When Katherine Murphy Lewis saw Merideth Kaye Clark's performance in a solo scene as an actress receiving notes from an unseen male director, she knew she wanted to work with her.
"She almost said nothing through the whole piece," Lewis says. "The female character could never get a full sentence out. And that really struck me."
Two years later, the fatefully named Lewis and Clark are the creators and stars of Tonight Nothing, an original musical that puts their distinctive voices center stage. Starring Clark as a version of her great-great aunt, Lela Hall Frank, and Lewis as the wayward woman she guides, the play is driven by Clark's hunger to connect spiritually with her ancestor, Lewis' desire to dramatize her emotional growth, and the wish of both collaborators to tell a story that celebrates female friendship.
Tonight Nothing—the first professional production by From the Ground Up, an organization dedicated to empowering underserved populations that was co-founded by Lewis—is a nonlinear, 20-year tale. It is defined by the subjects that fascinate Lewis and Clark, such as the intense bonds human beings form with inanimate objects and how relationships can be simultaneously "not tangible" and "permanent." Those ideas are embodied by the character Kaye (Lewis), whose fraught relationships with her possessions are mirrored by the collapse of a recent romance.
"The very first monologue of the play is about a red electric wok that Kaye has kept on a journey across the country as she grapples with this long-term romantic relationship," Lewis says, adding that her character's ex is "one of the bottoms that has come out from underneath her where she has to face letting go."
If Kaye is emotionally at sea, Lela is a lighthouse illuminating a passage to safe harbor. "All she has is her hat and a gun," Clark says. "And her perspective is, 'It doesn't matter whether you have things or you don't have things. Just be conscientious of your relationship to them.'"
In addition to playing Lela, Clark portrays a character named Em and composed the production's score, which features both the guitar and the dulcimer, a string instrument the real Lela played. "The dulcimer is Lela's overarching voice over the balance of the whole show," Clark explains.
Lewis' life was another inspiration. "I have been, historically, a keeper of things," she says. In an effort to "set free some narratives about who Katherine was," she burned some of her possessions in a fire, an event captured in an audio recording that helped form the basis for the play's final scene.
Despite their love of mining personal experiences for creative fuel, Lewis and Clark were determined to make Tonight Nothing about female friendship in general. "If you do a search of what are some stories of female friends," Clark says, "there's, like, Beaches, Steel Magnolias and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." She and Lewis hope Tonight Nothing will help fill the chasm, and they worked with a production team composed primarily of women.
"That's been a really cool and interesting part of the process," Clark says, "being in a room full of women who check in with each other emotionally and kind of take care of each other."
Lewis adds that with Tonight Nothing, she's working in a space where "I don't feel like I have to reinvent myself in a way that will be perceived as professional or appropriate based on a patriarchal standard of what a woman is."
The rejection of patriarchal standards powers both the play and Lewis and Clark's creative process. "I literally only work with women and women's stories," Lewis says. "There's something in me that refuses to wait for permission, and that's the reason why with From the Ground Up my attitude was, 'I don't need you to say yes to me to be a part of the artistic world. I'm going to go make my own thing and you will all catch up with me eventually.'"
SEE IT: Tonight Nothing runs at CoHo Theatre, 2257 NW Raleigh St., cohoproductions.org. 7:30 pm Friday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, July 26-28. $20.