Editor’s note: This is the second entry in a new TheaterJones series called Artist to Artist, in which local artists will interview their peers—actors, directors, designers, choreographers, composers, musicians, conductors, dancers, etc. Here, playwright Jonathan Norton chats with playwright and award-winning actress Regina Taylor, who will have two of the works in her triptych The Trinity River Plays produced by Soul Rep Theatre Company at the South Dallas Cultural Center. Norton has constructed his interview as a play. To find out more about Taylor, you can also read our January interview with her here.
The Power of Naming Yourself
Lights up: Early morning. Jonathan sits on a park bench at Southern Methodist University. He interviews (by phone) someone he truly admires, Dallas native and playwright-actress-director Regina Taylor. Two of The Trinity River Plays open soon in a production by Soul Rep Theatre Company at the South Dallas Cultural Center. He tries not to make it sound like a stodgy and boring interview.
Jonathan: I want to start with this question. Are you an only child?
Regina: Yes, I am.
Jonathan: I am too. I ask that because I’ve always felt that being an only child had a huge impact on why I ultimately became an artist. Do you feel that is similar for you?
Regina: I think I had the best of both worlds in that I come from a very large family in Dallas. My mother had eight siblings and they multiplied. She helped to raise her siblings and I think that had an impact on her deciding to only have one child. We all lived in the same general area or neighborhood growing up and I was always grateful to be around my cousins. But most of the time when I was home I was by myself.
My mother had a huge influence on my being an artist. She passed to me her love of the arts. And she passed her love of words. I remember books always being around. And when I was a child she helped me to write children’s books. So as far back as I can remember, I’ve been writing.
One of the most valuable things my mother gave me was to understand the power of words at a very young age in terms of naming yourself in the world.
Jonathan: Naming yourself. Can you speak more to that?
Regina: Yes. I was born in the West Dallas projects to a single mother—African-American—in this country. I think people start naming you when you take your first breath.
Jonathan: In good and bad ways.
Regina: In good and bad ways. And you have the choice to accept those names or not. And certainly, you have the power to name yourself. Who you want to be. Who you are in this world is always a process of creation and recreation as you go along in this world.
Jonathan: That seems to harken back to the idea of the cicada which is one of the themes that appears throughout The Trinity River Plays.
Regina: Yes. We have our cicadas that come out every 17 years. And with this play, we see our central character, Iris, on her 17th birthday. She’s about to come up from under the ground and sprout her wings—to wake up—and what does she see around her? It’s a metaphor. And what sound will she make? It’s what the play wrestles with. She wants to be a writer and what does that mean. It’s about identity. And it’s about family.
The second piece is Rain and it is 17 years later. Iris, she’s now a grown woman who’s just divorced, who returns home to find comfort, roots, to be with her mother. And she finds out her mother has cancer. And she’s forced to think about which direction she’ll go. She decides to stay in Dallas and take this journey with her mother. Rain is about the hard rain that falls and how we take it. It can beat you down. But it can also give you nourishment to grow stronger.
Jonathan: And then there is the third play.
Regina: There is a third play, Ghost Story, which takes place a year later from Rain.
Jonathan: I want to ask you about the fact that the play is a trilogy. Three separate plays. But they are meant to be experienced as a complete evening of theater. Although they can be experienced individually. How did that decision come about?
Regina: They are stand-alone pieces so you can see them individually. Or you can see them in different combinations. And Soul Rep is doing two of the three plays.
Jonathan: I believe they are doing Jar Fly and Rain.
Regina: And I am very excited about Soul Rep doing the piece. I admire the company.
Jonathan: Can you tell me how that relationship came about? How this production came about?
Regina: I had lunch with [cofounder] Guinea [Bennett] and vickie washington. vickie introduced me to Guinea. We sat down and talked about possibilities of collaborating with this really wonderful company. We went back and forth and came up with Trinity River Plays. I’m very happy. I love their mission statement. Their focus is lifting-up, unearthing the diversity of African-American voices. I know it’s going to be beautiful and I’m looking forward to seeing the production. And I love that it’s being done in Dallas and that it’s written about Dallas. So, that you see yourself. And you see people you recognize. And the commonalities of family and the differences of family. There is certainly an undercurrent of love in the depiction of family in the piece. There’s also the dark secrets that families hold and don’t often speak about in this piece as well. And I’m grateful that it will have a new life with this production by Soul Rep.
Jonathan: Soul Rep! I love Soul Rep so much. I love Guinea and Anyika. And in many ways, although I don’t think they know this, Guinea and Anyika got me back to playwriting. I wrote a lot in high school at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. But in college, I began to focus more on directing. After graduation, I came back to Dallas and started stage managing for Soul Rep. At that time, Guinea found out from Nedra James that I was also a playwright. Guinea told Anyika, and they tag teamed. Guinea and Anyika started harassing me to write and submit a play to their new play festival. And they absolutely would not let up. Ultimately, Soul Rep did three of my one-acts. So, I owe a lot to Soul Rep. They really are family!
Regina: That is wonderful.
Jonathan: But back to Trinity River Plays. It premiered in Dallas at Dallas Theater Center in 2010 in a co-production with the Goodman in Chicago. I’m curious to know how the play developed during its Chicago run.
Regina: I continued to develop the piece as it went along. It’s great to learn about the piece. Certainly, at Dallas Theater Center it had a successful run and it gave me the chance to experience the piece with an audience for the first time. I continued with honing the piece going into Chicago. And it had great success there. In terms of development, exploring the subtleties, and deepening the storyline and the characters.
Jonathan: A few weeks ago, I posted on Facebook the monologue from your play, Watermelon Rinds.
Regina: Yes! Watermelon Rinds, my first produced play.
Jonathan: You know how as a young artist you have experiences that you consider formative experiences? That monologue was one of those formative experiences for me. I keep trying to recall if I first heard it in high school or college. But either way, the first thing that struck me about it is that if I’m not mistaken, in the monologue—the play that Jes is talking about—is it a Christopher Durang play?
Jonathan: Yes, I knew it! I remember when Jes talks about the hedgehog, I thought to myself “Wait a minute, I know that play” And the second thing I thought was that it’s exactly how my mother and my father and my friends and neighbors, that’s exactly how they would respond to that play. “What the hell is this? I want my money back.” And I think the reason it was so formative was that it was the first time in my thinking process of being an artist, that I brought my family into that equation. I brought my neighbors into the equation. And I thought about the work I do and how it reflects them and how it engages them. Or how it might alienate them. We have these conversations about diversifying our audiences all the time. But we still overlook many different kinds of communities who are not thought of in the creation of new work.
Regina: I happen to be a huge fan of Christopher Durang.
Jonathan: (laughter) I am too
Regina: And at the same time with that being my first piece I was very aware of having my own voice. Christopher Durang writes darkly humorous pieces. Black humor.
Jonathan: (more laughter) And not a single black person in the whole play!
Regina: So, a play on the word—and thinking through my lens—what would black humor be? That became the question on my mind working through this piece, Watermelon Rinds. It is a piece about a black family and THE black family as well. It takes place on occasion of Martin Luther King’s birthday. And people weigh in on where we are in terms of Martin Luther King’s dream. And each person has their own take on it in this particular family. And certainly, Black people as a whole have different takes on it. We look at things in different ways. And certainly, our experience in America shapes that perspective in various ways. We’re not always in agreement.
Jonathan: We’re not monolithic.
Regina: We’re not monolithic. So, there are some things that we must have a sense of humor about, but it is skewed very dark in terms of looking at life as African-Americans.
Jonathan: What are you working on right now?
Regina: I’m working on several pieces right now. I just finished a piece about Fannie Lou Hamer and it speaks very much to where we are as a nation right now. Fannie Lou Hamer being a Civil Rights activist. Her work with voter registration and voting rights for African-Americans in this country, being very central to her work—to her mission. She was brought into the spotlight of American consciousness at the 1964 Democratic Convention, as she was trying to seat an integrated delegation, and unseat a segregated delegation. I love this woman. I love her tenacity; I love her for her agenda. I love her for her history—what she brought to the spotlight at that moment in time. And that piece is called A Seat at the Table.
I have a piece called Bread, another piece set in Dallas.
Regina: It takes place in the here and now, after the Obama era and a new President is being seated. It’s about a family that lives in South Oak Cliff. A couple who are under 40, about to have their second male son. And the wife is overdue. She doesn’t want to push. She doesn’t want to release her child into this very unpredictable world.
Jonathan: Oh wow!
Regina: That’s Bread. And I have a couple of short pieces that I’m working on. Also, political. These are my Resistance plays. And I have a couple of pieces I’m working on for the Old Vic and a piece for the Denver Center Theatre Company. And in the next couple of weeks I’ll be in New York working on Oo-Bla-Dee. I’m coming back to that piece. Adding more music to it.
Jonathan: Where will that be?
Regina: That’s for Two Rivers Theater, being directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
Jonathan: No way! Oh my God. Congratulations. That’s so exciting.
Regina: Thank you. I’m having a wonderful time. And at the same time, I’m working with different universities. I just did a reading of my play Magnolia –
Jonathan: At SMU, that I saw.
Regina: And thank you for being there.
Jonathan: Oh, and I must to tell you—okay I’m putting this out there in the Universe—one of these days, I’m going to direct a production of Magnolia.
Regina: I would love for you to do that. That would be quite wonderful. And, I will put into the universe that I would love to direct one of your plays.
END OF PLAY
» Jonathan Norton is a Dallas-based playwright whose 2015 play Mississippi Goddamn, which premiered at the South Dallas Cultural Center, won the M. Elizabeth Osborn new play award for an emerging playwright. His next play, Penny Candy, will have its world premiere at the Dallas Theater Center in the fall of 2018.
» If you have suggestions for future Artist to Artist interviews, email editor Mark Lowry at email@example.com.
PREVIOUSLY IN ARTIST TO ARTIST
- March 6, 2017: Actor Justin Lemieux interviews actor Calvin Scott Roberts, who stars in Passing Strange at Theatre Three, Dallas