“Queen” is about women. “Queen” is about bees. Behind the scenes, it’s about new ways of working together.
The play by Madhuri Shekar marks the start of a new collaboration between the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven and New York’s National Asian American Theatre Co., also known as NAATCO.
“Queen” — a play about two doctoral students who discover an error in a major paper on bee populations that they are about to publish — will also be the last regular show that the Long Wharf will produce at 222 Sargent Dr., the space it has called home since the company was founded in 1965.
Mia Katigbak, the founder and producing artistic director of NAATCO, is best known in Connecticut as an actor — she was in TheaterWorks Hartford’s internationally acclaimed virtual political drama “Russian Troll Farm,” the world premiere of “The Plot” at Yale Repertory Theatre and Long Wharf’s production of the Lucas Hnath hit “A Doll’s House Part 2.”
Katigbak is not performing in “Queen.” As part of NAATCO’s exciting new partnership with Long Wharf, she is one of its producers.
Katigbak says she and Long Wharf Artistic Director Jacob Padrón “laid the seeds for a partnership” a while ago. They met when Padrón was senior line producer for, and Katigbak was starring in, the New York Public Theater’s all-Asian-American revival of “Awake and Sing” in 2015. By the time Padrón, who is also the founder of the Latinx theater initiative the Sol Project, took over the Long Wharf, Katigbak says, “I was already thinking of starting a partnership project.”
“Partnership” is a significant word here. Many theaters commonly enter into “co-productions,” which simply means sharing costs and resources for a show that will then play at more than one theater. Katigbak, whose company advocates for greater representation of Asian theater practitioners, is looking for more than shared financial responsibilities and a shared aesthetic. She’s looking for shared purpose.
“For the partnership inaugurated by this production,” Katigbak says, “NAATCO is advising and involved in creative decisions, including the casting and the creative teams.” For “Queen,” both the playwright and director are Asian, as are three of the four designers and two of the four cast members.
“We want to be doing what NAATCO does when it puts on a show. We’re asking partners to look at their staff, the board, the creative team and consider Asians for those positions and to announce plans for more Asian programs. We’re looking for greater participation. We can’t dictate what our partners do, but we’re looking to open new horizons. Even with folks who completely agree with what we’re doing, there are methods of working that I see could use some attention.”
NAATCO is starting with two partners: the Long Wharf and the New York off Broadway company Soho Rep. New plays are being commissioned for both partnerships, but Katigbak says “we’re thinking about classics, too.” Katigbak’s goal is to have six partnerships with other theaters “from all different parts of the country.”
When selecting “Queen” for their first partnership project, Katigbak says she and Padrón spent time going back and forth about playwrights, “and we both loved ‘Queen.’ It was meant to happen.”
She calls the script “so rich thematically. On the surface it’s about scientific research and morals and integrity. When you have a problem with the date, and you can’t present the data, but your boss has a presentation to make... there’s a person who’s having to deal with the effect of this decision.”
The show was originally meant to happen in 2020, during Padrón’s first full season at Long Wharf, but COVID delayed that. Now it will be the last production on the Long Wharf stage before the company leaves its home of the past 57 years.
That situation, which was not foreseen when “Queen” was announced as part of this season’s lineup over a year ago, “has its own excitement,” Katigbak says, and it has inspired the scenic designer to create “a new configuration of the theater. It has never been like this before.”
“Queen” is directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar, who has directed for NAATCO previously and whose Connecticut connections include graduating from the Geffen School of Drama at Yale in 2019 and directing the 2020 TheaterWorks Hartford production of Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who and the What.”
“By the time I was contacted, the play had been all but programmed,” Kudtarkar says. “NAATCO and Long Wharf felt strongly about it.”
“This is a play that really deals with science and numbers,” she says. And it’s “about two women solving an immediate problem with their research. The things coming to the surface have really been about bees. The limits we’ve pushed honeybees to is dangerous. We rely so heavily on pollinators. Honeybees are responsible for one third of the world’s agriculture. There’s a lot to be learned from them about how to survive as a species. This is a really smart, funny play. It is a comedy, though of course the bees are dying.”
Kudtarkar says she’s been able to develop all the themes of this layered script partly because this initial partnership between NAATCO and Long Wharf is going so well.
“Working with both companies has been so lovely and positive. The process is really being supported. There’s been a real sense of coming together to support a project. It doesn’t feel bifurcated. From the beginning, it felt like we’re doing this together.”
“Queen” by Madhuri Shekar, directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar, runs May 17 through June 5 at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m., plus a Wednesday matinee May 25 at 2 p.m. $59, $10 students. longwharf.org.
Christopher Arnott can be reached at email@example.com.