A main stage production at Steppenwolf is a significant milestone for a playwright with a growing national profile, and this spring James Ijames was about to add one to his résumé. His dark historical satire The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington was in rehearsals for its Chicago premiere in March. Then the pandemic put everything on hold.
Miz Martha has been pushed back to the 2021–22 season, but Ijames still gets to make his Steppenwolf debut in 2020. His new short work, What Is Left, Burns (opening November 9), is the first production out of the gate for Steppenwolf Now, a series of newly commissioned plays created exclusively for live online viewing.
Ensemble members K. Todd Freeman and Jon Michael Hill play Keith and Ronnie, two poets with a complex history: Keith was Ronnie’s mentor before their relationship turned romantic, then ended. They reconnect after several years; because the reunion is prompted by COVID-19 isolation, the conversation takes the form of a video call.
Don’t worry, it’s not the dreaded Z-word. “I didn’t particularly want to do Zoom, which everyone’s on all the time now,” Ijames says on a (non-Zoom) call from his home in Philadelphia. “I thought, What if it was something like FaceTime, where it’s less of a static experience because the actors can move and travel while still being on the call, so it could be more exciting to watch?”
That kind of creativity will be a hallmark of the series. Writer-performer Donnetta Lavinia Grays will produce a solo piece, playwright Isaac Gómez has composed a radio play, and ensemble member Rajiv Joseph is doing illustrations to accompany his contribution. These necessary inventions serve as a bridge to live theater’s eventual return. “It sort of keeps me hopeful,” says Ijames, “in a world that seems to not have a ton of hope inside it.”