En Garde Arts Presents Uncommon Voices

S1 E6 | FULL EPISODE

Kevin R. Free & Miranda Rose Hall

This episode features André De Shields as a queer, Black nonagenarian looking back at his life in Kevin R. Free's newest play, "A Hill on Which to Drown," and Miranda Rose Hall's work "A Play for the Living in the Time of Extinction" brings the crisis of climate to life on stage. We dive into the impetus behind these works and how the stories develop from the playwrights’ personal experiences.

AIRED: May 20, 2020 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

In terms of being queer,

we are everywhere all the time, forever.

So there's no question about from where we come,

as if we were hatched

in an egg that dropped in from outer space some place.

We are part of world history.

♪♪

I'm Kevin R. Free, and I am a theater maker

and I am the playwright of "A Hill On Which To Drown."

Don't go nowhere.

I'm just telling you the truth.

I grew up in North Carolina, and I was an army brat.

My dad was in the Army for 20 years,

and so we moved around a lot.

I did a lot of theater,

mostly musical theater in North Carolina.

Went to Duke University.

I was in "Angels in America" in 1996

at Charlotte Repertory Theater,

which was the production that was picketed.

Moved to New York in 1995.

I was the first black man to play Bellomy

in "The Fantasticks" off-Broadway,

in the off-Broadway production.

I started saying yes to everything anybody asked me

to do, which is how I found directing,

which is how I found producing, which is how I found writing.

I love August Wilson.

I love his work.

He wrote a play for every decade of the 20th century.

They call it the Century Cycle.

It has been hailed as the definitive chronicle

of African-American life in the 20th century.

There was no playwright like him.

One thing that I noticed about August Wilson's work

that I never saw,

with the exception of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,"

is LGBTQ characters.

I don't know if he didn't write queer characters

because he didn't like queers or if he didn't --

or that he just didn't think about queers, you know.

And so because there isn't a queer character

in the Century Cycle, I thought, "What if --

what if I could write a character

in the 20th century who is a gay man,

and he is a witness to all of the events

of the August Wilson Century Cycle?"

The lead character's name in my play is Ikoode.

André De Shields plays the role of Ikoode.

I'm dying.

Ikoode is drowning.

Let me walk away first.

August Wilson and I are cosmic twins,

born the same year, the same age.

He was reared in Pittsburgh.

I was reared in Baltimore.

My experience with August Wilson was exclusion.

That doesn't mean I'm not a fan of his work.

I have read his 10-play cycle for canon,

and I have seen every Broadway production,

which is why I know I've been excluded.

So I was directing a festival of plays

at the Equity Office of 10-minute excerpts

of plays for Black History Month,

and Kevin's play was selected to be in that program.

What was so exciting about it was the conversation

that it sparked about what does it mean to live

versus what does it mean to just have a long life?

And what are the things that prevent those things

from being in tandem?

And the queer framework

in which he was trying to ask those questions.

Basically after the reading, I said,

"Well, you know, I have to direct this forever, right?"

Ikoode is dying.

He has water on the lungs.

He is literally drowning in the fluid on his lungs.

The drowning metaphor is also about coming out of the closet.

This character Ikoode is finally telling a man that he loves him

and he tells Joe, "I had this dream about you

and it started to rain and it was flooding."

♪♪

I had a dream the other night.

It was the first dream I've had in a long time.

In terms of being queer,

And I could see...

I could see everything vividly.

In terms of being queer,

I dreamed that you got your mother's house back

and you made it into a boarding house.

It was full of men and women who loved each other.

The house was on the edge of the Monongahela,

and the Monongahela was actually the ocean.

And your house was at the end of the world

and the water rose,

the water rose and rose and the rain kept raining.

It rose up like a big hand and it swatted your house,

swatted it and that big fist of water came down like it

was striking the bottom of a basin

and it broke your house all apart.

All your boarders,

all your tenants flew out of the house into the water,

which was up in the sky, which was the sky and they swam.

They never saw black people swim like this,

fast, slow, making shapes, doing routines

like they had been waiting all their lives for this to happen.

They was beautiful.

In terms of being queer,

I thought they was water.

In terms of being queer,

Water fairies.

And I was too.

In terms of being queer,

I was beautiful, too.

In terms of being queer,

When developing a character, my cardinal rule is,

"Will the project and/or will the character

that I've been asked to inhabit benefit from my participation?"

If the answer is no,

then there's no reason to collaborate.

I can't bring anything to the table

because art is not made of nothing.

Art is made of an individual's commitment

to explain to whoever is listening

how we got from one point to the next

and as a performing artist who in a week's time

will mark his 74th year on the Earth plane,

what is it about my journey, what is it about my experience

that can bring life to these words

in a three-dimensional manner?

Ikoode is that part of the African diaspora

that again gets excluded from the world view.

Live your life and try not to be dead,

that's all I'm trying to tell you.

I learned it in the 50s but had forgot it.

A good dream ain't worth [bleep]

if it don't make your life better somehow.

Hmm.

I've been pursuing that music dream for 30 years

but all I had been looking for was, you know, somebody,

one man when all the men just wanted attention

for a night or two or five or an hour.

I used to go to them after-hours clubs after singing a set,

have a few drinks, be myself, by myself.

See if I could get somebody to look at me,

57 years old and a mess.

In terms of being queer,

Got to talking to some white boy who called me Papa Blues Man.

I don't even know why I talked to him.

I'd never seen a ginger beer in this particular club,

so I guess I wanted to see if I could get a taste.

Anyway, he told me he'd seen me sing.

I don't think he ever actually heard me sing

because when I reached out to touch him,

to let him know that Papa was alright

but I preferred to be called Daddy,

he commenced to yelling and screaming.

But if he had ever heard me sing,

he should have knowed all I wanted

was one of two impossible things,

to be loved or to be respected by the white man.

In terms of being queer,

When he started to hollering,

I knew he had never heard me, right.

And I knew the Negro who ran that place

had never seen me or heard me

'cause he threw me out right there.

Didn't matter how many times I'd been there.

Some white boy got mad

and that was all he needed to get rid of me.

I was making too much of myself.

Threw me right out on the street,

in the garbage cans,

him and some of them other men in that club

and I had been with a couple of them men, too.

I'm lying there in the trash, drunk and disoriented,

just messed up here.

And I wake up to a couple of bright lights

coming right at me,

right at me like two trains on one track.

I'm screaming, "I want to live, let me live!"

In terms of being queer,

And them two lights go right by me.

I watch them go by and start to catch my breath [gasps]

but then the train stopped and it's a big

and it's right beside me, so I start yelling again,

begging for my life and I'm done with singing.

I know. I'm screaming, "No more music for me.

I've made my choice.

Music don't do nothing but bring more death.

I want to live.

I want to cook and cook with somebody

and he's anybody, anonymous man."

I'm screaming, "Lord," I'm screaming, "let me live,

please, let me live, let me live.

I'll do something else.

I'll cook. I can cook.

Lord, I'll do that for the rest of my life.

I don't need music. I don't need nothing.

I'll live my life in service."

[ Laughing ]

In terms of being queer,

And a hand reaches down,

grabs me and pulls me to my feet.

And the man,

a man I thought must be the devil or an angel

or something else scary like that says, "Okay,

I'm going to let you live, give me your address

so I can pick up a rack of ribs and I'll see you there."

In terms of being queer,

And I start to laughing

and I hear another voice laughing

and the devil/angel lets go of my hand

and grabs the trash can beside me

and dumps it in the back of the garbage truck.

[ Laughing ]

In terms of being queer,

Yeah, it was messy.

In terms of being queer,

As an ethnic entity, we have been marginalized

to the edges of society for so long.

It doesn't benefit the legacy that we're trying to create

to do anything for any reason except authenticity.

The shining man in August Wilson's plays,

that's who Kevin is.

That's who I am.

That's who Langston Hughes was.

That's who James Baldwin was.

So to not have us easily recognizable,

represented in the canon is not an oversight.

It's deliberate.

So Ikoode is the archetype of the omissions,

omnipresence and omnipotence of the black homosexual male.

I am here.

I am authentic and I am eternal.

♪♪

I find that one of the barriers with talking about climate

is that people get overwhelmed with facts and figures

and sometimes that sense of overwhelming information

makes the brain, makes my brain want to say,

"No, stop, I can't take in any of this, it's too much,

I don't know how to deal with this."

And I thought, "Oh, my gosh, if I'm having that reaction,

then somebody else is probably having that reaction."

And so we wanted to make a play

that could get in through a kind of emotional back door

and turn facts and figures and overwhelming information

into a story that people could connect to.

♪♪

My name is Miranda Rose Hall, and I'm a playwright.

Ever since I was a little girl,

I thought I wanted to be a writer.

Then I got to college and I met some students

who were taking a play-writing class

and they would all hang out together and eat snacks

and read each other's plays

and they were just having fun with one another

and it seemed like a much better way to spend your time

or my time than writing sad poems alone in my room.

Recently I made a play

called "Plot Points in Our Sexual Development"

and that premiered last October at Lincoln Center, LCT3,

and that was my professional debut.

I had a play at Diversionary Theatre,

which is an LGBTQ theater in San Diego,

called "The Hour of Great Mercy."

I went to Georgetown, which is where I met

my fellow company members in LubDub.

LubDub is a physical theater company

and we make stories about myth, magic and science.

And a couple years ago,

we read a book called "The Great Derangement" by Amitav Ghosh,

which is a call to action for fiction writers

and fiction makers to tell stories about the climate.

Not long after that, we read a book

called "The Sixth Extinction" called Elizabeth Kolbert,

which won the Pulitzer Price.

It's an incredible book and it talks about extinctions

of the past and extinctions of the present

and that really lit our fires and we decided

that we would want to commit the next cycle of our work

to making work about the climate.

Before Miranda wrote the play,

we all went up to Saratoga Springs,

New York, with the Orchard Project.

We were in residency there.

And we did quite a fair amount of thinking about climate

as a hyperobject, which is an idea

that a philosopher named Timothy Morton is wrestling with.

Just this idea that climate is, like,

so big, the challenge of climate chaos

and the problem of climate chaos,

that you can't quite get your head around it.

And we were all kind of rolling around on the floor,

doing a lot of experimental devising,

which is how we generate material.

I came out of that residency thinking,

"I think I want to make

a one-woman play about extinction,"

and as a company, we all decided that that is the way we --

one of the ways we wanted to move forward with the material.

It's about a woman named Naomi who is not a performer.

She is a dramaturg.

She is behind the scenes normally.

She works in a small theater company

with two of her best friends from college.

And normally these two friends,

Zoe and Sarah, are the ones who perform in a play

that they've all made together called "Climate Beasties."

Which is, as billed, a kind of in-your-face, no-holds-barred,

spectacular meditation on the catastrophe of climate change.

And they've had to go home for a family emergency

and they've said,

"Naomi, you have to do the play on your own."

And Naomi says, "Oh, my God, I can't do that."

And she walks on stage with some research that she's done

about extinction to create something out of nothing.

In terms of being queer,

There's this part of the show,

a whole scene with, like, witches of conservation

and there's a cauldron and a bat puppet.

And after the show, at the post-show talk-back,

which I always facilitate, this woman raises her hand

and is like, "Have you heard of this book

'The Sixth Extinction' by Elizabeth Kolbert?

She has this whole chapter about these bats."

And I say, "I started it, but I got busy."

And she says, "Well, that's not surprising.

It's a difficult book."

Yeah, I know.

So of course I vowed to read it, that night, in one sitting.

So I go home and I get the book and I start reading it again

and has anyone in the audience

tried to read "The Sixth Extinction"?

Wow.

Oh, right.

Has anyone finished it?

Oh, alright.

Good for you.

So I started rereading it and I --

I, a woman devoting her life, or so she thinks,

to climate change, starts rereading this book

about climate crisis and mass extinction

and the apocalypse of the golden toad

and the death of the coral

and the collapse of the rainforest.

And at first I was like, "Yep, yep, yep, yep, uh-huh,"

and I mean, it was unnerving.

The information is unnerving but didn't rock my world.

Like, I mean, I learned some things.

It's a very well-researched book.

It won the Pulitzer Prize.

I was learning some things about science history

that seemed useful.

The book seemed useful and then I get to this chapter

about these bats, these little brown bats

and about how they're dying from this horrible disease

and I was -- I couldn't breathe.

I was sitting there reading it and I couldn't breathe and I...

In terms of being queer,

I'm gonna get personal here.

I started weeping my face off, projectile sobbing.

I wept and wept and wept and I was like, "What is happening?"

In terms of being queer,

Because for the record, I don't even like bats.

And actually I hate them,

especially when they get into my house

and, like, my mother and I have spent many a summer evening

trying to kill those rabies babies with our tennis rackets.

And then I read this chapter about these little brown bats

dying from this awful disease and for days,

days, I was walking around consumed with these bats

and even thinking about them made me weep.

Bats.

Something about the little brown bats lodges itself in her soul

and she can't shake it.

The story of extinction often comes down to isolation,

just a couple members of a species are left.

I was really intrigued by the isolation of the one-woman show.

I think that that became a very powerful mode for me.

It felt like it wasn't the play to have 20 people on the stage.

We realized that we had these lists of species in the play,

but that there wasn't a sense of what they looked like

and that that felt like a real absence in the play.

And we decided, "Well, we'll just print all the photos

of these more than human creatures, animals, plants

and we'll have our actors show them to the audience."

And for me, because I was involved

in the printing of these photos,

it was the first time I was really struck by the volume.

I was like, "Oh, my God."

In terms of being queer,

Endangered species.

Italian dune grasshopper.

In terms of being queer,

Rodrigues flying fox.

Pig-nosed turtle.

In terms of being queer,

Enchanting paphiopedilum.

In terms of being queer,

Three-spotted dwarf minnow.

In terms of being queer,

Little brown bat.

Critically endangered.

Pygmy raccoon.

Elongated tortoise.

Ploughshare tortoise.

Javan rhinoceros.

Variegated spider monkey.

Marbled gecko.

Nassau grouper.

Vancouver Island marmot.

Extinct in the wild.

Socorro dove.

Wyoming toad.

Père David's deer.

Hawaiian crow.

St Helena redwood.

Shecabbage tree.

Golden skiffia.

Butterfly splitfin.

Kalimantan mango. Yellow fatu.

Christmas Island blue-tailed shining-skink.

Extinct.

In terms of being queer,

The subject of extinction or the subject of climate crisis

does not live in the halls of science alone.

Everybody has a relation to the environment

and everybody can do something to change

the way that we interact with the Earth.

Definitely a core challenge in building this piece

is how do we take these overarching narratives

of global crisis and chaos and make them really local

and really personal and highly specific

so that people can connect to them?

Here is Dr. Carbon Fever

and Mrs. Connie Sumption

in a new, unscripted conversation.

In terms of being queer,

Could you pass me a little more wine, Connie?

I can't.

Why not?

I can't tear myself away from the window.

What are you looking at?

I'm not quite sure what I'm looking at,

Doctor, cars and trash and full of sun fire and --

Oh, dear, not this again.

I wish that you could join me for just a moment.

In terms of being queer,

Connie, I wish that you would come back to dinner.

No, I can't eat dinner, I'm too consumed with death.

What kind of death consumes you?

Mass death, mass extinctions, death by salmon,

drowning, dehydration, decapitation, boiling alive,

strangulation, starvation, suffocation, poisoning,

heatstroke, hypothermia, helplessness.

In terms of being queer,

Doesn't it consume you, Doctor?

In terms of being queer,

Well, Connie, I suppose I assume

that we're all going to die and death is natural, after all.

But to die like this, it's completely unnatural.

What is so unnatural?

The rate, the scale, the level of terror,

the total collapse of biodiversity.

How can it be unnatural when nature itself can be cruel?

Isn't human cruelty natural?

No, it can't be.

Are you so upset because you're surprised?

I have no illusions about our capacities.

I've never been so foolish.

Maybe for a moment when I was very young,

but we've done what we've done, might as well move on.

We only have, what, few years left at this rate.

Why not eat our dinner, drink our wine, enjoy our lives?

I thought you of all people would understand.

Talk to Naomi.

Who's Naomi?

The one who prints out all the scripts and buys all the books.

She doesn't know, she doesn't know anything.

She's just standing there in front of all those people

and she doesn't know a thing.

Well, it's not my fault she didn't follow the script.

Goodbye.

In terms of being queer,

My greatest hope is that this show can help people

break down the emotional blocks

of grief and rage and confusion.

And that hopefully the work of the theater

can help people feel connected to one another

and connected to this material

in a way that doesn't make it seem so impossible to engage

or so overwhelming to engage and that people will have a --

will feel like they have a personal relationship

to some of these species

and that they're not living in an isolated little bubble

and that people can feel that we are all connected

and that the health of the Earth

and the health of all species on Earth

is an interconnected story.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

In terms of being queer,

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