Not every playwright thinks with the kind of scope that goes beyond just one play, but lauded experimental writer Erik Ehn has done that throughout his career.
For instance, he wrote a cycle of 15 works called The Saint Plays. Dallas' Undermain Theatre has done two of those, as well as five other Ehn plays. That's where former Undermain associate Raphael Parry, who directed many of those productions, fell in love with Ehn's work and developed a relationship with the New York-based writer.
When Ehn was making plans for another cycle, Soulographie: Our Genocides, he knew he wanted Parry to be involved. Parry, who is now the artistic director of Shakespeare Dallas and founded Project X: Theatre, jumped at the chance. Project X opens one of the Soulographie plays, Diamond Dick: The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, this week. Other works in the cycle—all of which deal with genocide, in places such as El Salvador, Rwanda, Bosnia and America—have or will be produced at theaters around the country. In November, all 17 plays will be presented in an event at New York's La Mama. Project X will take its production of Diamond Dick there.
The Tulsa Race Riot happened on June 1, 1921. White rioters burned and began looting a black neighborhood in Tulsa after a white woman accused a black man, Dick Rowlands, of grabbing her arm in an elevator. 35 blocks were destroyed, and it's estimated that 800 people were injured and about 40 killed.
Ehn was born in Dallas but his parents moved to Brooklyn when he was. He has kept connections to Dallas and Oklahoma, where his parents are from and where his mother and other family members now live. He's currently the head of playwriting and performance studies at Rhode Island's Brown University.
Ehn was recently in town in preparation for Diamond Dick, and he and Parry are also planning a production of the world premiere of Ehn's Shakespeare deconstruction, Boy. TheaterJones caught up with Ehn to discuss Diamond Dick, the Souographie project, genocide and his vision of future theater.
TheaterJones: How did the Soulographie project come about?
Erik Ehn: The first two or three [plays] came out of interest in the subject matter, but then after that it became a purposeful decision to link them up. There's so much that you can't say in one play; you start thinking in series, that you're going to have to write an infinite string to get anywhere.
The same thing happened to me in the Saint Plays. When I started writing about religious issues, there was enough complexity in it that I had to change my life in order to write the plays. I had to commit to writing the plays for the rest of my life. Same thing with Soulographie.
At 17 plays we're at a point where an expression wants to come forward, but the theme is so inexhaustible that I'll be going at it for a long time.
How did you first learn about the Tulsa Race Riot?
My mother and sister live in Tulsa and I was back home for a vacation. In the town newspaper there was a small article about the decision not to dig up a mass grave. It was buried in the paper in the same way sports scores or gardening tips would be buried, as if it was kind of normal. I started asking around about it, and the story of the Tulsa Race Riot came out. I had heard nothing about it, despite longtime Oklahoma connections. If you scratch the surface you see that there's so much there, so it needed a play.
Do you delve into heavy research first?
It depends on the type of play or the nature of the subject. Sometimes it requires mediation over imagination; other plays require historical research, and this is one of the plays. So I immersed myself in studying and reading everything I could. I tried to see what patterns there were in the events. I had a purpose. A problem of pattern and purpose, maybe, is the secret to the process: The dilemma of the massacre, the patterns of decision-making, the consciousness that went into the structure of the disaster, and then the retrieval of history, fighting negationism or denial.
Is the story of the riot well-known to Tulsaites and Oklahomans?
There are repeated attempts to make it well-known, and it might be more well-known than people are letting on. Whatever it is, it's not acknowledged. They put up a little plaque, which took them about 50 years, but they're not paying reparations. The fact is that the neighborhood was destroyed forever. In shrewd city-planning manner they put a highway right through it, essentially nailing the coffin shut.
Had you previously known about the genocides that inspired these plays, or did you start seeking out genocides you hadn't heard of to write about?
With a lot of them I had heard rumors, but the writing process almost always begins with a moment of surprise. In writing about Rwanda, the idea of a million dead was too big for my head. But I heard about a couple of nuns who were being tried for genocide, and I had imaginative access to it.
In Guatemala, talking to a particular person in a cardboard shack by a train track woke that up for me. A series of trips I took with Randy [Raphael Parry] helped write a bunch of the plays that take place in Central America.
What is the definition of genocide?
There are official definitions, but essentially it's the attempt to prevent a people from remembering themselves and the culture around them from remembering them. So it's a crime against memory. If the event was just about killing, that would be one thing and it's heinous enough, but it's killing in a particular way that leaves survivors with almost insoluble trauma and the perpetrators with insurmountable guilt. So the subject can't be addressed at all, much less healed.
Is it always a deliberate attempt?
Genocide is a policy. It's often written off as spontaneous and emotional, but it requires every engine of culture to prosecute.
There is some thought that what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was genocide.
The aspect of Katrina that was that way were the policies in place that marginalized the core. The storm wasn't genocide, but the way society is structured to devalue the poor, that has aspects of genocide in it, aspects of intentional erasure.
Is there an answer or explanation you're looking for in writing these plays?
I don't have a question that I want answered. It's not because I have an answer, but the mission of the project is to create witness. Not to explain and not to judge in any conclusive way, but to be with the events that happened. One of the key requirements of genocide is that we look away. So if we can look back, maybe that will strengthen us so we won't look away the next time.
There are four plays that center on Tulsa, from different points of view, from perpetrators and negationists to victims and survivors.
What does this play, Diamond Dick, do?
This would be a play for victims and survivors of the massacre in the Tulsa race riots. It's [not] an attempt to write their play—I'm outside that experience—but an attempt to be with the events.
Are there other events involving the African-American journey that you'll tackle in the plays?
There are tons [of events] that I'll be writing about for a long time, but for the purpose of this project the focus is Tulsa.
For this project you decided to collaborate with directors with whom you've worked before, I assume to help expedite the journey to the full cycle in New York?
I'm looking at new producing models. I've railed against institutions for a long time, and I want to find a workable model that was not industrial, so the alternative is the familial. I'm trying to do something that's broad in structure, social in purpose, and familial in medium. So everybody in the project is either somebody I've loved for a long time or somebody I'm falling in love with.
Did you get grant money for this project?
We got basically one grant. Producing 17 plays is impossible, be we wanted to do something impossible. The only way to get it done is like a riot, like a movement. You have to enfranchise hundreds of people event to make this happen before we open the doors.
Did the directors pick the scripts they wanted, or were they assigned?
I pulled the pool of directors together and threw the scripts out at them. But kind of miraculously, it all worked out. People made a list of three they'd be interested in, and almost everyone got their first choice.
For this show, how important was the shorthand that you've developed with Raphael over the years?
It's a pleasure to be back in a room with him. And to come into Project X where you can sense that there's trust and faithfulness, and a spirit of creative joy in the room, but it's also really expedient. It must be like playing basketball with someone for a long time, you don't have to look to pass the ball.
You've written more than 500 plays, and around 100 of those have been produced. Do you write some plays as a writing exercise, not necessarily with a production in mind?
There are some plays I write in order to figure out how to write the next play. There are a lot of plays that I think are fantastic, but nobody's interested in. Or they're too big or too crazy.
I understand that Boy involves a large cast.
It's pretty big but we're enthusiastic about something happening with it. It's an attempt to gene-splice Shakespeare, to take Shakespeare DNA and see if we can grow it somehow.
I read that early in your theater career, in college, you were an actor but stopped doing that quickly.
I'm a bad actor. I loved acting, it probably saved my life. I was living in a really boring suburb just north of New York and my family was falling apart, and I had no way to really be myself. The acting community was generous and tolerant and patient. In the middle of college two things happened: I was more and more unhappy, more self-critical and confused on stage. And the prospects of headshots and résumés started looming up. God bless the people who can do it, but it was not for me.
Did having that acting experience inform the writing?
Being an actor and also being a carpenter, which is how I supported myself for a while, affected my sense of compassion and space. The kind of emotional space that actors require, but also the space the stage can hold.
Your work is often described as abstract, experimental or avant-garde?
Most artists don't like labels...
I think [those terms are] legitimate. Even people who know me or know the work really well have a hard time cracking the nut. If I could write clearer, I would, but this is just how I write. I'm trying to write in a pre-verbal kind of language. I'm trying to write the character of the mind before it finds its language, the place where events are stored and where we create from. I'm not interested in the memories or the creations, I'm interested in the ground of memories or creation, that makes it pretty inscrutable.
Were you always interested in writing about sociopolitical issues?
All through grad school, I was learning how to write a play in a very conventional sense, like Eugene O'Neill or William Inge, these are people I liked. When I got out of school, I was abruptly confronted with the question of what a play is for. It's not enough just to write a play, or stick ideas together in an artful way. It's got to be from a people, and for a people, for a community.
I didn't know what to do with my writing, and I didn't know what to do with myself in New York. So I started to volunteer in a soup kitchen, just to find some sort of utility for myself, something that wasn't about beer or radio or baseball, something to do. That began to feed the plays as well. This idea of writing in a way that requires community and trust, and also building that material out of issues out there in a world, that came together for me after grad school.
You've traveled to Rwanda several times.
I've been going there for nine years. I wanted to write about it very badly. I felt guilty and fascinated and hopeful and sorrowful in ways that I couldn't master. I had to get into that play. To tell you the truth, I prayed over it, I wanted access to that play. What the play asked for in return was that I had to change my life. One of the changes I had to make was to promise to go back to Rwanda as often as I could. The idea of a 10-year mission occurred to me. I knew that I couldn't express everything in one play, so I had to work longitudinally. Rwanda has been a fantastic school; it's going through dynamic cultural change right now. Uganda, too.
What were some of the major encounters that affected you deeply, that led to an idea for a play?
There were three. One was early on, a young survivor who was three when the genocide occurred, and she gave us her testimony. This was about eight years after the genocide, and she had never told her story before. It was the saddest story I ever heard, of what she saw as a three-year-old. It's a miracle that she has the will to open her eyes anymore, but she did.
There's a type of story you encounter in Rwanda, where just when you think you've found the bottom of the human soul in terms of what people can do to each other or how low people can sink in terms of their spirit, there's another bottom that you find. It's like a rotten flower that keeps unfolding.
Then there was a guy named George who was left for dead by his mother twice. She literally walked away from him and said goodbye, twice, once leaving him in a field and once in a hospital. He's paralyzed on half of his body. He's a young man and he's rebuilt his life, he's an economist now. So this prospect of hope in spite of everything is enormous.
The third person was Hope, who grew up in exile in Uganda during the genocide, but came back to Rwanda and has built a theater company. So the possibilities for art as a balm for society were made clear to me.
Are the arts in Rwanda returning?
In addition to recovering from genocide, it's recovering from a massive explosion in population. It has nearly doubled from before genocide, and there's incredible poverty. It used to be 60 percent poverty, now it's 45. It's a very poor country that wants to develop quickly, so there's progress in engineering and the sciences. And at the same time you have young people who want to express themselves. It's coming up, but the infrastructure for performance is not the same as the infrastructure for office towers.
With the recent incident involving Mike Daisey's FoxConn/Steve Jobs monologue and This American Life, there has been talk about the relationship between theater-making and journalism. When you're writing about a real incident and doing interviews and research, do you consider it journalism?
If you think of it as journalistic photography, the film I'm using is X-Ray film I guess. I'm not interested in documenting the surface of things or even describing the character of things, I'm interested in creating the internal experience, it's meant to be the history of internal experiences.
Why did you create Arts in the One World?
For 10 years I was involved with a group called the RAT Conference, where independent and anarchic theaters got together every year or so to create manifesto and support each other's work. That was good but because we're so anarchic, we really couldn't get much done. It was like a big gigantic rock band, we got to exercise our voices for a while. I wanted to move into something more intentional.
Arts in the One World is now in its seventh year, it'll be a 10-year project. Its focus is art for social change on an international basis. So every year we get together and we have conversations and share work.
Is there a rise in socially conscious theater?
Very much so. It's becoming a sort of movement, and it's entering the curriculum pretty deeply. Schools are developing degrees but also teaching the classes. We're really looking for a language now, it's pretty new, just getting going. There's theater for social change, forum theater, development theater, theater and public policy...art and ethics. [The University of Texas at] Austin has a good program called performance and public policy.
We're casting about for what the umbrella is, but as theater moves out of theaters and as dramaturgy moves out of its old forms, it's looking to relocate itself, not in artifices but in community. The content wants to be where the people are. This is what the Internet has given us, it's fluid movement into self-defined communities. So theater has to move far and wide rapidly, in a form that people can take hold of. It has to come from the will of the people rather than being sold to them.
Are you seeing that in places other than New York?
Dallas seems to be in a really healthy place right now in terms of quality.
There's definitely a lot more collaboration going on here.
Everything is in the shape of networks now. To make something happen you've got to put six teams together. [In New York,] it used to be that you could get a job at Kinko's, and live in an illegal sublet and do a show in basement and kind of put it together by yourself. But those jobs don't pay the rent anymore, the illegal spaces are gone and the basements are charging an arm and a leg, so you really have to build a coalition to get anything to happen.
I think there's more theater going on now than there ever has been, but we don't really know what we're looking all the time, we don't realize that what we're looking at is theater. I think the forms are going through a major change right now. For me it's as big as the invention of the proscenium. The way we look at theater is going through millennial shift. It's the biggest [change] I can conceive of. I think the invention of vaudeville was pretty big and has affected theatrical imagination and production process for a long time. It's got to be as big as that.
What works or forms or events are affecting the change?
We're looking at African dance drama; and The Iliad, it's not an accident that The Iliad [was just done off-Broadway]. We're looking at soap opera and the infinite series, Latin American novellas are influential, we're looking at Manga, we're looking at the way iTunes is built. The models for the future theater are not necessarily theatrical models.
Like the invention of the proscenium, we're just pointing our heads in new directions. The idea of network, the idea of event is being restored. So riots and Occupy Providence or Occupy Wall Street, theater wants some of that. Raves and Burning Man are not direct models anymore but they're influential in terms of where we want to get there.
Which playwrights are best reflecting this shift right now?
It may not just be playwrights necessarily. There's some incredible dance that we saw in northern Uganda that I think will go viral eventually, it was just right in terms of expressive outrage and joy.
Taylor Mac is a writer I really like; he has an interesting sense of scale. He's working on a song project where he wants to sing a 24-hour concert, so he's learning hundreds of songs.
Ruth Margraff is always an out-there writer. Tarell McCraney, with his sense of cycle, is moving in that direction. Suzan-Lori Parks had a big impact on people with the 365 plays.
Maybe there's a tacit hope that after you write a thing you can leave it behind you, but with this material, that hasn't been the case. It just means I have to write another play. My anger and curiosity and my determination get confirmed again and again, as we go through this play and the other plays.
Mount Zion Baptist Church burning in the Tulsa Race Riot.
Originally published in Events of the Tulsa Disaster by Mary E. Jones Parrish, 1922.
Here's a recent video interview with Ehn about Soulographie from the New York Theatre Review: