Family dynamics take center stage in the original drama opening June 1 on the Players by the Sea studio stage. “A Seat at the Table” is written by local actor and playwright James Webb III, the winner of the 2nd annual New Voices program.
“A Seat at the Table” follows the Churchill family who own and operate the Hillside Construction Company. Tensions rise after the parents pass the torch to their eldest son. Despite his experience within the company, he fails to meet expectations, and his younger brother subsequently receives control of the family business.
“The parents are getting ready to retire, and following tradition, they give the helm to the eldest son. He takes it on and doesn’t do too well with it. So, the father takes it away from him and gives it to the youngest son which brings on tension and sibling rivalry,” says Webb. “I was inspired a little by the story of Cain and Abel in which the eldest son becomes angry at the youngest son for doing right in the parents’ eyes and how that affects their relationship as brothers. And even how the kids see their parents and how the parents interact with the kids.”
Webb based the dynamics of the Churchills loosely around relationships within his own family. As the youngest sibling, Webb says he understands a familial structure that often puts the “baby” on a pedestal while the eldest is often burdened by responsibilities beyond his or her years.
“I do have a brother and we are completely night and day. We are at two opposite ends of the spectrum, and I saw first hand how the youngest sibling is always lifted up and the responsibility placed on the eldest who always has to look out for the youngest. Sometimes it’s just not fair. I was really able to write from a personal place,” he says. “In the play we see first from the eldest child’s standpoint, how this responsibility really affects all their lives and the decisions they are making. And we see from the youngest sibling’s position of being the golden child. What kind of pressure does that put on them always having to perform to the highest? We see those different dynamics.”
Webb developed the play with the team from New Voices, a year-long development program launched in 2016 to produce new plays by local writers. Proposals were reviewed by a national panel and the selected playwrights worked with mentors to establish dramatic action, structure and character development.
“The script I submitted was a skit I did for my church. It wasn’t very drawn out, but it gave me the framework, the basis for where I wanted to start. We made a couple of revisions after being guided by the mentors of New Voices. They gave us helpful pointers on the overall vision of where I was trying to go with this story,” says Webb.
“I took what was helpful. This is not hard, because I’m used to it. In college for film with a major in screenwriting, that’s what we did all the time. Sometimes you’re left with only one word, and it’s like what am I going to do with that? I can think on a vast scale, which is always my initial problem, so I really solicit help on where I need to go next.
Webb credits his cast with helping bring his family of characters to life with integrity and with adding dimensions to the roles that he never imagined. “It leaves you speechless. You see it one way as a writer. I tell any cast that I can only see it one-dimensionally because I’m only one person. In order to look at it from different perspectives, you have to have another perspective,” says Webb. “The other perspective is my actors, and I love that they are involved. They are a wonderful group of people who have committed themselves to bringing this story to life. They really believe in this script which is a point of exhale for me. What they’ve been doing throughout this process is giving me more from their characters. They ask questions to find out more about their character’s story, which makes me think. They allow me to see how this story transcends race, culture, and demographics. At some point this play relates to everyone.”
Webb, 33, has been writing plays and skits for his church since he was a teenager. One of his plays, “The Final Decision,” was staged at FSCJ Kent Campus in January. He took a break to try and discover who he was and what he wanted to do, “and it led me back to this,” he said. “Now I’m completely sold that this is what I want to do. To have the chance to do this show on the Players by the Sea stage is a wonderful opportunity. I’m excited to reach this audience. It’s a surreal moment. It’s not the Oscars or the Tonys, but for me, it is. It’s a step and I’m taking it all in.” Webb’s play opens on June 1.