These Boundary-Pushing Playwrights Talk Theater, Creative Activism, and Turning Trauma Into High Art

Alexander Saladrigas

Anna Deavere Smith and Jeremy O. Harris open up to Departures.

Talking at the same time with Anna Deavere Smith and Jeremy O. Harris is a bit like standing at the juncture where the past few decades of American theater—especially black American theater—round the bend and give a vista onto its exciting future. Perhaps best known to mass American audiences as hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus on Nurse Jackie, actor, writer, and New York University professor Smith has won both a MacArthur fellowship and a Drama Desk award for her solo-performance theater works, which are built from copious interviews that she conducts. With a perfect ear for people’s everyday spoken language, she reveals the multisidedness of even the most charged events dealing with race and class. Currently, she’s preparing for a revival season of Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 at the Signature Theater, one of New York’s highest honors to a playwright, and is collaborating with TV giant Shonda Rhimes on an adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns.

No one has shaken the New York theater scene to its core in recent years quite like wunderkind Jeremy O. Harris, who, before he even graduated from Yale Drama School this year, had two shows running off-Broadway: first, the hilarious and shocking Slave Play, about the treacherous legacy of interracial desire in the U.S., which moves to Broadway this fall, and also Daddy, about the relationship between a young, gifted, and black gay artist and his ultra-rich, middle-aged white lover, played by Alan Cumming.

To start, how would you describe your work to someone at a dinner party?

Anna Deavere Smith: On airplanes, I try to avoid saying anything about my own work. People will say to me, “What have I seen you on? Oh my God, you’re Gloria Akalitus from Nurse Jackie!” But I guess, at a dinner party, I would say that I’m an “it’s not fair” person rather than saying my work is about social justice. I’d say I interview people and make plays where I then perform the interviews.

Jeremy O. Harris: I really hate talking to people about being a playwright. People immediately shut you off. They think, “Theater? That’s boring. Everyone has a British accent.” Theater has all these class and race associations. I have a lot of theater friends, but my social circle is also people in music, fashion, and visual art, and a lot of them never saw a play until I invited them to mine. But if someone says, “Tell me about your work,” I say that I’m interested in trauma and how it intersects with form. That makes me sound really smart! Like my new play I’m writing. It’s about my ex-boyfriend who really broke my heart, so I’m using the form of the Jacobean revenge tragedy.

Anna, what drew you to putting activism into your work?

ADS: When I was deciding who I was going to be in my twenties in San Francisco, I thought of being an activist. But I’m not as serious as they are, and I’m also not as this-or-that, black-or-white. So when I was hanging out with activists in San Francisco, I tripped over the American Conservatory Theater, A.C.T., and went to an acting class. I hadn’t been serious about theater, but I thought, “I’m going to see if I can learn about the essence of what change is by watching people try to change their identities in the name of acting.”

Jeremy, you were obsessed with theater from your teens, yes?

JOH: I always knew I was black and different. I was poor and went to a private school in Virginia, which showed me that if you made good enough grades, you could finance your way to whiteness. I always wondered if I would have attempted to pass as white if I were a lighter-skinned person. Then again, my cousin is lightskinned and has to tell people that he’s not white and he has huge psychic frustration that he doesn’t look black. Whereas for me, being a dark-skinned black person who can talk faster than all the white people makes one or two of the white people upset, but also a few of them super excited. In this white private school, I got to do every single thing I wanted. I had an English teacher who also taught dance and drama and said to me, “Read every single play in the library,” and I did. Tony

What about you, Anna?

ADS: I grew up a nice, light-skinned colored girl in Baltimore at a time when we all wondered where the civil rights era was going to take us. I was among the first black students in an integrated junior high school, which was awful, but then my high school was predominantly Jewish at a time when Baltimore was very anti-Semitic, so I realized that all white people weren’t the same. But it wasn’t until A.C.T. that I had what felt like an intellectual explosion. I got really into Shakespeare, how he brings words alive, which made me ask questions leading to the work I make now. But it wasn’t all fun. I was poor, and I was the one black person in the theater company, so it was a very lonely place for me in every way. I’d hang out with guys from Africa, and we’d use Skippy to make Ghanaian peanut-butter soup. Thankfully, I had some people who were there for me, one of whom was my yoga teacher, Bonita Bradley, who’s still very much in my life. She said to me, “I think you’re ahead of your time, and never be scared, because if things ever get that bad, I’ll give you lunch money.” You need people like that in your life. And you also need a sense of doubt. Confidence is overrated. If you’re not overly sure of yourself, you become vigilant in a good way. You’re always looking.

JOH: I agree. My play is going to Broadway and everyone is like, “Aren’t you excited?” No! Not only am I fighting to have a play called Slave Play make sense morally and ideologically, I have to deal with the fact that our system of commercial theater does not have space or time for black playwrights on Broadway. The chances of my failing are really high.

Anna, do you think that commercial theater has changed for artists of color?

ADS: Before I would go as far as Jeremy has, I would say I actually have faith in this historical moment. I believe in things happening over time. Oprah has shaken the world, and Shonda Rhimes, with whom I’m working currently, is probably the most influential African American woman of letters. If Toni Morrison started writing now, she’d probably be writing for TV. Some people say we’re having a new black Renaissance. So, Jeremy, you can’t anticipate what’ll happen to your play on Broadway, because it’s a very different landscape from what it was even two years ago.

JOH: It would be wonderful if things go well for my play. It would say that there’s an openness to this kind of work at the moment. But I’m still bracing myself for Broadway, a space that has been hostile to blackness historically, and I think that’s agood thing rather than setting myself up for disappointment and frustration.

Anna, any thoughts about this up-and-coming generation of artists?

ADS: I see a lot of young people, students, framing their existence in terms of their trauma, and that feels new. So I hope that the science and profession of mental health moves more quickly than it is right now.

JOH: We millennials are the medicated generation, taking pills and going to therapists since we were eight. So I’d be excited to see more psychology and less psychiatry. I think all my work is about trauma in the same way I think Shakespeare’s work is. I articulate very loudly in my work the intersection of trauma and desire.

Anna, can you talk about how you devised your very unique kind of theater?

ADS: It started with Shakespeare, with words leading to the internal feelings, which was very mystical to me. I wondered if I could do with language what a photographer does with a portrait, if I could make a study of people through their words. The first play like that I made, On the Road: A Search for American Character, I wasn’t the only actor. But I was the only actor in Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, which made my career take off. With that one, nobody told the same story. The black people called what happened a murder, and the Jewish people called it an accident. And I guess by my performing it, I became the in-between. That’s where my doubt comes in.

What about you, Jeremy?

JOH: I’ve always loved plays on the page, which made me wonder, “What if this idea stirring inside me took on the structure of a 19th-century play? Or a western?” And my plays are also really millennial in that they mimic growing up as a digital native. I might be reading [Columbia University professor] Saidiya Hartman on my laptop while also scrolling through iTunes and Pitchfork and listening to the newest songs. It’s high and low rubbing up against each other without judgment.

What’s something both of you haven’t done yet that you’d like to do?

JOH: I’m very interested in going into the music or art world in a deep way, perhaps developing an installation practice or working on proper songwriting, opening upmybraininanewway.I’mgoingtoa poetry program next year.

ADS: I once taught an acting class called Who Could You Never Be? And I said that I could never be this guy I met who fasted for 40 days in Hawaii, then broke the fast with one fresh-squeezed orange and said he heard the earth singing. I would love to do that. But I’m not going to do that.