New Professional Theatre's KEITH JOSEF ADKINS Interview — Keith Josef Adkins , New Professional Theatre — AAPEX

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

New Professional Theatre's KEITH JOSEF ADKINS Interview

An interview with playwright Keith Josef Adkins
By Mark Dundas Wood
NPT Literary Manager
Keith Josef Adkins, author of Safe House, the first play featured in New Professional Theatre's 2009 Writers Festival, was originally commissioned by the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. Relating the story of a family of "free People of Color" living in Kentucky in 1843, the play is based on the lives of some of Adkins' real-life ancestors.
Becoming a playwright was a serpentine journey for Adkins. He started out as a communications major at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. When he wrote a news story and added some stuff that wasn't necessarily true, he was nudged into creative writing and he soon became interested in acting, as well. After graduation, he moved to New York City, where he found work acting incommercials, industrials, and independent films. But he subsequently went through an anti-capitalist phase that took him away from commercial acting. "I refused to wear deodorant, because it was man-made," he adds, with a laugh.
Like a latter-day Flower Child, he headed west to San Francisco and eventually to Oakland where he taught fourth-graders. In the classroom Adkins had his students reenact the stories they read. He also formed his own writing group for adults. Although he was initially interested primarily in fiction and poetry, a fellow writer noticed his penchant for monologues and suggested that he turn to drama. After some success in the genre, he eventually studied playwriting at the Universityof Iowa, which is where we pick up his story:
Mark Dundas Wood (MDW): I know you told me that in Iowa there was the largest per capita number of writers anywhere in the country. What was that like being in Iowa, as a student and a writer?
Keith Josef Adkins (KJA): At first it was very difficult for me because, even though I was raised to pursue this, I had come out of Oakland and Berkeley, and had become this really hyper-socially- conscious guy. And so when I came to Iowa, it was like culture shock. The people were cool, and all that. But it was just very white. So I kind of kept myself alienated for maybe a whole year. I just came to class and really didn't talk to people. Finally when I started warming up a little bit, I realized that they were just like me, and I was able to enjoy Iowa more. I loved the land. It was kind of barren with the cornfields. And the sky was really big. That gave me a sort of comfort, and a pace that let me sit down and write and be creative. It was like the ideal place. It was cloudy a lot, and it was kind of gray. So you always wanted to be warm- and drinking something warm.
MDW: You worked a while for the TV series Girlfriends, and I'm wondering what effect that had on the way you work as a playwright.
KJA: Before I started with Girlfriends, and I was here in New York again after gradschool, I understood that I wanted to write a particular story. But I wasn't that confident about why I wanted to tell the story. I wasn't at a place where I was confident about why I was even a writer, to be honest with you. I could tell you that that's what I did, and that I loved it. But I didn't really know why it was important for me to express myself through writing. So when I got to Girlfriends, I realized that [writing for television] was not a creative atmosphere. First and foremost it was a business. I also realized that it was a collaborative effort, where everyone is feeding another person's vision. It's not your vision; it's not your ideas. I was no longer using all my creativity. I was giving my creativity to someone else, so that made my own creativity in a way speak louder. It was banging in my head: "Hey, I wanna talk, I wanna talk." It forced me to be really clear about what it was I was doing, why I was writing, and what I was writing about.
MDW: And did you discover, then, why you were writing?
KJA: It became clear to me that I was committed to stories that were about independence and individuality among a group of people, particularly black people.
MDW: Are you the kind of writer who spends some time developing an idea in your head about a play you're going to work on? Or do you just set to work and see where the writing takes you?
KJA: I think I used to be the latter. I would just start writing because I had a feeling and discover what it was maybe a year later. But now I'm a lot more specific going in. I don't want to waste any time playing around. I want to be very clear and contained.
MDW: Let's talk a little bit about Safe House. I know you were commissioned to write it. But where did the germ of the idea come from? I know it had partly to do with your own family history. But why did you decide to write this particular play at that particular time?
KJA: The Alliance Theatre, when they commissioned me, said I could write anything Iwanted, but to keep in mind their audience. I thought about the other plays that I had in my "canon" and all the other kinds of plays I see produced, and I decided I would either write a musical or a historical piece. I made a choice, pretty quickly, that I was going to write a historical piece that was going to be my family's story. The information I'd found out about the free People of Color in Kentucky, I'd never seen that on stage before. I knew that that was it. This was pre-Obama. I wanted to tell a story about two brothers, one who is very interested in investing in social progress, and the other one who is more interested in individuality, and how the two would crash in this world. I always feel that in plays where the characters are slaves, there's limitation as to how they view the world and what they can talk about. To me it feels sometimes like a jail, they can't really speak. So for me the fact that these people are free People of Color means they have a lot more access, and there's a lot more opportunity to explore their view of the world, their romance, their humanity.
MDW: I know these characters are based on people in your own family. What did you discover about your ancestors when you began researching the play?
KJA: They were free People of Color, they were not enslaved while living in Kentucky.They had been in Kentucky when it was still part of Virginia-Kentucky County,Virginia, which I thought was amazing. I realized they probably came over at the same time as Daniel Boone, when Kentucky was wilderness and the western frontier. So that was fascinating to me. I also discovered that, in the line of the family that I'm descended from, they were shoemakers. And there was guy in particular, Leander Ayers, he was free born. I guess he had come from Maryland, probably right before the War of 1812. All of his sons also learned the trade. They were making shoes for the white community. When you're a free Person of Color, obviously you're not serving the black community because most of the black community is enslaved, so you have to survive by finding a trade that is something that people have to have. So it's either cutting hair or making shoes.
MDW: What was it like looking in the records and finding these people who were your ancestors and learning about them? Did you see yourself and other family members in them?
KJA: That's a very good question. They were artisans, and most of them were Methodists, African Methodist Episcopal. I wasn't surprised that I had come from this because I've always been encouraged to think bigger than what everyone around me was encouraged to think. I was always asked to think, to step forward and not worry about what the other person is doing or saying or wearing, to always look ahead. For example, my mother and my grandmother would not allow us to say the -N- word in the house. When I look back at it now, that was pretty radical, because a lot of kids in my neighborhood would say it all the time, as a term of endearment or however you want to look at it. But my mother and her family, they never said it. It wasn't like they were trying not to say it. It just wasn't part of how they lived and how they thought about themselves. So when it did creep into the house, it was almost like, "You have brought in a foreign disease." You know what I mean? So looking through those records and seeing how much those people had and how they were able to maintain this certain status for centuries, for some reason it kind of connected to me- My ancestors were black people, but they were not part of the larger black community. They were always kind of separate.
MDW: You said you were always looking ahead. What's next for you? What projects are you working on and what do you have upcoming?
KJA: I'm actually working on a commission for the Public Theater, a piece called The Dangerous. It's about an aging minister who lives isolated from the black community although black. [Laughs.] His son is a middle-aged professor who is his caretaker, and in a way almost his servant. They get a knock on the door from this teenage boy who claims to know them both. He comes to their world and basically turns it upside down.
MDW: Those plays where outsiders come in are always interesting, when they come into an established setting and disrupt the status quo. They're always interesting to watch. They must be interesting to write, as well.
KJA: Even Safe House has that, because Roxie [a character in the play who is a runaway slave] is kind of like that. But yeah, I love it. I love turning it upsidedown. I like challenging in a play what is supposed to be institutional or "normal."
To visit the New Professional Theatre website, please click the post's title.
Source: The Black Theatre Digest

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