Atlanta by Pamela Turner
“I want my work to be active—something flexible that is constantly in the state of ‘making,’ figuring out what is there but also living it as it’s happening…”
Atlanta son Nazareth Hassan and I were talking on the phone about his work and future. Considering it was three weeks before his May graduation with a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and a year after he was selected for the 2017 Dramatists Guild Young Playwright Award, I asked if he might return to the South (after going on to get an MFA at Brooklyn College). “I don’t think I could build a career in Atlanta. I would love to make art in my hometown, but the audiences for experimental work seem slim.” Adding to that, he’d also managed to build a diverse network in NYC that included working with artists such as Young Jean Lee. The showcase for Hassan’s thesis play Vantablack had been presented the night before and, still more pumped than exhausted, he was explaining the way he wants to simultaneously write and direct his own work with actors in the room—not in the sense of devising but rather (as I was interpreting it) in the way a jazz singer discovers her solo while everyone is playing along. He went on to say that “Playwriting can be much more performative…acknowledging and crafting the live-ness of the ‘thing’ and then putting that back on paper.” As a related idea Hassan sees music in theatre as an experience rather than a part of the storytelling or a means to underline another aspect of a script. He mentioned that he discovered theatre through music, playing several instruments and singing all through high school. Eventually he decided to concentrate on being classically trained as a vocalist and after performing in Seussical: “I decided I was going to do theatre for the rest of my life.” Now he “likes to think of theatre as a space for my intellectual self to make work and music as a space for my emotional self to make work.” Further, with the use of music in Vantablack, Hassan realized that it had become a language rather than a convention and could be used “…to look at the parts we don’t know as opposed to the way [that] story is about the things we know.”
Hassan didn’t start writing until his first year of college, but he’s seen some of his work on its feet including A Boy is a Child and book club. The latter, in collaboration with director Sarah Cook, is about the cyclical violence of identity politics. Hassan mentions that there is always some form of violence in his work “whether that be emotional, spiritual, or physical. Also I talk about moms a lot.” Asked if there are any subjects off-limits for him, Hassan responds that “I am firmly against the idea that an artist has to be in pain to make worthwhile art,” then goes on to add “there are things I have held off on writing about so I can better prepare myself to explore…those tender parts of myself safely.” That said, in returning to the discussion about Vantablack, Hassan admits that he hadn’t been able to write about race in a succinct way until he went to London for a term at The Royal Center School of Speech and Drama and had the opportunity to view America “away from the center of the problems.” Living that short time in London, Hassan noticed feeling “less like an alien” than he had in the U.S. (and would again as he toured the rest of Europe, particularly Italy). A kind of clarity set in as he realized how deeply angry he was about the state of race relations in our country. His response was to begin part one of what became his “three-and-a half-hour venture,” a kind of “deconstruction of his anger, not to give answers but to feel around about what might be the next step.” In the three parts of Vantablack—titled respectively “Forty,” “Dynasty,” and “Actualization,”—the actors begin by playing characters, then lip sync the recorded words of Hassan’s family members, and finally express their own dreams and fantasies.
With the influence of a supportive family (“my mother is a rockstar…my father is the coolest cat I know…”) and his personal philosophy “to surrender myself to growth and to welcome the unknown,” Hassan is on a forward trajectory confirming the promise he radiated when I met him last year at Horizon Theatre Company’s New South Young Playwrights Festival. “…I see theatre in a state of flux right now. Our truth is so different from the truths of playwrights and theater makers ‘former’ and I think the theaters really want to embrace that.”
Post-script from our interview session:
Pamela Turner: What do you want from the Dramatists Guild to make it part of your career?
Nazareth Hassan: I really appreciate the legal help you all provide. I’ve learned a lot about my rights as an artist and playwright.
PT: What does DG need to know about playwrights under 30?
NH: They are telling the stories of the now in a way no one else can. Give them a platform to be heard and not ignored.
PT: Did you make use of your membership benefits this past year?
NH: Yes! I used the resource directory a ton. I applied to a bunch of things through DG. Plus, the ticketing deals are to die for.