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Chisa! (Part Two)

PART TWO: Researched, interviewed, and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee/Professional Storyteller. READ PART ONE OF THE INTERVIEW HERE.

CATF: In his book The Savage God (written after the suicide of his good friend, poet Sylvia Plath), A. Alvarez describes suicide as, “ . . . a closed world with its own irresistible logic.”  Is “Dead and Breathing” a closed world with its own irresistible logic?

CHISA: Yes, I think so because it departs from conventional ideas of morality.  It’s not necessarily about what’s right and what’s wrong, but rather what’s beneficial and what’s not. I think it’s definitely a world of its own, but one that I hope is still intriguing for folks to visit for an hour and a half.

CATF: I read that one of the things that inspired you to write plays was a debate you heard between August Wilson and Robert Brustein about color-blind casting.  I once saw a scene from the play, ‘Night, Mother by Marsha Norman – about a daughter announcing to her mother that she plans to commit suicide – with two white actresses, and then saw the same scene with two black actresses.  The two scenes felt very different to me.

Streetcar

Nicole Ari Parker and Daphne Rubin-Vega in 2012’s Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”

CHISA:  They should feel different!  The black actresses add a whole other dimension.  I felt that way when I saw, “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway with multi-racial casting. When the sisters are talking about their struggles and struggling in the South, it takes on a whole other meaning. When you cast a black actor in a role that is traditionally white, of course it’s going to “color” it differently just because of our cultural baggage which can, actually, heighten the dramatic narrative. It can certainly refresh it.

I also think, though, that it can hurt the actor.  Having been in the position of playing a white character, it’s hard to fully commit to a role that you know wasn’t really meant for you.  You’re constantly thinking, “I wonder how the audience is feeling about this? Are they taking this differently than the way it was intended?”  Black actors should have the option of getting their own narratives out there; to play a role that was actually intended for a black actor, otherwise it’s going to be intellectual acrobatics throughout the audience.  That is, people will be focused on figuring out what statement the director is trying to make by casting a black chick in this role. I think it does a disservice.

CATF: Would it do a disservice to “Dead and Breathing” if it featured two white actresses?

CHISA: To an extent, yes.   There are elements in the play that are distinctly African-American, and I think that they would either be lost entirely or take on a whole different meaning if they were performed by non-black actresses.  Not that I’m not open to that, but it is a different interpretation.  As a playwright you have to accept that people are going to take liberties. You try your best to make the blueprint as clear as possible, but people may have trouble casting the eight black people and the one white person; they’ll have to use a couch instead of a bed, and so forth.

CATF:  You have said that you write plays to “make yourself and others like you more visible”. Why do you need to make yourself more visible?

Chisa Hutchinson

Chisa Hutchinson, playwright of “Dead and Breathing”.

CHISA: Why the hell not?  If I see one more damn play about a white chick who is restless in her marriage . . . please, just get a divorce and be done with it so I can go home.

African-American culture?  It doesn’t get more dramatic than our experience.  It just doesn’t.  If you want to put something electric on stage, put black people on stage. First, we have very interesting experiences that go beyond self-indulgent fluff that I really can’t get into.  Enough already with the whining.  If you want a play that’s about something bigger, a play about people who struggled mightily with something beyond themselves, put black people on stage. Second, I think about audiences. I’ve had former students email me out of the blue to thank me for the race-appropriate monologue they performed in my theater class; how it inspired them.  There’s something motivating, too, about seeing yourself on stage, about seeing yourself in art. It’s incredibly validating.  It’s not just a fluffy, fun experience.  When you feel important enough for someone to make art about you, you are motivated to go out and achieve something and contribute to the world.

CATF:  Is that the singular, peculiar, unique thing about art?

CHISA: I think so. People for whom going to the theater is a regular Sunday afternoon and who regularly see themselves on stage – those people begin to take this art for granted. For others it is a relatively new thing, “What?  There are black people on stage? There are Asian theater companies out there?” For people for whom this type of theater is different . . . they can feel it and appreciate it in a way that may be lost on others who’ve been able to take it for granted.

Some people are going to be shocked and scandalized by the ending to “Dead and Breathing”, but I was not shocked, and I did not write the ending to scandalize anyone.  Perhaps I am taking the dramatic narrative for granted.

CATF: Why even take the risk of scandalizing an audience? 

CHISA: Again, I honestly did not set out to scandalize the audience.  I just didn’t.  For me, it is what it is. That’s all I can say about it.

CATF: Alice Walker said that, “Life is better than death because it’s a lot less boring and it has fresh peaches in it.”

CHISA: I would have said mangoes.

CATF:  You have said that this line from the poet, Mary Oliver is “everything”: “There are so many stories more beautiful than answers.”  Why is this line, “everything”?

CHISA: Whenever anyone asks me a question, I can only answer in stories.  The questions and answers that delight me the most are stories.  It’s the way we connect to each other as humans. Stories are the best way for us to make sense of anything.  Sharing our stories literally is everything.

 CATF: What’s your story, Chisa?

CHISA: I came.  I wrote.  I conquered.

Chisa! The Playwright of ‘Dead and Breathing’ (part one)

Researched, interviewed, and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee/Professional Storyteller

 

CATF:  Whenever you describe the play “Dead and Breathing” you say, “It’s a comedy.  Swear.” What’s funny about being in a hospice for two years dying of cancer?

chisa two

Chisa Hutchinson. Photo by Seth Freeman.

CHISA HUTCHINSON: Exactly.  There’s really nothing funny about it. Whenever I tell people what the play is about, it always sounds so heavy and bleak. If you’re living in hospice or a hospice worker, you cannot be in that space all the time.  It would be exhausting. Hospice workers have to have a sense of humor otherwise they would scratch their eyes out and never come out into the light of day.

Comedy is a defense mechanism.  It’s the way we survive.  If people who are suffering just dwelt on the suffering, it would be totally exhausting and unpleasant.  If you plan on living, you’ve got to have a sense of humor.

 CATF: One of the characters in “Dead and Breathing” is based on your favorite aunt.

CHISA:  When I finished this play, I was so excited to send it to my aunt to get her stamp of approval. She loves it and has shared it with everybody.  She’s a nurse who has seen a lot of suffering, yet she is probably one of the funniest women I know.  She’s got such a wry sense of humor and is relentless with her comedy. She is a joy to be around, and I hope that the audience will find her as enthralling as I do.

 CATF:  Did you follow her around with a tape recorder or a pad and pencil? How much of this play is comprised of her actual words?

CHISA: It’s more that the characters are inspired by her.  It’s more like I’m asking, “What would my aunt do if she were in this position?”  Yes, I’m transplanting her into this fictitious situation, but the character is very real with my aunt’s attitude, her humor and her quickness.

CATF: What would your aunt say was your greatest strength and what would she say chisa threewas your greatest weakness?

CHISA: She would say that my greatest strength is loving and my greatest weakness is loving.

CATF:  You have said that your plays are about three things: race, sexuality and gender.  Is this true about “Dead and Breathing”?

CHISA: I always have an agenda, but I don’t like to beat people over the head with it. Whenever you have to give your pet a pill for medication, they won’t swallow it.  But if you stick the pill in a piece of cheese or wrap a piece of chicken around it, they’ll eat it.  I feel that way with plays that have messages. If you wrap the message in something else — like a narrative about mortality and morality, faith and forgiveness – it makes a message about race or gender easier to swallow.

CATF: Is the play more about the relationship between the two women or about death and assisted suicide?

CHISA: The relationship is the vehicle that carries the message.  How can men in your audience come to care about women? How can you make them give a shit about gender issues?  They won’t if you don’t give them something broader to relate to. How can I write a play about race that people who do not identify as people of color can relate to? The trick is to focus on the human relationships and present another angle to sneak the message in.

Chisa four CATF: For being so young [34 years old], you seem like an old soul.

CHISA: I hear that a lot.

 CATF: Why is someone as young as you dealing with assisted suicide?

CHISA: I have multiple sclerosis, and I wonder sometimes – and this is kind of morbid – when I’m going to die. I have fears and concerns about how MS will affect my breathing or my heart or some other function that I really need. Right now it’s just in my legs.  I wonder if it ever got to the point where I was unable to function, if I would decide, “Wow, this is not really the quality of life I want.  I really would rather not go on like this.”  I wonder if I would decide that, but I don’t think I have the courage.

 CATF: Here’s an excerpt from a short story called, “Go Like This” by Lorrie Moore. The story is about Elizabeth, a married writer with one child who has been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and announces to her friends and family that she has decided to end her life: “I tell them the cancer is poisoning at least three lives and that I refuse to be its accomplice.  This is not a deranged act, I explain. Most of them have known for quite a while my belief that intelligent suicide is almost always preferable to the stupid lingering of a graceless death.”  What do you think of that description?2014_CATF_ABSOLUTE_FINAL_Dead_Breathing--2-17-2014 copy

CHISA:  Wow.  Wow.  That is the best articulation of that I have ever heard. This applies directly to “Death and Breathing” because it is the struggle between this nurse whose job is to nurture life, and the patient who asks her to end it. It goes against what the nurse believes.  Her function is to tease out the difference between intelligence – as in intelligent suicide – and ingratitude for life. The nurse feels like this woman who has been in hospice for two years has had two years of life. The nurse can’t shake the feeling that this woman is totally ungrateful and has wasted two years worth of life.

This play is a question: Is there a difference between that intelligence and that ingratitude? Between rationally wanting to end your life and being ungrateful for the life you’ve been given?

CATF:  Are you grateful for the life you’ve been given?

CHISA: I am absolutely grateful for the life I’ve been given.  Every day.  Every day. I sometimes wonder if there will come a time when I’m not grateful or when I will say, “Okay, time for that intelligence.  Time for the intelligent suicide that could be a grateful way of going.”

Read Part Two of CATF’s interview with Chisa Hutchinson here.

Visit the interviewer’s website here.