Theater In Dialogue
In the Spotlight with The Public Theaters Emerging Writer’s Group
The Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group (EWG) is presently in its 7th cycle, and the 2018–2019 group members are Brittany K. Allen, Oscar A.L. Cabrera, Daniella De Jesús, Ryan J. Haddad, Diana Oh, Ife Olujobi, David Zheng, Obehi Janice, and myself. As we near the end of our time together we find ourselves in the middle of The Public’s Spotlight Series, which is the culmination of the plays we developed in the group under the dramaturgical leadership of Jesse Cameron Alick and Jack Phillips Moore. Starting in June 2019 and continuing through December, each writer receives a developmental reading that has the “full creative energy of The Public behind each bespoke project,” as Alick and Moore have stated.
They also say that, in curating this year’s group, they chose “nine of the most radical multi-hyphenate artists… hoping they would be disruptors.” To celebrate our works going up in this series I emailed and talked to everyone in the group and asked them to talk a little about their work, starting with this notion of disruption.
Joshua Young (Rail): Do you consider your work to be an act of disruption? If so, in what way, and what are you disrupting?
Ife Olujobi: Yes, hopefully, but in different ways. I know that I’m one of many young playwrights of color who is trying to shake things up and shift paradigms. In particular, because I’m a very visual writer, I think my work can disrupt the way people see certain situations, literally, and how looking at something in a bizarre new way can affect how you think and react. In the context of the larger New York theater world, I think my presence, as a young queer black woman writer, is a disruption, whether I like it or not.
Brittany K. Allen: I'm interested in making work that disrupts the idea of what's worth canonizing, based on what's historically been canonized. I hope that by writing stories and plays that interrogate how Black people strain against this mantle of "Otherhood" that defines our lives in even the sunniest, wealthiest, ostensibly “wokest” spaces, I am creating room for a more diverse panoply of characters in our global imagination. This ancient idea that the most "universal" (or, cough, American) story is one contingent on the problems of wealthy white, cis, straightfolk is very much still alive and thriving. I hope I am disrupting, and will continue to disrupt that BS notion by writing honestly from my life and about my community.
Oscar A.L. Cabrera: I feel a lot of my germinating ideas are grounded in change of some aspect of society I really don’t understand. I push my work to explore these areas for myself, at the very least. I write plays to change specific minds, myself included.
Ryan J. Haddad: I mean, I’m not trying to cause a literal disruption, like bang, bam, wham. But I am disrupting the way non-disabled people think about disability, usually in a way that does not feel disruptive to them. I take my experience with cerebral palsy and make it feel very, very relatable and familiar to people who maybe have never experienced disability before, either themselves or via a close friend or loved one. There’s a fear around disability, a distance, a feeling that it’s untouchable. A sense of: “That can’t be me.” And I’m saying, “Yes, it can. And it is.” I’m making them laugh or think or cry not because my stories are particularly remarkable, but because the way I tell my stories makes them conjure stories of their own, dismantling the fear and the distance and the untouchability. It’s a quiet disruption, but it is there.
Daniella De Jesús: I don’t consider my work to be an act of disruption. It’s possible that other people might put that on my work in that if put next to plays that are white and/or male, it would be a disruption of that pattern, but I’m not intentionally disrupting. I just think I’m telling stories.
Diana Oh: I don't always want to be a disruption. I want to be someone who invents lanes. I know that half of what I offer is my specific lens on the world. And no matter what: people of color and specifically I, as a 1st generation Korean-American person who thrives off of the centering of people of color, will offer a very specific lens on the world. I'm interested in the true cultivation of visionary voices—and think that's where artistic and spiritual innovation lives. I suppose I'm disrupting anything that is nervous about that...
David Zheng: I don’t look at my work as an act of disruption. I see my work as a depiction of the shit that’s going on. And if you think that’s a disruption, you should wake the fuck up.
Rail: I write about poor and working people, especially folks impacted by the decline and fall of the industrial Midwest and people in the Appalachias, and I think a lot of audiences feel disrupted by the portrait I sometimes paint of those lives. Embedded in all my writing is an urgency to help people from lower economic backgrounds seek out, embrace, and articulate a healthy identity; and I find that sometimes rubs suburbanites the wrong way because the America I describe is deeply antithetical to their lived experience. But if I’m disrupting white, American, suburban (consumer) culture then I’m happy to do so.
The idea of writing to disrupt shares DNA with the idea of writing as activism. How important is the role of activism in your work, and if it's important, how do you engage with it? Or use it as a tool?
Allen: I've hesitated to think of myself as an activist because I feel fairly strongly that there is a delineation between imbibing or making even the most radical version of an Aristotelian/expensive tickets/you sit over there and we're up here and the curtain goes down and there's a beginning-middle-end and fake people kind of art and, I dunno, attending rallies, marches, pestering our representatives, or physically burning anything down. I suppose that's cynical. On the dippier end, I do believe that it's the excellent stories in my life that have compelled me to empathize, and have drawn my attention toward disenfranchised groups and under-examined issues in the first place. I know my entire humanity has been heavily informed by the art works that have shaped me, and therefore I know art is not divorceable from politics. But activism? Are we activists, sitting in those chairs or memorizing those lines? I'm less sure.
I'm generally interested in making art that's palliative and confirming. Art that offers thoughtful joy, possibly even distraction, from the more monstrous realities in this world, and perhaps expressly for people who need to be distracted from those monstrous realities most. Unlike some of my more badass peers, I don't think my plays (or at least any I've written yet) come with an overt agenda that bids audience members to join or support a certain cause after the curtain goes down. Though on the other hand, of course I'm also usually writing with the sub-intent to convince the hegemony that me and mine exist, and deserve to. But I'll keep thinking about how much this mission has in common with what I consider "activism".
De Jesús: I’m inspired by activism, I’m inspired by people who are on the front lines protesting and actively disrupting oppressive structures, I’m inspired by the way they use their voices. I think activism is inherently theatrical. I think that inspiration shows up in my writing but I don’t think it’s a big part of my work as a writer aside from that.
Cabrera: I’m very vocal with my voice as an artist, and I feel strongly about the aspects of my artistry that have created results. I see a future, more established version of myself writing plays for people like me in parts of the country that may not be so welcome to my identity or culture. That’s something that I have always wanted to do. And let’s face it, a New York Times review does a lot of things... but challenging national conversations and stereotypes across America is not one of them.
Haddad: I don’t set out to make activist theater. I tell stories. But in my stories, I make disability sexy. My work is mostly autobiographical, so I often make a point of depicting myself in frank sexual situations. Hot, steamy, complicated, difficult, sometimes problematic. Because you rarely see sex and disability paired together. You rarely see a disabled character as a romantic lead, in a romantic comedy, in a love story. You rarely see a disabled character at the center of a family where his/her/their disability is never a topic of discussion or argument, source of conflict, or plot device. Some people tell me that’s activism. I look forward to the day when it’s not.
Zheng: The only activism I believe in is scaring the living shit out of someone; what do you do when you lose the thing most precious to you? Who do you become? How does that open you up? This is what I’m interested in.
Olujobi: I rarely set out on a new project with a mindset of activism (social, political, etc.) because artistically I think it can lead to didactic storytelling. I don’t think that’s a general rule—I know many writers who engage with what might be considered “activist writers” in masterful and extremely moving ways—but personally, I don’t think I’m very good at it. I can think of my work as something more like advocacy for a certain person or group by just shining my light on them and letting them speak.
Oh: I believe in holistic activism. In personal true power and pleasure being the driving force—with it all rooting back to love. And if one is not feeling the love, then you communicate until you get to love: sometimes communicating means fighting, but it comes down to honesty. I will always be a voice for centering trans power and thriving. I will always be a voice for centering artists of color. It's all activism; anyone with a platform is an activist: they are activating other people. A tool is the pleasure, the humor, the formula.
Rail: I want my work to be like the Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner, where you’d use my plays to determine someone’s level of engagement with empathy. I’d want my work to be used to separate the humans from the replicants. I don’t know if that’s activism, but it’s my agenda. In centering and focusing on poor and working people I also think there’s a principle of activism, especially because there’s such a deliberate pernicious quality in America to erase identity and culture in poor folks. So I deliberately write to combat that trend. I want to write aspirational works that can engage wide audiences, but I write for poor people first.
Do you have a specific audience you want your work to resonate with?
Haddad: I would love for my work to resonate with disabled people. Gay and queer people. Middle Eastern-American people—though that cultural identity features less prominently in my work, it is a fact of who I am. I am conscious that these groups are less frequently represented onstage. That these audiences don’t often get the chance to see themselves reflected back. That intersecting identities are valid and valuable and important. But ultimately, I want the work to be universal. I want the work to land with the whole room. Even if it’s coming at them through my lens, the power of art and storytelling is that it can touch everyone in different ways. Meet them where they are. Saying, “Hello. I see you. Do you see me?”
Oh: People who are open to calling their mom, having better relationships with themselves and with one another.
Cabrera: The working class. People like my father and mother. I would be okay dedicating my entire career to writing plays for the not-so-average theatergoer.
Olujobi: I write stories that center young women/gender-expansive people of color, specifically black women, so I hope my work resonates with those groups. However, I think there’s something for everyone in my plays, and I hope that many people resonate with them, even people who I may not expect to.
Obehi Janice: I write stories for myself, knowing that folks will figure it out and follow along. But my meta-goal as an actress, writer, and comedian is to build a body of work that promotes longevity and legacy.
Zheng: I write for Bronx folks. But I hope my work resonates with everyone.
De Jesús: Yes, I write for black and brown women, I write for survivors of abuse and sexual trauma, I write for the girls I went to high school with.
Allen: Any body who has lived the experience of Only-hood, wherein one has been—habitually—the only representative of their demographic in a space. I think most of what I'm trying to do is anchored in that unique psychology. But to be more specific, Black women. Dorky, tangled, brilliant, striving, freaky Black femmes.
Rail: To answer my own question, I want my work to resonate with people like the people I grew up with. My parents and friends. I write for people in the rust belt in the hopes I can help guide them through a transitioning America. That’s my lowest common denominator, and I build my audience outward from there.
Do you want you work to be entertaining? Is that something you consider, and if so, at what point in your process?
Zheng: Engagement is more important than entertainment. But yes, I hope my shit is entertaining, too.
Allen: Yes! I'm a big believer in the spoon full of sugar orthodoxy. Even when I'm writing into spaces and subjects that are necessarily traumatizing—see: anything to do with the history of Black bodies in America. But the things I love most, even tragedies and dramas, they come with that sick twisty feeling, wherein you laugh and laugh and laugh until you don't. Who was it who said that thing about how you open their hearts up with a laugh so the knife goes in cleanly? I think I consider that throughout my process.
Cabrera: Currently, my residency at the Flea has really helped strengthen what will work, or not work as well, in real time by working on their late night serials. While it’s typically a younger audience, there is something really wonderful about throwing stuff against a wall and seeing what connects with people. It’s invaluable. With a whole year in, I’m now a lot more willing to just try the whim even if it falls flat structurally.
Olujobi: When I’m writing, I’m less worried about things being entertaining than I am about if they feel right to me. That being said, there is a degree of visual spectacle that’s important to me and that features in a lot of my work, so I am often thinking about images and shapes and how things will look on stage for an audience and how the visual ties into the thematic. When I go to see plays, I love when I leave the theater with an image or a transition or an aspect of design that was especially memorable and creates a lasting mental picture. I try to incorporate as many of those things as I can into my plays on a script level, but in a way where they’re foundation to the narrative.
Haddad: Of course! It has to be entertaining! I try to think of myself as the audience member. If I’m not entertained, I’m bored. And if I’m bored, I’m tired, and I will fall asleep. I’m very sorry, but it’s true. So I don’t want to make things that make people fall asleep! Entertain doesn’t have to mean song and dance and glitter and fun. It can be scorching drama, too. But it has to engage me. Not talk at me or down to me. Your content, thoughts, and ideas are only as good as the way you choose to organize them. If I want a lecture, I’ll attend a lecture. Theater can be powerful and enlightening and informative while also entertaining. I think it’s my duty to consider the audience’s time and energy by providing some element of entertainment. If I can hook them with a little entertainment, I have a much better chance of making them feel something, which is always my primary goal.
De Jesús: I want my work to be entertaining, yes. I don’t know if it’s something I consider so much as it is where my writing comes from. I started writing to entertain myself; when I’m stuck, I’ll write something just to make myself laugh. I’ve always felt like people won’t/don’t listen unless they are being entertained in some way, so it’s important to me. I don’t feel like people would listen otherwise.
Oh: I want my work to be hilarious and provide pleasure to those who may not receive it from the mainstream. Perhaps I'm driven by validating the lived experiences of myself and my friends.
Janice: No. Entertainment is a byproduct of capitalism. I'm paraphrasing EWG alum Celine Song when I add, bluntly, that theater is a spiritual practice. That is why we do it. Everything else is very weird dressing.
Rail: Yes. Because I want my theater to be like a really good magic trick. And writing something that’s entertaining is like the part of the magic trick that’s the misdirection; the part that says, “Look over here.” Then—I hope—I land the point of my writing, the premise, the thing I care deeply about saying. Maybe it’s the activism part or the disruption part, but it’s the part that made me say: “Goddamnit, I gotta write this play and I gotta write it right now.” And then I want that deeply embedded purpose to hit my audience like a ton of bricks because they were so focused on the misdirection that they didn’t have time to build up a wall of resistance to whatever message I wanted to impart.