Entertainment & Arts

Mother with the Hat: Is the title a blessing or curse?

(l-r) FLOR DE LIZ PEREZ (Veronica) & RICARDO CHAVIRA (Jackie) Image copyright Mark Douet
Image caption Flor De Liz Perez (Veronica) and Ricardo Chavira (Jackie) in The Mother with the Hat

It's not every day the National Theatre - and the BBC - is unable to broadcast the full title of a play.

In the case of Stephen Adly Guirgis's play, it is because it contains a swear word.

For the purposes of this article we'll refer to it as The Mother with the Hat. The National Theatre prints the swear word on the programme with two asterisks.

Guirgis's play received six Tony nominations on Broadway and opened at the NT's Lyttelton Theatre last week to enthusiastic reviews. It runs until 20 August.

It is directed by Indhu Rubasingham and the cast includes Desperate Housewives star Ricardo Chavira as Jackie, a recovering addict just out of jail who has landed a job to impress his childhood sweetheart Veronica (Flor De Liz Perez).

But things take a turn when he notices another man's hat in their apartment.

On a recent visit to London, Guirgis told the BBC about the play's title, winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and his new Netflix project with Baz Luhrmann.

Image copyright National Theatre
Image caption Stephen Adly Guirgis won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama

The reviews have been very good, so how does it feel to have a play at the National?

This is an important season at one of your most important theatres, so the fact they chose to do a play of mine is a real honour and the fact that it is apparently being well received makes me feel a sense of relief that it didn't let anybody down.

Does it bother you that the theatre has put asterisks in the title?

I get it. When I wrote the play originally I didn't think it was going to Broadway or the National. It felt like the right title for this play.

The title is a blessing and a curse. It's a curse because sometimes that's where the conversation begins and ends.

It's a blessing because it's like a disclaimer. You can't walk into a play with this title and be offended.

What I'd hoped for in London and New York is that when you come and see the play you'll have an experience that transcends your experience of the title.

Have producers ever suggested that the title might hurt the play's commercial prospects?

Initially producers didn't have any problem with it, but then they discovered it's difficult to figure out what to call it for the internet.

No-one ever told me to change it, so I didn't.

What sparked the idea for this play?

Some of the play I've experienced, for sure, other parts I haven't.

I'm interested in codes of conduct. When we're younger, our friendships are probably the things that are most prized, We have an organised set of rules built around them that we mostly follow.

But then when we get older, life gets more complicated and those loyalties and codes can be broken.

I'm interested in what is acceptable behaviour amongst friends.

Most of my plays, if you break them down, are about people who are past the age where they should have already grown up still trying to grow up.

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Media captionRicardo Chavira said the TV show Desperate Housewives placed him ''in golden handcuffs'' which could be ''creatively frustrating''

How does it feel to have the Pulitzer Prize for Drama on your CV?

It's a little surreal. It's not tattooed on my arm but you're right, it's on my resume, and I figure in the worst-case scenario if I bomb out as a playwright I'll be able to get a job teaching.

If I'm in a plane crash maybe they'll put "Pulitzer Prize winner Guirgis dies".

I'm glad it happened. I have the plaque, I went to the ceremony and I'm grateful - but I've got to get on with what's next.

And that's a Netflix series called The Get Down with Baz Luhrmann about the birth of hip hop?

It's a coming-of-age story of these five kids in the south Bronx in the 70s and the cultural and artistic revolutions that came out of New York: hip hop, punk rock and the graffiti and breakdance scenes.

I grew up in New York, so I know a bit about it, but doing the research has been great.

Image copyright Mark Douet
Image caption The play received six Tony nominations on Broadway

Has it been a very different experience from writing a play?

I've done some television work before. There's less autonomy.

Working with Baz I learn so much about the execution of story.

We'll be talking about a character like a breakdancer or a drug dealer and he'll reference the Greeks and Shakespeare and connect the story to a continuum that's been going on for thousands of years.

As a Pulitzer Prize winner, what will your next play be about?

It's a boxing play, a period piece that goes from the late 40s to the early 70s.

It tells the story of a boxer who was great enough to become a champion for a minute, but lacked some of the intangibles and good fortune to stay a champion.

Most of my plays are set in New York but in this play there are scenes in the French Riviera and they go back in time; so it might take a little while.

Does it have a title?

Right now it's got the mundane title of Untitled Boxing Play. When you use boxing expressions as titles it either sounds really good or really stupid.

So far I've only been able to come up with the stupid ones.

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