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Black Women Playwrights: Interviews

Kia Corthron

Playwright Kia Corthron

Kia Corthron

Born in Cumberland, Maryland, Kia Corthron now lives in Harlem. Her plays include: Breath, Boom; Venus de Milo Is Armed; Light Raise the Roof; Life by Asphyxiation; Safe Box; Cage Rhythm; and Come Down Burning. Her work has been produced at the Manhattan Theatre Club, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and the Royal Court Theatre in London, among others.

Q: What were some of your early inklings of plays and playwrights?

KIA CORTHRON: Ever since I was little, from the second grade, I was encouraged by my teachers to be a writer. But it was not until my last semester in college at the University of Maryland that I took a playwriting class. I was really excited about the immediacy of theater in that class. I had taken English and read some plays, but I had not taken a theater class. But when I was very small, I always had these characters. I would use pencils, and I would do plays in my head, I guess. So maybe I had it back then. But I had gone through school mostly writing fiction until that class. And then I was really excited about theater.

Q: Characters...

KIA CORTHRON: They were serials, and I had them go on and on. I would have little characters that would continue. And my mother thought it was insane. I talked out loud and did not realize it. Actually it started when my sister, who is 15 months older, went to school, and I was by myself. I did not have anyone to talk to anymore. And that is when I started doing that.

Q: So what plays, playwrights ...

KIA CORTHRON: The basic, classic things. Death of a Salesman, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Long Day’s Journey into Night. Sometimes I think—I mean, it’s something I only realized a year ago—maybe one of the strongest influences on my writing was David Rabe with those Vietnam plays [Sticks and Bones, Streamers]. I really connected with those. Especially the basic-training one [The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel]. I realized there were some similarities. We both write linear plays, both in a kind of heightened language and situations. There was something that really stuck with me. Even I was not conscience of it till many years later.

Q: And what about plays by black women?

KIA CORTHRON: In all those classes at Maryland, except for A Raisin in the Sun, there were not any. It was all white plays. So I did not have them to influence me. But when I went to graduate school, on the reading list, first of all was Dutchman [Imamu Amiri Baraka]. I was really taken with that play. Then I was introduced to Adrienne Kennedy. I was completely blown away, and I wrote a paper on her work. It’s very different than mine because the plays are not linear. The ones that are linear are less interesting than the ones that are really into that nightmare dream space. I believe they could have had an influence, too, because I like that space so much. They come up in my plays; they come up in a linear way. There are often dead people that walk on stage in my plays. That is pretty typical with my work.

Q: Talk about your process.

KIA CORTHRON: In my play, Life by Asphyxiation—I always start with some sort of political impetus—in that play, it was the death penalty. I knew I was anti-death penalty, and that is where the play was going. And I tried to figure out how to get there. When I had the first drafts of that play, people asked me—they were really affected by the play—but they wondered why the main character had to have committed this ugly, heinous crime. He was 54, and when he was 22, he had raped and murdered a teenage girl. He is black, and she is white. And his friend and these two girls were together.

And for me the reason he had to commit this ugly crime was: I think it is easy to be anti-death penalty if the person is innocent. But you have to think about what if the person is guilty? There were certainly a lot of political decisions I made in terms of the play. As a black woman, I made the decision that he raped a white girl, even though it made people uncomfortable. In the play, there is a character—actually the victim—that says, “Rape is separate, but equal.” A black rapist is not likely to be on death row for raping a black woman. So it’s the white girl that put him on death row.

He’s on death row and in the spaces around him are Crazy Horse and Nat Turner, who are also on death row, even though it is a contemporary play. I was going with that, because I have always wanted to write a play with Crazy Horse and Nat Turner in it. So it just became this play. But when the play really took off is when I realized that I was ignoring the victim’s point of view, so I brought her in as a dead character. So she came in. When she was killed, she was a basketball jock, and she has had this relationship with him for the 31 years he has been on death row.

When I write stuff like that, I don’t get sentimental and bossy, and it’s some sort of warped relationship. But it is not about “because it is in his head.” It’s up to the audience if she is real or a real ghost. Whatever it is, she is there for his purposes. She is there in his cell. It’s him dealing with his conscience. And her deciding when she decides to be irritating to him and bossing him.

Q: Can you look back for us to works by black female playwrights?

KIA CORTHRON: Well, I remember when I was a small child, that was sort of the time when if there was a black person on TV, every body in town would call and say there was a black person on TV.

And it was this drama and I was very small. There was this young black woman, and she was married to a white man, a young man, and there was this confrontation with her mother-in-law, or future mother-in- law.

The white mother-in-law was in the black woman’s face. And I remember her screaming, “Nigga, nigga!” I remember it was so violent to me. And when I was in college I read Wedding Band by Alice Childress. I remember thinking, oh God, this is the nightmare that was really terrifying as a child, that was so violent for me it had stayed with me my entire life.

Q: What about more contemporary black female playwrights?

KIA CORTHRON: Well, I think they are forging new ground, but not as just black playwrights. I think they are redefining playwriting in general. Anna Deavere Smith and her Fires in the Mirror, and the L.A. piece, Twilight: Los Angeles, I just found them really original theatrical experiences. I would not call them playwriting because it was not writing, but I found her brilliant, not only as an actress, but as an editor. The way she had spliced them was so dramatic. It was such a climax. I thought she was doing something that someone had never done before. And that was something incredible. I actually know someone who knew her—she was an academic, taught a class she was taking. This was before Fire, and she described her technique. This friend of mine was wondering, “What is this?” It was not acting—when you sort of take someone and mimic them. The idea of it sounds kind of ludicrous, but the execution was genius, I thought.

And then Ntozage Shange with for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf—it became such a politically … because she was a black woman saying negative things about black men. Which became difficult in the community, depending on who you talk to. “We have enough people saying negative things about black men—white people—we don’t need black women.” But her honesty about her opinions, which were not all negative—the negative stuff is what people pulled out. The honesty, with the point-of-view of the women, and what she did with that. She referred it as a “choreopoem.” How do you define playwriting? Again. But that is certainly writing. And I think they both forged ahead as theater artists, not just as black women.

Q: Can you talk about some of your current work?

Breath, Boom

KIA CORTHRON: Sure. Breath, Boom, the play I am working on right now, is a commission for the Royal Court Theatre in London. This play I have been wanting to work on for a few years, and it is going to seem vague, the way that I describe it. I feel that we live under the legacy of the McCarthy era, which means there is fear of dissent. There is a quick squelching of dissent, I feel, in the media and in our society. It was used, for example, against civil rights. Anyone who spoke for civil rights—and there was logic in that, because the Communist Party supported civil rights, so make that connection—and it became a witch hunt—to challenge the American status quo. And I feel like we still live under that. This plays deals with that. It was not intended, but it became a 9/11 play. There are characters in the play who are Arab in this country, and they disappear because of the arrests of Arab people after the World Trade Center. So, that‘s what I am working on right now.

And Venus de Milo Is Armed I am in auditions for. Deals with land mines. A few years ago, Lincoln Center had a human rights film festival. They have it every year. And that year they had commissioned filmmakers around the world to do these shorts about land mines. I became conscious of the fact that we, as Americans, are not insensitive to land mines and land-mine victims. But we don’t have to think about it, despite our corporate responsibility around the world, because they are not here. So in this play, land mines are mysteriously exploding all over the U.S.

Q: Breath, Boom…

KIA CORTHRON: The Royal Court in London commissioned that play. It was the first commission I had in London. At first I thought I should I write about black people in England. Then I thought, “I don’t know anything about black people in England. They commissioned an American play!” It’s very New York and about girl gangs.

When I first started writing it, although I never wanted it to be a recruitment play for girl gangs, I do think there is a fascination with the subject. I taught a playwriting class in Rikers for girls in the New York City jail. So some of it came from that, but the more violent stuff was more of what I read. Because it was interesting. Those girls really liked me, so I don’t think they wanted me to think bad about them. So they did not talk about the most violent stuff. Though interesting, some things would not be so violent. One of the girls talked about slamming a girl’s head against cement because she disrespected and maybe, as an afterthought, thinking that was not that good.

But going through that research, I learned very quickly that the violence most of the girls inflict on others is unspeakable. There couldn’t possibly be the slightest bit of hero worship. The violence inflicted upon them is misogynist to the degree it is unbelievable. That play, which many people find quite harsh, is the Disney version of what I was reading. If I had put in that stuff, I could not have watched it, it was so graphic. It was done in London and at Playwrights Horizons in New York.

Another play I am working on right now is called—I just changed the title—Year Merge the Slippery Slope. The two main characters are these identical twins who meet just before their 36th birthday, because they were reared apart. It takes place in the present time. One comes from the city, and the other comes from the country. One was raised in Chicago, and she comes back to a farm, actually, where her sister is. They are completely opposite. The farm woman is much more autonomous. The play deals with genetics and human cloning.

Q: You begin with a political statement?

KIA CORTHRON: Yeah, there is always some spark in that way. Whether you think it is political, there is political stuff in it . . . .

It took me a while to be produced. There was a period early on that theaters kept commissioning me. They liked my writing, but they did not produce. Actually my play, Seeking the Genesis, dealt both with drugging children with Ritalin and also a phenomenon people refer to as the “violence initiative,” a program that was kicked around the federal government that would drug inner-city youth against violence. To prevent it before it could happen. The Goodman Theatre commissioned me, and it was actually produced, which reinstated my faith for being commissioned. So after that I felt like people were not afraid. Splash Hatch on the E Going Down, which was after Genesis, has a love story element and dealt with teen pregnancy and environmental racism, which is the tendency for environmental hazards to be placed in neighborhoods of people of color. I deal with Harlem, but there’s a lot of stuff with poor neighborhoods in the south. Of course, traditionally, it was nuclear testing on reservations that was all part of that. And maybe I eased up a bit, because there is this little love story in the middle of Splash. It helped, and that play was produced several times. Then I started to be produced.

Q: People were afraid to produce your plays?

KIA CORTHRON: That is the way I saw it. Maybe they saw it differently. But I may have started to write differently. And maybe they thought I was not ready. It also may have been the political climate. It definitely felt like in the early 90s there was a taboo about being a political writer. I would immediately say I was a political playwright, and there was some sense that if it was real art it would transcend the political. In recent years, it has turned around a bit. And now, it’s okay. In fact people think it is a little trendy to be political. But it certainly did have the taboo early on—just ten years ago. It seems it has changed since then. And frankly I think it is hard to be a person of color in this country—and particularly a female person of color—and not write politically. Your whole life is political. You grew up with racism. You grew up with sexism. How can you not address that?

Q: Why do we need the voices of black women playwrights?

KIA CORTHRON: Well, I think we need the voices that are representative of our society. New Dramatists did this symposium about a year ago. They found out that 16 percent of plays produced are written by women. And women make up 53 percent of the population. So technically 53 percent of the plays should be written by women and ten percent should be black. At least as many Latino or more, at this point. I just think we need plays that represent the society. Plays that are … if the range is 80 percent or more white men … then that is not representing society.