“We Can’t Lose the Funk”: Roger Q. Mason’s Mission to Protect Black TGNC Playwrights When Commercial Theaters Come Calling
This spring, National Queer Theater—in partnership with the Dramatists Guild—launched the New Visions Fellowship, a milestone and innovative year-long professional development initiative aimed at spotlighting Black trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) playwrights who have largely been excluded from the American theater. This chef-d’oeuvre is largely thanks to playwright Roger Q. Mason (along with Project Manager Jordan Stovall), whose imperative to uplift underrepresented voices is as mighty as the labor instilled in their crackling plays. With the help of Mason’s keen eyes and ears, this year’s recipients are Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko (he/they) and Ayla Xuan Chi Sullivan (they/them), each of whom will be awarded 5,000 dollars to develop a play, musical, or performance experience of their design and choosing, and will be given a five-year complimentary membership to The Dramatists Guild. That last part is major because typically, associate and legacy playwrights pay between 90 and 125 dollars annually. Throughout the year, fellows will audit various master classes taught by a cadre of celebrated playwrights and musical theatre dramatists like Tony Award winner Lisa Kron and Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright.
“I am most excited that there is an opportunity to share our love and support for one another with real people when we showcase our work in February,” said Sullivan, whose latest project, titled for coloured niggaz or: who gon beat my ass? (you won’t, I’m too scary), seeks to interrogate how to make theater truly for and by the People, namely Black queer and trans people in an unapologetic space. “I don’t think I had a choice but to create and write during this era of upheaval, uprising, and upset. And even still, this year called me to submit in the spiritual sense because I was asked to grieve and heal to the edges of my capacity and then some. The only reason I could stay true to myself and this work is by taking the time to rest, recover, and further commit to my craft by committing to the people.”
Mwaluko is currently working on Silence Is A Sound, about intimate partner abuse between a Black trans femme and her/hir/hyr partner, a cis het Black man, the exploration of healing in racist and transphobic world and interrogation of “those primal queer screams that are silenced because of #cistemic oppression.”
“Audiences will be reminded of what it means to be a human being,” Mwaluko said. “Audiences will witness collective power through queer community. Audiences will see the center at the margins where there is room enough for everyone, all of humankind: outsiders, freaks, geniuses, straight folx, queerdos, etc. Audiences will celebrate the margins as Universal or Queer Abundance.”
Speaking from a landline phone in their family kitchen overlooking the sunshiny beachfront vistas of Santa Monica, California, Mason, who is quickly becoming one of the most significant playwrights of the decade with their poetic explorations of Black TGNC life, spoke with the Brooklyn Rail about the creation of the fellowship, its importance in the political climate, and the crux of Black TGNC storytelling that could pivot the next wave of American Theater into a full-blown revolution. Born Roger Quincy San Diego Mason, the self-described Black, Filipinx, plus-sized, gender non-conforming, queer artist of color also notes that this is only just the beginning of their full-scale attack on traditional theater in their Rube Goldberg machine-esque plan for world domination. Get ready.
Marcus Scott (Rail): It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. We run in similar circles, but have yet to officially meet until now. So, let’s break the ice: you’ve had quite a successful career as a writer and now you’ve graduated to the role of mentor. What, to you, is the role of playwright in modern day?
Roger Q. Mason: In other words, you learn to do by doing. Our craft is an extraordinary experiential education. The only way we learn about our voices as playwrights is by exercising those voices in real time and space, bravely, vulnerably, and out loud before our peers. We have to remember that the script is not God but rather a prayer, it is a suggestion of how an event can be manifested, not in third-dimensional space but four-dimensional space, because the fourth dimension is the sublime. We return to the stars. We look and reach up and through the story that we tell, we pray for change, for joy, for freedom, for hope, for illumination, for inspiration. Thus, the tongue is a freedom song, but it is just a blueprint. And so, the playwright has to both be very sure of themself and yet so generous, generative, and open to change and new knowledge and inspiration from their community, because we are not an island unto ourselves. We as playwrights learn from other playwrights, directors, actors, from designers, from hecklers on the bus, from scenes of lovemaking enacted under midnight haze while we’re walking back from bars alone again. That’s how we playwrights learn, and all of those elements find their way, consciously or subconsciously, back into our work if we are humble enough to listen. We are not just in the business of writing; we are in the listening business. Our job is to sit quietly, with heart chakra open, sternum up, ready to receive the piercing inspiration of human truth. That’s our job. Did that answer your first question?
Rail: Yes. Yes, you did. That was thorough! My follow-up would be why this fellowship and why now?
Mason: I have been a victim of dramaturgical myopia. We need to teach readers of plays how to read again! Really, we need to teach them how to dream again. If a script is a two-dimensional prayer for three- or four-dimensional ritual, we need to teach people how to read the plays for their potentiality, not for just what’s on the page but what the page is suggesting, pining for, and indicating through stage direction, through physicality, through scenography, through silence. We possess at this time, in some instances, a very two-dimensional literary modality of assessing the viability of a script. Not enough folks look at script as performance text; looking at something that is in transition, something that has the potential to blossom into something even more beautiful than it already is, is a uniquely queer way of living. Because we are constantly in transition and ever-present in liminal space, we are always both living in and reaching for our potential, and because we are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. We’ve always been here, trans and gender non-conforming people, but we’re always made invisible, always silenced. So we, trans and gender non-conforming playwrights, understand what it means to make a way out of no way and live on the in-between. But how many places amplify that skill set? How many places say, “That is an asset that I want to help you nurture and grow?” Not enough! So, I went to National Queer Theater, in partnership with the Dramatists Guild; I’ve friends in both places, and we came up with a plan. We would identify and make space for Black trans and gender non-conforming playwrights and the whole purpose of this fellowship is not to train or contort or somehow shift folks in the marketplace, but rather take them where they are and help them find the beauty of that space so they can emerge equipped to present themselves and their stories with their head held high and the market can come to us if it wants to. If not, we have always made a way out of no way. We have told stories in cafés and bars and alleys and rooftops and living rooms and warehouses and we do it again and keep doing it because that’s our power, we’re not defined by place. What moves us is an eagerness to spread joy and love, what inspires us is the need to let somebody else know that they are not alone in that aspiration and what guides us is the power of each other. That’s New Visions Fellowship. Each one, teach one. I learn from the fellows, they teach me, they mentor me, they educate me and I in turn amplify and celebrate their wisdom.
Rail: Asé and amen! Let’s fruition. I’ve been watching your career over the last three or so years and while you’re an award-winning playwright who has seen their work on both coasts, you’re still kind of an outlier. How did you get this off the ground?
Mason: It’s true, I’m both in the center of many conversations and outside of so many. I think that speaks to my liminal space as a Black, transgender, gender non-conforming writer. It’s in fact symmetrical with my identity and my positionality in our business. I think even when I do achieve mainstream visibility, there will always be a part of me that values and loves what it means to live on the fringes because the fringes are my great educator.
For better or for worse, we still live in a capitalistic society and I’m going to go ahead and say this, but there’s a market for these stories. Not only in television and film, but in theater. So, I say to my fellows, we have a great Faustian dilemma: they want to see us, but we can’t lose ourselves and the journey that we’ve tread along the way. We can’t lose the funk; you can’t sew up them edges. We’re fringy, we’re funky. So, the way this fellowship is around the time we were first mourning the death of George Floyd, I started conversations with Adam Odsess-Rubin (Artistic Director of National Queer Theater) and also with folks from the Dramatist Guild Foundation. It started out when I was brought in as a consultant, to dream about how to support transgender, gender non-conforming playwrights of color and what I say in these meetings is we need mentorship, not only to help us to develop the plays and our aesthetic but also to give us the business savviness to navigate the marketplace because, for better or for worse, playwrights are the CEOs of their own small businesses. It’s a highly entrepreneurial profession at this point and there are not enough business administration classes on how to navigate the world as a playwright. How do you identify what types of theaters to ally yourself with? How do you navigate the phenomenon known as the showcase? How do you activate a reading or a showing of your work toward production? How do you motivate a production to garner you other productions? Also, while doing that, how do you use each production as a way to explore the piece artistically further? How is each production a new chance at uncovering layers of the piece’s artistry such that you are constantly moving onward and upward, not only aesthetically, but also professionally?
There is a holistic improvement and betterment which occurs and that’s a mentality. Mentality is what we have to teach, what we have to give. And I said to these fellows, “Now we live in an oral tradition; this the queer Underground Railroad! So, whatever you learn from me, whatever I learn from you, let’s tell the next legendary child, tell it to the next generation.” Don’t let them wait to apply and find out six months later after they got into this fellowship, tell them now, tell them tomorrow, because they need the help and you have it, so give it. Give it to these people. That’s how it came about … Because I believe in holism. You don’t just fill somebody up with lofty artistic ideals but not help them figure out how to propagate them and share them with folks that will help them move forward. That’s not fair and you don’t just teach people how to wheel and deal without having something worth telling; you need to be a whole person.
Rail: Gems. I love it!
Mason: I’m giving you enough to work it, baby. Something will come out of this, I’m sure!
Rail: I know that’s right. Thank you for fellowshipping with me.
Mason: It’s been a pleasure.