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A family tragedy inspires new folk-song dramedy

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From left, Kelli Kerslake Colaco, Andrea J. Love and Tim Fullerton appear in “you are my sunshine.” (Courtesy Ray Renati)

Kelli Kerslake Colaco grew up with a hushed family rumor: Her great-grandfather, a semi-professional baseball player, killed his wife, her mother-in-law and himself.

It’s the source of the playwright’s upcoming premiere, “you are my sunshine — a new play with folk songs … based on a true story.”

Opening next week at Phoenix Theatre in The City, the show is a labor of love that Colaco has been working on since 2008 with colleagues from the New York theater world.

Yet its origins have been haunting her for far longer.

As a child, she had a horrific vision, she says, of a puppet-like murderous scene involving her drunken great-grandfather.

Years later, she wanted to find out what really happened, and called her mother, who was writing a paper about it — “kind of opening a Pandora’s box,” she says.

They discovered some facts: that Ernest Fletcher Hodge didn’t kill himself, but served a 12-year sentence for the murder of his wife in 1931 in Arkansas. He got out of prison, but Colaco says, “never quite made it back.”

He turned to alcoholism, was convicted for grand theft auto, and spent the rest of his life in and out of prison.

“The last we heard about Ernest was that he escaped from prison and ended up at his sister’s in Tennessee in the 1950s,” she says.

Colaco, also a professional actress who has done Shakespeare and worked in London and regional theater as well as New York, says one goal in creating “you are my sunshine” was to deal with her own anxiety, with questions of her own sanity: “That story in my family was very disturbing,” she says, adding that she wondered if heredity would cause her to do something horrible. She said her grandfather had the same fear.

After years of developing the show — which has a tone reminiscent of John Steinbeck and the Coen brothers — she and her collaborators realized it could benefit from a Woody Guthrie-style folk song narrative.

“The muse was with me; I wrote seven songs within six weeks. It almost was like they were waiting for me,” she says.

Another thing that happened during the show’s long evolution is that she aged enough give her herself a part.

“When I stared writing it eight years ago, I never intended on being in the play. Now I’m actually the right age for the role of Minnie, the mother-in-law.”

IF YOU GO
you are my sunshine
Presented by Alma Theatre Company
Where: Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. April 19-21 and April 27-28; 2 p.m. April 22
Tickets: $15 (preview) to $30
Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com

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