Theater In Dialogue
DAVE HARRIS with Kimber Lee
Interrogating a Thing to its Root
Dave Harris's writing moves like a boxer who understands how to use angles to create openings and land a punch that you never saw coming—but unlike boxing, it's enjoyable when Dave scores on you. His many gifts as a writer are in full effect in his hilarious and incisive play Exception to the Rule in which five high school students sit in detention on a Friday, all regulars to the system. The usual routine plays out until college-bound academic all-star Erika shows up for her very first detention. As of this writing, the play will be in performance at Roundabout Theatre April 30 to June 28.
Since I met Harris at Ojai Playwrights Conference in 2019, we've been deep in a conversation that continues whenever we cross paths—as we did in Manchester over Sunday roast, in London over fancy Thai food, and recently in San Diego over fish tacos. This is a curated look into some of that.
Kimber Lee (Rail): You wrote Exception to the Rule in 2014. What was life like for you at that time?
Dave Harris: That would have been fall of my junior year of college, and I came into undergrad thinking I was gonna be some sort of science major and that playwriting was the hobby. I had been doing this all through my time at Yale, but I was starting to have to confront the idea of success that I had inherited. From 6th grade forward I went to this private, all white, all boys, really wealthy school, and so my definition of success had been oriented towards wealth and white spaces and white ideas of behavior and wealth, and in a lot of ways my writing was oriented towards that, too.
Rail: Say more about that.
Harris: When I started writing ETTR (Exception to the Rule) I had to stand face to face with the idea of what being "successful" is and reckon with the fact that I had left lots of things behind and also inherited a sort of condescension towards where I came from. I think I was wrestling with the fact that my success was enabled by being able to perform in different spaces. The idea of performance is present in a lot of my writing.
Rail: Yeah, to me the play feels like you in conversation with some other part of your life that has to do with this question of: What are we doing? What does it mean for an artist of color to put something into the delivery system of the American theater, which is dominated by white institutions?
Harris: Yeah, and on some level, just by virtue of writing, I'm saying that I want that. And for me, that was taught, and also was a thing that I actively desired and still on some level kind of do. And tracing the arc of my plays—like how ETTR started with thinking about this idea of college, of education as being something that saves you? Like, I'm going to teach you a way of being, and after learning this you'll be better cuz now you know better. And so for me, looking at that started through the lens of a journey to college, leaving home, the place where you came from. In ETTR, each of those characters is wrestling with what it means to stay behind, what it means to go "forward," whatever that means.
Rail: What are the obsessions that you have as a writer, as a person?
Harris: I think I'm really interested in the internal experience of deciding how to maneuver in a space. I think my ideas of performance come from growing up in a mostly Black neighborhood and then going to school in a mostly white school for most of my life, and understanding: Okay, there are certain things about my appearance that I can't help, but also I can manipulate these things, I can learn how to perform and thrive in a white space. And after I learned how to thrive in that space, I kinda forgot what the feeling was before, you know? To have the agency to make a choice means that everything, in some way, everything becomes a performance. I get really tied up in that tension.
Rail: Given all that, what can you tell me about the trajectory of the play since you first wrote it?
Harris: Over time, I've realized that it's actually a lot about different ways of telling Black stories on stages.
Rail: Maybe a sense of pushing at a monolithic idea of "Blackness" on stage?
Harris: In the American theater it'd be easy to think, "Oh, Blackness is rooted in trauma," you know? Growing up, it was like, "Oh I'm around these White people with so much money, and I have so little money; that must be tied to my Blackness and their Whiteness"—therefore, of course, I'm striving for the things they have. And actually inside of me, when I was younger, was not the instinct to resist, but to disguise or to change into something that fits in the space. That's still something I do, and the thing that's changed for me is my language for that.
Power is often the knowledge of alternatives. But the realization I had in college is that I left the neighborhood I grew up in, got to school and realized: Oh, it's just as fucked here as it was where I came from. It's disguised, it's hidden here, like, people know where their next meal is coming from, but also, this kid's not washing his hands, these kids don't know how to clean their dorm, a white boy is doing cocaine off a sword—Why do I feel bad about how I was raised? WHO RAISED THESE PEOPLE?!
Rail: Does ETTR feel foundational? Like, is there any way in which you needed to write this play in order to write the ones that came after it?
Harris: I think it was the first play I wrote that gave me permission to write in a language that sounded more like the neighborhood I grew up in, the people I grew up around—and, at a time when I had been reading mostly white playwrights, permission to say, “I can use this space to explore and interrogate why I've been educated in this way.”
Rail: This impulse toward peeling back layers, interrogating a thing to its root, is such a powerful force in all of your work, and I keep thinking about the end of your play Everybody Black, when the character David Harris [laughter] keeps saying, “Go deeper. Don't settle for the easy, superficial, peace-keeping answer—dig to the core of it, keep digging.”
Harris: And for me a lot of the notion of "go deeper" comes from poetry reading too. I think actually it's a lot easier to get away with bullshit in theater than it is in poetry. Poetry to me seems so much about understanding the dominant narrative of something and finding a way to then move beyond that cliché idea.
This also comes from an understanding of performance, because I don't think I'm oriented toward truth as a writer, you know? Because I think actually the knowledge of a "truth" would then make me lazy. In ETTR, it's characters reckoning with the things that they've accepted, then clashing—they're each fighting something culturally, something true for them but also based around a way of performing yourself. High school is all about performance.
Rail: Erika feels like she stands outside of some of that, in some way—does her academic success mean she's fighting a different thing?
Harris: Erika is fighting against a school where everyone is trapped, and trauma is normalized, and no one has any language for that. She wants to isolate herself from that and go beyond it. But in that isolation she's then probably really lonely. That isolation is in some ways the key to her “success,” but it's also rooted in distance and loneliness—and, of course, a feeling of superiority over her peers. So much of being a teenager is about loneliness and feeling better and worse than others. That language then pushes deeper into a language around different understandings of Blackness in America, Blackness on stage, and Blackness as a teenager in America—and that for me is what propels this impulse to keep digging for the thing that's at the heart of it.
Rail: How much do you know what you're writing about going into it, and how much of it happens after you're done?
Harris: This feels true now—it might not actually be true—but for the most part, I think I usually know what I'm after. But also because, at least for the sake of a first draft, I tend to write in really intense bursts, and that usually takes place over the span of like a week where I'll do nothing except write. I'll like barely [laughs], I'll like barely eat, and at the end of that week there'll be a new draft of a play, and then I'll spend so much time revising, but for the sake of that first draft, it's normally like: I have this thing that I'm obsessed with, that I can't crawl away from, let me push myself into this space and stay there, and that'll drive me towards the thing.
Rail: And this thing you describe about not being able to crawl away from something, tell me more about what happens there.
Harris: It's usually fear. It's most often that there's something I'm terrified of right now. And I walk towards that terror, so I have to bring it closer. And I think for me, language brings me closer to that thing. So with ETTR, the thing I started off being afraid of was: Oh, I sacrificed a younger, perhaps more impulsive version of myself to be in this space, and now I can't get back. In Everybody Black, it was: Oh, I'm afraid that I will sell any idea of Blackness on a stage for a big enough check; what does that look like, and why is that, and is that the cost of survival?
Rail: Fear, for you—is it a physical thing or is it more mental torment?
Harris: I think it's a state of paralysis. It's an inability to confront or inability to grow through something. And ultimately that's my worst fear, is to get to a place where I stop growing. I'm like: Let me understand that fear; if I don't wanna be afraid of this thing anymore, I need to have words for it, then I can do something else.
I find that once I have language for something, it becomes a choice. So if I have the words for it and can understand it and continue to be afraid, I'm making a choice to be afraid rather than doing something about it. That's what I think drives me to write, it's to find the language for the experience, and to find that language in a way that is accountable to other people, i.e. an audience. So I write more theater than poetry because it makes me accountable to other people and accountable to other people's bodies who will be in this.
Rail: A way of controlling and managing the fear?
Harris: Maybe I'm a control freak, and language is how I exhaust that control?
Rail: Yes! Your plays for me deal with the idea of narrative control toward a specific purpose, like how history is written, right? Also similar to the way a person of color constructs a way of navigating white spaces, and that is related to this idea of selling pain as an artist, but—I mean, I'm doing it, right? I'm putting this thing into a package and selling it. We're feeding the machine. The machine is giving us things, but we're still feeding it.
Harris: Yeah. And also, I like those things.
Rail: Yes! Yes. We like those things. Especially when they are fish tacos. [laughter] Do you think that consciousness is the difference between being used or using the system?
Harris: Yeah...that's such a good question. I… okay, one of the characters in [Harris’s play] Shitty Shitty Terrible Bad Remorse is like, "Self-awareness doesn't make anything better,” which I kind of agree with on a larger scale, and I also… hm. What do I wanna say?
I think it gives you an illusion of control, or the illusion of safety. Like, I think um....
Rail: I love watching you think! [lots of laughter]
Harris: I think when I came to understand language as just manipulation, that it made everything feel controlled and manufactured in a way that then any system, and any movement through it, is just a manipulation in some way. And so within that, then the only thing I really have to reckon with is my own desire and my own language for desire, because the world is exactly as the world is and has always been —which is a thing I think I would stand by. And then the thing that I have to reckon with is what I'm going to make of that, to make of my work, in that. And language is so much the tool that I have, and what makes me feel like I have control. I don't know if that qualifies as resistance or overcoming or anything like that, but I also know that I really love this, too.
Rail: I also wanted to ask you about performed violence, which pops up in your work over and over. In ETTR I feel it more as a threat lurking outside the door if the kids step out of line, a constant threat. What is that for you, how did it come to be a tool for you?
Harris: Hoo, hm. What do I want to say about violence. It feels like it manifests so differently in each of my plays, but I think that largely… people know what violence looks like.
Rail: Right. We all watch Netflix or… cable news.
Harris: Yeah, and I think that's where [Harris’s play] Tambo and Bones came from: the same exact police brutality story being told over and over to the point where it became the only imaginative avenue for exploring violence, like the repetition of the same story had that effect. For me, I'm most often chasing new language for something or a version of something that I haven't seen, or something that's beyond the violence of the world that I know.
Rail: That's how I experience your plays, each in a different way, but all of them bring me to some kinda place where I'm watching you reconfigure very familiar elements such that they break through to some completely unexpected new perspective.
Harris: I feel so grateful that people encounter my work and feel they can see things for themselves, because the act of writing for me is so selfish, it's so internally interrogating about my—it's about pushing deeper into whatever is happening in my mind and imagination, what it means to push into myself in front of an audience. I think things can get tied up if it becomes about truth beyond the individual, because then I think you run into clichés and dominant narrative and repeating things when trying to speak for a collective; whereas the thing I know and the thing I feel about each of us is that actually the most personal thing we have to offer is whatever is in our personal imagination—so let me orient myself towards that internal thing, rather than something external.