In the new play “Black Chicken,” written by Randolph College graduate Travis Byram, 14-year-old Randi Colby is afraid to tell her religious parents that she’s an atheist. So she lies and tells them she’s gay instead.
“Over the course of the next day, Randi struggles to remind herself who she is, impacting not only her but her church, her new ‘girlfriend,’ and her family,” according to the synopsis of the show, which was written by Byram last year for his senior honors project.
“It’s very dark,” said Randolph theater professor Stephanie Earl, advisor to both Byram last year and, this year, senior Kaya Clarke, who is directing a staged reading of “Black Chicken” this weekend for her own senior capstone project.
“I think it’s the kind of play where … it’s unquestionably funny. You know from very early on this is meant to be a comedy. But I think all good writers, they’re examining things that are possibly provocative within our culture. His play has something to say and, ultimately, I don’t think there’s anything in it that’s overly offensive. But I think he’s also pushing the boundaries, which is really cool.”
Byram, who grew up Methodist, said the play grew out of his own “decade-long struggle with religion.”
“When I started this project, it was called ‘Church,’ and it was going to be a
spoof on the entire churchgoing process. But my advisors and I quickly realized that that was a little ambitious for a single play to take on, so I honed in on the coming-of-age aspect of Randi Colby,” he said via email last week.
“I called her Randi as a nod to Randolph, that’s in the shadow of the Baptist behemoth Liberty University. Randi’s in the shadow of this religion that she can’t seem to subscribe to, and everyone is telling her that’s the wrong path. Randi is definitely my sassy female avatar in the play, and a lot of her theological questions are ones I’ve had myself.”
Framing those questions in a comedic way just felt natural to him, he said.
“[It’s] how I perceive things, how I’m able to deal with the world,” said Byram, who now lives in Fredericksburg. “You have to laugh at these massive, unthinkable struggles life seems to throw at us, otherwise why live? I think the best drama infuses humor into it. … I made ‘Black Chicken’ in the lens of a comedy because religion loves to take itself too seriously.”
Byram and Clarke, a theater major with a concentration in acting and directing, knew each other and had acted in shows together during Byram’s time at Randolph. But it was Earl who brought them together for the staged reading, knowing of Clarke’s interest in both directing and the development of new plays.
“The way we work on a play that is still in development is so different than how we work on published plays,” Earl said “[Kaya] always had a lot of questions about that. … I got to read this play and said, ‘Travis, I think our students here would love to see this.’ And he was unfamiliar with the new play development process as well. It just sort of seemed like the right fit.”
Byram said he was floored when Earl told him Clarke would be taking on the script for her senior project.
“I’ve acted with Kaya Clarke twice now, and we became theater buddies, so I trusted her voice,” he said. “Even more so, I trusted Stephanie with trusting Kaya. … I knew she wouldn’t have given Kaya the piece without having some ounce of faith in its performability.”
Earl held a table reading of “Black Chicken” in the fall with her directing students, “so Travis could hear his words out loud for the first time,” she said.
They also provided feedback on the script, which Byram used to turn in another draft over the holidays.
Clarke, a 2012 graduate of Rustburg High School, has been working on her part of the project since December, delving into the script, putting together her cast and figuring out how she wanted to stage the reading, which will include some props and movement.
“You can do it where they’re just sitting and talking,” she said of staged readings. “… I prefer them moving, so they can engage the audience more.”
For her, the show is really about connections within a family and with the world at large.
“It has a lot to say about religion and how that affects the dynamics of a family, of a person,” she said. “Everyone has their own relationship with God, gods, religion, non-religion.”
Earl said Byram's original play was a “fantastic honors project” that has only gotten better as it’s evolved during the development process.
“He’s just refined the comedy so much,” she said. “The dialogue has gotten so much stronger … so much sharper.”