A year ago, A-lan Holt ’11 was driving through her Los Angeles neighborhood, reflecting on the devastation of drugs. Today, she is celebrating the debut of “8ball,” her original play about love and drugs in South Central L.A.
The piece is a meditation on movement in two acts. It shares the story of a young couple moving into a new neighborhood and their interactions with an older couple that refuses to move out. Poverty, forced eviction and drug abuse compose the backdrop upon which we watch the protagonists’ relationships evolve.
In a mere six weeks, director and writer Holt has transformed the play from a two-dimensional script to a three-dimensional performance.
“A year ago, it looked like one of those old grainy films,” Holt said, “but now it’s so vibrant and alive.”
Holt made her foray into playwriting as a sophomore, after taking professor Cherrié Moraga’s “Introduction to Playwriting” course. Moraga is the adviser and dramaturge for this performance, and it is her own work as well as her mentorship that inspires Holt.
Holt is known for her extraordinary poetry — as a senior member of the Spoken Word Collective, she has been writing and performing original work for years. However, she finds that theater can offer opportunities to explore themes too big to fit in a few stanzas.
“What I love about playwriting is that you get to spend a lot more time creating the world, the characters and the situations,” Holt said. “Poetry is good because you can get a poem out in a day or a couple of hours, but plays really take work, and I’m learning to appreciate that.”
But her penchant for poetry is not lost on this piece — the script is replete with poetic language and imagery.
“There are monologues that very well could be poems, and many of them started off as poems,” Holt said. “A lot of the generative material for this play came from poetry that I was writing with or without thoughts of the play. From there, I either move things around, break things up into dialogue or find one line that just works. My poetry is very much the groundwork of the play and the process of writing it.”
Between her involvement with the Spoken Word Collective and the Blackstage Theater Company, Holt continually pursues innovative and nontraditional art forms on campus. That creative spirit is evident in “8ball,” a play that thrives on its ingenuity. “Theater at Stanford tends to be more traditional; most plays are two acts and have a protagonist, and I try to stay away from that,” Holt said. “I’m very interested in nontraditional pieces. The aesthetic of ‘8ball’ is very new and fresh.”
Her work obscures distinctions between traditional and new, blending poetry and prose and working with unusual design elements to complete the performance. The set is sparse, featuring some austere furniture amidst a conceptual design of concentric squares denoting spaces in the play. The impressive soundtrack, created by Tyler Brooks ’14, is a gritty, groovy ode to pain and love.
But the simplicity of the set highlights the humanity of Holt’s characters. The abstract lights, sounds and stage force the spectator to focus her attention on the love that counteracts the chaos.
“On paper, ‘8ball’ is a play about the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s, but really it’s a play above love, you know?” Holt said. “It’s about being able to love others and yourself despite having these really destructive and traumatic experiences. I hope these characters that we’re very familiar with, like the crack addict or the drug dealer, can now become more nuanced, so that we can see them as human.”
Amidst a city that is “just a bunch of thieves,” we see the love and dedication of a few humble heroes. It is a small but powerful cast, with each actor infusing Holt’s words with vitality. Jan Barker-Alexander, associate dean of students and director of the Black Community Services Center, delivers a stellar performance as a woman dealing with eviction and loss. Victoria Asbury ’11 of Diaspora fame is undoubtedly the star of the show, playing the part of the devoted, discerning wife of a starry-eyed drug dealer with such passion you’d think it was Broadway. The final scene will leave you frozen in your seat with your mouth wide open in awe of the talent of each person involved in the play’s production.
Fortunately, that talent is being recognized at a national level — “8ball” recently received first place at the James Baldwin New Play Festival at UC-San Diego. And it all started here at Stanford in a sophomore’s drama class.
“Young people at Stanford are very fortunate because Stanford is creating all these beautiful arts initiatives. To be an artist on this campus right now is very exciting,” Holt said. “If you can’t find a class or a student group that’s doing what you’re interested in, then go find a friend and just start doing it.”
Holt epitomizes the entrepreneurial spirit of Stanford, and her holistic and innovative approach to the arts has surely paid off. “8ball” is a dramatic triumph not to be missed, by a playwright who cannot be overlooked.