Empathy and Rage in Plan-B Theatre’s ‘The Clean-Up Project’

“I was really, really, really angry and I didn’t know how to get that out,” says playwright Carleton Bluford. It was summer 2020, and Bluford, like many in the U.S., was saddened and enraged by the murder of George Floyd. Needing an outlet, he channeled his pent-up emotions into a journal entry. “That’s what I do. I start writing.” 

Initially, Bluford’s writing wasn’t meant to leave the pages of his journal, let alone be performed on stage. That changed, though, when Jerry Rapier, Plan-B Theatre’s artistic director and Bluford’s longtime collaborator and mentor, asked him if he had anything he was working on. After Bluford shared his writing, Rapier encouraged him to turn it into a play. Rapier is now directing his play The Clean-Up Project, which will premiere on Feb. 17 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

Though The Clean-Up Project is deeply, even bruisingly, personal for Bluford, the premise won’t be mistaken for straightforward memoir. The play is set in a post-apocalyptic near-future America where African-Americans have militarized and taken over the country. A Black couple (Latoya Cameron and Chris Curlett), overwhelmed by reality, have retreated to their home in what Bluford calls “their own kind of quarantine.” The couple is forced to face the issues they’ve been avoiding, though, when their white friends (Matt Sincell and Sarah Walker) come to visit, sparking a raw, unfiltered conversation about race.

The cast of "The Clean-Up Project"
The cast of “The Clean-Up Project” (Photo by Sharah Meservy/Courtesy Plan-B Theatre)

For Bluford, this reversal in power dynamics was intentionally chosen to inspire empathy in the audience, especially from white people. “I wanted to give the audience a sense of what African-Americans and BIPOC people feel on a daily basis,” he explains. In the nearly two years since Floyd’s death inspired global protest, Bluford has noticed a fading interest in racial justice. The Clean-Up Project’s premiere, in the middle of Black History Month, serves as a reminder of the everyday racism that millions still face daily in the U.S. “[For] a lot of us, this is our normal life,” Bluford says. “We don’t go on from that. This is what we deal with every day.”  

Transforming his private writing into the speculative fiction The Clean-Up Project eventually became, Bluford workshopped his play with other artists at Plan-B. “The play started to take shape as I took in other people’s suggestions and observations and points of view,” he says. Developing his unpolished, imperfect work with others was a new, sometimes uncomfortable experience for Bluford, but the process of writing this play caused him to let go of his preconceived notions. In 2015, his play Mama was also produced at Plan-B Theatre, which made him the first Black playwright to premiere a play in Utah. “I very much at that point was a writer very concerned with how people would perceive my work, how they perceive me, if they get it, if they like it,” he recalls. “At this point in my life and my career, I’m not so much concerned with what people think of my work.”

In the seven years since Mama, Bluford has grown more accustomed to speaking out, openly and unapologetically, about race in his life and his work. “To be completely honest, I’ve struggled with sharing how I feel all the time,” he says. “I’ve spent most of my life walking into rooms, speaking a certain way, acting a certain way so that everyone in the room felt comfortable or at ease.” He also accepted that talking about these issues in an unfiltered way would make some people uncomfortable, a process he calls “realizing what it feels like to have my own voice and my own space.” Bluford, who is also the production’s assistant director, says it’s been difficult to watch his personal feelings laid bare on stage over and over again, but he’s still looking forward to sharing his work with audiences. “I’m excited that I’ve written and now I’m now a part of a piece of theater that gets to do what I always wanted to do with the arts—hopefully change people’s hearts and minds.”

The Clean-Up Project will be performed at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center from Feb. 17-27 and streaming online from Feb. 23-27. For tickets and more information, visit Plan-B Theatre’s website. Read more theater stories from Salt Lake.

Josh Petersen
Josh Petersenhttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Josh Petersen is the former Digital Editor of Salt Lake magazine, where he covered local art, food, culture and, most importantly, the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. He previously worked at Utah Style & Design and is a graduate of the University of Utah.

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