Collaborators in Conversation: Lydia R. Diamond and Craig Lucas

Craig Lucas thumbnail
Craig Lucas

This season at the Huntington, we are telling seven distinct American stories. To tease out the connections between the shows, we've asked artists from different productions to interview each other about their work. Below, Stick Fly playwright Lydia R. Diamond talks with Prelude to a Kiss playwright Craig Lucas.

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Lydia R. Diamond

    Lydia R. Diamond: Can I give you a compliment before you start interviewing me? I'm an admirer of your work and you. But, I've told you that I got to be in the audience at BU, because I teach there, when you gave your [2008 Commencement] address; I've since read that address several times over. I just think that it's so beautiful, and that those students were so lucky to have that.
    Craig Lucas: Thank you.
    L: I find it inspiring, and I get inspired when I read it.
    C: I wanted to ask you a little about . . . Well, I'll just tell you some things that I've been perceiving, because it's been fun reading you and I think the world of what you're up to and what you're capable of doing, and doing. I think I've said to this to you before, but itís very, very hard to write a play that obeys the inherited rules of writing a well-made play — I donít know what defines a well-made play, but a play that takes place over a weekend, in a house, where you can follow the story and nothing happens outside of what can be apprehended in the physical world — that manages to dig deep. Youíve written a comedy of manners, I think, which isn't to say that it isn't dramatic or serious. It's extremely serious in purpose, but it manages to accomplish what it does with a tremendously light touch. It's just the hardest thing to do.
    L: Thank you for that, because it was. It was really hard, and I didn't know — I was trying to do that, I really was, and I thought it would be a frivolous little diversion from the grueling hard real theatre that I was writing, and it humbled me so quickly. It kept me humble for years because it was just a structuring nightmare.
    C: The only thing harder than writing a well-made comedy is writing a musical.
    L: I donít know how you do it.
    C: And they're just thankless. Thereís no point, because everyone just says, ìThe songs were great and the book is bad.î They trash the books of the great musicals, and then you don't make any money. Then, they say it's so and so's musical, and they only name the composer.
    L: You don't make any money on a musical?
    C: No. I suppose whoever wrote the book to Wicked has made a pile of money. . . . But, I can be objective about your play — it is just the most beautifully nuanced, structured play. O'Neill wrote one of these plays — he wrote Ah, Wilderness — and they're just really hard. I hope you win the Pulitzer; I think you deserve it. It made me laugh out loud; it doesn't feel to me as if it has a single untrue moment. You know, one of the ideas I connect to in the play — and I feel it somewhat in Voyeurs du Venus — the idea that history feeds us these things that we can't ignore and that a responsible person tries to be aware of, and tries to recognize, and behave appropriately within. But, that so many of the characters in Stick Fly want the part of their birth right that for some reason they don't get or they can't have, and they don't want what they do have. Does that ring a bell for you?
    L: I like the way you've put it — I think I've simplified it at times and called it dynamics of class and race, but I think the way you've said it is so much more human, and absolutely those are the tensions—
    C: Some people get their birthright.
    L: I think those are family tensions.
    C: But, even Kimber, the one thing she would have liked to have got, she didn't—
    L: Yes, her grandmother's affection . . . and her man.
    C: And, then what she did get, all that entitlement, she's sort of — there's that funny stage direction — appalled by. One can create characters that are repositories of whatever gender, education, color, and class they are, but that doesn't usually result in the kind of dimensionality that you accord people. Because for whatever reason, I won't presume to know how or why, you create characters that lack a solid center.
    L: Mmm
    C: And, that's what makes them feel like us, all of them. They have varying degrees of self-knowledge. I think the reason we glom as an audience onto Taylor, besides the fact that she's the new person in the house, is that she's terribly witty and smart — but she's essentially clueless.
    L: Absolutely. And, she tries so hard.
    C: And her little tirade, when it comes flying out — I just read it over and over and over again, because it doesn't matter who you are — I can fill in what I'd say to the appalling straight man who has just informed the room of the essence of gay politics. It doesn't matter; wherever you come from unless you're a Bush, you've got some axe to grind — and she nails it. It's so funny. And, then those two boys at the end, itís so interesting to see Flip get flipped. And it's so smart, because when you pull the rug out from someone like that, they become a tiny little child. How long did it take you to write?
    L: I wrote the first half of it relatively quickly, because I was enjoying it. I didn't know what a landmine it was structurally. I got to the end of the first act, which probably didn't fall where it does now, and I was like, "Now what." Because everything had happened. "How do I do this?" And then I got knocked up — it was by my husband, so it wasn't scandalous — but I couldn't finish it then. It got picked up by a theatre company with just the first act, so I had to quickly write the second act before opening. Then it was opening at the same time another play was opening in Chicago, so I was running back and forth. I think the biggest dramaturgical changes and structural glue happened on its third production at McCarter [Theatre Center].
    C: Was that a new director?
    L: Shirley Jo Finney directed it there. With the exception of Shirley Jo, who has directed it at both McCarter and the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles, it has always had different directors. I think Shirley Jo has a real gift for dramaturgy. So, I think that the work we did on it dramaturgically was great, and then being there in Emily Mann's house is inspiring.
    C: I've never been there.
    L: Have you not? Well, when you do, I think it's a really amazing place for playwrights.
    C: Were there prototypes? When you were beginning to fall in love with theatre, or coming-of-age — I know that my first plays were an attempt to write within certain parameters that I'd besotted with as a young man. Were there writers that you saw doing this? That could pull off that sort of light, well-made play.
    L: I'm sure that there were but I didn't know I was striving for that. Certainly, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun would be one that I would have discovered early — I didn't identify myself as a playwright until years after I'd been writing plays. So I didn't get — I'd studied acting, and I was being an actor and writing plays so that I could have roles I wanted to play. I was producing them myself in Chicago. I think I was lucky in that Iíd been reading lots and lots of scripts, but I hadn't been reading them with an eye toward how they were written, so I didn't have to recreate someone else's voice. I think that was a blessing. Because now when I teach, I've realized that people do have to go through that to get to their own voice. But I think I missed that stage. Also, I went to high school in Waco, Texas, and then I went to Northwestern. It was a great school but our canon of what we show our students is really limited, so I didnít know of the work of Adrienne Kennedy and amazing playwrights like Sole Woyinka. That was the other problem.
    C: Didn't they teach that at Northwestern?
    L: Well, a little bit. But, think about what we consider the canon. If you look at a lot of schools reading lists, even now, people of color are represented by August Wilson, and now Suzan-Lori Parks, which is great, and now Lynn Nottage will start to be there, which is also great. But, we don't have anything near what reflects historically what African-Americans have contributed.
    C: I think maybe because I had Elliott Norton, and it was 1970. Everybody was tiptoeing around, trying to be super hip and smart and sensitive — I was force-fed Amiri Baraka who was then called Leroi Jones, James Baldwin, and Ed Bullins.
    L: We had Leroi Jones's Dutchman, August Wilson, and Lorraine Hansberry.
    C: Well, if anything, your play is more closely aligned spiritually with [Lorraine Hansberry's 1964 play] The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window.
    L: I'm always surprised that people don't mention that—
    C: It shows an erudition she had about bohemian life. It also exhibits the most astonishing homophobia, which I think was self-directed . . .
    L: I know. I think so, too.
    C: In terms of the scene writing, it's pretty dazzling.
    L: I've been surprised that critics or commentators haven't mentioned that before.
    C: We did that at B.U. while I was there. Doug Waiter directed it.
    L: How was that?
    C: It was very moving
    L: It played well?
    C: Oh yeah, the only thing that clangs against the ear now is "You gay people think you've had it bad." It's like,"Oh, don't go there." She had a difficult time. Right across the river, Elizabeth Bishop at Harvard was asked what she thought about gay liberation, and, God love her, she said, "My answer to gay liberation is closets, closets, and more closets."
    L: Really? I didn't know that little piece of history.
    C: It's funny; she didn't want any part of it. But, it's interesting, because James Baldwin wrote a play. People really thought the theatre was a serious endeavor in the sixties and seventies. I don't know; you say you're a playwright now, and people look at you like you just said, "I'd like to behead Rwandan children in the public square for fun. How about you?"
    L: Do you really have that sense?
    C: Yes.
    L: Do you think that we as playwrights are guilty of having diminished the importance of what we do?
    C: Yes.
    L: How?
    C: By writing plays for small casts, by narrowing our — you can't generalize, everybody's breaking rules and thank God they are—
    L: But you think we're letting the industry dictate what we write—
    C: I think artistic directors have let critics inform their season choices. I think theatres around the country have let critics in New York determine their seasons. You know that when that play wins the Pulitzer, it's going to get done at twenty theatres. And that [other] play is not going to get done. But, we've all kind of bowed down to that, and we haven't marched on Seattle Rep and the Goodman and said, "What are you doing?"
    L: Do you think we should?
    C: Yeah, but everyone hates me, because I'm always getting up in their face about this. Everyone thinks that Iím just an asshole.
    L: I don't think so; I think everyone hears the truth in it and it scares them.
    C: I didn't see your production of Harriet Jacobs in Boston. Was it good?
    L: It was a great director. I was really happy with it.
    C: Has Voyeurs du Venus been done on the East Coast?
    L: Yes, it was done by Company One here — a really nice, cutting-edge company — here in Boston. But, it's my favorite play of mine, and it hasn't been done a lot.
    C: I love that play. She's an amazingly dimensional protagonist.
    L: My husband's colleagues saw it, and they're all social scientists — they were all over it.
    C: The ethical questions — but then you know — there's often a naturalistic scene, and then those scenes with Saartje Baartman, and then those dances. It's fun to see someone playing with form in a way that is witty and visceral. I love that line about history being a fabrication, and she says, "Then, what is fiction?" . . . There's something about the concern about being judged by other people's standards that your plays raise, a question that they raise about not wanting to be susceptible to the slings and arrows of harsh political judgment.
    L: That's interesting.
    C: I feel it. It's out there. The minute you open your mouth — particularly if you're going to talk about color and class and gender and all that — somebody's going to get pissed off.
    L: It's interesting — one of the things about the traditional structure that Stick Fly took was that it actually protected me from that element that always haunts me. I made it the central part of Voyeurs du Venus, that question: Who am I? How do I relate to the audience? I identify myself as a marginalized person in many ways in this country, and I acknowledge my privilege. And, I'm uncomfortable in that, and what that means. What that means if you know that I, an African-American woman, wrote this play, and if it's going to be in a regional theatre, that means often and sadly for a pretty much all-white audience and generationally maybe not even a terribly diverse audience. And so, these are questions that have always made their way into the work that I do, because they feel really important. . . . Here's something that sort of inspired by the conversation we've been having; the conversations around race in Stick Fly are organic, and are the conversations that happen in African American families, but when I encounter people trying to talk about what the means and what it's about, often I find that people think the whole race conversation is an agenda.
    C: Oh, come on.
    L: Well, but you know. Surely you know this. If you write from a perspective that is yours, and it's labeled political, it's only political because you live the politic of it.
    C: I'll tell you; when [my film] Longtime Companion came out, which was really about a particular kind of privileged community out on Fire Island, gay guys with dumb jobs like bankers and lawyers and gym employees. A lot of the straight liberal critics felt that we had distorted reality by making the gay people seem so normal. That somehow we were stacking the deck. I was accused of trying to promulgate the idea that being homosexual is normal, because this was twenty years ago. I realized that was because they got their ideas about gay people from watching these movies like The Boys in the Band. And so their thought was — that's gay people, because that's what I've seen represented — and my friends — the ones they think are gay are the noisy people. I thought it was interesting that I was being told by Vincent Canby and People Magazine that my representation was a falsification.
    L: That's so interesting. It's The Cosby Show conversation that I thought we had twenty years ago.
    C: But, it's a new one for them. But, all those hilarious jokes about "She's Italian," or "That's just black," that's because most of us haven't been in the room for that conversation. But to me, that's why you go to see a play. That's why when Spike Lee made She's Gotta Have It — whatever you may think about that — my friends and I all ran out like busy little bees, like "Did you hear the conversation?" Because we'd been excluded, but we'd excluded ourselves.
    L: Similarly, I remember when that movie came out, I hadn't been able to see myself onscreen very much, and that was exciting too, and to such a degree that I missed some of the stuff that was so sexist. I was so happy to see black people speaking that way to one another, and making love and doing things that we do all the time that we don't see.

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