‘The Salvagers’ to debut this month at the Rep
Set to premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre on Nov. 24, the new play — which is by Harrison David Rivers and takes place in Chicago— focuses on the emotional turmoil of a father and son at odds.
Ethan Wolin, Contributing Photographer
Slights and squabbles between a father and a son pile up like the snow of their Chicago winter in “The Salvagers,” a new play set to open at the Yale Repertory Theatre on Nov. 24.
Playwright Harrison David Rivers wrote the drama after receiving a commission from Yale in 2018. At the heart of the play is the relationship between Boseman Salvage Senior and Boseman Salvage Junior, ages 37 and 23, who clash repeatedly while juggling jobs, emotional turmoil and fledgling romances.
“This is a play about a father and a son and a family with a lot of secrets and a lot of hurt. But they don’t give up on each other. They continually attempt to connect,” Rivers said. “And it’s hard, but it’s worth it.”
Since the design process began over the summer and rehearsals kicked off last month, Rivers’ script has continued to evolve, giving designers, actors and the director, Mikael Burke, a part in shaping the play before its premiere.
Several people involved in the production told the News they appreciated the rare chance to present a story about a Black family that is not centered on race.
“It’s a great American play, told by Black people, about Black people, and it does not solely revolve around how oppression impacts us,” Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew, who plays the younger Boseman’s lover Paulina, said.
The play is a product of the Binger Center for New Theatre, a Yale initiative founded in 2008 that gives selected playwrights financial backing and unlimited time to complete a piece of new work. “The Salvagers” will be the 19th work composed under a Binger commission to premiere at the Rep, according to Steven Padla, a spokesman for the David Geffen School of Drama.
Rivers, who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, said putting on a new play at a drama school–affiliated theater allowed for a longer-than-usual process, including possible revisions up to opening night.
After meeting with designers in August, for instance, Rivers said he shifted the locations of some scenes to minimize set transitions that might detract from audiences’ investment in the story.
B Entsminger DRA ’24, the scenic designer and a student at the School of Drama, explained, “We were very interested in keeping up the momentum and the pace and not pulling people out of the emotional world.”
Rivers rewrote parts of the script after attending early rehearsals. He returned to New Haven to see a run-through on Tuesday and consider any further changes.
Bartholomew said she had never encountered another playwright as flexible as Rivers, who told her he was “not precious about anything” in his writing, she said. She recalled working with him to make her character’s diction reflect a different neighborhood of Chicago.
“It’s a living, breathing entity,” Burke said. “Often, in this kind of work, I am putting on stage and manifesting the current rendition of the thing so that Harrison can look at it and go, ‘Huh, that’s not quite the thing I’m after.’” One goal, he added, is for audience members to leave the theater and call relatives to say, “Hey, just saying hi, and I love you.”
Burke, a Chicago-based freelance director who stages shows around the country, said he has known Rivers since 2017 but is now for the first time bringing a play by Rivers fully to fruition.
Before a run-through of the play on Friday — Burke called it a “stumble-through” — Taylor Blackman, who plays Boseman Salvage Junior, practiced movements from some of the dance sequences that give form to the character’s mental struggles throughout the play.
To Blackman, they also embody a range of experiences, from possible bulimia to questions about sexuality, that are not addressed fully, or at all, in the unadorned written scenes.
In the play, Boseman Senior is a locksmith, while his son, who often goes by the name Junior, works shifts at a local restaurant; each meets a woman while on the job. But Junior wants to be an actor, and Shakespearean monologues he has prepared for auditions appear more than once as touchpoints for his own emotions.
Blackman, a native Chicagoan, described his role in “The Salvagers” as an opportunity to revisit his roots, with echoes of his own start as a professional actor and of relationships with his parents that Blackman said he is trying to “rebuild.” He is four years older than the man he plays.
Rivers said he first had the idea for “The Salvagers” in 2014 when he visited Chicago with a friend and woke up one morning to find someone shoveling snow outside in the cold.
“And I thought, oh, that’s a really beautiful opening for a play, a young Black man shoveling snow,” Rivers said. “And that’s actually how the play starts.”
“The Salvagers” will run for 21 performances, ending on Dec. 16.
The Yale Repertory Theatre sits at the corner of Chapel Street and York Street.