“Queen” is about women. “Queen” is about bees. Behind the scenes, it’s about new ways of working together.
Madhuri Shekar’s play marks the start of a new collaboration between New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater and New York’s National Asian American Theater Co., also known as NAATCO.
“Queen” – a play about two doctoral students who discover an error in a major paper on bee populations they are about to publish – will also be the last regular show the Long Wharf will produce at 222 Sargent Dr., the space he has called home since the company was founded in 1965.
Mia Katigbak, the Founder and Artistic Director Producer of NAATCO, is best known in Connecticut as an actress – she was in TheaterWorks Hartford’s internationally acclaimed virtual political drama “Russian Troll Farm,” the world premiere of “The Plot at the Yale Repertory Theater and The Long Wharf production of Lucas Hnath’s hit ‘A Doll’s House Part 2’.
Katigbak does not play in “Queen”. As part of NAATCO’s exciting new partnership with Long Wharf, she is one of its producers.
Katigbak says she and Long Wharf artistic director Jacob Padrón “laid the groundwork for a partnership” some time ago. They met when Padrón was lead producer and Katigbak starred in New York Public Theater’s 2015 all-Asian-American revival of “Awake and Sing.” of the Sol project, took over the Long Wharf, says Katigbak, “I was already thinking about starting a partnership project.”
“Partnership” is an important word here. Many theaters typically enter into “co-productions”, which simply means sharing the costs and resources of a show that will then be played in more than one theater. Katigbak, whose company advocates for greater representation of Asian theater practitioners, seeks more than shared financial responsibilities and a shared aesthetic. She is looking for a common goal.
“For the partnership ushered in by this production,” says Katigbak, “NAATCO advises and participates in creative decisions, including casting and creative teams.” For “Queen,” the playwright and director are Asian, as are three of the four designers and two of the four cast members.
“We want to do what NAATCO does when they put on a show. We ask partners to look at their staff, board, creative team and consider Asians for these positions and announce plans for more Asian programming. We are looking for greater participation. We cannot dictate what our partners do, but we seek to open new horizons. Even with people who are completely on board with what we do, there are ways of working that I think deserve some attention.
NAATCO starts with two partners: the Long Wharf and the New York Broadway company Soho Rep. New pieces are ordered for both partnerships, but Katigbak says “we’re also thinking about the classics.” Katigbak’s goal is to have six partnerships with other theaters “from all regions of the country”.
When selecting “Queen” for their first partnership project, Katigbak says that she and Padrón spent time going back and forth on playwrights, “and we both loved ‘Queen.’ was supposed to happen.”
She calls the storyline “so thematically rich. On the surface, it is about scientific research, morality and integrity. When you have a problem with the date, and you can’t present the data, but your boss has a presentation to make…there’s someone who has to deal with the effect of that decision.
The show was originally scheduled to take place in 2020, in Padrón’s first full season at Long Wharf, but COVID delayed that. It will now be the last production on the Long Wharf stage before the company leaves its home of the past 57 years.
This situation, which was unanticipated when “Queen” was announced as part of this season’s lineup more than a year ago, “has its own excitement,” Katigbak says, and it inspired the set designer to create “a new configuration of theatre. It has never been like this before.
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“Queen” is directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar, who has previously directed for NAATCO and whose Connecticut connections include graduating from Yale’s Geffen School of Drama in 2019 and directing the 2020 TheaterWorks Hartford production of “The Who and the What” by Ayad Akhtar.
“By the time I was contacted, the play was practically scheduled,” says Kudtarkar. “NAATCO and Long Wharf were very committed to this.”
“It’s a play that’s really about science and numbers,” she says. And it’s “about two women who solve an immediate problem through their research.” The things that surfaced were really about bees. The limits to which we have pushed the bees are dangerous. We are so dependent on pollinators. Bees are responsible for a third of the world’s agriculture. There is a lot to learn from them about how to survive as a species. It’s a very clever and fun piece. This is a comedy, although of course the bees die.
Kudtarkar says she was able to develop all of the themes for this layered script in part because this initial partnership between NAATCO and Long Wharf is going so well.
“Working with both companies has been so enjoyable and positive. The process is really supported. There’s been a real sense of coming together to support a project. It doesn’t feel bifurcated. From the start I had the feel like doing this together.
Madhuri Shekar’s “Queen,” directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar, runs May 17 through June 5 at the Long Wharf Theater, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m., plus a matinee on Wednesday, May 25 at 2 p.m. $59, $10 students. longwharf.org.
Christopher Arnott can be reached at [email protected].