The spark for “Home Front,” an original play running through Feb. 19 at Burbank’s Victory Theatre Center, came 25 years ago when the first scene was written as part of a playwriting-focused benefit event.
Warren Leight, the Tony-winning writer (“Side Man”) and seasoned showrunner (“Law & Order: SVU”), couldn’t get the pages he’d written about an interracial love story out of his head. A widowed young white woman and a Black Navy officer fall in love after meeting in Times Square on V-J day as World War II ends and a new socioeconomic era dawns.
“It lingered,” Leight told Variety. “It was a romantic scene of infinite possibility.”
It would take three more decades, the loss of his uncle and a global pandemic for Leight to see the story come to fruition in its first full-scale production.
Austin Highsmith Garces, C.J. Lindsey and Jonathan Slavin star in a story that is confined to three characters and a dingy Lower East Side basement apartment. Maria Gobetti, co-artistic director of Victory Theatre Center, directs the two-act play, which is produced by Gobetti, Tom Ormeny and set designer Evan Bartoletti for the Victory Theatre.
Leight knew the love story of James and Annie had dramatic potential because it was based on a real-life couple he remembered from his childhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. As an adult, he learned details of what had happened to the couple over time that stayed with him. But that grounding of truth was also the reason he didn’t pick up the idea for years.
“I avoided it for a while,” Leight says. “I knew it wasn’t going to go well for that couple.”
After his uncle died in 2001, Leight decided to revisit the story and incorporate the character of Edward, a gay, wounded WWII veteran who lives in the same Lower East Side building. Edward becomes a friend and vital support system for Annie as she adjusts to life in a marriage that still wasn’t legal in numerous U.S. states at the time of the sotry.
“My uncle was a gay, World War II medic who was decorated with the Purple Heart – very much as Edward is in the play. A little snarky and world-weary,” Leight said. “He could fall into bitterness sometimes. But he chose to get up every day.”
As for the central couple, Leight wanted to focus on the experience of Black soldiers who came home from WWII expecting to receive more equal treatment after helping in the fight against fascism. Like the lead of “Home Front,” they were squarely disappointed by pernicious racism.
As the larger “Home Front” arc took shape, Leight began to develop the play in fits and starts and workshops. It had a three-week run as “James and Annie” in 2003 at the Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati. There was another reading in San Diego in 2018. After that, Leight started giving the play a push on social media. One thing led to another, and in the close-knit world of Los Angeles theater, when Gobetti reached out to Highsmith Garces know she was looking for a biracial love story to tackle, the two women wound up with Leight’s work.
“I got on the phone for a blind date with Maria and Tom. We Zoomed,” Leight said.
Leight has spent much of the past 20 years working at the lightning speed of television on such series as “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” FX’s “Lights Out” and HBO’s “In Treatment.” But when it comes to writing plays, “I’m a slow cooker,” he said.
Leight’s C.V. includes 1998’s “Side Man,” which was also a Pulitzer finalist, and such plays as “Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine” and “No Foreigners Beyond This Point.”
“I have been writing plays for years and I still don’t know how you get a play produced,” Leight said. “Every play I’ve ever done it’s taken me putting together readings and making a lot of calls myself.”
The “Home Front” development experience at Victory Theatre with Gobetti and Ormeny has been satisfying, Leight said. Because it came together during COVID, the partners first met in virtual form.
“To do a play with people you haven’t met – that’s a real exercise in trust,” Leight said. “They had to hope that I wasn’t going to be prima donna. I had to hope that they knew what they were doing. It’s a small budget.”
“Home Front” opened Jan. 13 and was originally set to close Feb. 12 but has been extended to Feb. 19. After the success of the Victory Theatre run, Leight hopes the next stop for the play will be other prominent regional theaters and, of course, the Main Stem and environs.
“It’s playing really well for a lot of people who don’t know most of this history at all,” Leight said. “This is a play about marriage, and friendship, and pride.”
(Pictured top: Austin Highsmith Garces, C.J. Lindsey and Jonathan Slavin)