#2 – You Have to Be Willing to do the Work-Writing Outside Your Lived Experience
In This Episode
[00:00:00] Christine Toy Johnson (CTJ): Welcome back to The Dramatist Presents: Talkback. I'm your host, Christine Toy Johnson: actor, playwright, and advocate for inclusion. This season, Talk Back focuses on how the theater industry succeeds and fails when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our guests are all theater professionals working across North America. We recorded our conversations over summer 2019. The Dramatists Guild of America hosts these conversations in line with the mission of the Guild: everyone comes to our table with their own opinion and perspective and is free to express it.
Whether you're alphabetizing your closet full of programs or you've never seen a show, we're thrilled you're here.
Today we're talking about writing outside a lived experience and I'm joined by award-winning playwright Kia Corthron. Welcome Kia!
Kia Corthron (KC): Hey Christine! Good to be here.
CTJ: Thank you. We're talking today about your experience with your play [00:01:00] Tap the Leopard. Now, I'm paraphrasing here but, on your website you described the play as “a sweeping historical epic that addresses the African American colonization of what is now Liberia, and takes the audience all the way through to life on an American-created plantation there.” Would you elaborate a bit more for us?
KC: So Liberia was a colony in the early 19th century and it was an American colony, but—I should correct that—the US never had colonies in Africa, but there was an organization called the American Colonization Society—that's actually a short form, there was actually, it was a longer name—and it was made up of a few conflicted Quakers and conflicted abolitionists, but mostly white Southern planters because, the idea of this colony: if black people were free, they wanted them out of the United States.
Again, there were some black people who felt freedom would never happen in the US, so they went with it, but they were very much in the minority ‘cause, uh, most people, including Frederick Douglass, felt like our blood and our sweat and our tears were here. So anyway, this colony happens and the governors in Liberia were originally white, and then after they died off the first few, then it became, um, a fully black colony. Unfortunately, the Americans—the black Americans that settled there—had come from a slave-master society, that's the only culture they knew, and they started instituting it on the Africans. So, they would not call it “slave/master,” but it was indentured servitude, so the Africans—which always remained 95% of the population—would have to serve seven years to the Americans, and they became, they were called “Americos,” their descendants. It became the first colony in Africa in 1857, but Africans -- native Africans and their descendants -- couldn't vote until like 1946 or something? As well as women.
So, anyway…another thing that happened was…there was—and still is, in Liberia—this huge plantation, which is…Firestone, American Firestone. And that is a whole other story of, not slave labor. They were paid, you know, peanuts, and I, I spoke with a wonderful professor there who wanted to distinguish that, that it was not slavery. But he said very, you know, very, very little money, and they called it “the plantation.” And these are American whites who went there. I interviewed them, and the only white man I ever saw was the big boss, who was very strange and silent and cold to me as I was talking.
I sort of had to go on my own with my family to interview people in the plantations, the rubber tappers, because they would not even take us around because they didn't want us to interview them.
So, I've probably gone off track a bit? But I'll just say it's a three-act play, started in the US with slavery and ended up in the current times, through the civil war, and on the Firestone plantation.
CTJ: How did you get the opportunity to develop the play in the way that you did?
KC: Uh, so the Guthrie got this big grant, it's called the Bush Foundation Grant. It is a corporate grant, and big money, and so they selected, at that time, nine American playwrights to go wherever we wanted in the world, that they paid for these trips, and then they paid for a commission to write a play inspired by the experience. And, um, Michael…Bigelow Dixon was running the program at the time, and I, I still remember him saying that, he felt that it's wonderful, all these American plays with American experiences, but he felt that through this program there would be nine plays with more of a world view.
So, that always stayed with me.
CTJ: And so what kind of research did you do? You traveled over there...can you talk about that a little bit?
KC: Well, I did lots of book research before I went, and it was a little tough because they were in the middle of their civil war—which was a brutal, that was one of those child soldier civil wars—and it was going on for like 20 years, but it would only pop up on the news when something really exploded.
And what happened was, everybody in the countryside, which they called “the bush,” had…fled the countryside. So, all these people from the bush descended upon Monrovia, the city, and then the combatants descended upon it, and it was complete chaos and, kind of Armageddon there. And, so it made the news and, when I saw that, I was thinking of lots of other places to go, because I'd already had the commission -- I just had to decide where I was gonna go. And I was really drawn to that because I, I wanted to know what was going on, and it took about a year because, obviously there was all this civil strife because I had to have some sort of connection to get into the country. And it was about a year before things had calmed down enough that I was able to get a contact person, who was an American who had taught there like 20 years before, and she introduced me by email to a family there and I stayed with them.
CTJ: Can you talk a little more about the kind of research you did once you got to Monrovia?
KC: Yes. I mean the, the research really, I mean, I kept a journal the whole time I was there, but it was mostly about just the experience. I was there for two weeks, but it was jam-packed because the family had me doing things every day. One day we went into the bush and, and I remember that I was a little nervous about that because, I mean, everywhere in the country, there was no running water, no electricity…um, except for generators for maybe like, an hour a day the family had, and it was just like, one light bulb in a huge room. But—and there were bullet holes, everywhere!—but for the most part, people at least felt at peace.
Um, the UN had finally come in, because they didn't come in until…like a, few weeks before I did, I think? Because it has to be, it, it can't be so dangerous that it's just impossible for them to come in. So, the people felt at peace. They kept saying the whole time I was there that people in the bush, though, because there was no way of contacting them, there, um, the, the, there was no radio in the bush, no television, obviously. Um, everything had, you know, was completely still, nothing was going on in the bush. So they said, for a lot of people there, they didn't know the war was over. So then, they suddenly said, towards the end, “we're going to the bush!” *laughter* So I remember I was like, I didn't say anything, but I was thinking, “oh, but didn't you say they don't know the war is over?” But, um, so then that was…actually a really incredible experience.
CTJ: What was writing the play like, then, after you got back and you had done all that research and talked to all of these people?
KC: So, I, years ago I read Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, and what really stayed with me more than anything else, all these decades later was that, if you're writing politically, everything is so just…devastating and hopeless, and that all the audience can do is leave throwing their hands up in despair…um, then you're, you're accomplishing nothing because they're not gonna do anything because they've just been told there's nothing to do.
So, he suggested providing some sort of hope, but of course there has to be truth in that hope. And even though the war was, for all intents and purposes, over, because they felt there was no money in the country—even though there should’ve been! Because there is American money from Firestone, except it was only going into American pockets, but there should’ve been money—but, so, there was just this mass depression, it felt like, in the country after the war. So I didn't know how I was going to give that hope.
The irony was, it actually became one of…maybe the most hopeful play I've ever written because I just sort of went through the whole process, started in the US and slavery, and the fact that the people were so resilient, that actually I feel like it may be, yeah, my most inspiring play, in that way.
CTJ: Interesting how that worked out. Can you tell us about that first reading of Tap the Leopard?
KC: Yeah, so the, the first draft was like, four and a half hours long, *laughs* but I got it down to about, a little less than three, I think. Michael Dixon had a great idea of doing this all-day thing and inviting local Liberians—of which there are many in a whole community in Minneapolis—to come and see the reading. And it was at the Playwright Center in Minneapolis, and they serve food. So, there were breaks between each act.
So, there were the-, I had a contact person who was really wonderful at the university there, and he, uh, invited ten other Liberians, and I think maybe one or two made it to first act, and he didn't even-, wasn't in the first act, he came to the second and a few more in the second, and then people came…most of them came in the third act, I think, and, uh—which was the 21st century.
People were chattering very loudly through the play, *laughs* and there was a post-show afterwards, a, a Q&A, and—no, actually not a Q&A, it was mainly to get comments from the audience—and, and they were openly hostile! Um, most of them were women, and, while it was…very painful, but also important that I wanted to hear what they had to say, I also was aware, both that they didn't have the same experience as my characters because these were people that…20 years before, had the means to have gotten out before all the troubles, um, and also…I was aware, in a very legitimate sense, that I was there for a couple of weeks. They were angry that I felt I had the authority to write in their culture. That's not what they said, but…and, and that's not to say that many of what they, many things they said were [le]gitimate and were useful. But, um…but I knew that was the subtext of most of what was going on…um, which was understandable.
I mean, that's what the project was: to take American playwrights to write about other cultures. But still, I can understand, um…their sense of threat by that.
CTJ: What was it like for you to get that kind of pushback?
KC: It was awful! *laughs* It was horrible!
CTJ: I guess my question is, really, how did it impact you?
KC: I had to respect what they had to say. I was mostly just listening. Um, there was one moment when I did have to speak because…they said Firestone is no longer an issue. Firestone is very much an issue! And I very calmly said it, but I went to the plantation, they were in shacks, um, broken down shacks in old forests where there's barely any sap anymore…with holes in the roofs, in the, in the roofs of all these shacks—this was the rainy season. And another place-, there were children, the families, um, when I was at the beginning and talked to the execs, they said, “oh, they go to school.” It's ridiculous! They were miles and miles away from the school, they needed the entire families as tappers to be able to make ends meet, to live in these shacks! And it was also made clear to me that there were ba-, people…babies born on the Firestone plantation, grow up being, being, um, tappers, and die, and no one would ever know.
So, I'm torn between wanting the information, and feeling that I'm infringing on the privacy of people that are already suffering so much. So as, I was, we were about to leave, a young man came out of the forest, he ran, and he was clearly saying, “what's going on? What's going on?” because he saw us. And when we explained it, and I thought, “okay, this is the person that's going to say, ‘you have no right to be here. It's not of your business’.” He said, “please tell people about this.” And so… *voice cracking* when they said…when they said there was, that Firestone is no issue anymore, that's when I had to quietly say, “yes, actually, it is.”
CTJ: Thank you for sharing that story with us. How did your experience with Tap the Leopard change your approach to your subsequent work?
KC: Well, you know, that's a great question Christine, ‘cause, like, I never thought about it before. Consciously, when I think about it, I feel like…I have done, I think, much deeper research, maybe -- I always research, but I think it did get deeper after that, when I think about it. I mean, obviously it's my play and my voice is in it but, I did have so many…faces that were… *sighs* You know, that are sort of burned into my mind after that experience and really tried my best to speak to that. You know, I hate, there's like, a thing I really hate, I like—I'm sure you've probably heard this before—when people say, “oh, a person is the voice for the voiceless.” I haaate that! *laughs* Right? It's so gross! Because it's my voice—its Kia’s voice, that's definitely it.
But I tried to keep them in my mind so that I hope they would approve of what I wrote.
CTJ: Thank you so much for joining us today, Kia, and telling us that story. We'll be back in a few minutes with Kia and playwright Mashuq Mushtaq Deen to delve deeper into this discussion. Stick around.
[00:15:54] Christine Toy Johnson (CTJ): Hi, welcome back. We're here talking to Mashuq Mushtaq Deen and Kia Corthron. Thank you for joining me today.
Mashuq Mushtaq Deen (MMD): I’m Mashuq Mushtaq Deen. I'm a playwright and a soap maker, and I study the guitar, and sometimes I make sock monsters. I have many hobbies.
Kia Corthron (KC): I am a playwright and a novelist.
CTJ: I wanted to talk to you about writing outside your lived experience. I've been talking to a lot of playwrights about this. It seems to be a very full conversation to have because some people feel like they aren't, quote-unquote allowed to do that anymore, or now. And, so I'm really fascinated to know about your perspectives on this and anything you might want to say about it. Deen, you want to start?
MMD: Sure. I feel like it's a very important conversation to have and it's one that, uh, concerns me a little bit because when I go to universities and college campuses, I find that the students are often having the conversation in a very black-and-white policing sort of way. “This person is allowed to write it, this person's not.” And I think that's a dangerous place for the arts to be.
Um, but that's that I always think we should be asking: What is the intention of the writer? Are they doing it well? Have they done their work? Um, are they in conversation with people from other communities? Are they open to hearing about their blind spots and looking for them? I once heard a, my-, a novelist friend of mine, Lisa Ko, said this—and she said, “You know, it's easier for minorities to write about the dominant culture, because we have to live by the rules of that culture, so we just inherently know it better.”
That is not to say you can't write about it if you are from the dominant culture, you just have much more work to do. I think you have to be willing to do the work. But some amazing novels and stories have been written with diverse characters and worlds by people who are not from those worlds. Um, and I, I truly believe that that is something that we can do.
CTJ: Right. I want to get back to what you said about “doing the work,” because that, to me, is everything. You have to do the work. When you do get inspired to write something that may not be part of your everyday experience, what is the most surprising source of research that you have found?
MMD: I think it really changes, uh, depending on what the piece is that I'm working on, so sometimes it can be a lot of book research. Sometimes it can be news articles, or talking to people. I try to immerse myself in as much as possible, if it's a research play. But then I do feel like at some point I have to throw it all out, and, for me, follow, sort of, the music of the play. And a lot of writing for me is getting out of the way, so even if I'm writing about people I know, I still feel like I have to get out of the way…so that those voices can-, I can honor the truth of them. And so in a research play, to some degree, I have to incorporate, I think, the research into me, and then throw it all out and follow the voices -- so that I'm not telling them what I think that they should say, but I'm really trying to find the truth of who these people are, and listening to what they're telling me about themselves.
And then later I'll have to go back with my more critical eye and say, “how did my own stereotypes slide in?” or, “how did my own blind spots slide in?” and then do some more work. Um, and I think it's a back-and-forth.
CTJ: I'm wondering what, uh, the most surprising source of research you've ever found in your, in your work, Kia?
KC: Well, I'll just, I'll talk about—cause it's in my mind, what I'm writing now is both a play and a novel, and they're both in the 19th century. And, uh, the novel has to do with Black and Irish relationships in New York, and there's some Native American stuff. The play is around the turn of the century, so it goes just barely into the 20th century. But it's also, it's a different culture, just in terms of the language and, you know, even as I am a Black American, to be talking about Black Americans of that time, the character was born into slavery, that I'm writing about; her parents were slaves. That is my history, but it's certainly not my personal experience.
Um, I read this really interesting book called, it's called Talking Black, Talking Back…or the other way around. But it's about Black English, by John McWhorter, who's a linguist. And, I mean it's really interesting what sort of choices you make in terms of that. If you, as he was saying in the book, if you look at literature from the early part of the 20th century, by Black writers, there's text like, “laaawd-yyyy”…this, the sort of things that people cringe now, but it was the truth! I mean, the stereotype came from some truth.
Also, apparently, a lot of the slaves…in the South, despite what we've seen on TV and things, had a, I think it was a…Scottish accent, because of the overseers were, were Scottish! I, I hope I didn't say that wrong, but I believe it was Scottish. It was definitely not what you think.
And so, as I'm writing, I want to make decisions, but both have truth and authenticity, um, but also don't turn readers and audience members off. And so, um, it, it's interesting when sometimes you have…to make choices in terms of thinking about your audience, that may not be altogether the truth, but, but we'll have the bigger truth of them being with the story and being with those characters.
MMD: I mean, that's like the, the thing that sometimes fiction tells the truth better than, than the truth tells the truth.
KC: Hmm, mm-hmm mm-hmm.
CTJ: Has there ever been a time when you've been embarking on a new project, and the research surprises you and takes you in a whole different way?
MMD: Um, I guess I hope I don't have too many preconceived notions about where the research will take me so much as, “what is this? Oh, well that's an interesting idea. Oh, that leads me to that, what is that? Well that’s…” and I just start writing them down and putting a lot of things in the colander, so to speak, and seeing what falls away and seeing what stays…and what gets attached to me because, there's something in me that also connects to that material. But I guess it's hard for me to answer about like, am I su-, surprised, does it take me somewhere, cause I can't, I can't think exactly in those terms. Um…I guess I wanna say, and this may be kind of unrelated to your question…
CTJ: That’s okay.
MMD: …but, um, of this idea of like, sympathy versus empathy? Like I, I want to be inside of the world? Not just looking at it from afar. And I think sometimes the issue is like, I can't-, I shouldn't-, I don't believe I should sympathize with my characters, as if—it feels a little patronizing—as if they are something outside of me. I really feel like I have to walk in their shoes and feel their discomforts and be in them as much as possible. You know, I don't think it's gonna be perfect, but, um, but I think that's a, a different thing.
I think sometimes people sympathize with the “other,” that is culturally different from them, and that…reads false and it reads, um...it makes people uncomfortable. I think, I think it's important often, especially if you're writing really naturalistic stuff, to acknowledge your gaze. So, uh, like I wrote a play called The Shaking Earth, which is about the anti-Sikh massacres in India in 1984. And so the first draft of that play, the whole entire cast, or the entire family was Sikh, but I'm not. And, uh, nor am I, you know, an Indian born in India. So, there's lots of ways I'm not of these people, but then I re-, uh, in the next draft, there were people who were Sikh, there were people on the outside of that who were helping them, and that gives me—there were people in America—I feel like that at least starts to acknowledge my gaze into the piece, and doesn't pretend that I'm somehow the magical expert or, or authenticator of everything. Um, but I still think it's a really important story to tell, it's one I care about and I want to tell it. And so I did.
CTJ: I think what, what keeps coming up in the conversations that I have, especially with, with writers of color, um, is that there is a certain expectation that's put on us by looking the way we do, to write about a certain people.
For example, if someone asks me to write about Chinese people in China because I'm Chinese American, that actually is not my lived experience, just like you were describing. So I'm actually working on something right now that's a commission about something like that. So I have to really do research as if I'm not anyone that comes from that culture in my ancestry or whatever. And I think that, um, that's, that's a very interesting thing to, to note about what your gaze is, and how important that is to acknowledge. Thank you for that.
I also wanted to go back to something you mentioned earlier about hearing the characters speak and not deciding what they're saying. And I think that's also a really interesting perspective to illuminate. It-, can you speak a little bit more about that?
MMD: Sure. Um, if I were to decide I want my characters to go from A to B, and this is what's gonna happen, then I'm setting the agenda: It's really about me, it's not about them. But what I want to do is get out of the way and listen to my characters, and constantly be surprised at the way they react to something, and then when I'm surprised, I think, “oh, why did he do that?” Like, “oh, because like, that really hurts his feelings, but he won't, he doesn't want to show-“ you know, like, I'm understanding their characters, they're revealing themselves to me through their surprising behavior, and that p-, part of it is, to me, is how I…learn greater empathy in the world. I, I mean, part of me being a writer is inhabiting people who are not me. Understanding them in such a deep level that I don't judge them for it, even if I don't agree with them. And then feeling a greater sense of empathy for other people outside of my experience who do live in the world, who maybe do really fucked-up things *laughs* but for really human reasons. And I think that's such an important part of what we do in the theater—as actors, as writers, as all of the things!—and so I hope we never get to a place where I'm only writing about a trans South Asian American experi-, you know like, that I'm only writing myself. That's not an interesting world for me to live in.
CTJ: Right. You're finding the thread of humanity that connects you to a story that compels you to tell it. Yeah. Kia, do you have anything you want to…
KC: Yeah, I, I…I love what you were saying. It sort of made me think that, particularly with writers coming from the dominant community, that there can be…sometimes a tendency to write characters, say characters of color, that are ridiculously sympathetic, like sort of *laughs* noble, you know? Um, but then the flipside is then it's sort of like this subtle line where…where it actually can become racist in a very subtle way, so…I guess it goes back again to…doing the research to get to know the community, but then above all -- whoever the character is just, that at first they're a human being, before any-, anything else, and to go inside of them in that way.
MMD: Just to jump off of that, I've definitely seen writers do that very thing where they are so sympathetic, but they're not human? They're not flawed?
MMD: And so nobody-, I don't care about them! And I feel like that is the biggest insult, that you've like, put this character out there that I don't care about…
MMD: …because you didn't make them human.
MMD: Um, I also think it's important, like, as we're talking about who-, writing and the responsibility-- Part of this conversation is also that systemically, like, who gets produced for writing the story that they write. So if…
MMD: …the older white guy gets produced for writing the story about Africa or India or whatever, above and beyond writers who maybe have more knowledge about that, like…Why is that happening? Are we then producing…stereotypes, like, do they do their work, and is it a really good play? Are we producing the stereotypes of that culture? And who is not even allowed to sort of like, get up into the place where we are among the plays being chosen.
You know what I m-, like, there's the systemic things that just, producing theaters need to think about: who is also just getting access? And I think that's part of the frustration, is sometimes that…I remember studying the novel Passing in college and just, th-the idea that if there's only one person, then that person has to be representative of everything and…it's a lot of burden to put on one writer or one person, and so there's just a lot of, there's a clusterfuck happening there too that is important to address, without getting to a place where we're policing who's allowed to do what.
CTJ: I heard somebody talk about being a respectful visitor into another culture, if they're going to be inspired to write about a community that is not their own. And I, I wonder your thoughts about that, about how do we make space for that, has somebody done that for you? Have you been encouraged to think in that way, or is that not relevant to the way you approach thinking about a-, another community?
KC: I do believe that…they are your characters you’re creating -- we each have the authority to write. Um, but I do also believe that they are stronger characters if you know something about what you're writing before you write it? *laughs*
I had an example years ago of a white male playwright…who had written a play of a black family, all black characters, which is different than a play where there's some black characters, but they were absolutely all black characters. And he asked me if I would read the play to give him my comments. And I read it, and most of the play I really liked, there was just one little thing that just did not quite feel…right, and it was just a small thing. But when I told him that, and it was actually quite enthusiastic about everything else that I thought really worked, but said, “um, but you know, there's this one thing…” he sort of looked at me, and turned and walked away, with, like, rudely, really not even with a thank you, you know? *laughs* And I'd read the play!
And I actually found out—he was workshopping that play soon, I knew somebody in that cast—and they were all having problems and he was just very…upset and did not change anything. Now the thing is, again, they are your characters and I do believe that, as playwrights, you have a vision, it's important to support that vision, there are always going to be people that are going to question it, and you don't want to be listening to every person and it becomes a mess! But…there is a difference between having integrity of your vision, and just being entitled and deciding that, “I don't have to listen to anybody. This is right.”
And I actually don't think that's confusing. I don't think that, you know, that somebody will be so afraid that they may not be one or the other, I think—or, or they're so afraid to write about another community because they may be that entitled—no, it is a looong distance between those two. And so, I think it is about going in and listening, and you, you may not agree, ultimately. But listen!
MMD: I completely agree with that. And I've, yeah, I think that there's a big distance, but I feel like in the world outside of this room, sometimes that distance gets shrunk? Or maybe people feel like…somehow the conversation is, “you're not allowed to write it,” or, “you're a bad person because you did it wrong,” instead of…listening to something a little outside of your experience, taking it in. But I think humility is an important part of writing…
MMD: …and if you don't have it, I think it's really gonna affect your writing and it-, your writing will be the worse for it. A big ego means you are taking up so much space in your play, in the room, and that is not what your characters need…is for you to take up more space than they do.
CTJ: That's fantastic. We should embroider that on a pillow and pass it out on street corners.
CTJ: Thank you. I want to talk a little bit about something you brought up, Deen, earlier, about…who's getting produced. Something I hear a lot from people—artistic directors and producers, um, indicate that they are not really looking in large enough spaces for the playwrights whose stories they say they want to produce. And so, it will be like, “well, we don't know any…female playwrights.”
CTJ: I'm laughing because it's ridiculous! But I have literally heard that: “well, where are the female playwrights? Where are the Asian American playwrights?” And so…
KC: Of-, often spoken by female artistic directors who don't know any female playwrights.
CTJ: And so, you know, so the, the question is…
KC: Or just as often.
CTJ: Right. How, how do we, um, without getting just sort of, angry about everything, just how do we talk about looking in, in lar-, larger spaces for the writers that are out there? And, and or, second question—maybe not related but related—I think there are many situations where theaters are looking to produce stories about, say, the African American experience, but their idea of what that is.
And so, there are many writers who are writing their own experience…and this is actually the flipside of this conversation, writing outside your lived experience, right? But, people that are writing their own experience, but it's not in line with the expectation of the theater. I wonder if you have thoughts about that.
MMD: I think theaters are institutions, and they have a mission, and so they have values and they need to-, one thing is they need to look at who's in the institution, and see if the institution is actually reflecting their values. Because if you have a diverse group of people who are bringing in experiences into those rooms and talking about it, that will be a very different conversation than if you have seven white people who are trying to think about something outside of themselves.
And it should be something we talk about all the time, not just—at the conferences, certainly—but, reach out to other theater directors. Know that the theater over there did this great play. What other plays are they, like, what other plays are they looking at? What other ac-, writers are they excited by? Like…talk about it more and more. Like, just bring these people… We're all very find-able online! *laughs* So I don't know why it's so hard.
CTJ: Kia, do you have anything you want to add?
KC: W-, I think it's hard because they're not really interested. *laughs* I mean the truth is, we’re there if they want to find us. You know, something that you said made me think. It's also interesting because I, I'm not gonna name any names, especially as I did not see this play, but there was a play in New York, by a Black playwright, the subject matter was Black…every single Black person I knew hated it, and every single white person I knew loved it. And, yeah, I mean, what happens with that? And, and why would a white artistic director choose this play? I mean…to some degree it's the arts, it's all arbitrary, it's all one person's opinion, and, um…I don't know how to get artistic directors to read things that…that they say they, they can't find, but the truth is, I would say, they're not looking ‘cause they don't really want to find it. They wanted-- what they really like *laughs* are, having a playwright who is a person of color writing about that community, and, you know, sometimes…saying what that white artistic director wants to say about that community.
MMD: I just want to jump in that sometimes, a writer of a certain community will not write a very good play about that community. Like, just because someone is of that community, doesn't mean all of a sudden they're gonna do their own work, or they're not gonna traffic in stereotypes, because it's easier and they know it'll be produced. So, I've definitely been upset about plays that’ve been written by South Asians or South Asian Americans that are not great plays, politically speaking. Or not…saying truthful things.
CTJ: I want to try to end on like, the Kia Corthron note of giving hope. Tell me about the most satisfying experience you've had in writing about a community that you are not living in from day to day.
KC: I think it's when I wrote the deaf character. ‘Cause I, yeah, I really loved that character and I loved being able to go really inside, uh, this person that, you know, a deaf culture is a different culture. So that was very satisfying for me.
MMD: I just finished writing a play, uh, where two of the main characters are an older white couple. And I was really, I think, looking at what makes…people willfully ignorant of the world around them? But, what was so satisfying was to just find the humanness of…at least these characters, what they were afraid of and what was so hard for them to look at and…aging and thinking, “I understand that, like, on a deep level, I know what that's like, that's hard. I get that part of it.” Not that it excuses you or it makes it okay, but there was something…beautiful about being like, “oh yeah, that's very human and true. I get it.” And that's kind of what I want to do in theater, is to step into people who I think I really don't agree with, and then think, “all right, that's a very human thing to do. I understand.”
CTJ: I want to end there because I think that's so beautiful.
CTJ: Thank you both so much for joining us today.
KC: Thank you, Christine!
CTJ: It's been such an enlightening…
CTJ: …and inspiring conversation…
MMD: Thank you for having us.
CTJ: …and as always, to be continued.
This has been The Dramatist Presents: TALKBACK, a production of the Dramatists Guild of America and Boom Integrated. Our podcast is lovingly produced by Sarah Storm, Christine Toy Johnson, and Amy Von Macek. It's edited by Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhodes of John Marshall Media. Special thanks to Tina Fallon, Ralph Sevush, David Faux, Terry Stratton, Adrien Glover, and John Marshall Cheary.
TALKBACK is distributed by the Broadway Podcast Network. Like and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform. For episode transcripts and exclusive content, visit us on the web at dramatistsguild.com. Keep the conversation going on Twitter using #DGTalkBack. I'm Christine Toy Johnson. I’ll see you next time.
In our second episode The Dramatist Presents: TALKBACK Host, Christine Toy Johnson sits down with novelist and playwright Kia Corthron (The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter, A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick) to talk about what it was like to write Tap The Leopard, a play in three acts that tells of the historical African-American colonization of Liberia. A story that was far outside her lived own lived experience, but hit home with audience members.
After the break, Mashuq Mushtaq Deen join Kia and Christine. They explore the practicality and the pitfalls of cultural research, and why sometimes fiction can tell the truth better than truth.
This episode features Kia Corthron and Mashuq Mushtaq Deen,. The Dramatist Presents: TALKBACK is a production of The Dramatists Guild of America and BOOM Integrated . This episode was produced by Sarah Storm, Amy VonMacek, Christine Toy Johnson, directed by Sarah Storm, and edited by Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhodes of John Marshall Media. It was recorded by Eric Dabdoub for JMM, with Los Angeles tape sync support by Phoebe Unterman. Special thanks to Tina Fallon, Ralph Sevush, David Faux, Tari Stratton, Adrien Glover, Robin Lai, and John Marshall Cheary.
TalkBack is distributed by the Broadway Podcast Network. Like and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform. For episode transcripts and exclusive content visit us on the web at dramatistsguild.com. Keep the conversation going on Twitter using #DGTalkBack