If you’ve heard University of Arkansas-educated playwright Rachel Lynett’s name this year, it might be because their play “Apologies to Lorraine Hansberry (You Too August Wilson)” is the winner of the 2021 Yale Drama Prize, selected this year by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel. The premise: a fictional world of “a post-second Civil War” in which an all-Black utopian state called Bronx Bay is established in order to protect “Blackness,” and which introduces questions about whether the newly arrived Yael, who is Dominican, can stay. “With a metatheatrical playfulness and a direct inclusion of actors and audience alike,” Vogel said of the work, Lynett’s play “exposes the many layers to the notion of race in order to awaken us.”
That playfulness part? It’s probably a more accurate way to view Lynett’s work than is, say, characterizing them (Lynett uses she/they pronouns) as someone who “writes about race” or “writes about issues.” The very word “play,” Lynett points out, is one we should learn to take more literally; theater exists to surprise, and one way to do that is to upend expectations or to get the audience to “laugh first” — two words which serve as a hallmark for Lynett’s eponymous theater company.
“When you can make someone laugh,” Lynett said, “they’re gonna be a lot more open to having a conversation than if you come in just yelling at someone. So I like to lead with humor, even in my heaviest plays. Like, ‘We’re gonna have a serious conversation, but I need your walls down first.’ “
And undoubtedly, the theater world of 2021 is staring down the prospect of some serious conversations. Like art and film and rock music, theater is in the middle of a reckoning with its own canon, caught between a devout loyalty to so-called “classics” and a dire need to make room for creators who have historically been left out — or silenced altogether. If you ask us, our April interview with Lynett, excerpted below, is proof positive that if theater is to be any of the things it claims to be — relevant, essential, impactful — it would do well to place voices like Lynett’s at the center of its mission-making.
In the Yale news article announcing you winning this year’s Drama Prize, you talk about how it’s been on your mind to “get catharsis in plays about race,” and how you could “find a way to give the actors of color on stage a way to reclaim that.” Can you talk a little about the dearth of catharsis in plays about race, and what that means to you?
I think, specifically, catharsis for the actors is what I was thinking about when I wrote “Apologies.” In a lot of plays, we ask people to reenact or imitate what it’s like to be assaulted or beaten. Minstrelsy’s making a comeback — in a critical way, but still making a comeback. And as audience members, you get that shock value, you get that, like, “Oh, whoa,” and there is a weird catharsis that happens for audience members. But for the actors, who do that for six weeks, every night, that’s gotta take a toll at some point. So I’ve been wondering how we can give catharsis to the actors when we do write plays. To me, “Apologies…” is about more than just race. But when we do write plays about race — and the racial and gender conditions of the United States — how do we also make sure that the bodies that are imitating these roles aren’t leaving with more trauma?
There’s a list of your plays up at New Play Exchange, and alongside it is a list of plays that you love and recommend. How did you come to build this list of plays that you love and why is it important to you to go out and see so many plays yourself?
They say that writing is a lonely act or that you do it isolated, but I don’t think that’s true in playwriting. I think there’s a community of people you want to lift up. Like when you don’t win an award, but one of your favorites do, I think you feel a little pride, too, you know? I just love new plays. I love reading new plays. I am someone who wants to see more new plays done, like in regional theater. We really don’t need another Shakespeare play. To be a playwright now and not support other playwrights, you’ve missed the point of what it’s like to be alive with all of these amazing contemporaries.
I’ve also worked on the other side, the administrative side, where I’ve had to read a lot of plays and help pick. I know what it’s like to type up a rejection letter. I know what it’s like to pick what’s not always the best play, but the best play for that company. I want to be the kind of playwright who supports and uplifts other playwrights. Because I don’t think anyone writes a play on their own. It’s a community through and through. And the more you can nourish that community, I think, the further along you’ll get.
It sounds like the way you’ve encountered a lot of these plays is not necessarily on stage, but on the page. Which is interesting, because I think it’s drilled into you in literature classes in school that plays aren’t meant to be read, but seen on the stage. Maybe even with the connotation that reading it on the page is sort of some lesser way of experiencing it. What do you think about that?
I think you should do both! I think that’s a really outdated way of thinking about theater. I think that a lot of playwrights are doing some really cool things on the page that you only get if you read it. Like a lot of playwrights who are poets are writing almost in verse, but not really, and when it’s performed you don’t get that, but when you’re reading it, you’re like, “Oh! I didn’t know.”
Also, when you go to see a play, you get the director’s interpretation and the actor’s interpretation, but when you read a play, that’s the only time you get the playwright’s interpretation. It really just depends on how much of a theater nerd you are, I think. But if you want to know what the playwright’s intention was before the other voices came into the room, the only way to get that is to read it. That’s not to knock the director’s interpretation or the actor’s interpretation; I do believe plays should be performed, but they should also be read.
In “Apologies to Lorraine Hansberry” — and, I gather from their summaries, in “Choosing You” and “Letters to Kamala” — you work with counterfactuals, or with worlds that are sort of like our world but with a twist. It made me wonder what sort of fiction you’re drawn to on your own bookshelf, or in your own TV/movie lists. I mean what I truly thought is, “I wonder if Rachel is into science fiction.”
[Laughs.] I’m deeply into science fiction. Lately, because of the pandemic and just needing a way to check out, I’ve been reading a lot of romance novels. I’ve got a friend who I adore and who’s totally right that all of my plays are love stories. At the end of the day, they’re all about falling in love, falling out of love, getting wrecked by love. Like, every single one of my plays can be narrowed down to that. It’s not always romantic, but it’s love at the core of all of them. So you see that in my work.
But I’m a huge “Dr. Who” fan. Anything with magic in it, I’m gonna watch it. Like even if it’s not good.
I know what you mean. The merit of a show — or whether or not I will even remember the plot — is so secondary sometimes.
Yeah. I’m just there for the magic. But since you did bring up these plays, I do wanna bring out that they’re all really different. In “Apologies,” it’s a completely different world. What I call it is historical heresy. It’s me just saying, like, “Slavery never existed,” “This never existed.” Like, how can we keep playing with these things to find any path in which Black people and LatinX people can be comfortable? And then in “Letters to Kamala,” it is more of a history play, in which the three women, the three ghosts who come to visit Kamala just really tell their own stories of who they were in American politics. So there is a little bit of heightened realism there, but I wouldn’t necessarily say I’ve changed anything. “Choosing You” is definitely one of those sci-fi, alternate reality plays.
You also, I gather, like to play with expectations and form — having two roles that can be played by the same actor, or bringing the audience into the play more directly than just through their role as observers, as it’s noted you do with “Apologies to Lorraine Hansberry.” Or making a play that centers around three experiences of abortion and making it a comedy. What draws you to that sense of surprise or to the unexpected in your work, and how do you decide how far you can go with it?
I think theater is supposed to be a surprise. I think we’ve forgotten that to “play” is part of theater, and that it should be playful. There should be excitement. I’m always driven to “What have I not seen before?”
I wrote “Abortion Road Trip” in 2016, and I was like, I hadn’t seen a lot of stories before where people get to talk about the different reasons why they have an abortion but the whole story isn’t about that. And we get to see humans on stage having fun, and living their lives and not making it this heightened, traumatic thing. So that’s what drove me to write that. It was like, “What’s the humanity here?” So many abortion plays that I’ve seen, or abortion movies, it’s like the woman gets it and she’s wrecked and her whole life is over. And she’s always fighting with some man — there’s always men in these plays, for some reason? So I was like, “I don’t want to have any men. I just want to have women on stage just kind of talking about what it means to be alive today.” And the fact that that’s a surprise was surprising to me. But yeah, people were really surprised by the humor. And when I tell people it’s a funny play they’re like, “Are you sure?”
…We have to find a way to save this art form. And if this art form forgets that part of this is playfulness, we’re gonna lose it. We need to keep remembering to play with the audience. It needs to feel like an active experience rather than a passive one.
I wonder if part of that “laugh first” approach, too, is to build a body of experiences on stage where it’s like, maybe we’re talking about race, maybe we’re talking about police shootings, maybe we’re talking about abortion, but that you’re not, as a playwright, going to allow us to see these characters only through their trauma.
Right. I say that I refuse to write trauma-informed plays. It pisses me off when I see “Rachel Lynett writes issues.” I don’t write about issues. I write about people who are dealing with issues. Which is what every story is! [Laughs.] But yeah, I don’t want it to be boiled down to “this is just about police brutality, or this is just about race.” They’re about very complex humans, and they’re not boiled down to a single issue. They have a lot going on, like most of us do.
You write in your play “Good Bad People” about a character whose brother is shot by a police officer, and about the myriad ways of grieving after a loss like June’s. Another of your plays is titled “i’m f*cking tired of writing plays about this,” and the summary on New Play Exchange reads “Yet another police killing of a black person, yet another play about it. Be better.”
And here we are in April of 2021, with the names Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo and George Floyd in our news feeds. As a person who writes about race, how do you find new things to say when you’re f*cking tired of writing plays about this, and when stories like this keep happening, and our histories of racism and violence keeps repeating itself?
So the play “Good Bad People” is about police brutality, and I wrote it in 2016. And after I wrote that play, I wrote another play called “Outrageous” in 2018 about the same thing. And then I wrote “Well Intentioned White People,” which is about microaggressions, which then leads to violence. So, in 2020, just to say where my mindset was, I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, in June, I was living downtown in the middle of the — I don’t want to call them riots, we’ll call them protests, because I think that people have taken the word “riot” and made it mean something else. So while the protests were happening, the police came and tear gassed everyone so much that tear gas filled up my apartment. And when I tried to go outside to get fresh air, a police officer pointed a gun at me and told me to go back inside. And that was a moment for me where I was like, “I could have died. He could have killed me just for wanting fresh air.” And so the next day I wrote “i’m f*cking tired of writing plays about this.” Because I’m tired of having intellectual conversations about police brutality. I’m tired of the millions and millions of stories and plays and think pieces that are just saying: Stop killing Black people.
I don’t know what else people need. The way that they’re justifying a literal child being killed by the police is horrifying. So for me, personally, I am no longer writing about police brutality. Period. I’m not writing about violence against Black bodies at all anymore. And “i’m f*cking tired of writing plays about this” is kind of my “here’s why.” And to say: We don’t need another play. We don’t need another think piece. We just need people to start seeing Black and Brown people as human beings. At this point it’s starting to feel like a really shitty minstrel show. Mostly white people going in to see shows about Black violence and then patting themselves on the back and saying, “We’re not those white people.” And it’s like, “But you are. Because you’re not using your position of privilege and power to stop it.”
So, what is it like to write plays when you’re tired? It’s like: I refuse to write about this anymore. I’m pivoting. I can’t. I can’t live in this space. And that absence needs to be dealt with and felt. What are we asking Black or LatinX writers to do when we have to keep writing about immigration and we have to keep writing about police brutality? It’s that same thing of forcing me into a place of trauma. And I don’t want to do that. So I’m not doing it anymore.
I think there’s a perception, at least from the outside, that making a living in theater means that you have to be accommodating — that you have to be perpetually gracious and compromising and find “soft” ways of asking for what you want, lest you be deemed “hard to work with” or risk getting your project dropped. (You talk about something similar in a blog post from late March.) But part of your theater company’s mission is to disrupt and decolonize theater structures that, for hundreds of years, have left a number of voices out of the conversation, right? So how do you navigate the tension between your convictions and, on the other hand, your reliance on theater institutions for the things a playwright needs in order to put plays into the world, like space and funding and resources?
I feel like I’ve gotten to a place where I’m not willing to reconcile anymore. Or to compromise. And if it means that I get labeled difficult or I don’t get to work in this field anymore, that’s fine. I spent a lot of time — before my theater company existed — shrinking myself or changing my plays to make it more comfortable for people, and even found myself asking whether I was supporting this culture of oppression by inviting other playwrights into spaces that weren’t safe, knowing it’s not safe and never ever saying, “Hey, it’s not safe there.” And I’m doing that anymore. So I started the theater company and we just have a lot of driving ideals. Like we have pay equity — it doesn’t matter who you are, we all get paid the same. That in itself was radical enough that people were like, “Whoa. That means we have equal value. We have equal say. There’s no, like, ‘above my pay grade’ nonsense.” Theater acts on the assumption that actors will work for free. And it’s like, “No. That’s supporting inequality because then the only people you can ever hire are people who are privileged enough to not need to get paid.” And that’s a problem. So we always say that if we can’t pay the actors, we don’t do the show.
The other thing that we do is that all of the plays that we do are by women of color, by trans people, by nonbinary and genderqueer folks. Period. Those are the only plays we do. … We’re instead prioritizing voices that have been historically marginalized. I remember while I was in Madison in June and dealing with all these traumatic things, I was kind of looking around and thinking, “Someone needs to make a theater company that does x, y and z,” and I kinda looked around my apartment and was like, “Oh, no. It’s gonna be me.” [Laughs.]
Because I named it Rachel Lynett Theater Company, I think a lot of people think it’s kind of an ego thing, but it was really just about wanting the company to follow the same personal ideals that I follow: I am radically inclusive. I’m queer. I’m a person of color. I’m Black, but I’m also Latina. … It’s hard to go against the system. We struggle for funding, but somehow we’re still doing it. [Laughs.] And I love it.
Another obvious thing about theater’s collaborative nature is that the pandemic must have upended it in all sorts of surprising ways. How has life looked for you lately? I mean, it’s kind of wild that just as we’ve all been driven out of the playhouse by a global health crisis, your career has taken off.
I think a few playwrights whose careers have actually taken off during the pandemic, and the reason for this is that it felt like theaters were scrambling. Theaters were like, “We need shows. We can’t do the shows that we’ve been doing because we can’t afford them.” So a lot of theater companies started commissioning new work. I know it was really unfortunate for everybody else, but it was really great for us, because that meant that we kind of got to steer the makers, and got to steer what virtual theater looked like. Which felt really cool, because it was, like, OK, I have to envision what a Zoom play is now. I got so many commissions during the pandemic that I was working nonstop. When people were like, theater is taking a pause, I remember being like, “For who?” So it was nice to be getting work, and to keep asking, “How do we redefine our field?” I think we created a new form. We need a different word; I don’t think “digital theater” does it justice. I’m not saying all of it was good — there were some bad shows. But that was true before the pandemic! I’ve gone to tons of bad shows! So I think we need to be kinder to ourselves about the sort of miracles we were able to make happen.
Find excerpts of Rachel Lynett’s work here.