The bonds between three siblings, neglected for 20 years, are still taut enough to cut in Blood Ties, a new play by Charlotte native Kenya Phifer-Jones that premieres at Duke Energy Theater Jan. 23. It is Phifer-Jones' first full theater production on a professional stage, but at 39 the playwright isn't your typical ingénue. She founded Legacy Theatre Production Company in 2010, and has been penning ensemble pieces, scripts for independent films, nontraditional shows and performances for years.
Blood Ties tells the story of Gail, Eric and Bishop, who grew up under the brutal but protective hand of their father Jesse. They've since gone on to build their own complicated lives, which included very little communication with each other, but have reunited for Jesse's funeral. Gail, the oldest, hasn't seen her brothers since she left home at 18, shrouded in a secret scandal both parents have taken to the grave. Bishop, a serial gigolo, was Jesse's caregiver; his resentment for his older sister and younger brother and unanswered questions about the past have made him as bitter as the father he hated. Eric struggles with addiction but makes no secret of it, and is a welcome shot of levity as the least damaged sibling who is just happy to have his family back together in the same room.
Starring Phifer-Jones, Travis Thompson and Jonathan Caldwell, the three-act play is a sparse but evocative production that comes with a "Mature Audiences Only" warning on the handbill. It's warranted for some language, including the brothers' reminiscing of past sexual conquests and some fighting words, but especially the play's mature themes — that love doesn't always look the way you want or need it to.
"It's universal," Phifer-Jones says. "We've all been through things as kids, but end of the day you have to work through whatever issues you have and forgive yourself, even if it means recreating your definition of home." If that sounds especially level-headed, that's because it's coming from a grown-up playwright with not only creative force, but life experience under her belt.
Although there is a bit of the playwright in every character, Blood Ties doesn't reflect Phifer-Jones' comfortable upbringing. Her grandfather was a successful entrepreneur with several small businesses, and she had no other siblings in her mother and father's household, so she enjoyed the full perks of being the first-born, the youngest and the only girl. She wrote her first play, Jennifer, in fourth grade at Lincoln Heights Elementary school in Charlotte.
"I started writing during recess. I had a playhouse in my backyard the size of a one-car garage that we used to put on plays. It had electricity, and we sometimes had an audience, sometimes not. I would direct my cousins and neighborhood friends, tell them where to stand, give them character backgrounds. It's amazing that someday I would be doing what I did at six to 10 years old," she says.
Having close cousins and watching lots of television helped her feel her way through building the Blood Ties siblings' rivalry-stricken relationships. So did her experiences of being bullied as a teen and learning she had a younger half-sibling outside of her parents' union.
"As I went through stuff in my childhood, writing was my refuge," she says.
Phifer-Jones has worked on a slew of projects, including soap operas that aired on public access TV; independent film Watching over Lydia; a role in 2012 studio release The Bay; and various shorts staged at the Mint Museum and Venue@1801. She is SAG-certified. Phifer-Jones says she loves to act, but had trouble finding satisfying roles: "You're either a one-dimensional girlfriend or the plus-sized best friend who can't get a man. I wanted to write parts for myself where I was a confident, strong center of the story."
So in 2010, when the economic downturn dealt her a layoff from her job as a health-care provider, Phifer-Jones followed her childhood dream of founding her own theater production company. She named it Legacy, after her grandfather's example of self-determination. The road wasn't immediately clear, but Phifer-Jones wouldn't quit.
"It was very hard, just me hustling and trying to push the word out. I wanted to quit many times, because it is disconcerting. It's challenging, it's lonely, and discouraging," she says. "But the muse was always there. We fell out quite a few times, now, but she kept pulling me back."
She performed with other groups and started writing and producing her own independent film shorts. And then, right in the middle of shooting, she discovered she was pregnant in 2013. She finished the projects with the help of creative camera angles and set dressing, but in some of the films on her YouTube channel, her belly disrupts the plot continuity.
"By end of filming I was nine months along. I had to write my pregnancy in, or shoot above my chest, which ballooned. I learned with each film, improved with each one. And I learned how to edit in midst of raising my son and losing sleep," Phifer-Jones says.
Now her household numbers four cats, two dogs, a one-year-old son and a husband, and she's working on a one-woman show to debut before the end of the year. Even she isn't sure how she does it.
"I'm a part-time artist just struggling to make it, and a stay-at-home mom, which is a full-time job in itself. The struggle is real," she says, but she is adapting strategies to make it work. Her muse starts talking around 6:30 in the morning, usually when the new mom is desperate for a few more minutes of sleep.
"She wears a ponytail, T-shirt and jogging pants. She's sloppy, talks real fast, she's very impatient and persnickety and a bugaboo. She looks like me, the poor man's version," Phifer-Jones shares. "But I appreciate her very much."