On the rare chance that his old schoolmates might stage his most recent play, "The Less Than Human Club," for a high school class reunion, playwright Timothy Mason reflected recently that "I'm not sure I'd want to be in town if they did that! I'd be OK with the kids, I think, but not some of the teachers."
He doesn't name names, but would they recognize themselves anyway?"I'm afraid so," he said during an interview in the lobby at Pioneer Memorial Theatre.
Mason had arrived in Salt Lake City the night before and was going to meet the cast later that day for the regional premiere of his new play, being directed by Kenneth Washington and running Oct. 24-Nov. 3 in PMT's intimate Babcock Theatre.
The upcoming production marks the second time Washington - currently on leave from the University of Utah theater faculty to work one year with the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Minn., in the newly created position of director of company development - has directed one of Mason's plays.
The play, set in 1967-68, takes a look at one year in the lives of eight high school students, including some youths whose teachers make them feel like they're "less than human." Adding to their lack of self-esteem is the fact that they attend Nathan Hale High - a school named in honor of a spy.
Twelve years ago, Mason wrote "Levitation," which he considers his "autobiographical" play. At that time, Mason said "I felt very relieved. I thought `Now, good, I don't have to do that again! I can write about other people and other people's stories.' But after beginning work on this play I thought, `Oh, no, it's happening again!' I began to recognize kids that I'd gone to school with and recognize myself, to some extent, in the lead character. And I thought, well, there must be a reason."
His play takes a group of multiethnic youths, ranging from 14 through 17, and relates how they collide with one another as they wrestle with identity and love.
The central character in "The Less Than Human Club" is the sophisticated class confidante, Davis Daniels, who is struggling with secrets of his own.
"There are only young people in this play," explained Mason, "but the adult masters in their lives are very much present on stage. It runs the gamut. I got a real sense writing the play . . . it reminded me of how powerless children are. They lack status; they lack power. At the same time in adolescence, they're asking themselves, `Am I worth anything? Do I belong anywhere? Could anybody love me?' That is the ultimate question and it's a real rough one in adolescence."
"I take my hat off to any parent of adolescents," he said. "Lanford Wilson has a line in his play, `The Fifth of July,' that says `People aren't strong enough to have children. Trees should have children.' But it also takes a great deal of strength to be a child . . . be an adolescent."
The cast for the Babcock production includes Edward Webster as Davis Daniels, with Heather Howe as Julie Nyquist, a girl who shakes up social conventions by dating a black classmate; Alfred Smith as Clinton Armstrong, Julie's controversial boyfriend (wrestling with his own identity in the world as a young black man in 1968); Lorry A. Houston as Melissa Armstrong, Clinton's younger sister, who watches helplessly as Clinton moves into ever-more-radical politics; Joel Weaver as Harley DeYoung, described as "a rebel with a cause"; Daniel Garton as Dan Dwyer, a student who becomes the target of the school coach's brutality (based on the playwright's humiliating, real-life experiences); Rebecca J. Olson as Kirsten Sabo, a teenager striving to be taken seriously despite her deceptively naive demeanor, and Holly Brown as Amanda, a girl struggling to forge her own identity despite the powerful lure of romance.
Looking back on his own adolescent years, Mason noted that "in junior high school there was a gym teacher who regularly beat us with a lanyard or a paddle, raising welts on our naked butts. It couldn't happen today; you'd go to jail. But it was emblematic of our status that we didn't think a thing of it. Of course not. He's the authority; we're not. He has the power; we don't."
"If at the same time you're asking yourself if you're worth anything, the answer you seem to be getting from the adult world is `No. I'll just beat your butt and we'll all laugh because it's a good joke,' " he said. "So I think there's some of that anger in the play - but a lot less questioning of authority.
"Perhaps that was the year (1968) when we really began to question authority in this country. The civil rights movement has taught us that, no, it wasn't the ideal society that we'd been taught it was. Everything wasn't `right' in this world.
"And so, here were these figures that appeared that represented hope - and the punctuation of the late '60s were the gunshots that killed those heroes. So the kids, in the course of this play, live through the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy," Mason said.
"In the late '60s - the world that these kids inhabit - there were goals, political and social and moral. They were gunned down pretty quick," he said, "but it gave a sense of worth and meaning to our existence. Since then, maybe, the shining causes have acquired a tarnish.
"Today, the deepest concerns of adolescents go right down to the basics. The lead character in `The Less Than Human Club' has a speech to the audience in which he essentially says, `By this time there are 486,000 troops in Vietnam, cities are burning across the country, kids my own age are dying in Asia, but I was concerned about The Big Stuff. Kirsten, will you go to the dance with me?' "
"Gee, that sounds harsh and bitter," Mason noted, "but it's a funny play, too."
"My professional debut as a playwright was at the Humana Festival of American Plays in Louisville, Ky." said Mason. "Kenneth Washington saw `In a Northern Landscape' there and went straight back to Salt Lake City and began plans to produce it.
"I think we met in New York and he talked to me about his desire to do the play and then brought me out to see the finished product and that was my first contact with Salt Lake. I developed lasting friendships here and since then Kenneth has directed that play elsewhere.
About 1986, Ann Cullimore Decker directed Mason's "Before I Got My Eye Put Out" at the university."
A few months ago, Mason got a call from Washington, who said "`I'm at the Julliard. Can you come tomorrow morning? They're doing your play. They're doing `The Less Than Human Club.' "
Mason replied he had no idea they were performing it. Washington wasn't directing it, but he was teaching at Julliard at the time and he had seen Mason's name on a poster, prompting him to call.
"We sat and watched this play together, just done bare bones by a class of first-year students in a classroom, and it was very moving and powerful and Kenneth said `That's the next play I'm going to direct.' So I'm back in Salt Lake after 10 years."
Mason's motivation for writing "The Less Than Human Club" was - by his own admission - sheer desperation.
"I got a call in February of 1994 from my friend Craig Slaight at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre (ACT). He said he wanted me to write another play for ACT's New Plays Program.
"I went to bed that night and work up with a chant. I had dreamt a good portion of this play. I woke up with this refrain going through my head . . . Nathan Hale High . . . Not Hardly Human . . . NHH . . . NHH . . . Nathan Hale High. So I knew it was a high school story. And I knew that this high school was named for a spy and I thought, `OK . . . good.' "
Actually Mason did not attend a high school named after a spy. He graduated, he said, "from an inner city, high poverty school in Minneapolis. Quite a dreadful school altogether - Minneapolis South High School. Named after a city. How boring.
"Later, after I had finished the play, one of my nieces said, `Well, we went to Nathan Hale Elementary' and I went . . . `Oh, yeah, that's where it came from!' "
Ticket prices, performance times
Timothy Mason's "The Less Than Human Club," directed by Kenneth Washington, will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays, Oct. 24-Nov. 3, with one matinee at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 2, in the Babcock Theatre, located on the lower level of the Pioneer Memorial Theatre complex, 1340 E. 300 South (Broadway at University). Tickets are $9 on Friday and Saturday evenings and $8 for all other performances (half-price for students). Group rates are also available. For reservations, call 581-6961.
There will be a free symposium and open forum following the Nov. 2 matinee featuring the playwright along with Craig Slaight, director of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, and Mark McPhail of the U.'s department of communication. The symposium is cosponsored by the Tanner Humanities Center.