River Stage goes into development mode this weekend, with three staged readings of the new play Porchmonkey through River Stage’s annual Playwright’s New Works Project. It’s an excellent opportunity to catch an emerging play, which may go on to bigger venues.

Porchmonkey works off the image of the black jockey—you know, the smaller-than-life piece of porch statuary sometimes seen standing in lawns or watching over driveways at luxurious homes near golf courses and country clubs. Some folks think the little statues are cute; others view them as a less-than-subtle reminder of the segregationist era.

This potent image is woven through a script that deals partly with the past but mostly with the present, according to River Stage artistic director Frank Condon. The dual story line alternates between the mid-1800s and the political heat of a contemporary U.S. Senate race.

When a conservative Senate candidate is advised that the black lawn jockey on his porch may alienate African-American voters, his young and ambitious black assistant suggests that he paint the figure white. When a black caretaker slaps on the paint, an actual black jockey appears onstage, leading to various consequences for the play’s characters, black and white.

The script was written by Los Angeles playwright Kim Dunbar, who will be on hand for this weekend’s staged readings. Visiting director Gregg T. Daniel will work with a cast that includes Loren Taylor, a leading man in many River Stage productions, and Julie Anchor, who’s displayed solid skills in both classical and contemporary plays locally.

The purpose of the staged readings is to help the playwright, director and others find ways to develop and reinforce the script’s better points. That could mean merging characters, cutting lines or adding scenes. The playwright typically introduces new pages to the script each night.

During the last few years, River Stage’s annual Playwright’s New Works Project has developed into a significant hatchery for good new plays. Last year’s River Stage production of Mark Medoff’s Gunfighter—cited by SN&R as “best local show” and named “best drama” by The Sacramento Bee—emerged from a 1999 staged reading. Another play done in the series, Tommy J and Sally, went on to have productions at the Kennedy Center and elsewhere back East.

Condon is known for producing American plays that connect with political and social issues as well as history. Past productions by River Stage have spotlighted labor activists, Native Americans, the Chicago Conspiracy Trial that followed the 1968 Democratic National Convention and more.

Staged readings of Porchmonkey will be held at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, February 7 and 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, February 9; $5. At River Stage on the Cosumnes River College Campus, 8401 Center Parkway. For information, call (916) 691-7364.