On March 11, life as we knew it in Westchester changed abruptly. A cluster of cases of the novel coronavirus erupted in New Rochelle, which led state officials to set up a containment zone in which residents could move about, but not leave.
That was the beginning of the long period of isolation and shutdowns that gripped our area during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was also the spark that led playwright Joan Ross Sorkin to create her latest work, a two-part story about a family in New Rochelle living through COVID-19. Produced by Broadway producer Ken Davenport’s TheaterMakers Studio, the play reading will take place via Zoom on Oct. 8 at 5 p.m. The cast, directed by Nick Corley, includes Emily Skinner, C.J. Wilson, Ben Fankhauser and Yarissa Tiara Millan.
Sorkin, who lives in Scarsdale, started writing the play shortly after the containment zone was established in New Rochelle and her own family decided to go into quarantine.
“Interestingly enough, the containment zone in New Rochelle was not really a quarantine,” she said. “But I was fascinated with the idea. I started realizing that life was really changing, and COVID-19 was a very big event … As a playwright, I said, ‘What can I do to bring something of myself to this really important moment in time?’ I started thinking about what everyday people are thinking and how are they reacting. … Early on there was some sense that people were dying, or that they could die, and that this was really serious.”
And that’s what inspired her play titled, “This is Serious.”
Sorkin set the first part of the play over two days: March 11 and 12, a time when colleges were sending students home and people were starting to consider whether they would self-quarantine or not.
“Even at that time, we did not know how this thing was spreading or really what was happening, and people had different views about when it was even going to be over,” Sorkin said. “So I decided that I would try to go inside the head of a family in New Rochelle where this was all happening around them. I decided that I would create a story about a family, and about the stress put on family relationships during this pandemic.”
“When you up the stakes and you think that life and death hang in the balance, it really affects how people act. I wanted to explore what our deepest fears are; do our worst impulses rear their ugly heads during this time? Or do we rise to the occasion and show all the goodness in humanities, like the front-line workers have done?”
An accomplished playwright, musical theater book writer and lyricist, an opera librettist and a member of the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop for more than 20 years, writing a play in real time as real-life events were unfolding around her was a first for Sorkin.
“There were a lot of things going on right after Memorial Day weekend,” she said, referring to the news of people getting COVID-19 in Florida after congregating on beaches, news of the racist episode with birder Chris Cooper in Central Park, the killing of George Floyd who died while in police custody, which sparked debates and protests about racial inequality and systemic racism in this country.
But most of the events were not yet front page news. In fact, the top story in The New York Times two days after Floyd died was, “Millions of Children Face Dire Wait for Hunger Aid.”
The unfolding coronavirus crisis is central in the first part of Sorkin’s play, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” while the second part, “Double Whammy,” incorporates both the COVID crisis and the Black Lives Matter protests.
“The family I've created [is] the kind of family that debates the issues of the day. But so much of the play is also about the small things that we have to deal with in everyday life — a lot of concerns about jobs, about romance.”
The central characters are husband and wife, Maggie and Richard Granville, who are quarantining with their son Petey, a freshman who came home from Duke University after it closed its campus in the beginning of March. Petey brings home his Latinx girlfriend, Aña, who attends Iona College in New Rochelle (they met the previous summer). Aña lives with her father in an apartment across the hall from a custodian who works at Young Israel, where the New Rochelle coronavirus outbreak emerged, and who has COVID-19. Aña’s father wants her to leave the apartment and live someplace else to be safe, so Petey decides to bring Aña to quarantine with his family, which is the inciting incident of the play. The characters also grapple with pandemic-induced concerns about several members of their extended family — the grandmother is in a nursing home in Massachusetts, Maggie’s sister also lives in Massachusetts, and therein lies another set of complications.
“Of course, it's their story and the whole story of what's going on in America at that time [in] a microcosm with these four characters,” Sorkin said, adding that the time people have spent sheltering in place has been “a time to really think about what's going on around us” — especially for writers, “because that's what playwrights do; they try to explore humanity, they try to explore our deepest fears and how we relate to the world and … try to make sense out of life.”
Sorkin said she not only enjoyed the process of writing this play, she also is “very, very pleased” to be producing it to support Feeding Westchester, an organization on the front lines of addressing food insecurity throughout the county. Her goal is to raise $5,000 through donations, while the play is presented for free on Zoom.
To view the program, RSVP by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 6 on the contact link at JoanRossSorkin.com and request the Zoom link.