St. Petersburg – Anti-LGBT hate crimes is the last place one would expect to find comedy—but when such an event brings together a family unit, there are bound to be comic elements.
That’s according to Natalie Symons, the author of The Buffalo Kings, staged at freeFall Theatre through Feb. 8.
“The play is about healing,” Symons says during a break from rehearsals at the popular St. Petersburg theater. “Families help heal, and this is about how we help each other heal—what we do.”
And therein lies the comic elements, she says.
The story follows the King family of Buffalo, N.Y., hence the title, shortly after 15-year-old Nick is the victim of a hate crime. The setting is during the Christmas holidays and the teen’s senile grandfather, Harold, threatens to take matters into his own hands. It’s the interactions of the characters that should resonate with the audience, explains director Eric Davis.
“This is a play for anyone with a family,” Davis laughs. “Nick is very much contemporary. This isn’t a story about a family that hates their gay child. He’s a young kid who happens to be gay in a family full of love and acceptance.”
So Buffalo Kings isn’t a typical “gay play” by any means, he adds, adding that while Nick is a big part of the play, he doesn’t have to be the main focus throughout the two-acts. And anyone who has spent an extended period of time at a family gathering will relate to at least some of the interactions in the King home.
“I like to straddle pathos and comedy,” Symons explains. “There are moments, like in August: Osage County, where you see an interaction and either laugh or hold your head and say, ‘God, that’s my relative.’ We project our own families onto this.”
The Buffalo Kings is the second play written by Symons and the freeFall production will be the first time it’s been staged for an audience. It has had public readings before, but this will be the plays world premiere. Since rehearsals began, both Symons and Davis have said tweaks have made the show flow much better.
“I started this project a year and a half ago and I’m so close to it,” Symons says. “Now I get to see actors living it and it’s become a collaborative art project.”
And Davis is a big part of that collaboration, and adds that the quirky and interesting characters make it easy to work with the show since they are all personalities that are easily believable.
“In rehearsals there are epiphanies we have,” Davis explains. “One example is a moment where we decided to keep a detail about an event from the audience for a while longer. It made it more interesting than if all the information is there from the beginning.”
And that detail, whatever it may be, is not the actual hate crime committed against the teen. That happens before the play even begins.
“It’s a tragic comedy—but there should be a better word to describe that,” Symons says. “Again, it straddles that line and I think it hits emotionally. I’m anxious to see how audiences respond.”
Having written one other play, Lark Eden, Symons is familiar with the process of introducing a play to an audience the first time. But this time it’s a bit different. Lark Eden, she explains, was three characters reading letters. The Buffalo Kings has much more interaction and since there are comic elements, timing is key.
“I keep reminding myself that every play, every production we have ever seen—even those huge hits that have made world tours—all started like this,” Symons says. “They all worked out kinks in the script and were tweaked before they debuted before audiences. This is no exception to that.”
Symons, who is from Tampa Bay, is among neighbors in the production. Several cast members will look familiar to fans of freeFall Theatre. Joseph Flynn, for example, plays Nick in this production but was also in Burnt Part Boys last year.
Also starring in the play are Joe Lauck as Grandfather Harold and other family members Katherine Michelle Tanner, Brian Shea, Chris Crawford, Jim Sorensen and Jenny Aldrich.
With seven actors playing family members, the set is just as essential as their acting chops. The home, erected in traditional theater style, is one of the largest—if not the largest—sets freeFall has constructed.
This is the first production of the new year for freeFall, and it should come as no surprise that it’s a brand new production, according to Matthew McGee, Outreach and Marketing Director of the theater.
“freeFall has always been committed to presenting new works as part of our season of shows,” says McGee. “We are especially excited to present the work of a playwright that lives right here in Tampa Bay.”
Tickets for The Buffalo Kings may be purchased at FreeFallTheatre.com or by calling the box office at 727-498-5205
WHAT: The Buffalo Kings
WHEN: Through Feb. 8
WHERE: freeFall Theatre
TICKETS: FreeFallTheatre.com or 727-498-5205