in dialogue: Emotional/Political Danger Zones
by Betty Shamieh
In 1989, Joseph Papp asked a Palestinian theater troupe that had grown out of the El Hakawati (Storyteller) Theatre group in Jerusalem to bring their play The Story of Kufur Shamma to the Public Theater after its critically acclaimed run in Europe. The Public Theater board objected to his decision. Papp fought for the right to present the show—as he had consistently fought to present other controversial works at his theater—but this time, his board’s resistance was too great, and he ultimately rescinded his offer to produce the play. This was the last major attempt to bring a play by a Palestinian playwright off-Broadway.
I’m telling this little-known story because it had a profound, and revealing, effect on me. For the three years I was a playwriting graduate student at the Yale School of Drama, I, in effect, censored myself. I did not produce a single play about the Palestinian experience—thus suppressing from my work an enormous part of who I am as an artist and a person.
I reasoned that if arguably the most powerful man in American theater could not put on an already critically acclaimed show in his own institution, no one would ever produce my work. I thought it would be better to make a name for myself as a playwright before dealing with the controversy that arises any time a writer, artist, journalist, or politician tries to make people think seriously about the Middle East conflict from the Palestinian perspective.
Unfortunately, as a result of my self-censorship my work was eviscerated. It came down to a very clear choice for me. I had to either give up writing for the stage or choose to write about what mattered to me and, therefore, face what it meant to be a Palestinian-American playwright working in New York at this stage in our nation’s history. I, either wisely or unwisely, have chosen the latter.
I now write about the Palestinian experience not only because it deserves—as all stories and perspectives deserve—to be heard, but also because I realized I had to write about what I cared about if I intended to make vital theater.
My experience with trying to overcome my own fears and issues of self-censorship led me to begin questioning other playwrights about the plays that were difficult and scary for them to write or present.
Following are the responses from three important American playwrights, who are successful dramatists in their own right but who also consistently insist on taking risks with their work, politically and emotionally. Here, they discuss their most difficult ones.
My first paid gig was a workshop of my play Come Down Burning at the Long Wharf Theatre. Come Down Burning is a seven-scene one-act running about 70 minutes. The Long Wharf asked that I write a "companion piece" to fill out the evening. It was late November 1992 and we went into rehearsal right after Christmas so I had a little more than a month to research and write a new play before it would be put up before an audience. I could only employ actors from the Come Down Burning cast—3 women and 2 children—and, given I would have no men to work with, I decided it was finally time to undertake that women-in-prison play I’d always wanted to write.
The cast was resistant. Apparently there was some confusion—not everybody was aware that the second play was part of the deal. Also the new play, Cage Rhythm, was quite harsh, and very different from Come Down Burning, not to mention the fact that the play went from a handful of pages on the first day of rehearsal to a full hour by the first performance. We infuriated the producers by catering to the actors’s understandable demands to be on-book for the second play. It went up, really, as a first-draft in both the writing and the directing, with the company focusing more on Come Down Burning. To make matters worse, the Long Wharf’s second space was unavailable at the time so this rough draft was performed on the 484-seat mainstage, giving the impression that it was a fully realized production. Cold silence in the theater; many of the predominantly white upper-class audience walked out. Of those who stayed, several filled out the audience response forms with ugly, sometimes blatantly racist, remarks.
As part of the research for Cage Rhythm, I visited a local women’s prison twice, once with the cast, once with the director. One evening 25 of the minimum-security inmates were released to watch the show. It was the best audience!—probably the most incredible I’ll ever have in my life. Vocal where I hoped they would be, but really listening otherwise. When the show was over, I was asked to come to the front and answer some questions from the women. I was terrified; between the tension of the actors and the producers and the hostility of the subscription audience I felt I’d just had about all the criticism I could take. But they were so complimentary! Enthusiastic: "That’s just they way it is." I couldn’t have hoped for better! The only negative note they had for me was that I’d written the corrections officers as being too nice. Interesting, given that one of the many criticisms of the regular audience was that I’d written the corrections officers too harsh.
A few weeks later I received a call from Steven Samuels who worked at Theater Communications Group: Sydné Mahone, then Director of Play Development at Crossroads Theater, was editing Moon Marked and Touched by Sun, a new anthology of plays by contemporary African-American women playwrights—the first of its kind. Steve was very excited about Cage Rhythm, saying it "completed our anthology." It was the first time I was published—and with such an esteemed crowd: Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, Aishah Rahman, Laurie Carlos, Anna Deavere Smith, Suzan-Lori Parks who’d just won her first Obie. I’m a real writer! So while my career started on rather shaking grounds—like eight points on the Richter—the generous words of the incarcerated women, and seeing my own words in print, certainly provided for a happy ending and encouragement to keep on.
The “scariest” play so far that I’ve had to write is a play about my first professional experience. I’d written a play for my Graduate Directing Thesis entitled Insurrection: Holding History and it led to many wonderful things and eventually a troubled production at The Public Theater. I was 26 at the time, and immediately after the show closed I began outlining a play about putting on that play and all the madness that was involved in getting it from Graduate School to Off-Broadway…
It has been almost eight years since I started writing it, and it’s almost halfway done. I know I could finish it in a heartbeat, but for some reason I’ve been savoring the experience and at the same time dreading it. It is like a long extended group therapy session for me. And also I think as my writing grows and my perspective on the events surrounding that production becomes more mature, the play itself becomes more and more honest and dark. I realize it’s like one of those plays that an author dreads writing because s/he knows the truth was greater than any fiction you could create, and so therefore the question becomes, how much of the truth do you “fictionalize”?
I plan to complete this play by the 10th anniversary of my first professional production, which would be 2005, and I would love to experience them both back to back; it would be a delight… and a horror. I think that all writers have fear mixed with delight at times, and that’s what this play brings up for me. It is of a time when my life was so crazy that one could not believe the everyday drama-worthy events of one’s day.
Six years ago I began work on The Emperor Breathes, a short play about the last minutes of a brutal African dictator’s life. The play imagined a conversation between an illiterate solipsistic emperor and his doting scribe (the de facto voice of the emperor). I was interested in exploring the legacy of oppression from the point view of the oppressor. The piece tackled the questions of how a leader moves from liberator to oppressor? How he justifies his actions? And finally how he perceives himself in light of his crimes? It was my second play set in Africa, and was part of an ongoing quest to shed light on a region of the world largely ignored by the Western media.
But death interrupted. More specifically, my mother’s death interrupted the process of writing. She had been struggling with Lou Gehrig’s disease for two years, and as her health proxy I was forced to make the agonizing decision of removing her from life support. It was excruciating, as I was cast as both her liberator and her agent of death. So I did what I do, I wrote. I poured my sadness, my anger, my confusion, my fear, my frustration, my pain into my play, The Emperor Breathes.
The piece mutated every day. Sometimes it was about the love that exists between two people struggling with an imbalance of power, sometimes it was about unfulfilled dreams, sometimes it was about disillusionment, and sometimes it was about a prisoner and executioner. The play became a funeral dirge, through which I expressed the complicated nature of my grief. In a strange, self-conscious way, I became a victim of a dictator of my own creation. And I was incapable of finishing the play; it was too difficult.
And now six years later, I still haven’t completed the short piece. Nevertheless, I revisit it every day (literally). At times it’s only for a few seconds, though occasionally I re-read the whole play, fiddling with the adjectives and the punctuation. It’s only this year that I have once again mustered the courage to share the play with people (come what will). But I remain reluctant to release The Emperor Breathes into the world, because it means being emotionally naked. I’d have to allow people into a very private moment in my life, which I explored metaphorically on the page.
Kia Corthron’s Snapshot Silhouette will premiere at Minneapolis’ Children’s Theatre Company in March, and Light Raise the Roof will premiere at New York Theatre Workshop in April.
Robert O’Hara is a playwright and director, and is currently directing Which Wolf is Which by Sam Marks at HERE. His plays Bootycandy and American Maul premiered earlier this season.
Lynn Nottage is a playwright from Brooklyn. Her play, Intimate Apparel (AT&T OnStage Award) most recently premiered at Center Stage and South Coast Rep, and will make its New York Premiere at The Roundabout Theatre this season.
IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright, and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at: email@example.com
Betty Shamieh is currently the NEA/TCG playwright-in-residence at Magic Theater, and her recent productions include Chocolate in Heat (The Tank), The Black Eyed (New York Theatre Workshop, Theatre Fournos of Athens), The Machine (Naked Angels), and Roar (The New Group). Her play Territories, which premiered at the Magic, will be produced as part of the inaugural theatrical events of the European Union's Capital of Culture Festival in 2009.