SALT LAKE CITY — Puppets, songs, and the Great Salt Lake.
This play has it all.
Ogden playwright Jenny Kokai, who teaches theater at Weber State University, has written a new play that is receiving its world premiere this week in Salt Lake City. “Singing to the Brine Shrimp,” presented by Plan-B Theatre Company, opens Thursday, Feb. 13, and continues through Feb. 23 at the Studio Theatre at Rose Wagner Center, 138 W. Broadway.
A news release from Plan-B Theatre calls the comedy “a love letter to life and art in the Beehive State.”
Kokai says the play is based on “a true thing that happened a few years back,” just after she moved to Utah from Austin, Texas. Any move is stressful, Kokai said, and she admits that Utah was “very different” for her.
“I was sort of trying to figure out where my place was,” she said. “Who is my community? Who will be my friends? Who will be my child’s friends? I was overwhelmed.”
In the midst of this uncertainty, Kokai says she “got invited to do this fancy playwrighting thing in New York.” She believed it would be a great experience, because she’d be there with all of these other theater people and she’d fit in immediately.
“But I did not fit in, and I did not know what I was doing there,” Kokai recalled. “They all seemed very confused about me and Utah.”
When, for example, Kokai joked about having no coffee or wine in Utah, everyone in New York took her seriously.
“Everybody was just so bizarre about Utah,” Kokai said. “And I remember thinking, ‘None of these people have ever been to Utah, or are going to Utah. They think it’s nothing but the Great Salt Lake, and that we live on rafts out there singing to the brine shrimp.’”
The imagery stuck for Kokai, and thus the seeds of “Singing to the Brine Shrimp” were planted.
In New York, Kokai says everybody seemed “way fancier and cooler” than her. As a result, she says she was a nervous wreck the whole time.
“But I read somewhere once that tragedy plus time equals comedy,” she explains.
Kokai says her play is about “imposter syndrome” — feeling like you’re not good enough, that everybody else is smarter, everybody else is cooler, and everybody else has done more stuff than you.
“This is about learning to be OK with who you are and what you value in the world,” Kokai said. “After that, I came back (to Utah), and I realized that although Utah was different, there were lots of artists, students and colleagues, and this could be a home for me. This play is about that realization process.”
Like Kokai, the play’s main character thinks going to New York is her big break, but she eventually realizes that what matters most is the family she’s built back in Utah.
Kokai says “Singing to the Brine Shrimp” isn’t a musical, but rather a “play with music.” It features four songs, written by fellow WSU faculty member Ken Plain, who also acts as musical director on the project.
“While music does continue the story, it’s not the primary vehicle,” Kokai said.
And there isn’t really any dancing the way there frequently is in musicals.
“Well, I guess there’s a little bit of dancing — by the shrimp,” Kokai said.
Directed by Jason Bowcutt, the play stars Latoya Cameron as Allison, the playwright and mom from Utah who goes to the Big Apple with hilariously disastrous results. The play also features Lily Hye Soo Dixon, Jay Perry and Emilie Starr.
While there’s a message to “Singing to the Brine Shrimp,” Kokai says the world is kind of overwhelming right now, so the play is also about just having fun.
“I hope the audience feels the joy in this play,” she said. “The situation is so absurd, and the characters were so ridiculous from the get-go, that I was, like, ‘Let’s lean into it.’ And that’s why there are puppets, and that’s why there is music.”
Kokai says there’s something magical about puppets. But there’s also a more down-to-earth explanation for putting hand puppets in her show.
“Very practically, it’s a way to have a whole lot of characters and only four actors,” she said. “There are, like, 16 characters in the play.”
Kokai warns that, just because “Singing to the Brine Shrimp” features puppets, it doesn’t mean the play is for children. There’s some cursing in it, and the story is “definitely for adults.”
“Kids might like the brine shrimp, but there’s cursing,” Kokai said.
Not cursing from the brine shrimp, of course.
“The brine shrimp say ‘What the flip, who the heck will you be,’” Kokai said. “They’re Utah brine shrimp.”