André De Shields in A Hill on Which to Drown
Tony Award Winner André De Shields takes on the role of Ikoode in Kevin R. Free’s newest work, “A Hill on Which to Drown.” Inspired by the legendary plays of August Wilson, Free shows audiences the Century Cycle through the eyes of Ikoode, a gay Black man in his 90s, looking back as a witness to the events in his near-century on earth.
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 someplace.
We are part of the 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 did,
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 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.
Ikoode is drowning.
Let me walk away first.
August Wilson and I are cosmic twins,
born the same year, 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,
the canon, and I've 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 now final --
is finally telling a man that he loves him.
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.
And I could see.
I could see everything vividly.
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 Monongalia
and the Monongalia 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,
like they had been waiting all their lives for this to happen.
They was beautiful.
I thought they was water.
And I was, too.
I was beautiful, too.
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 earth plain.
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.
I'd been pursuing that music dream for 30 years.
But all I had been looking for was, you know, somebody.
Wanted 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.
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 see 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 a'ight,
but I prefer to be called daddy,
he commenced to yelling and screaming.
But if he had ever heard me sing,
he should've knowed all I wanted
was one of two impossible things --
to be loved
or to be respected by the white man.
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 had 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, hear?
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 wanna live! Let me live!
And them two lights go right by me.
I watch them go by and start to catch my breath
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 for 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 live my life in service.
[ Laughing ]
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 gonna let you live.
Give me your address so I can pick up a rack of ribs
and I'll see you there.
And I starts laughing and I hear another voice laughing,
and the devil angel lets go of my hand
and grabs a trash can beside me
and dumps it in the back of the garbage truck.
[ Laughing ]
It was messy.
[ Laughter ]
As an ethnic entity,
we had then 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,
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
represented in the canon
is not an oversight,
So Ikoode is the archetype
of the omniscient, omnipresence,
of the black homosexual male.
I am here, I am authentic,
and I am eternal.