,’ and I realized in all the other posters, the possession is reversed.” So Diane Sawyer can own Louisville on a poster several stories high, but Louisville owns Ali. “I wrote an essay arguing that white Louisville was unconsciously attempting to atone for its racial past by adopting Muhammad Ali, this man they had once rejected.”

But she wasn’t done with those ideas yet. They were expressed again in a short story, which also included some of the characters that would eventually end up in “River City.” Finally, while still at UT Austin, Grisanti put all these ideas into a play that became the first draft of “River City.”

The play went through numerous drafts, receiving readings at Ut Austin, and then at Actors Theatre of Charlotte, before winning a Rolling World Premiere through the National New Play Network.

“The play had lots of readings, lots of workshops, lots of input — the play was constantly morphing,” said Grisanti.

While her project was morphing, Grisanti came home to Louisville and began a relationship with Theatre [502], where she has been in residence — along with her husband and fellow playwright Steve Moulds — since 2014.

"River City" runs Oct. 7-15.
“River City” runs Oct. 7-15.

Theatre [502] co-artistic director Amy Attaway is also the director of their production of “River City.”

“I’ve read a ton of drafts and gotten to know the characters over years,” Attaway said. “Which is a pretty unique opportunity as a director.”

Despte Attaway’s interest, when the play won its Rolling World Premiere, it meant Theatre [502] was going to have to wait a little while to add it to their season schedule.

The Rolling World Premiere is a big deal because it puts a playwright like Grisanti in some of the most important theaters in the country. It also gives a playwright the chance to work and change her script, to see it in front of audiences and to hear it performed by different actors.

Unlike other writers, say a novelist, playwrights work as part of a team. They have actors and directors, maybe even dramaturges and producers. Grisanti said listening to her collaborators is always important to her process, but it was especially important to this show.

“I was especially mindful, because I’m writing a play about African-American characters, mixed-race characters, a Latino character; it was important to me that this play had a lot of fingerprints on it,” she said. “And that I was always open to changing things and taking criticism from the actors who were embodying these roles.”

After all the shows on the road ended, “River City” became available to Theatre [502] again.

“It means we get the perfect Louisville premiere of this perfect Louisville play,” said Attaway. “So now she’s getting to see how the hometown audience reacts to this hometown play, with an acting company that is mostly from here.”

But staging the show had it’s challenges. While the heart of the story hangs on a woman attempting to understand her personal familial past, the action in “River City” also portrays a racial divide, one that exists in its arts scene as well.

“The first challenge was casting, to be honest,” said Attaway. “We have a good stable of actors we use a lot with Theatre [502], (but) we don’t have a ton of actors of color we use. Or even who we know and see on a regular basis.”

That reality isn’t only true of Theatre [502], or even Louisville — it’s a problem that’s being talked about in theaters all over the country. For Grisanti, purposefully writing characters of color is a way of engaging that conversation in an active way.

“I think dramatic writers have an obligation to expand the canon to include voices of color,” said Grisanti.

As a result, Attaway said she’s met a lot of new actors. “I met a ton of actors of color I didn’t know … who might not have come out for our other stuff, if we didn’t put out specifically: ‘We’re looking for actors of color.’”

Jared Giles and Robert Thompson | Photo by Bill Brymer
Jared Giles and Robert Thompson | Photo by Bill Brymer

One of those actors is Jared Giles. He spoke with Insider about his character, Edward, a young orphan who also is grappling with his past.

“It was really cool to be able to play a character I can relate to on some level,” said Giles. “Edward is an individual who grew up in an all-white community.” He is quick to clarify he is “fortunate enough to have a family that loved me, but at the same time, everyone in the schools that I went to were white, everyone in my communities were white.”

Giles is a born-and-raised Louisvillian, and he’s planning to go back to school to get a master’s degree that allows him to pair his art with activism and civic development. Like Grisanti and Attaway, Giles is conscious of the political aspect of the play.

“You see, there are all these people on one side of town who want to revitalize it, but there’s no conversation between them and everyone else,” said Giles. “Edward’s character is interesting. He tries to make the connection, but he doesn’t do it in the best way, and by himself can’t solve the problem.”

Heady ideas and complex themes aside, “River City” is a family drama about dealing with the past.

“We talked about our families and how our families lived through the ’60s and ’70s,” said Attatwy, describing the rehearsal process. “The generational aspect, to me, is one of the most easily relatable things about the play.”

Catch the award-winning “River City” at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, from Oct. 7-15. Tickets are $17 in advance and $22 at the door. For tickets and show times, check the Kentucky Center’s website.

(Full disclosure: Eli Keel has worked with Theatre [502] as an actor and a playwright, including working with Grisanti and Attaway.)

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.