Playwright Tanya Barfield — whose new work, The Call, a co-production between Playwrights Horizons and Primary Stages, is playing at PH's Peter Jay Sharp Theater on West 42nd Street — began her career in the theatre as an actress. She might have started applying pen to paper earlier if only she had known that was an option for the living.
"I thought that all playwrights were dead," says Barfield. "I probably would have discovered playwriting first had I known that [it] was something that a person could do. So I went to acting school [instead]."
Acting led to solo plays for which she wrote her own material, which has, in turn, led to the current phase of her career, as a writer with no intention of performing in her own pieces. "I'm a writer, and actors are really amazing. I have the most amazing cast in this play. The idea of trying to step into a role, I wouldn't do it justice."
The Call, about a white couple considering whether or not to adopt an African child, is Barfield's first new play in a few years. During that period of literary inactivity, Barfield herself went through the drama of new parenthood, adopting two children. When she returned to the keypad, she discovered that the shift in her life had caused her to evolve as a writer. "I took a few years off playwriting to be a mom," she explained. "Then, when I came back to writing after that, I didn't realize that I had actually changed on the inside and I thought I could keep writing the plays that I always wrote. And it didn't work out for me and I got writer's block. I spent a couple years with writer's block, trying to be a mom and writing plays that were not really what I wanted to be writing. I guess I realized I was resisting the plays that I was actually supposed to be writing. Similarly to the way the character Annie in the play is struggling with adoption, I was struggling with writing."
The Call doesn't only draw on Barfield's recent experiences. The way she sees it, the themes of adoption and parents, both biological and not, have long played a role in her life.
"My dad is not my biological father," she says. "I grew up without a biological connection to my father, but he was very much my dad. My mom is white. I remember as a child, kids saying 'Oh, are you adopted?' when they saw me with my mom, whom I was, in fact, biologically related to. I have, in many different areas of my life, a connection and deep bond of family where there is not a biological connection."
Since breaking free from her writer's block, Barfield has been prolific. She wakes at 4 AM every morning to write before her kids wake up. "Someone told me that's the wolfing hour," she muses. "I guess I do feel a little bit like a werewolf. Until I get my coffee, that is my experience." When she's not composing, she's managing the playwriting program at The Juilliard School. Her children have a vague idea of what mommy does for a living.
"They think that I'm a teacher," she says, "because I also teach playwriting, and that's what they can relate to, because they go to school and they have teachers. However, my son did say to me, very astutely, 'Mom, why don't you write a musical. It seems like you'd make a whole lot more money.'"