It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon and playwright Jessica Goldberg looks nervous. She’s never had her palm read before. But now Goldberg—a pretty young woman in an oversized cream-colored shirt and shiny black pants—sits perched on a satiny chair beside a crystal ball, proffering her right hand to a large woman in a drab housedress. “You’re going through a lot of changes,” the woman intones flatly. “You’re not the same person today that you were a few years ago.”
Goldberg must be impressed. As far as her career as a playwright is concerned, the fortune-teller’s words couldn’t be truer. Two years ago, Goldberg was just another grad student, albeit a particularly talented one. But in 1999, the 27-year-old’s plays earned her the Helen Merrill Award, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and a place at the prestigious National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center. Suddenly she’s having productions at Playwrights Horizons, readings at the Royal Court, even film-rights negotiations. And on March 27 her newest play, The Hologram Theory—produced by the Blue Light Theater Company—opens at the McGinn Cazale Theater.
In Hologram, a young Trinidadian woman named Patsy wakes one night to a vision of her twin brother’s ghost. “Got to find my deadness,” her brother, Dominic, instructs, “fore it eats at you.” Mightily spooked, Patsy travels to New York to solve the mystery of his murder and bury his body. Her only clue: a scrap of Dominic’s last letter home that reads, “There’s this kind of church here like Grandma’s Orisha. People dance wildly, their bodies filled up with the past, the present, the future, there aint no time anymore, just the body, movin’ and the love all around. It’s called The Palace.”
The scrap of letter not only gives Patsy her start, it also illuminates the great strength of Goldberg’s play: her careful juxtaposition of Afro-Caribbean religion with the rituals peculiar to the New York club kid. While some of the inspiration for The Hologram Theory derived from newspaper accounts of the Angel Melendez clubland murder, Goldberg herself is no stranger to New York nightlife. She recalls the inherent theatricality of Limelight in the early ’90s, how “you could go and be whatever you wanted, wear the most outrageous costumes.” She also remembers the solace the scene provided for “kids who feel like they don’t belong anywhere.”
Goldberg describes herself as very interested in these sorts of kids—their habits, their speech, their concerns. And her ability to craft honest, engaging, unapologetic portraits of young adult life sets her apart as a playwright. She doesn’t write to a sexagenarian subscriber audience, but rather about and for her peers. The young people—from the prostitute sisters of The Hunger Education, to the video-store employees of Stuck, to the parentless clan in Refuge—are easily the most indelible characters of each show.
The kids in Hologram—club denizens Mimi, Tweety, Julian, and their paterfamilias Joe Buck—have all been abandoned by their parents in one way or another. Left to their own devices, they form a sort of family, albeit a scary one that embraces drugs, promiscuity, even murder. But unlike her characters, Goldberg describes her family in glowing terms. The oldest of three children, she grew up in Woodstock, where each of her parents owns a “left-of-the-dial” record store. “My family’s a real stick-together, fighter family,” she says proudly. “I’m blessed.” She also feels blessed with the adoptive family she garnered in graduate school at Juilliard. She remains in contact with classmates Hillary Bell (Wolf Lullaby), Daniel Goldfarb (Adam Baum and the Jew Movie), and David Lindsay-Abaire (Fuddy Meers).
And she now has a brand-new family in the director (Ruben Polendo), cast, and crew of The Hologram Theory. Goldberg’s taken an active role in the production: “I go to the rehearsals as much as I can, and Ruben and I talk a lot. I was there for all the auditions. The cast is thrilling.” She happily recounts how the actors playing Dominic and Patsy now treat each other like brother and sister or how the club kids have gotten really into the scene—”They’ve been going to Twilo, they were out until four in the morning.”
With the abundant support of so many families—and her excellent writing—Goldberg seems destined for a considerable measure of success. But if this theater thing doesn’t work out, she can rest easy in the fortune-teller’s predictions: good health, a lifelong commitment to a soul mate (whom she’s already met but doesn’t yet know well), and two kids all her own—preferably happier than those in her plays.