Who are some of the playwrights and artists who have been most influential for you?
I love the work of playwrights Kia Corthron, Lynn Nottage and Suzan-Lori Parks. I am also influenced greatly by novelists and essayists. My favorite writer of all time is James Baldwin. He had a rare gift: to write so eloquently and beautifully, and at the same time deliver a punch to the gut with his truth telling is an absolute revelation. His style was luscious, but the indictment was raw and unflinching. I find this same quality in one of my other favorite writers, Toni Morrison. When I was about 18 years old, I read her novel, The Bluest Eye, and it made me want to be a writer, and oddly enough, it made me believe that I could be one. I had grown up in school systems that focused on white history and literature, and Toni Morrison’s work is all about centering Blackness. She did a lot to shift my perspective. Suddenly a whole tidal wave of possibilities emerged for me simply in what I had the power to say and how it could be said.
Besides writers, music has had a huge influence on me, as well. I grew up around a lot of different styles of music. I love classic soul, R&B and rock. My parents listened to jazz and classical, and my father sang opera. So, I have an appreciation for it all. Music evokes emotion in me. Deep or unusual lyrics can fire my imagination. Sometimes I’ll play a song over and over, and an idea for a character or a setting will begin to take root. The sound of the music itself and the mood it evokes, will set the tone of how the play sounds and feels. That is probably why whenever I write a play I am always reading it out loud to myself, listening for sound and flow, as if I’m writing a symphony with different movements.
What are some of the obstacles playwrights encounter in gaining wider audiences?
When a playwright or a play is unknown, it can be difficult for theaters that have large followings to take a chance on something very few people have heard about. So then the work, no matter how fresh it may be, dwells in a small container where it can’t necessarily flourish or gain momentum. Coupled with that, I think many people have the idea that theater is an exclusive space for a select few. They may not feel welcome going to the theater. Some people don’t see themselves reflected on the stage, so they don’t believe this art form is for or about them. I personally would like to see more diverse stories. I know this has been a discussion in the theater community for years, and there does seem to be movement in that direction. I love Shakespeare and I love the classics and I love many Tony award winning Broadway plays, and I believe that those works should be performed and preserved for generations to come. But exploration into uncharted territory is also important, as well as exciting. I think that when we hold a vision of the worth of the unfamiliar as vividly as we do the tried and true, then we will come closer to democratization of theater. Then we will discover new plays, new voices, and pull new audiences into the fold.
What are some of your favorite performances/plays you’ve seen?
Top three: (1) Roger Guenveur Smith, A Huey P Newton Story, (2) Anna Deveare Smith, Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, and (3) Marc Bamuthi Joseph*, red, black and GREEN: A blues. The first two are solo shows. I’m probably biased, but I think that when solo shows are good, they’re really good. Solo work is difficult. You have to have a certain kind of energy to hold a stage, hold an audience all by yourself. Roger Guenveur Smith and Anna Deavere Smith are two of the greatest solo performers ever. The third one is not a solo show, but Marc Bamuthi Joseph does a lot of solo work and knows how to command a stage. He made that play a happening. The set and installation design by Theaster Gates was also stunning.
*Marc Bamuthi Joseph performed his solo show on the ACT Mainstage in 2009, The Break/s – in partnership with the Hansberry Project.