Playwright Chisa Hutchinson on Newark and Giving Voice to the Working Class

Proof of Love playwright and Newark native Chisa Hutchinson sits on a couch at her play's rehearsal.

“I love the idea that you can move people through their ears,” muses playwright and Newark native Chisa Hutchinson. Sipping tea outside a downtown cafe, Hutchinson is reflecting on being selected as one of Audible's inaugural class of Emerging Playwrights when she spots an old friend across Halsey Street and shouts a cheerful greeting over the passing traffic and lively sidewalk conversation. Has Newark changed since her childhood? Hutchinson pauses and looks around. Her hometown is expanding as a “beacon of the arts” and attracting a steady stream of transplanted New Yorkers, but to her, it still maintains a “grit and vibrancy, a certain colorfulness, that I just don't think you can find anywhere else.”

Blossoming artistic scope and Newark grit could describe Hutchinson herself, whose play Proof of Love is debuting at Audible's Minetta Lane Theatre on May 7 as part of a fund that's commissioned 25 up-and-coming artists to write original plays for the stage and for thousands of Audible listeners. But for many years, the dramatist, whose work has appeared at venues such as the National Black Theater and Second Stage Theater, worked to leave behind a difficult upbringing in the city.

Her first taste of life outside Newark, and of the theater, was through a scholarship to the Kent Place School in Summit, New Jersey. Despite the “culture shock” of interacting with affluent peers at prep school, the school's theater classes and an inspiring teacher, Robert Pridham, gave her the opportunity to attend professional theater performances in New York City, from Julie Taymor's Juan Darien to a production of Cabaret with Alan Cumming. Experiencing live theater “blew my face off,” she laughs.

Entranced, she took up acting herself in high school productions, but began writing when she felt there weren't enough roles “available to someone like me,” a woman of color from a working-class background. Hutchinson quickly realized she also could use playwriting as an educational tool. “I wanted to make sure that the mainstream knows that we—people of color, poor folks, working-class folks—exist and that we have something to offer the world. And that if they don't pay attention, they're going to miss out.” With this sense of purpose, and Mr. Pridham's encouragement, she went on to study at Vassar College's renowned theater program.

And while she subsequently went to California to teach playwriting and literature to high schoolers in Orange County, it was a story close to home that inspired Hutchinson's breakout work. Her 2009 play, She Like Girls, details the short life of Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old lesbian who was murdered after rebuffing a romantic advance at a bus stop in Newark. Though She Like Girls is more about Gunn's coming to terms with her sexuality than her death, which was ultimately deemed a hate crime, Hutchinson says the story is typical of the themes and people she's drawn to. “I'm interested in characters who are raging against a problem that's bigger than they are, or a problem that they didn't inflict on themselves somehow,” Hutchinson, who went on to earn an M.F.A. in playwriting from NYU, explains. “The world is an impossible place for them to exist in a healthy way. And yet, they strive anyway. They find a way.”

These themes are evident in Hutchinson's Audible Original production, Proof of Love—though the obstacle her characters struggle against is a potentially insurmountable class divide between them. Set in a wealthy New Jersey suburb, it follows Constance, played by Brenda Pressley, who is reeling in the aftermath of her husband's horrific car accident. He's in a coma, and she has “discovered some things about him that are unsettling for her.” Without giving too much away, Hutchinson divulges that she worked hard to break free from the standard one-person play format, taking the audience with Pressley on a search for “evidence that there actually was love there, despite the fact that the class divide would suggest otherwise or make it difficult.”

Hutchinson's commitment to characters is what drew Audible Theater to her voice, explains Emilia LaPenta, Producer of New Play Development and Commissions. “The people in her plays are vibrant and real–grappling with relationships and identity and often faced with substantial obstacles, but also in touch with an inner joy.” After long admiring her work, LaPenta says, “signing Chisa up to write a new play was a no-brainer, and working with her has been a singular delight. She is a radiant, intelligent, and incredible artist–I cannot wait to introduce her voice to our listeners.”

The thought of the play's New York City run, and exposure to Audible listeners, literally makes Hutchinson clap her hands with glee. Though she has a full roster of exciting projects lined up–from her last year as a playwriting resident at New Dramatists organization in New York City to potential television writing jobs–“this is the thing I'm most looking forward to right now,” she bubbles. “Audible is taking the cake.”

And when Proof of Love premieres at Minetta Lane in downtown Manhattan, Hutchinson will head over from Newark, where she's set down roots once more. She and her husband own a home in Forest Hill and are “feeling the Newark pride,” due mainly to the burgeoning arts scene.

Has she come full circle? Her return, she ponders, is more of an “upward spiral” than a circle. “You spend so much time thinking that the place you come from is inferior,” she admits. But “then you discover things about it you didn't or couldn't appreciate before.”

Proof of Love opens at the Minetta Lane Theatre on May 14. Previews start May 7. Learn more and buy tickets here.