Apr 26, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 156: Zakiyyah Alexander
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Current Town: NY, NY
Q: What are you working on now?
A: All new stuff which is both exciting and nerve wracking. I've got 2 plays that I'm working on. 'The Itch' is a satire that deals with the idea of exploiting your race to be successful in America. 'The day after tomorrow' involves a couple who adopt and bring 2 children from an area that has had a natural disaster. There are probably 2 or 3 other projects on the back burner, including a musical that Matt Schatz and Lucas Papelias will be collaborators on. This is very much a writing year after a few years of production, workshops, etc. This pretty much means writing until my hands hurt on a regular basis.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When I was 17 I won the Young Playwrights Inc. contest, and my play was to receive a production at the Public Theater. This was a huge turning moment, and the first time I thought of playwriting as a career. I had grown up as an actor, but this was my first time on the other side of the stage. We held equity auditions, and I had my first design model presented to me - it was actually going to rain on the stage! I contemplated taking a semester off from college in order to prepare, but then got word that due to some budgeting issues the production was off. This was devastating at the time, but it really gave me an introduction into what the theater world was like. It taught me to be prepared for any outcome. In some ways my naivete began to dissolve right then and there. That moment was an education in itself.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: There are many things I would change if I could including the cost of tickets and who actually comes to see theater - one day look around and notice just who's in the room, or rather who's not in the room. But, the most tangible (and simplest) thing I would change is diversity in casting and the way the world is conceived. When a play takes place in an urban setting (and is clearly not about race) but everyone on the stage is white, I don't believe this is an accurate perception of today. There is a sense that a neutral world and story is also a white story. There is definitely a time and place for color specific casting, but at times it would be nice to think outside of that narrow box. It would be nice to see people of color in stories that are not about race, but stories that are simply about people. Produced stories that include people of color are often about race as opposed to plays that are just about people. In my opinion the responsibility of diversifying theater should not rest solely in the hands of playwrights of color, but on the theater community as a whole. What you produce is your vision of the world, and in 2010, I hope the vision can begin to expand.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Not sure if I have heroes, but there are writers who inspire me based on their structure, themes, and content. Sam Shepard, Susan Lori Parks, Brecht, and Adrienne Kennedy are writers who for constantly excite me in terms of form and style. There is something accessible and dangerous about their work that keeps me going back for more. They also remind me about the kind of writing that is about more than the well-made play or 'kitchen-sink' drama. Writers like Lynn Nottage, Naomi Izuka, and Naomi Wallace also inspire me, and not just for their work, but their stamina - they remind me that a female playwright's career does not always come so quickly. These women have been creating brilliant work for years, but it took a long time for them to get the recognition they deserve. These are writers who I'd love to see get produced on a more frequent basis in NYC.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Honestly, I'm bored by theater a lot, most of the time, in fact. I feel like the work that gets produced is often small, contained, annoyingly ironic and could just as easily be made into a film or television show. I'm interested in work with a strong sense of theatricality. I'm looking for theater that raises questions and is about something bigger than the audience in the room. I like for theater to be bold and loud and to push buttons and to evoke visceral reactions from the audience. I would rather be angry than bored.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Find yourself a community, whether that is a professional one, or a group of friends who are supportive. If you don't have one, create one. Having a home base is crucial, especially since so much of a writers work takes place alone on a computer. Apply to every possible opportunity, and don't worry if you get it or not. The most important thing is to get your work out there and you never know who is reading your submission. See as much theater as possible, the theater world is impossibly small, so know what's going on. Keep writing; I have found that writing is a muscle that atrophies without constant use. You also can't expect for this profession to validate you - so keep your ego in check when you can; and, although that can be scary there is also something very liberating about it. And, remember, if you hate what's being produced, or feel like no one is taking a chance on your work - produce your work yourself.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: This summer you can catch 'The Etymology of Bird' which is being produced as part of Summerstage. It's the first time I will have a production in a park. And most importantly, it's free!