When Tim Acito was a high school teacher in New Jersey in the early 1990s, he taught "The Women of Brewster Place," Gloria Naylor's acclaimed 1982 novel.
"I fell in love with it," says Acito, whose recent theatre credits include the book, music and lyrics for the 2003 Off-Broadway musical Zanna, Don't! "I filed in the back of my brain the idea that I would love to bring it to the stage. Three years ago, I reached a time when I felt I needed to do something I believed in. I thought of that novel."
A musical adaptation of "Brewster Place" — which explores the lives of African American women in a housing project in the early 1970s — had its world premiere last month at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, which won this year's Tony Award for outstanding regional theatre. Book, music and lyrics are by Acito. The director is Molly Smith, artistic director of Washington's Arena Stage, which is co-producing. The show is now playing there.
Acito says he adapted "Brewster Place" — which became a 1989 Oprah Winfrey TV miniseries — before he secured the stage rights. "I threw caution to the wind. I felt compelled to do it whether or not it got produced. It was a foolish move — but it proved thoroughly wise." His plan was to show his work to a theatre company and try to get it interested. If a theatre was involved, he figured, and was fully committed, it might persuade Naylor to say yes.
Acito is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama. Mark Bly, a former head of the school's playwriting department, is senior dramaturge at Arena. "Mark heard I was working on the adaptation and mentioned it to Molly, who happened to be looking for a new musical that addressed quintessentially American themes," Acito says. "I sent her a draft and a demo recording. She was interested. We met. We hit it off. A couple of hours later she decided to do it."
His music for the show is very much of a piece with its period: "early '70s funk, rhythm-and-blues and gospel, in a theatrical context."
Acito grew up in central New Jersey. His father "was and still is a Dixieland jazz pianist, so I was basically introduced in the womb to banging the hell out of a piano." Acito studied classical piano; he was also a gymnast, and spent six years as a modern dancer with MOMIX, American Repertory Ballet Company, Paul Taylor 2 and Pearl Lang.
"I danced full-time from age 25 to 31. I was traveling the world, living out of a suitcase. I was getting older, and felt it was time for change. I had always loved theatre, and I had developed a deep interest in contemporary poetry. When I retired from dancing, I decided that playwriting would combine my love of movement with my love of poetry and theatre."
Why was Acito attracted to the novel? "Its language and characters possess that ever-elusive and ever-prized characteristic of 'singing,'" he explains. "They seemed to make music right off the page. The characters are this wonderful mix of being simultaneously noble and flawed — they are both heartbreaking and funny as hell. And the issues the book deals with — poverty, race, class, gender, sexuality — are still very much with us. The novel has a period-piece quality. But like most good period pieces, it reminds us that those issues have not been solved."