Hometown: Miami, Florida
Current Town: Queens, NY
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on a lot of different small and large projects. I co-wrote a historical drama titled “Hansberry & Baldwin” with Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. The play is about a series of meetings Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin had with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1963. These meetings were an attempt to address civil rights concerns through Negro leaders and it's quite remarkable that two artists could actually be negotiating policy with an Attorney General to effect history. Rajendra approached me with the idea at the beginning of this year and we began hammering it out. Now we're getting to the final revisions and tweaks.
I've discovered that co-writing a play can be fun. The only experience I've had with that is working on musicals and an opera with composers, but it's not the same as co-writing a play.
After that I'm writing an experimental performing arts piece for a Berlin museum putting on an exhibit by artist/curator Melissa Steckbauer. A few years ago, I snuck on to the set of a “Burger King” commercial and pretended to be an actor so I could get paid as an extra. I placed on set at a table with a bunch of other artists, one of whom was Melissa, who is an erotica photographer and painter. I went to her show Bushwick and she moved away to Berlin and her career has taken off. I'm creating a feminist satirical performing arts piece that's interactive. I love the idea of doing something experimental for a museum crowd. And yes, I got paid for the Burger King commercial and was a featured extra in an ad probably running in some obscure Baltic country.
I'm revising my comedy “Defacing Michael Jackson” for its world premiere this fall at Nuyorican Poets Cafe. “Defacing” was a short play I wrote while in school that got published by Samuel French. Two years ago I decided to change the plot and expand the story into a full plot. The play was a finalist at Princess Grace and was picked up by Redshirt Entertainment, a new commercial production company. I'm the resident playwright at Redshirt this upcoming season so I'll be writing other shows as well for their ensemble of actors.
I'm also adapting the “Bhagavad Gita” to the present-day Bronx. Arjuna is a soldier returning home from Afghanistan and suffering from PTSD. The project is called “Red Mind” and it's a multimedia piece involving electronica and video. I'm working with Matt Vorzimer, an extremely talented composer/music producer.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: In January I wrote a short play called “African Americana” that premiered at Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX). I expanded this into a full-length satire, “Obama-ology” that I'm rewriting this summer.
Also this year I wrote an airplane drama “Freefalling” that premiered at Barrington Stage Company and filmed for Williamstown TV: http://vimeo.com/67827216.
“Freefalling” just won the Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light) from a Catholic Church parish and it's inspired me to expand this into a full-length play this summer as well.
To pay my bills I'm writing/producing web videos, which is actually very interesting. I wrote and produced a slate of funny webisodes last year for MISTER, a gay dating app. I'm doing that again this year but also writing/producing videos for LearnLiberty, a Libertarian media company. I'm a left-wing Libertarian from college day.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: My grandmother, Lynn Maddox, taught me how to write the alphabet. I learned in her yard with a broken off limb from a tree and a plot of dirt in front of the aloe plants. I started writing the alphabet, words, and then sentences. When I would finish something and it was satisfactory, I would sweep away the words with my feet and continue writing. She would take me on trips to the store and make me write a story about it afterward. She would tell me to think of details and then piece them together in a pattern. Years later, I discovered a story I wrote about taking the Metro-Dade bus with her over the bridge to go to the K-Mart in Miami Beach. When I read the story again 20 years later I was shocked. There was a sort of narrative I had created by just describing the step by step process of getting on a bus. This was 1983 and I was four years old because I'm describing 'pink islands' in the bay. I was describing Christo's arts project he did for Miami Beach that year where he covered the smaller bay islands in pink cloth. Unfortunately, the cloth wasn't biodegradable and was killing wildlife so they had to take it down. But for a four-year-old child to see these massive pink islands was incredible. And I even drew a picture to go along with the story.
Whenever I'm stuck I go back to those images: me in the front yard writing in the wet dirt with a stick and those pink islands. Writing should be as primitive and connected to the environment as writing in the earth. And it should invoke the wonder of a child staring at magical islands.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Obviously making it more affordable and expanding the audience would give our craft a huge boost. But I think it would also enrich the lives of many people in the audience. From elementary school through high school, I saw 2 plays. That's it. “Dreamgirls” at community college and “Midsummer Nights Dream” as a school field trip to an empty theatre. Both plays were incredibly moving spectacles and invoked a sense of wonder, but that was my entire theatre experience until I went to Northwestern University. When I came home from my freshman winter break I was eager to see theatre (capital 'T') and picked up the Miami Herald and saw a play by Lee Blessings. “Black Sheep.” It sounded funny. I called up the theatre and they informed me that tickets started at $40. I couldn't afford that. I was also used to movie prices. I wanted to know if there was a student discount and they said 'no.' Before hanging up, I asked if there were available seats and the operator assured me 'oh yes, there are LOTS of open seats.'
If theatre was more affordable and had a younger audience, that would trigger a lot of changes in content and the direction of American theatre.
Aesthetically I would like to see more challenging plays that break traditional narratives. I remember reading “The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer” and discovering 'theatre of debate' where the argument itself was the focus. Then later on Augusto Boal's 'theatre of the oppressed' in Albuquerque when creating a scenario for underprivileged Mexican families involving domestic violence. These were light bulb moments.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Susan Booth got me to write plays at Northwestern so she's my hero. I was taking her class and unknowingly wrote a violent opening scene between a father and son that involved an inflatable red ball and a butcher knife. Professor Booth pulled me aside. She could have crushed me and told me I was 'doing it wrong,' I probably would have never tried to write a play again if discouraged in that moment. Instead the professor quietly asked me 'what writers influenced me?'' I had no idea what she was talking about and said so. She looked at me for a long beat and finally gave her judgment: I should keep writing. And I could see that she wanted to say something else but held back. She allowed me to fill in the silence. I immediately asked if she would produce this play at the Goodman Theatre. She laughed. That was the end of it and the beginning of something else.
August Wilson would be the other hero. That summer after Professor Booth's class I went to LA to be a literary intern for 2 movie companies. I lived in a UCLA frat house and went to the campus bookstore frequently. One Saturday a play jumped out from the others on the shelf: “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.” I sat down on the ground and read the whole thing right there. I felt so strange afterward, like someone had reached inside my mind and bent a few wires around. I immediately went home and began writing an epic play about Cubans and Blacks in Miami. It was 190 pages, spanned generations, covered the South Florida landscape, and was a mess. I managed to get it down to 130 pages. But I would constantly refer to “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom” to simplify. Think like August.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Theatre that makes me uncomfortable. Theatre where the writer is trying to figure something out on stage or is fighting for their integrity, sanity, or basic humanity.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Hang out around as many different people and listen. Listen, listen, listen. Try to remove judgment or the 'advice voice' of what they should be doing. Listen. My teachers made me listen, transcribe conversation of strangers on the street, and find the rhythms in their voice. In my entire four years at Northwestern, I had the same work-study job: radio news. I interviewed professors over the phone, transcribed their answers, and edited it all together for AP and UPI wire stories on the radio. All I did was listen to voices. People have some pretty funny idiosyncratic quirks and rhythms when they're allowed to speak. And their speech is a window into how they think and see the world.
And read the classics as well as poetry.
Stay at the fringes. Be uncomfortable.
Be the canary in the mine for your family, your friends, or your tribe. Tell the story of their extinction.
A: I'll let you know more during the fall. This is writing time.
I do have a blog: sixperfections.blogspot.com.
Six Perfections is a compilation of essays, poetry, videos, and reviews I've written over the years.
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