Caleen Sinnette Jennings on writing for solo performance at 1st Stage

The playwright shares the backstory of 'Wanda's Way,' her one-woman play about a Black police officer.

Being a solo performer is not for every actor or actress. It takes a particular kind of performer to find him or herself truly at home alone onstage.

But for the few people who adore performing alone, the Logan Festival of Solo Performance is a blessed once-in-a-year event. Created by 1st Stage in McLean, Virginia, and funded by Dan and Gloria Logan of the Revada Foundation, the Festival is a series of short plays, submitted by playwrights from around the world.

The Festival started in 2017. With the exception of one year that it closed for COVID, the Logan Festival is always performed in the summer. It was held outdoors last summer, from August to October.

According to Alex Levy, the executive director of 1st Stage, “The Logans gave 1st Stage the resources to bring the country’s most gifted storytellers to the DMV. This unique medium, which closes the gap between performer and audience member, has such elasticity that it can be approached in so many different ways. Yet it is always brave, personal, and visceral. We’re proud to give a home to those courageous enough to stand on stage alone and create an electrifying performance. It is a festival unlike any other in the area.”

This year, the Festival is made up of three plays. The first is called Wanda’s Way, by Caleen Sinnette Jennings. Originally from New York, Jennings has lived in the Washington, DC, area for 38 years. Jennings attended Bennington College and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Caleen Sinnette Jennings

From 1989 to the spring of 2020, she taught at American University, where she also served as the director of the Theater/Musical Theater Program and chair of the Department of Performing Arts.

She has been a faculty member of the Folger Shakespeare Library Teaching Shakespeare Institute since 1994. She received a $10,000 grant from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays and identifies herself as a playwright, director, and actor.

DCTA: Tell me about Wanda’s Way.

Jennings: It’s a difficult play. It’s somewhere in the range of 15 characters played by one actor. And these characters represent multiple facets of the main character’s life — her allies, her protagonists, her mother, her daughter, her boss, her partner. All these people are meant to show all the kinds of things a Black police officer has to negotiate in her life and in her job.

Where did this play originate?

I was chatting with a male actor friend of mine and he mentioned that he used to be a Baltimore city cop. I almost fell off my chair. I said, “I’d like to know that side of you and what connection that has to your theatrical life.” This was ten years ago. I got about six hours of interviews with him.

Deidra LaWan Starnes as Officer Wanda Williams in ‘Wanda’s Way.’ Photo by Emily Wall.

Did the play happen right after that?

No. Fast forward to 2020 when Diedra Starnes called me on behalf of 1st Stage. She said they wanted to know if I would like to write something for the Logan Festival in 2021. I was driving to see my father, who was dying. I was so upset, I said, “No, I can’t do it.” But she talked me into it. I was lucky to get some folks to interview and I used the tapes I had from ten years earlier. They were deeply moving to me.

Being a child of the 1960s, when we thought about police a certain way, it’s been stunning to see how moved people are by the faces of those January 6th policemen.

As you get older you begin to think of people less as the roles they have and more as the people they are beneath those roles.

Is there anything else you would like to say about being a playwright?

 In a recent play. I said, “Tell your story. Someone is waiting to hear it.”

Wanda’s Way plays July 30 at 8:00 PM, July 31 at 7:00 PM, August 4 at 7:30 PM, and August 6, 2022, at 2:00 PM, in repertory with Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life and Spanking Machine at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA. For the complete Logan Festival of Solo Performance schedule and to purchase tickets ($20 general, $15 educators or military, $10 students, $50 Festival Pass), go online or call 703-854-1856.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, no intermission.

The Logan Festival of Solo Performance program is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks and proof of vaccination are required. See complete 1st Stage’s COVID Safety Information here.

On August 6, 2022, at 2 p.m., Jennings will give a talk-back after the 2 p.m. show.

In rotation with Wanda’s Way in the Logan Festival of Solo Performance:

Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me but Banjos Saved My Life. Keith Alessi’s comedy tells the story of how outrageously well he did in the board room and reveals the startling news that changed his life forever.  He candidly reveals how he used that obstacle to find a new passion in music and a cathartic outlet in storytelling.  July 30 and 31 at 2:00 PM and August 2 at 7:30 p.m.

Spanking Machine. Marga Gomez performs her by turns funny, intense, and heart-rending memoir of growing up brown and queer in Washington Heights. Devil Dogs, sadistic nuns on poppers, childhood pranks, assault, and suppressed memory play their parts in Marga’s shift across gender, latitudes, and generations. This production features mature content. August 3 at 7:30 PM, August 5 and 6 at 8:00 PM, and August 7 at 2:00 PM.

SEE ALSO: A commanding performance of a police officer in ‘Wanda’s Way’ at 1st Stage (Logan Festival of Solo Performance review by Carolyn Bock)


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