At this year's Colony playwright's gathering, guest writers and workshop students will address questions about the role writers can play in tumultuous political and social times.
One of the visiting artists, John Biguenet, has worked in both fiction, nonfiction and theater, never shying away from addressing the present. The New Orleans native wrote dispatches from his home city for the New York Times in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Only a year and a half after the levees failed, Biguenet staged the first installment of his "Rising Waters" trilogy, which directly addressed the disaster.
Biguenet has won an O. Henry Award for short fiction, and his plays have been produced around the country. Here in Missoula, the Colony's host organization the Montana Repertory Theatre, produced his play, "Broomstick," a one-person play about a witch written entirely in rhyme, in 2014.
While Biguenet is in Missoula, he'll participate in a public forum, “What and why do we write now? What are the priorities?” and deliver a keynote, "Questions, Not Answers." (See breakout box for the schedule.) He'll also present a staged reading of a new play, "The Trouble with White People." Biguenet, who was in Paris, participated in an email Q&A.
Question: Regarding the theme of this year’s Colony forum (“What and why do we write now? What are the priorities?”), do you have the sense that some parts of the theater or literature world drifted away from pointed political or social messages during the Obama administration and were “shocked” into action after the 2016 election?
Answer: It’s rare for writers to address contemporary history. Both Defoe’s "A Journal of the Plague Year," about the Great Plague of 1665, and Tolstoy’s "War and Peace," set during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, were published about 60 years after the events they depict. There’s a practical reason why literature that examines massive disasters isn’t the first response to those disruptions of a writer’s culture: the challenges of daily life — food, shelter, banking, health, mail, transportation — following such catastrophes make it nearly impossible to compose a sustained work of literature.
But another reason is closer to what’s happening today. One must create not only the content but also a form appropriate to the subject to illuminate a new reality. Comedians were ready to respond to the consequences of the election with multiple forms of satire at their disposal; the reinvigoration of SNL and late-night talk-show monologues suggests that the forms of comedy were simply waiting for such content as politics has provided the last six months. But to create a potentially lasting narrative, one can’t depend upon ready-made structures. So the literature of resistance is only just beginning to appear.
Q: I don’t want to ask you to give away your entire keynote address, but what role do you think playwrights or writers of fiction should play in the present political moment?
A: When our political leaders use language not as a torch to illuminate our challenges but as a prod to stoke our fears and hatreds, writers have a duty as citizens to combat such debasement of civil discourse by exposing the contradictions between those leaders’ promises and the effects of their actions. But more importantly, writers can strip away the rhetoric that shrouds in palatable justifications the underlying prejudices to which such leaders appeal and reveal what citizens are actually embracing when they support such politicians. The writer’s job is to hold up a mirror in which audiences can see their own faces and judge themselves in the stark light literature casts upon our lives.
Q: There must be a natural desire to express opinions on social and political issues in your work. How did you balance that urge with the advice hinted at in your keynote (“Questions, Not Answers”), particularly in your columns and plays after Hurricane Katrina?
A: Two black characters in my 2009 play, "Shotgun" (the second play in my "Rising Water" trilogy), discuss the statue of Robert E. Lee, one of four major Confederate monuments in New Orleans at that time:
Down on St. Charles Avenue, who they got on top that big white column all the streetcars have to go around?
Robert E. Lee, you mean?
Think they ever gonna pull down that statue of Robert E. Lee? General fought a war to keep us slaves.
Tear down Lee Circle?
But what you think they saying with a statue like that?
For some white New Orleanians, that scene may have been the first time in their lives they considered what an affront a Confederate statue could be to their fellow citizens. Asking them to ponder what the city was saying by placing it on a pedestal is precisely what I believe to be the task (but also the limits) of playwriting. Writers must pose questions their community needs to address but refrain from answering those questions. In the case of New Orleans, the city answered the question my characters had posed by dismantling the Confederate monuments this past May, including the statue of the “General fought a war to keep us slaves.”
Q: In a prior interview, you said “a book isn’t a monologue; it’s a conversation.” What does a conversational or inquisitive work offer audiences that a polemic does not?
A: A polemic seeks to bludgeon its reader into submission. But a writer who engages us in a mutual consideration of a subject, a writer who invites the reader to test the book’s assertions against lived experience, demonstrates a confidence in his or her argument that the polemicist lacks. A polemic, I think, is an expression of insecurity. But an author — as the word suggests, one with authority in terms of both the subject of the work and the craft of writing itself — asks the reader to consider a question from a new angle but stops short of insisting upon what conclusions must be drawn. A polemic may elicit battered assent but seldom belief. A work of literature, though, in allowing its reader to experience a new way of approaching a subject, offers the possibility of permanent transformation by leaving the decision of whether to change up to the reader rather than by demanding it.
Q: Did living through a catastrophe like Katrina change the kinds of books you want to read or plays that you want to see?
A: The experience certainly changed my understanding of literature, both on the page and on the stage. To learn, firsthand, that a whole city can be destroyed on a single summer morning, that hundreds of thousands of people can drive away from their homes one Sunday and never return, that all those leaders one trusted will prove feckless in a moment of crisis, that our confidence in society’s institutions is self-delusion — those lessons allowed me to read the works of world literature, from "The Iliad" to "Othello" to "War and Peace" to "Waiting for Godot," with a weary recognition that nearly everyone in the past knew what I had just learned. But I’m also now aware how few Americans, including writers, fully grasp the fragility of the world they inhabit and the lives they lead. So I find myself drawn since the flood to foreign authors and older texts.
Q: And did it change your thoughts on the role that art can have in the lives of contemporary audiences?
A: The effect of my three plays about the flooding of New Orleans and its aftermath transformed my understanding of theater. Opening just 18 months after the events it depicted, "Rising Water," a play about a couple trapped in their attic and then on their rooftop by rising floodwaters, played to full houses from its first preview to the night it closed. Here’s how I describe the impact in my introduction to the published trilogy:
“And what happened at the end of the first preview happened after every performance. ... Instead of leaving, nearly all of the audience would sink back into their chairs again. The night of that first preview, though no talkback had been planned, [the director] hesitantly stepped onto the stage and asked if anyone would like to talk about what had just been seen. Some commented on the play, but most talked about what had happened to them, to their families, to their neighbors. Nearly an hour later, we brought the discussion to a close. A few people were still crying. It went on like that for the entire run — talkbacks and tears at nearly every performance.”
I learned that a play is unlike other forms of narrative in that it is inextricably tied to the city in which it is performed. A theater, I came to realize, is a forum where a community gathers to consider its most pressing concerns. Euripides, for example, was writing for his fellow Athenians, and Shakespeare wrote his plays for his neighbors in London. So in the many productions around the country of the plays in my trilogy, I’ve always discouraged directors from urging actors to imitate a New Orleans accent; an audience should hear its own English on the stage. A production of a play, even if it’s set somewhere else, should strive to engage an audience as their own story, not somebody else’s.
Q: What can you tell us about your new play, “The Trouble with White People,” regarding its genesis, themes, background and title?
A: "The Trouble with White People," as its title suggests, uses race to examine the moral decisions that will likely shape the rest of our lives when we are unexpectedly tested by events. Such decisions, we may discover to our surprise, are sometimes dictated by loyalties of which we are unaware or unwilling to acknowledge. Because the play seeks to explore feelings usually submerged by conflicting emotions, it takes the audience down a very unpredictable path.