I remember the first time I did something playwrights are “not allowed” to do: In my play, Onesies and Whiskey, I mixed poetry and standard dialogue and everyone in grad school told me it was too off-putting. That I would need to either make the whole play in verse or “get rid” of the poetry.
The next time I broke a rule: In my play, Threshold, I had the actors talking under water. I was told this wasn’t possible and I would need to rewrite it. The issue was that I wanted an actual swimming pool on stage (the play is about sexual assault on a swim team) and there was no way a designer would be able to work around that.
The next time: In my play, Well-Intentioned White People, the play originally ended with audience members sharing stories about a time they’d been oppressed and/or experienced a microaggression. And that’s essentially how the play ended. The issue was that the theatre companies had primarily white audiences and they didn’t want white people talking about oppression. Fair enough. But I never thought to ask “why are you okay with having an all white audience?”
When I wrote Apologies to Lorraine Hansberry (You Too August Wilson), I went in knowing I wanted to break the rules. All of them. I didn’t just want to break the fourth wall; I wanted to demolish it. I wanted to break history. It was the first time I gave myself permission to say “f*ck the rules.” And that play is so strong because of it. Because I wasn’t thinking if the play was possible. I called it an impossible play and didn’t care and not caring was freeing. That was 2019.
When I wrote I’m f*cking tired of writing plays about this, I was dealing with so much anger and frustration that I once again said “f*ck the rules” and ended up literally putting the playwright into the play. I remember being told a lot that the “playwright’s hand” could not be too obvious or too present. That’s in the back of my head with every play I wrote. Except this one. This one I threw my entire self into it because that’s what the story demanded.
Recently, I did a one-person show called Taylor Swift, Disney Movies, and Cigarettes (TSDMC). To varying degrees, many people have told me they did not like it. One person felt I wasn’t a strong enough actor for the play and that it would be better served if I got someone else to do it. Another person felt that it wasn’t a play at all; it was just talking. Another person felt that it “lacked substance.” I haven’t really unpacked that comment yet and I’m not sure I will.
For me, TSDMC was an attempt to break trauma-informed storytelling. To present a traumatic story but not let it slip into (and stay in) trauma. To show an actor fighting for joy. I’m really proud of what I was able to do because frankly there is no groundwork for this. The way we are used to telling dramatic stories depend on trauma and I’m trying to break that. For there to be “conflict” there needs to be a problem that’s “interesting” enough.
Which way too often, for people of color anyway, means something really f*cking horrible needs to happen and we need to see the BIPOC person overcome it. As I skimmed through “Black stories” on Netflix and Hulu, it’s all stories of really horrible things happening to Black folk and then they somehow “overcome” it to continue to fight the good fight.
I’ve asked this before and I’ll keep asking it: why do we not care about Black joy as much as we care about Black pain? I am more than the things that have happened to me.
I don’t want to be stuck in trauma. I want to find another way.
Consider this is a heads up to anyone who’s invested in my work: I said I want to get weird with it and I meant it. I have 32* full-length plays that follow the rules. If you’re looking for something that falls in line, I’m more than happy to share one of those with you.
But the next 10 plays I’m writing this year are going to keep pushing (and breaking) boundaries. I’m going to keep challenging narrative structure and our f*cked up western ideals of what makes a “good” play. I don’t care if I push too far. I don’t care if it makes the play I write this year unproducible. I have thirty-two “producible” plays and those aren’t being produced either.
I keep thinking about how often I’m compared to Young Jean Lee and Caryl Churchill who are obvious influences of mine. I adore them both. But, and excuse how arrogant this sounds, I’m not interested in being the “next Young Jean Lee” or the “next Caryl Churchill.” I want to be the first Rachel Lynett.
And if I’m going to earn my place with my heroes, then I am going to have to break some sh*t. Even if it “lack[s] substance.”
I am writing this from a hotel in Cleveland because the second I get to Alfred, I am immediately jumping back into work. But also it makes me really sad that this is the first time I’ve “traveled” in a while. I thought of taking pictures but it’s just not the same so I decided to include no pictures as kind of a nod to missing traveling so much.
*I actually have 38 full-length plays but 6 of them do not “follow the rules.”