with Jeremy O. Harris
Opening the third season of Next Door at New York Theater Workshop this July is In the Penal Colony, an adaption of Franz Kafka’s short story of the same name written and directed by Miranda Haymon. During Pride Month, playwright Jeremy O. Harris and Haymon met up on Fire Island to chat about boarding school, being Black in Berlin, and bending the rules of literary adaptation. Below is an edited snippet that picks up in media res as Harris and Haymon mix minds, perspectives, and school histories.
Jeremy O. Harris (Rail): You [were] looking for a lesbian Grindr?
Miranda Haymon: Yes, big time. I spent like two weeks downloading every single so-called lesbian dating app and trying them out.
Rail: Name some lesbian dating apps for me.
Haymon: Okay, there’s like “Her.”
Rail: I’ve never heard of that one.
Haymon: I can never remember all of them because it was such a dark period. I was in Colorado so I also had to set my miles to, like, a thousand. I mean I always say I wish I were more queer in boarding school, because people were just doing all kinds of shit in boarding school, like being roommates with their girlfriend.
Rail: That was able to happen?
Rail: What was your life like in boarding school? Was your head purely in books?
Haymon: No. Really much the opposite, actually. I really went to boarding school because I thought it would be, like, Zoey 101, which was a huge lie that Nickelodeon and I told myself. I was honestly a pretty average student. I was on academic restriction a lot.
Rail: You were?
Rail: What’d you do?
Haymon: I mean, I did fine, but I was not an amazing student, I was far more concerned with hanging out with people and extracurriculars.
Rail: What were your extracurriculars?
Haymon: Oh my god, I was doing everything, I was in improv, I was running the theater club, I also was the head of German club. I was taking drum lessons at one point, I was doing tours for the admissions office.
Rail: I was a French student because French felt sexy to me. German felt ugly? You know? What drew you to German?
Haymon: I took German my senior year of high school and then I went to college and I decided to keep taking German, and then I started discovering Brecht and Hegel and Kafka, and you know, I was so obsessed with Vonnegut in high school. It freaked me out. Then I studied abroad in Berlin my sophomore spring, that’s when really it all began, you know, the German, the literature, the theater all really became one. I really started to identify as an artist instead of, like, a theater maker.
Rail: So, I went to Berlin and I was so sort of shaken by the amount of Black American artists that I encountered there, and I’m still trying to interrogate what a) draws me to want to go back there, and b) what draws other Black artists to go there. And since you properly lived there, in a sense, what do you take away? What do you think it is?
Haymon: To me, it’s two things. The first thing I identified is that Berlin really felt like a palette cleanser. I think that Berlin is the one city that still has a strong hold over artists to want to go and become something new or interrogate something differently. Not to mention, also, that there’s a lot of different ways in which the government makes that accessible: education, cost of living, all of those things really make Berlin able to have the American Dream but for artists.
Haymon: And the second thing that I think was so significant, which I didn’t realize until recently, is that, in Berlin, I was never, you know, no one ever called me Black.
Rail: Wow. What did they call you?
Haymon: An “American.”
Rail: They called you an American.
Haymon: They were just like, “Oh, you’re an American.” Like, no one ever was like, “You are Black.”
Haymon: So that was really what was so impactful for me... I also did lots of crazy things like weep at Brecht’s grave, I was going to the Berliner Ensemble like every day. I was constantly at the museums, constantly seeing work, and I wasn’t making work actually. I was really adamant about saying, like, “Let me just take all of it in.”
Rail: And see what comes out after.
Haymon: I think that was when I also started to identify as a Black American instead of, like, African American. There were also definitely shifts in that as well, for me, being cognizant for the first time about how my nationality really does speak wonders that exist within—and outside of—my blackness.
Rail: I’m curious about what that articulation of Black American sensibility in relation to German-ness means to you, or meant for you, as you were leaving Germany.
Haymon: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I mean, it really made me think a lot about each country’s own history with xenophobia and othering. When I was abroad, I was thinking a lot about my own feelings of being othered and either seen or not seen in both [Germany and America].
Rail: Let’s talk about that idea of being seen and the spectator in In The Penal Colony.
Haymon: It was really, really important to me that we not be able to look away. And if you do look away from the action as it exists [onstage], that you’re looking at yourself or at somebody else—you’re watching other people watch this. Because I think that one of the ways that systemic oppression works is that there is a spectatorship; we’re seeing other people go through it, we’re seeing ourselves as part of the machine in some regard. We might not know our participation, but we’re all subject to it. It’s everywhere, it’s all the time, it’s constant.
Rail: I think something that was very exciting about [this theater] season was that there seemed to be multiple Black artists specifically who were challenging audiences, a lot of whom were white, to look at themselves and to look at Black bodies looking back at them, and looking at themselves looking at Black bodies.
Haymon: That’s exactly it.
Rail: And questioning that. And I wonder how you feel about an audience of Penal Colony looking at this play and only seeing Black faces. Like if it was a purely Black audience, what would that spectatorship feel like for you in that case?
Haymon: I think that spectatorship would be seeing a physicalized representation of a history. I think that’s what it would be. You know, Black folks come and see the work... I think what’s important to me about my work is that it’s not spoon-fed. Everyone is able to come in with their own privileges, their own biases, their own opinions about what they’re seeing and being able to take something individual and different. So of course, Black folks are going to see gestures and recognize things, both joy and pain, physical and emotional, they can recognize things and actually feel seen in that way. For every single audience member to pick up those tidbits—and to make their own machine and then to see how it manifests—is really important to me. So, I think I’m most excited about Black folks coming and recognizing those gestures and being able to take them for their own, and see how that participates in our larger understanding of the machine that we are all a part of.
Rail: How old are you?
Haymon: I’m 25.
Rail: Are you still a Millennial or are you Gen Z?
Haymon: I am, I’m like just, I think I’m like 2 or 4 years away.
Rail: You’re a cusp.
Haymon: I’m a cusp?
Rail: Yeah. You’re cuspy.
Haymon: Yeah, I mean I didn’t get an iPhone until high school.
Rail: Yeah, that’s complicated.
Rail: The main reason I’m asking is that I’m excited because watching your piece, I was like, “representation might matter.” I don’t think it does, but I think it might. In the sense that like, for me, representation is like seeing another young Black artist who has aesthetic interest outside of purely representing our bodies in normative structures; but is excited about representing our bodies inside of structures that Black artists have been the preeminent auteurs within, but that have historically been erased from the narrative of. In the same way that Black bodies have been erased from techno, and Black bodies have been erased from rock. Like, you are doing a sort of indie representation inside of the theater community that I think is necessary. Black expression that doesn’t dictate what our bodies or our stories mean to audiences, white or Black. They allow themselves to exist inside of a place that’s choreographic or pure expressionism, and I’m wondering where that came from…
Haymon: I mean from a young age, a lot of the authors that I mentioned who are or were important to me are white. And I think that I felt extremely troubled by the fact that, as a German major and Theater major...if we look at the intersection between Theater and German, the amount of folks who are not white in that intersection are far and few between. And that’s part of the huge reason why adaptation is so important to me. Because I don’t see adaptation necessarily as, you know, ‘I’m just gonna theatricalize it,’ or ‘I’m just gonna put it on the stage,’ you know, I’m not interested in that. To me, adaptation is another form of reclamation. I’m able to be like, “Yeah, hi Kafka, it’s me, Black-ass Miranda Haymon coming for you and your words because they are significant, but also, this is how they’re mine. This is how they’re mine. Not necessarily yours, or ours, but mine.” So, I’m able to take my own experience moving through the world and utilize Kafka’s text as a tool, just as I would use choreography or music. I’m using it as a tool by which to make my art. Not even in a way that’s like, to defame, but to repurpose. That’s actually what adaptation is to me. To repurpose.
The Hodgepodge Group and producer Lucy Powis will present Miranda Haymon's In the Penal Colony at NYTW's Fourth Street Theatre (79 East 4th Street between Bowery and 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10003), July 11-28. Tickets and info: www.nytw.org.