THEATER: ‘Right On’ filled with soul, laughs, tears and a funky beat

Playwright Darren Canady is developing a soft spot in his heart for Atlanta. His play “False Creeds” debuted at the Alliance Theatre in 2007, and now he is back with his new “Right On” at Horizon Theatre.

In the comedy with music, four former college friends who attended school together in the 1970s gather for a reunion at their alma mater in 2004. Three have remained tight, but the fourth—Bella (Donna Biscoe)—has pretty much severed ties with the others. The friends have “traded dashikis for day jobs” and Bella is also dealing with a mentally ill son.

Canady, a black, gay playwright, wrote the first draft of “Right On” in 2007. He went through a few rewrites then put it aside to come back to later. When he did, he made many changes. “A lot of the changes were about the character of Bella—what drove her, caused her to cut herself off from her friends,” he recalls.

“When I got to Atlanta, I completely over- hauled it. God bless those actors because they rolled with the punches; I was doing rewrites almost every day, responding to what was going on in rehearsal. Act Two is almost entirely new and two thirds or a half of the first is.” “Right On” ends with an inspired set of musical numbers, which was always part of the show’s “DNA,” he says.

Some of the details about the character of Bella are similar to Canady’s mother. “She is not my Mom, but what I have discovered in the process is that she’s a bizarro version of my mother,” he says. “If she had made different decisions in her life but she could have become Bella.”

It was important to keep a balance of comedy and drama but also reflect on the era in which these women grew up. “In the (rehearsal) room we had some serious and extensive discussions on what it would like to be an adult in (the early 1970s),” he says.

“Your high school classmates are getting killed in Vietnam, coming back changed and altered. You are wondering if the civil rights movement achieved its end in terms of numbers. What was about non-violent change was changing into activism. There is a sense of anger and disillusionment that permeated the characters’ young adult lives,” he adds.

“For a variety of reasons they tried to move beyond as adults. What’s at play is the tension between the difficult time and people remembering the vigor and energy of youth.”

Canady has found Atlanta to be an “amazing” arts community. “I learned early on, Atlanta celebrates black culture and art, in all its forms as it comes out of the black experience,” he says. “That has been really important in me in the development of both ‘False Creeds’ and ‘Right On.’”

He thinks the next civil rights frontier, the next great struggle, is around LGBT rights. “To compare it to the civil rights movement is understandable,” he says. “What’s more interesting now is that activism is at a place where there is anger about the politics of self-identity. There is rhetoric around what is the LGBT community about who’s gay, who’s in, who’s out, what does leadership look like? Is marriage the point? What is the point? That has a lot of echoes to the ‘70s.”

As someone who has worked on close to 20 plays, he is wary of choosing a favorite. “Because I am not a parent, these are the closest to children that I have, so it’s like choosing a favorite child,” he says. “Each of them reflects a different side of my personality, an aspect of who I am, who I was, what I am becoming, what is important to me. The play I most love and most hate is the one I am currently working on.”

“Right On”

Through Aug. 31

Horizon Theatre

1083 Austin Ave.
Atlanta, GA 30307