My City Was Gone
Blaine Dunham began her career in theater down by the docks in Coconut Grove. Now 23 years old, the two-time Carbonell Award-nominated actress and artistic director of Lunatic Theatre Company arrived in Miami at the age of 6, making a dramatic entrance by sailing into the Grove's Dinner Key Marina on her family's boat. Living aboard the 48-foot Destiny until she was eleven, she'd row ashore to play in the Coconut Grove Playhouse scene shop, a giant warehouse in which the playhouse builds its sets. The current shop is located in Coral Gables, but in the 1970s it stood next to the water, where Monty Trainer's restaurant is now located.
"The scene shop was a magical place for me, a source of inspiration, like a little treasure shop," Dunham recalls over coffee at World Resources on Lincoln Road, where she works in the gallery. A slim woman with waist-length blonde hair, strong cheekbones, and almond-shape eyes, Dunham grows animated as she recollects her early days as a theater impresario. "We'd get all the discards from the place.
Wood, cardboard boxes, pieces of sets. [My friends and I] would make up little skits, drag a guy over and say, 'You're going to be the husband.' We'd charge people a quarter to see the show. Instead of having a lemonade stand we had a theater."
Dunham remembers the Grove as "a little fishing village. Everybody knew each other. It had so much character. It was very rustic, with everything made of wood. And [then] systematically everything became like CocoWalk, pink and neon." She says she watched the same growth spread to other parts of Miami until the development "wiped out the character of the city." Places she associates with growing up, such as I Ching head shop and Blue Water Marine, a boating supply store (both in the Grove), or places she considers historical, such as the Fifth Street Boxing Gym on South Beach where the then-Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) once fought, are gone, as if, as she puts it, "all my memories have been renovated."
In response to such change, Dunham has been writing a comic epic about the new Miami, borrowing from the conventions of commedia dell'arte, a sixteenth-century Italian theater genre characterized by stock roles (based on recognizable types from Italian society), emblematic costumes and masks, and comic improvisation. For her project, she's fashioned a cast of stock characters drawn from the transients, transplants, and refugees who people South Florida, then tossed them into extreme situations such as drug deals, political protests, and hospital crises. Hoping to celebrate Miami's 100th birthday by bringing the show to audiences during next year's centennial festivities, she describes the work in progress as "a live-animation spectacle that will re-create Miami as we know it on a heightened plane." Dunham calls her theatrical portrayal of the real Miami Jonestown, she explains, because "everyone here is always jonesing" for the spoils this sun-baked, overripe town holds out to them. She has no less a goal for the production than provoking audiences to recognize themselves in what's happening on-stage.
An original work that has yet to make the leap from page to stage, Jonestown comes to life when the protean actress describes several of the play's characters as she sits in World Resources, assuming their accents and gestures. She seems surprisingly unconcerned that the play's title recalls another Jonestown, this one in Guyana, where cult leader Jim Jones led nearly a thousand of his followers in a mass suicide in 1978. Dunham says she doesn't remember the event, asserting that "it just happens to be a coincidence that I named [the play] that. When people read about [the show], they'll realize it has nothing to do with the massacre."
At the heart of Jonestown lies what Dunham calls "a fateful love story" between the characters Slim Jones and Flora. Slim, a drug-dealing slumlord/pimp who has relocated here from New York City, still wears his leopard fur coat in the heat; Flora is a homeless woman who, as Dunham describes her, is "the most sensitive woman in the world, with see-through skin and a red beating heart and long fingers with suction cups at the end." Other Miami types include the Fly Girls, who work for Slim. "They wear sunglasses that make them look like flies and are all over cocaine like flies on shit," Dunham explains. There's also Michael Balonee, a South Beach party promoter, and Mister Doltore, a businessman and pedophile, described in notes for the play as having "a hairy chest and gold chains and a cellular phone. A real charmer."
The play's frenzied action moves through scenes set in hospital emergency rooms, crack houses, Cuban cafeterias, and shantytowns built by the homeless. Dunham envisions the cast acting with the exaggerated gestures of cartoon characters, while wearing oversize costumes and wielding huge props. Those elements, plus live drum, xylophone, bass, and guitar music, will lend the event the sense of "live animation" Dunham seeks; she believes it all comes together to reflect the fast-paced, chaotic reality of modern life. High-energy pacing, she also contends, will appeal to an audience who, numbed by television and computer screens, haven't given live theater a chance. "I'm hoping to make theater for the MTV generation," she notes. "You cannot underestimate the short attention span that has been produced because of TV. [People] cannot sit for the five-act plays. Plays have to move along. In Jonestown, scenes happen quickly; [they] establish what's happening and then we're moving on."
Ultimately, Dunham would love to produce Jonestown in the lobby of the Freedom Tower, the historic landmark located downtown on Biscayne Boulevard. She envisions "the opposite of a theater in the round," in which she'll "put the audience in the center and have them actually move around on a rotating platform following the action."
Dunham comes to writing, producing, and directing by way of acting. Introduced to the arts at an early age by her writer-storyteller father, John Minot Grose, and her mother, Barbara D. Alkins, who took her to see her first shows at Coconut Grove Playhouse, she attended New World School of the Arts (NWSA) High School. She praises NWSA's acting program for being "familylike and nurturing," providing an atmosphere in which students and faculty can exercise tremendous "freedom of thought and action." Yet she cut her tenure in the college acting program short. During her first year, her father and her grandmother died within a month of each other. In 1992, after taking a break from her studies, Dunham decided to pursue acting professionally instead of returning to school. Although appreciative of NWSA's lavish support of its students, she says she knew she would grow more as an actress under "the pressure and the reality of the press and audience members who force you to work harder" than do teachers and classmates.
Dunham's talents garnered her work in local productions, including Christopher Hampton's Dangerous Liaisons, Howard Brenton's Bloody Poetry, and the Florida Shakespeare Festival's Romeo and Juliet, as well as Arthur Kopit's Road to Nirvana and Theresa Rebeck's Spike Heels, for which she won a Carbonell Award nomination for Best Actress. Still, Dunham laments the paucity of interesting roles available to her and other young actors. To remedy this, in 1993 she and singer-actor Shawn O'Brien started the Lunatic Theatre Company and have since staged such productions as John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea at Washington Square, a defunct bar on South Beach, and Sam Shepard's Fool for Love at Tobacco Road, for which Dunham won her second Carbonell nomination.
Secure in achievements and acclaim, Dunham seems to have a solid career as an actress ahead of her. She looks at her future through a wider lens, however. "I love acting," she says. "But I'm always frustrated as an actor in some way. An actor is an instrument, and as talented as an actor can be they are still the instrument of the director and the writer. But I have this need to oversee everything. [And] what I love most is taking something from the vapors of your mind, just an idea, putting it on paper, taking it from the page, and putting it on live."
To raise funds for costumes, salaries, production, and promotion for Jonestown, Lunatic Theatre plans to stage David Mamet's American Buffalo at Chili Pepper, 621 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, in December. For information, call 738-6404.
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