Researched, interviewed and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee/Professional Story Listener and Creative Director www.sharonjanderson.com
CATF: The actress and playwright, Anna Deavere Smith, has said, “Racism has been for everyone like a horrible, tragic car crash, and we’ve all been heavily sedated from it. If we don’t come into consciousness of this tragedy, there’s going to be a violent awakening we don’t want. The question is, can we wake up?”
KLC: I would like to believe that we can. I don’t always see evidence of it, and it still might take another generation, but I hope not. What we don’t realize is how long the generation of slavery is in this country. The first slaves arrived in the late sixteenth century up until the Emancipation Proclamation. That’s as long as we’ve been free. That’s why I get frustrated when people say, “Oh, not another slave movie.” Do you have any idea how many slave movies there should be?
This country was founded on something that is akin to mental illness. So what is the remedy? I believe that we are finally in the stage of being able to speak freely without worrying about making other people feel uncomfortable. There are so many cultures here, which is wonderful, but how can we be tolerant and open without erasing, negating or minimizing people’s feelings? It’s possible, but I don’t know how long it will take.
You have said, “When I go to the theater, I love to be smacked out of my normal life and confronted with something I would never have thought/felt/imagined otherwise.” Welcome to Fear City opens like a slap upside the head. The title itself puts the audience on edge. Why the Bronx in the late seventies? Why not Ferguson, Baltimore, or Detroit?
In 2014, I was working on a group project of five writers who each had to write a twenty minute play that took place in a particular building in New York City during one decade of the twentieth century. The building they chose was a very elegant place, and I wanted a time when nobody wanted to be in that building or that neighborhood. I came up with the seventies, specifically 1977, when this area was a No-Man’s Land. It was a magically insane time. So many bizarre things were happening in the whole metro area. Looking back, it almost seems mythic. I was born in 1977, so that’s also probably part of the fascination.
The play does speak to Ferguson, Baltimore, and Detroit – something old that keeps coming back. Who’s been forgotten by the mainstream? Who isn’t being seen? Who’s on the fringe, trying to make it? The South Bronx had such a reputation and still does. It’s starting to lose some of that stigma, but for a long time it was known for being the worse place you could possibly be.
I had trouble coming up with a title, and my husband suggested I call it, Welcome to Fear City. I had shared my research with him about the 1975 pamphlet handed out by members of New York’s police forces to airport visitors entitled, Welcome to Fear City: A Survivor’s Guide for Visitors to the City of New York. I liked the poetic contradiction: Welcome to Fear City – like you were opening your arms to something that could be terrible.
The character, Rat, in your play, says, “It’s funny thing, ‘bout fear. Sometimes it gets so goddamn loud, humanity can’t e’en hear it no more.” Do you believe hope is louder than fear?
Hope is ultimately louder than fear, though fear can sometimes make you think it’s louder than hope. James Baldwin said, “I can’t despair because I’m alive.” We’re survival machines. When we start to succumb to drugs or alcohol, that’s when we start to lose our connection to society. We’re built to hope even when we don’t want to, and we will keep hoping until we die.
One of the most poignant lines in this play is what E says after Cheky asks him what he needs. E responds: “To be listened to. Thass all. Be seen. Cuz some days? I feel like I will for certainly disappear.” Is that how the black population feels?
Sometimes. It’s different for a young, black male, and it makes me think of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. In general, there is this feeling and you feel it even when you aren’t realizing you’re feeling it. It’s hard to overcome being told for so long by culture or directly by people that you are not the norm.
At the end of your play, Octavia Butler’s book, Kindred is mentioned. Butler once said, “In order to rise from its own ashes, a Phoenix first must burn.” Is that what this play is about?
Absolutely. That image helped me to track why I needed to write this play, and also how to talk to my collaborators about it. We all knew that the characters had to go through the bad in order to rise. It reminds me of a scene in the movie, Get Out. The main character goes to what he calls the “sunken place.” I totally heard it as “Sunken Place, capital S, capital P.” We all – not just black people – whether we want to or not, have to go to our Sunken Place in order to come out on the other side.
Is New York on the verge of becoming another Fear City? Today, one million millionaires and eighty-five billionaires live in the city. At the same time, more than 21% of the city’s population is living in poverty – about the same proportion as in 1980. Has anything changed in 30+ years?
We aren’t on a linear path which can be really frustrating for somebody who thinks in terms of story. We go up and down and back and forth. In the late nineties, there was a chance that New York would become livable for people who make a certain amount of money, and then instantly it went back. We always think it can’t get worse and then the bottom drops out and it totally gets worse. We’re seeing it right now. That is consistent throughout history. There is always a backlash, but the reaction to that is going to be strong as well.
You have said, “I write weird, dark, sad, and often funny plays.” Do these plays have a common theme?
In everything I write, I want to see humans grapple with their shit and often this means they are somewhat marginalized people. I write a lot about black people, but I’ve also written plays about women. I’m interested in people that feel stuck. Can they feel unstuck? Can they get unstuck? Is it as easy as taking one step?
About her plays, Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage said in a March 26 New York Times article, “The plays are unabashedly political and they’re about very difficult subject matters and they tend to be unafraid of the darkness. And I think that women writers are supposed to embrace the light.”
It depends on what you consider “the light.” I don’t always think hope is the “lightest” choice because it doesn’t always lead us to the light but sometimes to the Sunken Place. Does it matter if we ever get to the light? I don’t know. On the other hand, we expect women writers to look for the good in humanity more than we expect male writers to. Women writers often get punished for writing unlikeable women characters. Male writers seldom get punished for writing unlikeable male characters.
You have said, “I feel strongly that the most important syllable in the word, “playwriting” is the first one. Despite the difficulties that are an inescapable part of this wild career, when my work feels like true play, I’m glad that I decided to follow this path.” What does true play feel like?
It feels fun. I forget that eventually everyone is going to judge this. I forget that an artistic director might say, “We aren’t going to do this.” All these things are just bullshit when I’m into it. These are my characters and who cares what happens to them? I’m doing this for fun and my own pleasure rather than to receive accolades or a fellowship.
You recently published a young adult novel, The Truth of Right Now. In your Simon and Schuster profile, you identify your motto or maxim as: Be kind.
It’s easy to succumb to bitterness and cattiness. You don’t need a reason to be kind to somebody, and if they’re not kind to you, that’s their problem. Putting the energy of kindness into the world is so much stronger than bitterness, and what comes back to you is so much greater.
What it’s like for you to have your play premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival?
I wouldn’t have guessed after writing it that this would be the place it would premiere. Ed has no problem challenging his audiences, and apparently they are very dedicated and will keep coming back even when they don’t like everything they see which I think is awesome. Premiering the play at CATF is putting this play outside of itself in an interesting way. I think it will inspire very fruitful discussions, and I hope to be around for some.
In Chelsea Marcantel’s play, Everything is Wonderful, Miri, one of the characters, says this: “I’d rather have anything I want than not want anything.” Would you rather have anything you want or not want anything? And why?
I’d like to have anything I want. I have no interest in having a giant house with my name in gold on it. I would love to live without being afraid of what’s going to happen when I don’t get the money I think I’m supposed to get because that happens to a lot of freelance artists. I would like to live in some relative comfort, but beyond that I might want impeachment proceedings to start immediately.
What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever done that you regret? You’ve been commissioned to write a play about it. What’s the name of the play and what’s the first line?
The name of the play is, East 14th Street, and the first line is, “Let’s go in here Ann. It’s your birthday. Why not?”