White Lines

Playwright Djola Branner blows the roof off dramatic conventions with The House that Crack Built

Those familiar with Branner's work in the Twin Cities--he has resided here for six years, after initially moving from San Francisco to live with dancer and cabaret host Patrick Scully--will not be surprised that the playwright has taken this deliberately precarious approach to telling the story of crack cocaine. "Postmodernism is strong in me," he says, a fact embedded in the name of his 1980s and '90s performing troupe Pomo Afro Homos. As a writer, Branner clearly enjoys toying with structure and exploding clichés. Branner's script for The House that Crack Built begins with archetypes--characters named "Poet" and "Doctor"--and though that's usually an ominous sign in a drama, Branner's characters refuse to remain clichés, or even to remain nameless. The Doctor insists on referring to one of the characters by the absurd title "Girl From the Ghetto," prompting one of the musicians to rebel. "LaToya!" the musician cries out. "Did you even know she had a name?"

Unlike the Doctor character, who grows increasingly frazzled as his show-within-a-show falls apart, Branner seems delighted by the play's curious meltdown. The playwright returns to the theme of rebellion again and again, stubbornly refusing to examine addiction through clinical or sociological lenses. Instead, he takes us right into the desperate, contradictory world of the addict. The drug users decline to serve as supporting characters in the story of the drug. Rather, they insist that they are the main characters, and that their particular experiences demand attention.

Branner began work on The House that Crack Built in 1996, sitting in on 12-Step meetings at the invitation of friends. There he listened quietly to the stories of a variety of addictions, from alcoholism to sex. The structure of these meetings lurks in the play itself, with its confessional format and communal approach. "It's a new type of theater," Branner jokes. "Twelve-Step theater."

Drug czar Djola Branner (seated) with his crack troops on the Pillsbury House stage
Craig Lassig
Drug czar Djola Branner (seated) with his crack troops on the Pillsbury House stage

"We opened this season with the second part of Angels in America," Pillsbury House producer Noël Raymond says, joining Branner after the rehearsal to talk about the production. "This seemed like a perfect companion." And indeed, both plays use a fragmented narrative structure and multiple personal narratives to explore their complex social themes. And both are relatively small-scale productions that nonetheless behave like epics. Angels pours dozens of characters onto its stage (created by a small cast playing multiple characters) and takes them to such varied locations as Washington and Antarctica, while House seems at times as though it were a Broadway musical. Imagine, if you will, Rent if the cast ceased performing after a half-hour, sat down, and just decided to talk everything out.

This collective experience seems a matter of directorial design in Pillsbury's production. Before the run-through, director Heidi Hunter Batz speaks to the cast about the group dynamic of the play. "The strength of this show is in its ensemble," she tells the cast. "The thing that I think is missing is still the collective feeling in the room, the moment-to-moment things that are happening. The focus of the ensemble needs to be on your relationship with your addiction."

Throughout the rehearsal, the cast struggles to make connections with one another. At this point, still several days before opening, these moments consist mostly of eye contact, facial expressions, and whispered comments. When the bass player interrupts the Doctor, he at first simply snaps at the man. Soon, though, he looks around wildly to see how the others are responding to his interruption. The Girl From the Ghetto (LaToya, rather) sneers at the other cast members, while the Poet alternately waggles his eyebrows and thrusts his hips salaciously or expels air dismissively.

This ensemble quality echoes Branner's previous work, such as his recent Mighty Real: A Tribute to Sylvester, which used dozens of characters to retell the life of the Seventies disco icon. Branner is intrigued by such parallels, leaning forward to hypothesize on the thematic continuities from his last piece to this one. (Branner typically is a bit guarded in conversation, talking about his biography with an economy of words. He answers a question about the reasons for his move to Minneapolis with a smile and the word love--and declines to elaborate. Branner and Scully, it seems, no longer live together.) Certainly The House that Crack Built continues Branner's ongoing response to his "sickness at seeing one-dimensional gay men" in the media, as he puts it, which dates back to his Pomo Afro Homo days.

Another consistent component in Branner's work is the reliance on first-person narratives, as well as the extensive use of music. In fact, the most compelling moments in both Mighty Real and The House that Crack Built have a specifically gospel feel to them. "I think there is something to that," Branner says. "A friend of mine told me that there's always an altar in my plays," Branner says, grinning--an artful preacher caught in the act of enjoying his pulpit. "That altar seems to be growing."

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