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Hitting Home in the Heartland : Cheryl L. West, a rather calm and quiet Midwesterner, is filling stages from coast to coast with fiery, outrageous characters who have no trouble speaking their minds.

October 23, 1994|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Today is playwright Cheryl L. West's 38th birthday. It has been eight years since the former social worker from Chicago--who chose that profession because of her mother's admonition to always have "something to fall back on"--gave herself "permission to write." And even in taking that risk, West exhibited a hint of her mother's practicality: If she wasn't making a living at it by 35, West planned to relegate writing to the category of a beloved hobby.

"I've always done things on sort of a time schedule," West said by phone from her home in Champaign, Ill., in a breathy, girlish voice that belies her quiet determination. "Like, I have three (academic) degrees, and I've always done it like: 'By this time I'll have this , by this time I'll have that . I've kind of planned things out that way--that way I don't get overwrought as easily.

"I thought it (writing) was something I would always love to do, but I wasn't going to try to make a living at it. But when I turned 35, I was making a living at it," West said, sounding a little surprised even three years later. "So it really did work out."

West's description of her current creative status as "making a living" is modest, to put it mildly.

Her critically acclaimed play "Jar the Floor," a study of four generations of African American women reuniting for the great-grandmother MaDear's 90th birthday, opens Nov. 4 at Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory's Second Stage (previews begin Nov. 1) after successful productions at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, Arena Stage and Cleveland Play House and New York's Syracuse Stage.

Syracuse Stage also hosted the January premiere of West's "Holiday Heart," the story of a girl from Chicago's South Side being brought up by a drug-addicted mother. "Ms. West is still learning her way about a stage," wrote the New York Times of that production. "But she's already proved herself something of a daredevil, who has no qualms about writing big, gutsy confrontations."

West just sent her newest play, "Puddin' and Pete," a "marriage fable" which premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theater, off to the Old Globe, where it is scheduled to open in a revised version sometime next spring.

West's first play, "Before It Hits Home," about the impact of the AIDS crisis on a black family, earned West the 1992 Helen Hayes-Charles MacArthur Award for outstanding new play produced in Washington, D.C. and several other awards, and has been optioned for a film by Spike Lee. West is also adapting a book for HBO and has a project in development with Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions. ("It's for film, that's all they'll allow me to say.")

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West has observed that while "Jar the Floor" deals with a group of women, and African American women specifically, the play has struck a chord with a diverse audience, and, surprisingly, with men. Like "Holiday Heart," it's a play filled with "big, gutsy confrontations," outrageous characters, and sometimes equally outrageous language. West says she makes it all palatable with a heavy dose of humor. As extreme as her characters sometimes get, she noted that at any given time on stage, at least one of them manages to maintain the voice of reason.

At the Arena Stage, for example, West said many audience members were middle-aged, conservative and Caucasian--but the play hit home nonetheless. "People were trying to bribe my agents, trying to buy a copy, (saying) their therapist said they had to get a copy," she said, laughing.

"MaDear has a very telling line--in her experience, no house is big enough for two women. No house is big enough for two women--and you have four women who have to be there together," West continued.

"I think there are just some universal truths; people are either children, or parents--or both. I think there is something that's in there that people can really relate to, and are trying to reconcile with.

"And I think it is just as moving for men. When you think of an all-women's play, you think it is going to communicate only to women, but I have seen many men come out and be very moved and shaken by it. I think for many men it is like being a voyeur, a fly on the wall: 'Is this the way women talk when men are not around?"'

West said none of the characters on stage represent herself or members of her own family. "Usually, your life is not that interesting, at least not so compelling that people should spend $20 or $30 for a ticket," she said. "What makes something work is the imagination. (People who write their own lives), those are the people who only have one play, or one movie or one book in them," she continued. "What else are you going to offer people? For me, it's important to stay away from your life as much as possible."

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