Michigan by Anita Gonzalez
This month I interview playwright and DG member Jose Casas, head of playwriting at the University of Michigan, about his new play focusing on the crisis in Flint, Michigan. I’m thinking about casting in the sense of casting a wider net for theatre subjects.
Anita Gonzalez: How does your Flint project open up networks for different kinds of voices in the theatre?
Jose Casas: I think when we talk about an issue like Flint, everyone assumes it’s a black problem and it really isn’t. A lot of Flint’s issues are really about class and about bodies of color being seen as disposable. Thinking about it as a black problem erases the white perspective and white people are also suffering. In the media, we don’t see that. It’s about including all of the narratives. In Flint we hear about how the pipes area messed up and the water is messed up, but we don’t hear anything about the people and the history of the city. In my play, we are going to see white people in blackface which represents the history of the city and the ghosts of Flint that haven’t left. In the 1930s, city officials would do charity fundraisers which were blackface minstrel shows.
AG: Why did you decide to do this project?
JC: It depended upon getting the job at the University of Michigan. The final straw for me was when I learned that Latino residents in Flint were being asked to show verification of legal status. The more I learned, the angrier I got. I consider myself an issue driven writer. Most of my work is inspired by anger about certain issues. I don’t first see story and characters, I first see an issue I am passionate about. Institutions like the University of Michigan have a responsibility to respond to the communities they exist in.
AG: Who are your subjects, who are your actors?
JC: For this particular play, my actors are students. I want them to learn that theater is not just about Broadway, but a way to start dialogue, and actions can result from it. My subjects are people who are affected by the water crisis and the people responsible for the water crisis.
AG: Who is the audience for this work?
JC: The audience is two-fold. First, it’s for the community of Flint. I want to show them there are people exploring the subject in-depth and explode the idea that this is just about victims. The second audience is those people who need to be educated about the situation, but also be challenged to look within themselves to see how they can enact change, whether it is within Flint, or within the world at large.
AG: How are you imagining circling back to include local community voices?
JC: I am including them in the creative work itself, but also creating a series of events which engage in community and dialogue.
AG: How is your community engagement different from every other talk back?
JC: The goal is to create different spaces for dialogue, including spaces where art is created, symposiums, and guest speakers. There could be community facilitators. It also depends how much the community is willing to engage or not. We are talking about creating art while the trauma is still occurring.
AG: How does this project relate to your larger body of work as a playwright?
JC: I am an issue driven playwright and this is in the same vein as using art for social justice. I always wanted to be a lawyer and decided not to because I wanted to be an advocate for others. I realize that in theatre I am doing that, using art for activism and engagement.
AG: When is the show?
JC: The show will run at the University of Michigan for the first two weekends of April 2019 and the following week we will do two performances in Flint, Michigan.