Houston by William Duell
At the National Conference in July, I met Jon-Marc McDonald, a Texas native and graduate student at Columbia University pursuing an MFA in writing. His play, Relatively Conscious, premiered at the New York Theater Festival in February, 2018. McDonald presented his paper, Relatively Conscious: The Enduring Rage of Baldwin and the Education of a White Southern Baptist Queer, at the James Baldwin Conference in Paris in May of 2016. It was subsequently published in the James Baldwin Review and was an impetus for McDonald to write the play.
William Duell: Why this play?
Jon-Marc McDonald: The germ of the story was with me for a long time. The murder of James Byrd Jr was an eye opening, transformative event. I was shocked something like that could occur in 1998. I was 21 years old, managing a congressional campaign just a few miles from where he was murdered, and honestly and naively believed such horror was a relic of a bygone era. But these things have happened throughout the history of our country and will continue to happen. We like to think we’ve moved beyond such horror, but the fact is we haven’t even begun to, because we’ve never even faced it.
That’s why this play. It calls out all sides, everyone is brought to trial. The reckoning is laid before every person. It’s their choice whether they face it. I hope in some way, it brings about a psychic shift in whoever sees it and they walk away questioning their preconceived, often subconscious biases.
It’s also the product of a personal reconciliation. Just months after Byrd was murdered, I resigned from that congressional campaign because of my sexuality. The details are too numerous to get into, but most of my family and friends learned I was gay through the media coverage of my resignation. A character in the play is loosely based on my experience. Writing him was therapeutic. I was able to give voice to a character I was unable to articulate at the time of my resignation.
WD: You say James Baldwin saved your life. Can you elaborate?
JMM: I’m not being hyperbolic. James Baldwin changed the trajectory of my life. Reading his work for the first time was like a literary punch to the gut. I felt winded, disoriented, or perhaps the better word is reoriented. He showed me the world through a different set of eyes. I’m a recovering alcoholic. Much of my writing deals with my battle against the bottle. Baldwin’s writing doesn’t deal directly with addiction, and though he was an out gay man, he writes little about homosexuality save his groundbreaking novel, Giovanni’s Room. But reading Baldwin helped me to come to terms with my sexuality and my addiction.
One of my current professors at Columbia, Hilton Als, once said he had a terrible need to confess and still does. That’s what James Baldwin did to me. He brought out my confessions. I’ve been confessing ever since.
Baldwin’s imprint on the play is significant. There’d be no play if I’d never read him. One of the characters is conceived directly from his words and writings. If you’re familiar with Baldwin, you’ll recognize his influence from beginning to end.
WD: A quote that appears more than once in the play is “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Your play eloquently conveys what we’re not facing. Can you summarize it here?
JMM: My play casts many segments of society in an unfavorable light, but more than anything, it calls out the country as a whole. The United States has always espoused lofty and noble ideals. We have great promise. But, and I realize many people don’t agree with me, we have rarely lived up to our rhetoric. We have not faced, in any meaningful way, the original sin of this country. We think we’ve moved beyond slavery. We haven’t because we’ve never faced it. Slavery still exists today, for example, by way of our prison system. We’re good at projecting our values, we’ve always had a puffed-up estimation of ourselves, but what this country needs is a giant mirror, so it can see itself reflected back. We wouldn’t like what we’d see, but at least we could begin the task of moving forward honestly.
WD: Do you ever visit East Texas where you campaigned?
JMM: I haven’t been back since I resigned. I endorsed Dayna Steele, the 2018 Democratic candidate for Congress and the opponent of the congressman I’d campaigned for in 1998. That’s not to say I won’t return. I do make it back to Fort Worth, since my family still lives there.
WD: What’s next?
JMM: Graduate with an MFA from Columbia University. If you knew where I was six years ago, you’d understand why everything happening to me is so unlikely. I was a hopeless alcoholic who was going to die an alcoholic’s death. Everything happening now is cake. I’m so grateful. I have so many people to thank for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself. It’s truly remarkable, all of it, and I don’t take a single day for granted.