Playwrights Gabriel Jason Dean, TS Hawkins, and Krista Knight
Joey Stocks: It could be said that writers are innovators by nature because you routinely create characters, context, relationships, sometimes languages, and even whole worlds in your art. And then in the midst of COVID-19, dramatists have had one of the signature ingredients of theatre—the gathering of both audiences and artists in the same space at the same time—suspended. Or at least so it seemed. These three scrappy and resourceful theatre writers put their well-practiced powers of innovation to use. I’m excited to talk to Krista Knight about CRUSH, Gabriel Jason Dean about #Rift, and TS Hawkins about Community Capital: an Afrofuturism South Philly Walking Experience. Before we get into the projects, please tell us where you’re Zooming from today and then a little bit about your work.
TS Hawkins: I am Zooming from Philadelphia, PA, most importantly the land of the Lenape. The beautiful part that I love about my work is that it’s multifaceted. It incorporates of course multimedia, but the base of it is poetry, and I found my love for Ntozake Shange from my mentor, Dr. Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, who opened up the world of choreopoem for me to write plays and books of poetry. So, poetry and multimedia are kind of my world. I’m excited to be here to chat with you all about that today!
Gabriel Jason Dean: I’m in Allentown, PA, also the ancestral land of the Lenape people. I’m a playwright and screenwriter and do libretto occasionally, too—more of that recently than traditional plays. I [also] come from a background of poetry. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a poet—that scares me to say, TS—but I am a closeted poet. I may not show actual poems to anyone, but poetry does find its way into my work, especially the songwriting. I’m also a professor [of] dramatic writing at Muhlenberg College and in the graduate program at Spalding University in Kentucky.
TS Hawkins: Hey, Muhlenberg. I know some folks who went there.
Krista Knight: Hi, I’m Krista Knight. I am a playwright. I’m joining you from my virtual pink lake house as my digital avatar for this conversation on innovation. I like to make use of available technologies to enhance my artistic vision and be bold in my definition of what constitutes a “platform” or a “stage” from which I can engage an audience. I’m very excited to be here today.
Joey Stocks: TS, tell us about Community Capital: an Afrofuturism South Philly Walking Experience.
TS Hawkins: Itwas originally commissioned through the Painted Bride Art Center, which is also located in Philadelphia, currently Center City. It was part of “Power to the Prompt,” their overarching project, and they asked, “If you had a magic wand, what would be the one thing you would change in your neighborhood?” I sat with that question a bit because, at first, I was like ‘eh,’ you know. But three people continued to reach out like, “No, TS, we really think this is something you should do.” and I came up with Community Capital: an Afrofuturism South Philly Walking Tour because, as someone who is Black and queer walking in South Philly, I am often ignored and erased.
Some of the panel for the “Power to the Prompt” project were concerned about not moving this work forward because they felt it could lead to the erasure of the Irish and Italian communities in South Philly. That opened up to having a real conversation with the panel about getting back to the basics: what is Philadelphia, what is South Philly? The land does not belong to the Irish or the Italian communities; it belongs to the Indigenous. It was unsettling that the panel was more concerned about the erasure of Irish and Italian voices than negating the originators who cultivated this land, in addition to the Black bodies that were imported and enslaved to till that land so that white bodies [could] profit off it. This Afrofuturism Walking Experience is about bringing back to life the ancestral voices and the future voices—Black and Brown voices, specifically—of South Philly.
Due to COVID, the project had to pivot. You can still do it in-person because we did have our CURATORS TOUR (sponsored by the Painted Bride), which was super cool! I was really excited that people came out, even with COVID outside being a deterrent. They still followed protocol with wearing masks and stuff like that, but being able to walk the streets of our ancestors and future Black and Brown leaders was so beautiful. Then to have the digital component where folx can download the walking guide and travel the journey using QR codes. So, wherever you are in the world, you can get to taste a little bit of South Philly. Folx from Australia to New York have taken this tour and have said amazing, beautiful things about it. Additionally, we’re expanding it with the Philadelphia Black Theatre Alliance, so I’m really elated about that.
Joey Stocks: Thank you. I love that. I want to get back to how you wrote that in a minute, but first I want Gabriel to tell us about #Rift.
Gabriel Jason Dean: Sure. #Rift is a commission from Luna Stage in West Orange, New Jersey. I had another play that was done with them pre-COVID, and that went well. So, they commissioned me on #Rift, and I’m calling it a form-bending theatrical memoir.
I have a brother who is currently incarcerated in a state penitentiary in Georgia. During his incarceration, he became involved with the alt-right, and I pretty much just abandoned him. When Trump got elected, though, I started having feelings about a lot of things, [including] my brother, and started to think, if he’s seeing on the outside what his world is on the inside, there’s no other voice in his head. Honestly, I started feeling guilty, and I reached back out to him to start a conversation. I told Ari Laura Kreith, the artistic director of Luna Stage, about what I was doing, that I was attempting to have a conversation with very little expectation with my brother, who is an avowed White Supremacist and member of the Aryan Brotherhood. Ari, being an artistic director, was like, “You’re a playwright. There’s a play in this somewhere.” And I was like, “You’re insane.” [Laughter]
But with enough coercion, I started to see it. And truthfully, I had been thinking I should write something about my relationship and reassociation with my brother anyway. So here we are. The first part of #Rift is a text message play that the audience receives over the course of eight-ish weeks. At various times throughout the day, you get different things. Sometimes you get what sounds like a podcast with my voice on it, other times you get actual photos of letters between me and my brother. You get to see our relationship over the course of the last twenty years. I don’t know if I would’ve done this project had it not been at this moment in COVID. Being able to communicate with an audience in a non-performative kind of way through [text messages] was key to me being able to tell such a personal story. So, the text play is Act One, and then Act Two is a live event. You can come see it in person or livestream it.
Ari encouraged me to be in it also, which is, I don’t know. Maybe I should reevaluate my relationship there; she’s always talking me into these crazy things! Not really. I wanted to do it, but the idea of getting back onstage after a ten-year hiatus is kind of petrifying. Anyway, I’m going to be in the show playing myself. I’ve never done that before. Meta on top of meta on top of meta. The second act picks up after I reach out to my brother, from 2018 to now. I’m actually still sort of living in it. He was up for parole in December, and we’re waiting to hear if he got it. I don’t want to give too much of the story away. A lot has resulted because we reconnected, and audiences are seeing that, or they will be seeing that starting in April. It runs April 21 through May 15, 2022, at Luna Stage.
Joey Stocks: Wow, so interesting! I want to hear more about that, too, but first let’s have Krista tell us about CRUSH.
Krista Knight: CRUSH was commissioned by no one, wanted by no one, requested by no one, but it happened anyway. It was my early pandemic project. It came out of being in a 450-square foot New York City studio apartment with my collaborator/boyfriend Barry Brinegar. I wanted to make work. I had written this play, CRUSH, about a cockroach who lived with us/under us. I wrote a series of six monologues of the cockroach expressing his love for the tenant of the apartment, seeking reciprocation, and ultimately, as the title describes, being destroyed by that obsession.
I submitted it to the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, which was meant to be in August of 2020, and that was no longer possible. But the making of work does not stop. Nothing can stop me, for better and worse; nothing will stop me from making work. And so, Barry, my collaborator, and I said, “What can we do with just us? What can we do remotely?” I’m from Silicon Valley, so I think a lot about the MVP, the Minimum Viable Product, and VR (Virtual Reality) exploration, and puppetry was something we were beginning to experiment with, so it led us to animation. I believe it’s called machinima when you use computer or gaming technology as a tool for film.
We recorded the cockroach dialogue with a brilliant actor, Ben Beckley, remotely over Zoom using his iPhone. And then over thousands of hours—much more than we ever anticipated—we shot this eighteen-minute cockroach film. We licensed the cockroach avatar from Unity, made modifications, and programmed his movement. We gave him a beret—he’s a beatnik roach—[and] we gave him a microphone and a spotlight and a brick wall, and the animation happened through puppetry. Just as I am now puppeteering my blue avatar via an Oculus, we did the same. Barry and I would take turns wearing the headset with controllers in-hand, re-enacting Ben Beckley’s vocal acting. It was my first experience as a playwright trying to put the character into my body. Even though the words were mine, the voice was not, yet here I am becoming the character’s body.
Our aim was to release one of the six episodes every week, and we almost met that. The thing that I’ve learned with technology is that it never works. You must anticipate failure, things going wrong, and systems breaking.
Joey Stocks: Amazing. TS, your walking tour was audio, too. It was recorded voice, is that right?
TS Hawkins: Yes. Well, we had to write it first, then record. Next, we had to do the YouTube dance. Then my collaborator, Lois Moses, who I partner with on a lot of projects, and I transcribed the captioning by hand. I feel like that was a whole different project in and of itself.
Joey Stocks: It is. That’s a bigger undertaking than most people realize.
TS Hawkins: That experience of hand transcribing opened me up to the understanding that we do not take people with disabilities as seriously as we should. Certain things (like captioning) that should just be commonplace shouldn’t cost “millions of dollars.” We didn’t get a lot of money for this commissioned work, so a lot of things had to be completed on the fly, but captioning should be something free and equitable. I don’t even have any more diplomatic or PC words to say, but I knew it was important when we’re talking about accessibility for the project, especially with COVID and having to pivot through the virtual landscape. It was/is important that the language be clear to anyone who picks up a QR code and goes on this journey, whether they’re listening or reading. So, we had to transcribe it by hand because—capitalism—and that should not be the case.
Joey Stocks: So true. Here at the Guild, we’re in the process of forming a task force on script formatting and how it affects accessibility and captioning. I would be interested in talking to you about that outside this conversation.
TS Hawkins: I’m here for it. It’s not easy. Some auto captioning is very indolent, and it ruins the message of the work. People can say, “Well there are auto captions. Just read the captions,” and I’m like, “No, have you tried it?”
Joey Stocks: More on that as it develops. Back to my original thought that, I think, may connect some of your experiences—were actors used for the voiceover, the recording or your piece?
TS Hawkins: Nope. I couldn’t afford them, so I was the actor. My collaborator and I were the actors, which is cool. I mean, that’s what I went to school for, so I had to go back into that little bucket of learning…
Joey Stocks: That’s right. Never throw anything away, y’all.
TS Hawkins: Right. I had to evoke the different moods and [emotions] for each piece. I wrote three pieces, my collaborator wrote two pieces, and then she hired another collaborator to assist with the tour’s outro. There’s a lot of collaboration happening because it’s community, right?! So, the piece begins—well, it’s kind of like picking your own adventure, but it starts off with a podcast-y conversation with my collaborator and my mentor as we talk about the history of South Philly being 7th Ward, the Mummers Parade, the enslavement of Black and Brown bodies, and the Indigenous lives that were here before colonization. However, if you were to start top to bottom, the tour opens with my poem titled “beacon unearthed (bring me home)” as a love letter to the Indigenous bodies of this land.
I have coined this project as ‘a beautiful burden.’ It’s a lot of poetry, but it’s poetry as performance because of the theatricality, the storytelling. It’s not just about making sure we’re hitting rhyme schemes. It’s making sure that you understand the story from beginning to end in a poetic narrative. It was not an easy process. We had less than two and a half months from conception to presentation, thus the writing was very intensive. I spent a month just writing at my little office table, trying to find the beautiful mastery that is Philadelphia. Ironically, the more I learned, it became a bit complicated to have pride in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. For example, when I learned about the Walking Purchase of 1737, it was shameful. How are you just going to roll up on somebody’s land and be like, “You know what, if you walk from where you start to where you end, that’s what you get to keep and we’re going to take everything else. Yay, William Penn.”
It just felt hard to have pride. Like, why are we excited about this? Why aren’t we teaching these [facts] to the young people? Why are we lying to them about why they’re here and what their neighborhood is about? Philadelphia prides itself as a city of neighborhoods when in actuality that’s dog-whistle language for redlining: keeping people separated on purpose. It’s really, really sad, and I often wonder, aside from giving the land back to the Indigenous —which we should— what can we do to be better people, to be better citizens to one another?
Joey Stocks: That’s a great, if not the great question. It’s interesting, and worth acknowledging that all of you ended up performing, at least in part, the piece you wrote.
Krista Knight: Yeah, actors cost money. We didn’t have any money. We did it with no budget.
TS Hawkins: And we should pay people. But when you have no money…
Krista Knight: You are the actor.
TS Hawkins: …you are the actor.
Joey Stocks: Right. Scrappy and resourceful! TS, it sounds like there’s a strong journalistic aspect to your writing this piece, as well. Maybe this is just my short-sightedness, but I don’t usually think of poetry and journalism simultaneously inhabiting the same work.
TS Hawkins: They are, though, Joey. Nina Simone said it’s the artist’s job to reflect the times, so of course poetry is journalism. Poetry is archival, right? Sometimes there’s something that you just can’t say plainly. It needs to encapsulate all the air that surrounds you, you know what I mean? It needs that tactile, lingual essence that is poetry. Poetry is journalism. We can talk about flowers and birds and bees; all those things are sexy. However, poetry has a job to do. We’re documenting what’s happening in the world in real-time.
Joey Stocks: Since your piece is a walking tour, were you able to go to these physical sites during a pandemic?
TS Hawkins: Yes. That’s why when folx download the walking guide, they can get to a ‘Landing Location,’ a lot of which are parks with benches or elevated stone architecture where people can sit [and] rest. We tried to keep the locations of equal distance so people can have adequate breaks to rest their bodies and reflect with the work. We encourage people to do it in a group—safely, of course, because of COVID. So, yes, we highlighted a path, then walked the path, and made sure the pieces told the story in between the paths. And this experience is FREE to the public!
We start at the William Still House. He was one of the conductors on the Underground Railroad, and his house is a historical landmark. Someone actually lives there. It should be a museum, but it’s not. And the William Still placard is in Center City, not in front of this house. Weird. But the beautiful part about the block with William Still’s house is that, even though it’s been heavily gentrified, those neighbors understand the importance of his house and why it’s there. They were very welcoming to Lois and me. Not so much the human who lives in the house. They were like, “Why is everybody at my house?” In my head I’m like, “Honey, this is not your house. You may live here, but this house doesn’t belong to you.”
But everyone else in the neighborhood was very welcoming and was like, “Yes, more people need to know about William Still and what South Philly is and was.” That was a delightful part we didn’t expect, so I make sure I tell people that [on the] block where the project begins, the people were super open, and they understand the gentrification happening in the neighborhood. I mean there’s a Wawa [gas station and convenience store] right down the street from the Underground Railroad. Like, that’s so disassociating, right?!
Joey Stocks: The research and learning must have been so interesting.
TS Hawkins: Phase one [of this project] is done, and there are still things I’m learning. Ironically, some of the information is behind a paywall because they don’t want you to know the truth. And we learned there’s a tour specifically called “The 7th Ward”; it’s not very welcoming and/or informative about the cultural history of the 7th Ward that is South Philly.
Joey Stocks: There’s always more to learn. Gabriel, I imagine the research for your project was also deep. Will you tell us about writing #Rift? Other than an artistic director saying, “You should write this,” how did you find your way in?
Gabriel Jason Dean: Well, even before Ari gave me permission or a generous platform to do this, I had been thinking about writing something. In fact, I tried to write something about this for a long time, even a whole play called D’Angelico, which was just…not the real story. So I’d kind of given up because I felt like the takeaways from that play and other attempts were so what you would expect: white supremacy is terrible…I’m not speaking to my white supremacist brother…yes, it’s awkward at Thanksgiving. Those takeaways were where I could arrive at that time, and that changed a lot after 2016. My thinking changed, and I became a conscious abolitionist, which meant educating myself, getting into conferences, lots of reading and internalizing the practice of antiracism, talking about it, and eventually teaching it myself in the classroom, in dramaturgy and in the way that we, white-bodied people, read plays. All that had to shift, I think, for me to actually be able to go deeper.
It’s interesting that you mentioned journalism. When I first started writing professionally, I was a journalist, and a lot of that came back as I was writing #Rift. I never wanted to be emotionally distant from [the subject]. The point was to be emotionally immersed in it, but at times, for my own mental health, I needed to be at arm’s length, and so taking a journalistic approach was lifesaving at times. It gave me some aesthetic distance.
I first started writing this thinking, “This is going to be the thing that I do during COVID,” but since that time, the form that I created feels really important to the piece. At the time I was like, “I’ll write it for a virtual experience and then I’ll convert it to a ‘real’ play.”
I’m not interested in that at all anymore; I’m interested in putting it out in the world—past the Luna experience—for other theatres to do Act One virtually over a duration and, then Act Two as the live culmination. The duration [of the play] is reflective of the two decades that my brother and I were in and out of a relationship with each other. Interestingly, [some of the audience has at times gotten] impatient and upset because they weren’t getting things [on a regular basis], but I had metered it out. I had built in that frustration and discomfort for the audience. That impatience and discomfort was saying something about the way white supremacy manipulates our expectations of time and our expectations of artists and art. I started really getting into to audience reaction, so I started to bring it up in future texts and even texting with individual audience members in the process.
Another thing I thought I wouldn’t change is that I was doing this in real-time, so I would be like maybe a week or two ahead of when we were writing or when it was supposed to drop, and then of course we’d have to push things back because I didn’t have the piece yet. Even with the live experience [of Act Two] that’s happening in April, the conceit of it is that you’re sort of watching us improvise this. Now, spoiler, there is a script, however, [performed by] me and my art partner for life, Jessie Dean, who is also the mother of my children. It’s just the two of us on stage and it will feel kind of improvised and we ask the audience to participate during all of it. We want this just to be raggedy. We want it to be raw. Frayed at the edges. Right now, it feels like the most audacious thing I can do as an artist is to be truthful, be honest, to be raw, just live in my real experience, and almost eschew the artifice of theatre to some degree.
Joey Stocks: For clarification, are you live texting your audience during Act One?
Gabriel Jason Dean: No, no, we didn’t live text. The texts were planned ahead of time, so it wasn’t real time. At any given time, the audience receives either an audio recording—sometimes just me, sometimes me and other actors. We also sent actual photos of my brother and me, then files of actual letters between us, and then screengrabs of text conversations or emails that I’ve had with my brother throughout the years. I communicate with [the audience] through many different forms, but it always arrives to them on their phones. Correspondence with my brother started as old school letter writing and evolved over the course of twenty years. So, the audience experiences that evolution as well. Dr. Natashia Lindsey is my dramaturg for the piece but also a character in the story. During the text play, she serves as a sort of concierge for the experience.
Krista Knight: What does your brother think of the piece?
Gabriel Jason Dean: [Laughing] He’s mostly confused by it, I think. He hasn’t really been able to experience it in full. The tablets they use in prison are monitored, so he can’t get it all. He can get images I send him—the screen grabs of our letters and emails, but he can’t listen to the audio stuff. I haven’t sent him the script, but I’ve talked him through it. And obviously, I had to get his permission to do this. I was very anxious and wondering how the hell I was going to do it without his permission, because I really didn’t know if he would grant it. We hadn’t spoken in-depth in almost twelve years, and I reach out saying, “Hey, I’m going to write a thing. It might be a play, it might be a book, it might be a bunch of text messages, I don’t know. I’m going to write something and it’s about the rift that occurred between us and how we started in the same place and ended up on two very different sides of things.” But, to my surprise, he immediately said, “Of course, anything for you and your family,” which was like mind-boggling to me, because that’s not who I was at the time. I certainly wasn’t that generous. I don’t think I would’ve said the same thing if the shoe had been on the other foot.
If he had reached out to me, I’m not sure I would have been like, “Sure, open book, whatever you want.” I don’t know what that says about me, but…obviously, the power dynamics are what they are with him being incarcerated and me being free…with the isolation that comes with prison. But it’s more than that, too. He self-describes as a misunderstood member of the alt-right and the Aryan Brotherhood. And as we went through those first few months of reconnection, I gleaned that he felt the need to justify himself to me, to prove his worth to his AOC-type, progressive, abolitionist brother. But that changed as time went on, and he stopped fronting. And we started listening to each other.
Joey Stocks: It’s interesting to think about how isolation, in whatever way we’ve experienced it, changes us.
TS Hawkins: Yeah.
Joey Stocks: I mean, it led to Krista inventing an entire world!
TS Hawkins: I know. It looks like the metaverse—which I don’t know if that’s the right word to use.
Krista Knight: This is indie VR, non-Facebook owned content.
TS Hawkins: I’m here for it. It’s so cool. I was like, “What’s going on in this world?”
Via her avatar, Krista takes us on a little tour of her virtual lake house while Storman, her virtual cat, casually rides a jet ski above the lake of undulating, pink water.
Joey Stocks: It is so cool, Krista. Tell us a bit about writing CRUSH, your experience becoming a digital puppeteer, and also designing the experience. Like TS and Gabriel, you ended up doing research, you cultivated ephemera, and you figured out how to share it.
Krista Knight: Because of COVID, you could not be in the same room as your collaborator(s). For CRUSH, that meant remotely recording an actor and designing the set—that was theatre-like in that it didn’t have the fourth wall. In the digital space, things are only there if you add them, so there is no lighting until you bring in a directional light. There is no camera until you bring in a camera, and there is no cockroach until you bring in a cockroach. We built his cockroach friends but then they didn’t totally work, so we just have them on the ground writhing, because things break. They just twitch on the ground when he refers to the other cockroaches of the world.
It all came out of necessity. What is the simplest version of things that I can do with the least number of people possible? Collaborating remotely worked well with Ben [because] he’s a long-term collaborator, but bringing somebody else in the room was not possible. So, we became puppeteers and set designers and did music and sound effects and credits. I don’t wait for permission to make something.
One of the reasons why CRUSH worked as a DIY digital piece is because it came out of the simplicity of theatre, imagining what can be done with one actor in one space. We theatre artists are constantly having to practicalize our work and be like, “How can it be done with a Broadway set and also how can it be done with absolutely nothing?” So, when I was thinking about what piece I wanted to try to bring into a multi-platform environment, it was simple: a monologue in one setting. Even adding a second character here would have been incredibly complicated. But bridging Grotowski Poor Theatre with emergent technology allowed us to do what we love best, which is creating free content for Facebook to profit from (I’m kidding).
Joey Stocks: Is there anything you learned that you would like to share with your fellow dramatists?
Krista Knight: I learned if you’re going to release an episode every week, create it in advance. We were always like, “Ah, it’s Friday and we’re still a cockroach.” There’s a finite amount of time you can wear the headsets for animating the digital puppet before you start to get a headache. Next time, I’ll create the content in advance. I would also like to say how much I enjoyed and valued taking agency and ownership over the release of my work.
Joey Stocks: I love that.
TS Hawkins: Let folks know that, as creatives, you are of value and keep accessibility in the forefront, because it really does help everyone out in the end. And yes, COVID is killing people. However, the beautiful part about COVID is that it gave everyone across the globe a moment of pause. Now, it’s about what we learned about ourselves in that pause that is teaching us how to move forward; how we respect our bodies, our time, and our community.
As everyone’s trying to rush back to normal—and that’s problematic even in saying it—I would also like to leave people knowing there is a space for digital theatre. TV and film are completely different. Digital theatre is its own beast. I believe in-person theatre and digital theatre have a place and it shouldn’t go away because we’re trying to rush back to “normalcy” or whatever we consider traditional theatre. Digital theatre makes the arts much more accessible across the globe, and I think that’s something that should stay even if ‘COVID is over.’ Just as Broadway is a staple, digital theatre should be a staple as well.
Gabriel Jason Dean: Absolutely. That was amazing. I guess I’ll add that this project has really renewed my faith in theatre. I think our faith in theatre is always waning, right, on any given day.
Krista Knight: Yeah.
Gabriel Jason Dean: And the next moment you’re like, “It’s the greatest thing ever!” Working on #Rift made me viscerally understand that theatre is alive and well, deeply necessary, and around us all the time. With #Rift, we put it in the audience’s pocket. I mean, my in-laws are experiencing theatre I created in their attic during electrical storms. I think theatre is always struggling, and that’s what makes it wonderful. It’s alive and well and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
Going back to part of what you were saying, TS, with #Rift I felt for the first time in my own body the white supremacy that is very much a part of theatre, all while I was consciously trying to create a work that was eschewing that supremacy, saying, “Let’s live in the moment, let’s give space for the art to go as deep as possible.” I didn’t feel it imposed from Luna or my collaborators, but just in relation to the way a play is typically put into the world versus the way that we were making #Rift in real-time, living in the moment, not “developing” it, which can be code for making it conform to commercial, white supremacist standards. After this process, I know it’s possible now to make powerful, compelling work outside of those models, so in the future, whenever I feel like I’m being pressured or rushed or even unconsciously asked to bend by supremacist thoughts and feelings from people I know and love—and myself—I now have a place to say, “Actually, I don’t have to do it this way, and here’s an example of how.”
TS Hawkins: Boom.
Gabriel Jason Dean: That was a fantastic takeaway for me. It’s felt terrifying to do this, because it is so personal but also deeply empowering to learn that if I stepped up to the plate, I actually could just hit the ball. And that was enough.
TS Hawkins: I would’ve loved to watch it. I know you said you weren’t live texting a performance, but I would’ve paid good money to see that happen in real time.
Joey Stocks: I’m so inspired by all of you. Last question, to circle back to something TS said. If you had a magic wand, what innovation would you make in the theatre today?
TS Hawkins: Such a laundry list.
Gabriel Jason Dean: I’m going to go back to what I was saying before about eradicating supremacist, capitalistic models in order to put the artist at the center. I know there’s a laundry list of things underneath that, many, or maybe all of which are spelled out by the We See You White American Theater movement. I participated in a workshop with Resmaa Menakem a few months ago. He’s a somatic abolitionist and therapist and author, and the thing he kept saying to everyone was, “Pause. You’ve got time.” And you could see people start to weep because he was saying that to them. It’s simple but deeply resonant. To me that’s like a beautiful, almost poetic summing up of the way that white supremacy in the theatre is just on us—all of us—all the time. Perform, perform, perform. Bend to the tired old form i.e. the well-made play i.e. the Freytag pyramid i.e. commercial expectation. No. Screw that. Pause. You’ve got time to figure out something new. Put the artist in the center. Trust them.
TS Hawkins: Theatres are always like, But the donors… and we have a production week… which is the capitalist, white supremacist nature of theatre. I second that: Pause. You have time. Center the artist. I still find it unnerving, like, we’re all playwrights here and [we] still have to pimp ourselves out to theatres. Excuse my language, but when did that shit shift? You have a theatre company because we write the plays. I don’t understand how, now, we’ve got to beg you, “Look at my art today. Pick me. My art’s better than this art.” How did the institution come before the actual art? When did that happen? I still find it mind-boggling that there are literary managers who sit and assess what’s going to be the new flavor for the season. Why does the institution get to dictate what’s good art, what’s “traditional” art, what’s “classic” art? As someone who’s Black and queer, I’m always told, “Oh you’re for a niche audience.” Says who? Who told you that?
Gabriel Jason Dean: Exactly.
TS Hawkins: Right? Because I’m not an old, white man, I’m for a niche audience? So yes, if I could change something it’s that the institution does not come before the art. It’s art first.
Joey Stocks: Agreed!
Krista Knight: I think it would be naïve to say that there haven’t been artists doing this already, but I think an innovation I’m excited to see more of is work being iterative. Work having an online version, an in-person version, an app version, and a film version. I look forward to a flexibility, a variability in the work. Things can hybridize and jump platforms and also still be made for a traditional stage. So, I’m excited to see the different iterations of work as playwrights and theatre artists gain more tools.
Joey Stocks: I love that. Thank you all.
Gabriel Jason Dean
is a playwright, screenwriter, librettist, and lyricist. He’s been dubbed “feisty as hell” by The New Yorker and “a great modern American playwright” by Broadway World. His award-winning work in the theatre has been done all over the US and examines the volatile intersections of class, race, sexuality, and nationalism in America. Gabriel has received numerous fellowships including the DGF Fellowship and Hodder Fellowship from Princeton. He’s a Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre/English at Muhlenberg College, an alum of The Civilians R&D Group, and a Usual Suspect at New York Theatre Workshop. MFA: UT-Austin. www.GabrielJasonDean.com
is an international author, performance poet, art activist, playwright, and member of the Dramatists Guild. Plays, short works, and books include Seeking Silence, Cartons of Ultrasounds, Too Late to Apologize, They’ll Neglect to Tell You, #RM2B, The Secret Life of Wonder: a prologue in G, AGAIN, #SuiteReality, “don’t wanna dance with ghosts...”, Sugar Lumps & Black Eye Blues, Confectionately Yours, Mahogany Nectar, Lil Blaek Book: all the long stories short, and The Hotel Haikus.
is a playwright and new media artist. Career highlights include scripting a ride for Tokyo Disneyland, writing a musical dance-a-thon to the death with Dave Malloy, and meeting Václav Havel. She drives a pink 1972 Chevy Nova. CRUSH is on YouTube and coming to the Emmy App. www.KristaKnight.com