Editor’s note: On Wednesday, Aug. 30, the Dallas Theater Center opens its first season since winning the 2017 Regional Theatre Tony Award, when previews begin for the world premiere of Miller, Mississippi by Boo Killebrew. A playwright, actress and co-founder of New York’s CollaborationTown theater, Mississippi native Killebrew is also a Lila Acheson Playwriting Fellow at The Juilliard School, a member of the Primary Stages Writers Group, an alumni of the 2013 Emerging Writers Group at The Public, and a writer for the A&E/Netflix series Longmire.
Miller, Mississippi is a Southern Gothic tale set in Jackson, Miss., from the 1960s through 1994, with the backdrop of the fight for Civil Rights. It focuses on the Miller family and their African-American maid, each poisoned by the stain of racism. It is directed by Lee Sunday Evans and features DTC Brierley Resident Acting Companies members Liz Mikel, Alex Organ and Sally Vahle, plus Dylan Godwin and Leah Karpel. It opens on Wednesday, Sept. 6 in the Wyly Theatre’s Sixth Floore Studio Theatre and runs through Oct. 1.
We asked Golden Globe-winning actress (for the TV show I’ll Fly Away) and lauded playwright Regina Taylor to have a conversation with Killebrew about the work. Taylor, a Dallas native who now lives in Oak Cliff, will have her own play premiering in Dallas this season, when Addison’s WaterTower Theatre opens the Dallas-set Bread in April 2018. She’ll also be working in New York this fall with Fordham University for a production of her 2009 play Magnolia, which is set at the beginning of desegregation in Atlanta in 1963.
Below this video trailer is the conversation as recorded and written by Taylor, in her voice as a playwright and lover of dramatic literature.
I’m haunted by her play—and her name.
in the dictionary-
An utterance of disdain for speaker/performer
An utterance to surprise/frighten
I’ve never met Boo-
I call from Chicago- She’s in New York.
Her disembodied voice — warm and playful — belies the ferociousness of her disquieting play.
Regina Taylor: I want to first ask you about your name, Boo-
Boo Killebrew: I was born and raised in Mississippi and Boo is not that uncommon of a name down there. So, my parents knew they wanted to name me that. My dad is a big To Kill a Mockingbird fan.
Regina: I figured-
Boo: Yeah, they thought I was going to be a boy so they were like okay, and they loved that character (Boo Radley) and I was a girl and they still liked the name.
Regina: You are co-founder of the CollaborationTown theater as well as writer, actor, choreographer.
What do you like best?
Boo: I like writing best. You know for me the lines have always been blurry between the three of them. Because I’ve always been like I’m telling a story I’m making something. But I think that with writing I have more freedom, more control, more agency. Like if I wanted to make something I don’t have to wait for a rehearsal room or other people so I think writing. It also brings together some parts of my brain, structure, plot, it brings together the right and left side of my brain in a way that is super challenging but in a way that I’m really fulfilled by.
Regina: Do the other parts, acting or choreography, inform writing?
Boo: Yeah, I feel like I write pretty physically, pretty actively and I think that comes from being an actor and of course a dancer. When I’m writing I definitely am seeing bodies on stage and writing for those bodies.
Regina: Yes, yes, I feel that in your writing. When I was reading the script it was one, very visceral and, two, I was saying to myself “Oh, definitely this is someone who trusts actors in the breaks in between the lines and the pauses of what’s happening.” You give space for actors to fill that in. I appreciated that.
Boo: Oh, good I’m glad that comes across. I think that you know that I do depend on them. It’s amazing when you have a team that brings so much to the table. I’m always interested in knowing what the play will become with us working on it. With it becoming our play with the things that they write into those pauses.
Regina: Are these new collaborators for you — the director, designers, actors?
Boo: Lee Sunday Evans, the director, I’ve worked with her for about 13 years.
Boo: I know! She is one of my most trusted collaborators. She has directed me in plays, she has directed my plays and I trust her implicitly. I always learn from her. And then the actors at Dallas Theater Center. It’s a dream team and we keep saying that to each other.
Regina: It looks like a very powerful cast.
Boo: It is. We bring a lot of love and fellowship to the room, which I think is so necessary and important when you’re working on such upsetting material.
Regina: Is this your first time at DTC?
Boo: It is, it is and I’m loving it. They’re so community oriented, and truly all hands on deck. A lot of theatres, big institutions, say we support new work but a lot of time that is lip service. But they actually do. They’ve given me total support. They’ve given me tools. They’ve really stuck to their word and support new word, which is so important as you know.
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
Boo: I think I always stayed making things and writing plays and shows and stuff like that. I’d focused on acting for a really long time then I started really focusing on writing around 2010 and this is definitely the medium I wanted to focus on. I’ve always known I wanted to be a storyteller — whether through choreography, or through acting or through writing — since I was three.
Regina: Oh wow-
Boo: Yeah, just making up stuff.
Regina: It’s such a strong legacy, tradition — storytelling itself. I know for myself, sitting among family members, friends, sitting on the porch, that there are always stories roaming around. Whether everyday stories, what happened to you today to great grand fantastical stories.
Boo: Absolutely, it becomes a survival skill of the south. You have to know how to tell a good story.
Where are you from Regina?
Regina: I’m from Dallas, Texas. Born and raised in Dallas, Texas.
Boo: Right, I do think storytelling is very treasured in the South and I think you gotta have your chops ready.
Regina: With this particular story, where did it come from, why did you to want to begin taking this journey?
Boo: Lots of reasons. I was born and raised in Mississippi. My family goes back several generations there, and I’ve always been fascinated by its tumultuous history its haunted past and I write about the South a lot. In 2014 my grandfather died and I went to help my mom clean out this house so she could sell it. And we’re cleaning out this old attic. It was the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer of 1964. And so I was seeing a lot of that all over town and then just going through my grandparents’ stuff. My family history. I think a lot of us like to pretend that the Civil Rights movement is ancient history and it’s not. And it’s very clear today.
I’ve always felt like not enough attention has been on the white hostility and the white supremacy and violence of the Civil Rights era. I don’t feel like it has been paid attention to enough. These people didn’t just go away… They got quiet but they’re still running a lot of things. I just feel like I really wanted to investigate that, I wanted to investigate and explore that ugliness for lack of a better word. I wasn’t interested in telling a story in sepia tones, “Oh, that was then and that was Mississippi.” I don’t think these kinds of stories exist within that time and that state as they permeate throughout our country. So I was really into writing a story about a family — a microcosm of the state or our county, honestly. So I wanted to write something that was very personal but also universal. I didn’t want to shy away from it. I was like, we have to look at it so we can have real conversations. I’m interested in having uncomfortable conversations. So when I started writing it — it sounds dramatic — I felt sick to my stomach every time I would write it. I think I’m on the right path. If it scares you that’s usually what’s honest. That’s a very long answer.
Regina: I love that.
Regina: You talked about this haunted past. At the beginning of Miller, Mississippi, you have Doris, the housekeeper to the Miller family, telling this ghost story about a house that’s haunted. Even when someone tries to burn it down it keeps rising again. And if you’re in contact with this house you hear the crying — you hear the suffering inside the walls. If you’re in contact — whatever oozes from that house, you’re tainted with it as well. I love the setup of this story, in that you have this black woman beginning this story, you have this little white boy coming in on the story saying it’s not just your story, it’s not just an African-American story, it’s everyone’s story; everyone is tainted-
Regina: -by this haunted history of racism.
Boo: Yup. I feel like that. That’s exactly what I want. I do feel like it’s not just African-American artists’ and writers’ responsibility to write about race. We all have to all pay attention to it, and we have to either repeat mistakes or make up for them.
Boo: And so I think that it’s just this idea that just being isolated to one race or one area or one family or one time is a falsity.
Regina: Right. You set the story 1960 through 1994. Why that period of time?
Boo: Well, I was really interested in how the things that happened especially in 1964 in the play shaped these children’s lives.
Regina: 1964 being Freedom Summer.
Boo: Yes how the national climate affects how these children are shaped and then ending it in 1994, I feel like that absolutely ends us on a note that’s pretty foreboding about our present. In 1994 lots of power shifted in Congress and it got us on the path to where we are now. When people see 1994, they see it’s not so far away and it ends how the political story we’re living now, begins.
Regina: Ummm, uh huh. In 1964, there are protests — people are fighting for this dream of racial equality. You personalize that journey through this family and this housekeeper in such a wonderful way. It is looking at what their dreams are now and how those dreams spiral down even as people say we are progressing.
Boo: That’s right. You know, I think we’ve come a long way but obviously we have a long way to go.
Regina: Well, yes.
Let’s talk about what ‘s happening right now (as your play opens) — the political stage right now in America. We’re haunted by these ghosts that will not lie down. And here we are again, white supremacists with torches, in Charlottesville, Virg., at this moment in time.
Boo: It is shocking. That’s why with the play, I feel like these people who were white supremacists in the ’60s, they were never extinct. They actually are representing us politically. We don’t have lynchings now but we do have our prison system. We have come a long way but these systems are broken and they exist to disenfranchise the black community whether it is on a public stage or a more private political stage. I feel like these systems are still somewhat in place and we have to dismantle them.
Regina: What has changed in terms of racism? We had an African-American President. Racism did not die. What we are seeing are these ghosts — fully visible and in the flesh and blood at this moment in time, rising again.
Boo: Yup, yup.
Regina: That is a horror story.
Boo: That is a horror story that sadly will not end.
Regina: You end this play with a note of disillusionment. Is there redemption in your play?
Boo: Ummmm, I don’t think so. I would love for there to be but…
Regina: You write what you see-
Boo: That’s right, and I would love for it to have a happy ending, but in this story — in the world — the bad guys often win. And that’s more accurate today than ever.
Regina: In looking at history and in looking at the present moment, based on what you see-
Boo: I do think that there is empathy and understanding in the play and that to me is some sort of redemption but, no, I think the ending is accurate.
Regina: I’m very interested in this story being told through your eyes with your history, with your experiences. You came of age in the 90s?
Boo: I did, yeah.
Regina: The world that you saw growing up…what were your expectations?
Boo: Well, to be raised in Mississippi… What were my expectations? To be raised in Mississippi I was always incredibly aware of race relations in this country. So, I always had an awareness of race but I was raised by an incredibly liberal set of parents. I was raised by people where love and acceptance were the guidelines. I think that I saw a lot of injustice and I would certainly hear racial slurs and violent language. But I was raised in a family that rejected that. However, I was always up to date on the events that were happening politically and on a private level. And I was always fascinated by the history and you know.. I think, I don’t really know how to answer that question. I think that I always…
When I was little I was always deeply confused.
I was like, “Why are people that I know and love saying these hate-filled things?” And then, “Why are things so separate? Why is there still segregation?” It’s absolutely segregated and I would think that we are past this and this isn’t the way the world works. My parents told me, “This isn’t the way the world needs to work but that’s the way the world is working.” I think I was always confused.
Regina: At the end of the play, your character Thomas, who has become a senator, talks about the scars and exposing the scars that are the reminders that that which tried to kill you did not win. Still standing with scars — that is Mississippi — this house is still standing through all the fires.
What do you want audiences to take away?
Boo: I would want most is for them to have sobering conversations. To have the scary conversations and not just with people in their demographics but for all of us to investigate race relations in this country and to have conversation that are all too easy to avoid. I think that would be my main goal, for people to have these scary conversations in the safe haven of the theatre, in the safe haven of the art, let that be an encouragement to say we can talk about this. Let’s try to understand this so we can heal.
Regina: You write Miller, Mississippi, in a Southern Gothic style. Why is that?
Boo: Well, I think what I want is for audiences to come in and say, “Oh, I have familiarity with this genre. This is a juicy genre that I don’t necessarily have to be scared of but I can really kind of watch it like I’m hearing a ghost story.” I think it’s a way to invite the audience in and my hope is that you’re watching it under the guise of it being this a kind of Southern Gothic, almost removed, story and then it gets closer and closer and it’s more realistic than it is Southern Gothic.
Something to invite people in to be like, you know this. You know Southern Gothic, you know the elements and so now you’re comfortable and you’re sitting back. Throughout the play I hope people will start leaning forward.
Regina: Yes, something that people do feel comfortable with that then becomes a real, absolute American horror story.
Boo: It makes me sick that the play becomes more and more relevant. Just sickened by it…
I think it’s a lot of fear.
Regina: I think it’s wonderful that you’ve written this play.
I think people will be talking about it — and necessary conversations will come out of this play.
Boo: That means an awful lot to me. Thank you so much. Thank you for reading it and for this really great conversation and I would love to keep having them.
Regina: Okay, let’s do that then.