Playwrights on the Theater Frontier
Playwright Phillip Howze is a name you want to know if you like your theater to have some social electricity. Personally, I prefer a little sizzle with a 90-120 minute commitment to a live performance (I can take naps at home for free thank you very much). As a curator of The Bushwick Starr’s Reading Series, I jumped at the chance to spend a moment with playwright Phillip Howze, who’s show Frontiéres sans Frontières was first heard at our Series three years ago, and will begin its world premiere run on the Starr’s main stage this week. Besides him being Bushwick Starr family, his work has been seen around town and beyond via, Clubbed Thumb, Cutting Ball Theater, PRELUDE Festival 2015, San Francisco Playhouse, Sundance Institute, and Yale Cabaret.
How long have you been working on Frontiéres sans Frontières?
About 4 years. It was in a nascent form when I submitted it to The Bushwick Starr Reading series in 2014. When I learned that the play was selected for the series, I had an urgent reason to finish the draft. We’ve been able to develop it in some workshops, however Frontiéres is still very much in the spirit of my original impulse. It feels special that the play has never been anywhere else yet other than the Starr.
We have to talk about it… Frontiéres tackles issues of social justice and human rights on an international scale through the lens of three stateless youth in a country both foreign and familiar. I hate it but I’m going to use it: timely. Frontiéres seems to be mirroring our “right now”.
No one wants to use the word timely. Four years ago none of our current, domestic political climate was in our consciousness. But that isn’t to say that it wasn’t there, dormant. Writers and artists are asking the questions that take decades to comprehend. Making work that feels current doesn’t come from calculating what words to put out. I do believe that the making of art is about anticipation, and the artist is constantly anticipating, which is why if a work of art feels like it’s from 50 years ago… it’s clear to us.
If we are not driving with curiosity then we aren’t on the road to discovery.
That’s the truth. Much of that curiosity which we have as children is obliterated by adulthood. We re-engage it when we travel abroad or put ourselves in an art class. We have gotten so sophisticated, so decadent and highly conscious as to be tripping over our own foolishness. We see in some people a deep incapacity for empathy. Empathy is about curiosity. My mother raised me to read and actively seek out things on my own. We had a World Book Encyclopedia set… you know before Wikipedia. My mother made sure I read all of the material not taught in school. Stokely Carmichael, DuBois, Nikki Giovanni, etc. I learned in a tactile way, by turning pages. My mother’s passion to keep me engaged with reading fed and nurtured my ability to be curious. This translated into a larger love for language.
Frontiéres sans Frontières has a peculiar language style. How did that come into being?
I have no idea. Writing this play was like being wrapped in a cloak or a warm blanket and just listening to something murmur in your ear. That’s not every play. The density or the dexterity of the language feels as if it were gifted to me. Each play I write is a chance to be vulnerable, to be personal or put something on the line. If it’s not personal then it doesn’t feel like a human engagement. My plays are not naturalism, but they are about the story— that thing unfolding in front of you. My plays often begin from a place of language or an image, a line of dialogue, something that I overhear, something someone does, a piece of language appears, or an image of two incongruous things placed side by side which I then need to write into in order to understand what it means.
You and I are African American playwrights in a vast theater-scape called New York City. Sometimes it seems like there are unspoken expectations of what stories we should tell and how we should tell them. Do you get asked to write differently? Or explain yourself?
Yeah, it has happened. But I believe everyone gets to write whatever they feel, though it sounds like our plays are shaped differently. The theater has a rich tradition of many voices and we are a part of that. There is enough space in this world for all of these stories to exist. Of course, you can’t help but notice what work gets produced more frequently. I think that speaks towards the reality of industry. I write the plays I’m supposed to be writing. And it just so happens that I haven’t yet written a play that’s set at the kitchen table talking about dividing the estate. I’m in the game because I value curiosity, openness and the unique possibility for theatrical comprehension. There is a theatrical intelligence that is different from the intelligence of poetry or the intelligence of literature or expository writing or even cinema. The uniqueness of theatre is something I will always reach towards understanding and rediscovering. The beauty of theatrical invention comes out of making words – spoken out of a person’s mouth – to create indelible and perhaps inexplicable meaning. I’m always prepared for that as I am working on my plays and viewing plays. It’s what sets theater apart.
Frontiéres sans Frontières runs at The Bushwick Starr March 1-18, Wednesdays – Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets at thebushwickstarr.org