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Dramatic ‘River City’ flows into Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte

Ya got trouble, my friends, right here in “River City,” with a capital “T” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for Past. A hidden past. A racially complicated past. The past of Louisville, Ky., birthplace of Diane Sawyer and Lionel Hampton and Muhammad Ali – though he reportedly couldn’t eat in a white restaurant after coming home with his Olympic gold medal in 1960 – and of Diana Grisanti.

Theater-savvy Charlotteans will know her name after this month. “River City,” which opens its world premiere run at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte Wednesday, comes from a playwright inspired by a grad-school class titled Idiom of Haunting.

“That class was bizarre and delightful,” said Grisanti, 30, who came to Charlotte in early August to attend rehearsals. “It was about the notion that places and cities hold their histories: If an atrocity happens in a town a hundred years ago, the residue is still there. Time isn’t linear; it’s cyclical.

“I thought about Louisville, which has sort of adopted Ali as its patron saint to atone for its racial history. And I wrote a monologue about a guy who had knocked out Ali long ago, when he was still Cassius Clay. Then I wrote more monologues, and a play started to take shape.”

Grisanti’s M.F.A. thesis at the University of Texas was about writing outside her own experience, as she did in “River City.” Maybe the freshness of her approach won the respect of audiences and judges in last summer’s nuVoices Festival at Actor’s Theatre; she won both categories, which entitled her to this shared world premiere for “River City.” (It’ll also be produced in Tucson and Indianapolis.)

“I had anxiety about writing black and Latino characters, but I don’t want to write just about white women,” she said. “White writers have to be careful about assuming their experience is universal, so I did my research. I wanted a lot of fingerprints on this play.”

Because “River City” depends on revelations, the only other thing you need to know is that the action unfolds after a young woman moves back to Louisville to explore its history and hers. That element does come from Grisanti’s own life.

“After I got out of school at 25, my partner (Steve Moulds) and I thought, “Let’s go to L.A. We’re both interested in TV writing.’ We were super-broke after a while, so we came back to Louisville. We had an ‘Oh my God, how can we survive?’ moment. But once we started making theater, we found out that audiences were there. A lot of millennials found their way back to their home town.”

She has four jobs – five, if you count part-time gigs as a math tutor. (Yes, she’s both left- and right-brained.) She teaches at Walden Theatre, a conservatory and producing organization, and writes plays for its summer camps to perform. She’s a teaching artist at StageOne Family Theatre. And she ghost-writes a blog for a minor fitness celebrity. (No names, please.)

She has been working on “River City” since grad school, rewriting for four years and tweaking it right up to the premiere. “I had responsibilities to Louisville, to African-Americans there, to all my friends and family there,” she says. “You don’t want to please everyone, but you want to be fair – and dramaturgically sound.”

“Audiences in the South, especially, will get it. Some plays about race make you elated when you walk out. I want people to walk out of this thinking, ‘We haven’t solved all our problems.’ I don’t resolve everything for you.”

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