"Holidate," which opens Friday at Yellow Tree Theatre, began with a little white lie. Or a maybe a little red-and-green lie.
"Thomasina [Petrus] always pulls me into things," said Austene Van, artistic director of Yellow Tree. "She told Richard Cook at Park Square we had a play we wanted to do. And we did not have a play. So she told me that she told Richard that I'd write a play, with the seed of an idea of holiday traditions that are shared or are disparate, and that people can appreciate different cultures."
They titled the show "Hot Chocolate," but it's now called "Holidate." It's about a couple, played by Jennifer Grimm and Julius Collins, bringing their families to celebrate the holidays together for the first time. In addition to the regular stresses of the season, they're also worried about whether their cultures and traditions will blend. And there's the possibility of a marriage proposal, to add extra nutmeg to the eggnog.
As Van prepared the show, we presented her with six holiday questions.
Q: Are you a big Christmas person?
A: I am. I would love people to be generous all year long, but if the holidays are reasons for people to be generous of spirit, I'll take it. I love the joy of the season and the sense of possibility. When it's dark and cold and wintry, there needs to be some extra joy in the world.
Q: It just wouldn't be Christmas without …
A: Loved ones. My partner and my best friends, T. Mychael, Jamecia and Andre and Thomasina and Regina and Aimee and Jeff Bailey.
Q: What's your favorite Christmas carol?
A: I'm a little different. You know that James Brown put out a thousand Christmas songs and they're hilarious? They're wonderful. You can tell he was like, ready, go — and he started spitting out some lyrics. I love that, and the Mariah Carey [she sings a bit of "All I Want for Christmas Is You"]. There's a Rahsaan Patterson song called "Christmas at My House" that a lot of inner-city kids and kids in urban areas can relate to, about when you're in an apartment, how does Santa come down the chimney? Who is that intruder? Oh, a traditional one that melts my heart is "Joy to the World." That always gets me.
Q: What was your best Christmas ever?
A: This one is going to be the best Christmas ever.
Q: How do holiday themes figure into the play?
A: Everyone comes together for food and laughter and joy in the play. We talk about Kwanzaa. It was introduced and seeded by a Black man, but it's a holiday everyone can celebrate. We have Jason Ballweber [who is white] talking about Kwanzaa in the show.
I remember being in Milwaukee, doing Ayad Akhtar's "Disgraced," and I was facilitating a talkback, and this woman said, "I don't understand why we have to bring culture into anything. I'm ethnically German, but I don't celebrate my culture or heritage. We should all just assimilate." [Note: Among the Christmas traditions we owe to German culture are holiday trees, "Silent Night" and Advent calendars.] And I thought, "[Assimilate] to what? America was built on different cultures. We are as great as we are because we have all these different cultures we integrate into our lives."
Q: What are you hoping audiences take away from the show?
A: The spirit of giving, love and joy. Those are the most important things. Materials fade, but love lasts forever.
Who: Written and directed by Austene Van.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri. 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 30.
Where: Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Av. SE., Osseo.
Protocol: Masks required at Sunday matinees.
Tickets: $31-$35, 763-493-8733 or yellowtreetheatre.com.