At the age of 12, Bathsheba Doran, the author of The Mystery of Love & Sex, had to do a science project. Marie Curie was the subject. To fulfill the assignment, she wrote a play. “I received an A-minus,” she told me the other day, as we lounged in one of LCT’s downstairs dressing rooms. And why not a full-on A? “A play wasn’t considered a real science project,” Doran replied.
Doran, who grew up in London and is known familiarly as Bash, wrote plays for Hebrew school at around the same time: “Age 12 was a breakthrough year for me creatively,” she said, with a deadpan inflection making it quite clear how, at university (Cambridge) and after, she was able to work as an actor in comedy.
During her second year at Cambridge, she realized that playwriting could be a viable profession; she wrote a two-hander called Feminine Wash, which was done at the Edinburgh festival. “Another of my plays,” Doran continued, “also done at Edinburgh, looked at sexuality. There was another one that looked at my Jewish heritage a little that was done on BBC Radio. And there was a later one, called Living Room in Africa, that in part explored how human connection is supposed to take place between black and white people when there is such current structured inequality and different historical experiences.”
I am conducting this slightly exhaustive rehearsal of Doran’s output to make a point, or, rather, to allow her to make one: “I’ve done a lot of sketches in other plays for this new play. Now, they have coalesced.” In other words, The Mystery of Love & Sex involves matters Jewish and gay and black, though as a story it concerns four characters: two middle-aged parents, their university-age daughter, and the daughter’s friend.
Doran has been living with the play’s themes for years – teenage years in which she discovered authors like James Baldwin and Alice Walker, and young-adult years in which she moved to the U.S. and wrote well-received plays, most recently Kin, produced at New York’s Playwrights Horizons, and time spent traveling in the American South, where The Mystery of Love & Sex takes place. But Doran said she hasn’t been living with the new play’s characters for all that long. “I almost never know what I’m going to write until I write it. But this time, I did start writing with the feeling that I had something to say. And that there were emotions in my body that needed to be let out.”
And if you wonder why I didn’t ask Doran to explicate the new play’s plot, the answer is in the second word of the title: mystery. “That word – as opposed to a plot summary – will have to pique people’s interest,” she said.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.