Writing the Shaw Family: A Conversation with Playwright Kirsten Greenidge

Playwright Kirsten Greenidge

Playwright Kirsten Greenidge is a Huntington Playwriting Fellow and the author of many plays, including Milk Like Sugar (produced by the Huntington in 2016) and Luck of the Irish (produced by the Huntington in 2012). Before the start of rehearsals on Our Daughters, Like Pillars, Greenidge and literary apprentice Melory Mirashrafi discussed intergenerational family dynamics, taking up space, and developing her new play at the Huntington. 

 MM: How did you start writing this play? 

KG: I have been enamored for a long time with a book by Dorothy West called The Living is Easy. The protagonist in that book, Cleo, is a Black woman living around Boston in the 1940s who wants her family to all live together, and her family has things to say about that idea. I am very close with my sisters and my mom, and I thought about that book over the last few years as we have all moved in together in central Massachusetts. Little parts of that story matched with how I am actually living with my family. This play is not an adaptation of that book, and it’s also definitely not my family’s story — but there are similarities with both — and at the time, when my sisters and I were moving in together, I wondered what it would be like if one of us just took the whole thing over. I also became really enamored with tiny homes — not just because I love them. I think they’re wonderful, little, tiny spaces. I am a short person; I would love to live in one someday… but they are spaces designed usually for one or two people to live in them, and I had these fantasies of my husband and my kids living in one, which is just ridiculous. Where might extended family or extended friend groups meet each other? My husband and I would talk about this a lot: “Where would we have Easter?” “Where would we have Christmas?” “Would you be going out to a restaurant? And then who’s serving your food at this restaurant, and why aren’t they able to go on a holiday with their friends?” 

MM: Some audience members may know the source of the title — and ultimately you reference it in the play so I won’t give that away — but can you talk about the title? 

When I began writing plays, people would ask me “What are your plays about?” Often I would say, “I write about mothers and daughters.” For a while, that made sense and I thought that because I was writing about it, I must know the subject pretty well. And then, I had daughters. And suddenly I felt, “Whoa! I don’t know anything about this topic at all!” Even though I would write parents in my plays, I had never been a parent before. So now, I’ve become interested in the push and pull of adult child/parent relationships. I am also very interested in the idea of family and in familial relationships between generations. If there’s a generation or two below you and, if you’re lucky, a generation or more above you, then there’s a generation in between — and that’s what I am in my family. So I started thinking: How am I going to hold the generation above me together, but also start looking out for the people coming up after me? Lavinia, the main character, has some very specific ideas about what that question means, or should mean, in the Shaw family. 

MM: One of the things the play explores is this question of what it should mean to be a mother, or a daughter — in life, but also onstage. 

KG: Well, when we go to see a play, we sometimes expect a certain type of Black mother onstage — and I use the term “we” loosely. Some audiences might expect that a Black mother is either infinitely warm and full of wisdom — or a Black mother who gives up all of her self, where that is her only role in life. In some ways, the play allows the characters to indulge in those expectations, but then circumvent them as well. Whenever you’re with family, even in the healthiest of families, you have secrets… and allegiances. That influences how secrets are guarded, or how private you are, or who you’re closest with in a family. And then when you’ve got multiple families, those secrets multiply. I think that’s what I was interested in with this particular family — who you’re able to show your true self to when you let your guard down. 

Arie Thompson, Nikkole Salter, and Lyndsay Allyn Cox

MM: Has your initial impulse to start writing plays changed, or shifted, since you started your career? 

KG: I first started wanting to write plays when I was small, and I was literally rolling around on my living room floor with my sisters, making up things for them to say. When I went to the University of Iowa to study playwriting, I read plays and essays by Suzan- Lori Parks, and ingested and absorbed what she has to say about placing Black and brown bodies on stage, and how that is inherently always a political act in Western theatre. Wanting to create roles for Black actors has always been part of what my mission is as a playwright. As I have gotten older, I’ve started to think more about roles for women who are not ingenues, roles for women of color who are 35 and older in the theatre industry, and that is reflected in the cast of Our Daughters, Like Pillars. I hope to see more diversity in types of Black families and the types of Black people seen on American stages, and hope this play can be part of that. This is a family story; the people who are in the family are Black; but it is not necessarily a story with race at the forefront of what they’re thinking about, what they’re talking about, and what they're struggling with at this particular moment in their lives. 

MM: You said during one of the workshops for this play that you wanted to let yourself write “expansively.” What does it mean to you to tell the story of this family in this way? 

KG: Playwrights are often encouraged to write the 90-minute play, where you experience a plethora of emotions within an hour and a half. In this play, one of my tasks for myself was to write this big, sprawling thing, and have this particular family, filled with very strong Black women, take up a lot of space. It became more of a task than I thought it would be. There’s an adage that “the personal is the political,” and I feel that a lot as a Black person who’s often in white spaces; particularly in New England and in Boston, I’m conscious of how much space my physical body takes up, and I’m always negotiating that dynamic. I have two children, and I’m often very conscious about how much space we are taking up in any of the places we are occupying. Some of that is just for safety, and some of that is how much space we are taking up as people of color. In this play, because it’s a vacation home, they’re working to become a closer family in a space that essentially isn’t theirs, which is something 

Jasmine Carmichael and Carolina Sanchez in "Milk Like Sugar" (2016)

my sisters and I talk about when we discuss being a Black family in America. So it’s a three act play, which is a chance to have Black actors, Black performers, a Black playwright say: This is how much space this huge family drama takes. Take up as much space as you want to. This world is yours; occupy it. 

MM: You mentioned that the play has overlap with your life, but also isn’t autobiographical — which is true of many of your plays. How do you explore that dynamic? 

With many of my plays, if you’re part of my family you can sit in the audience and say, “Oh I see who that person comes from in my family, or that was a neighbor from somewhere and I know that person.” Because of how we’re living right now, it could seem like “oh this whole play is Kirsten’s family.” But it isn’t. At Boston University, where I teach, one of my courses is on the autobiographical play, so I talk about this dynamic with my students a lot — that your self contains aspects of so many other people. When I was younger, I remember watching an interview with Audrey Hepburn when she was on the Phil Donahue show, and someone asked her why she doesn’t write a memoir, particularly about her father who left their family — and she said, “because a life involves so many other lives.” I think that’s twofold: Every writer should feel like they can tell their truth. You can’t write if you feel like you’re not able to put truth on stage. But I do believe that a life involves many other lives, and other people are just as able to write their truth about you, as you are to write your truth about them. There is also an immediacy that happens when people feel they see themselves on stage; my sister writes for The New York Times, and she writes about us all the time, but I think it’s different to read about yourself on a page. And it can be a happy feeling, like “You saw me, thank you,” but people can also feel like you’ve done them a disservice. And so that’s something that I do not take lightly. 

MM: How does the dynamic of representing many people’s perspectives tie back to your desire to be expansive in the storytelling? 

There’s many different versions of this family that I’m able to tell — and there’s also many different ways that I can fail — but having this much space to do it, and having allowed myself this much space to do it has been really wonderful. Every time I sit down to work on this play, I am happy about writing. Even when I can’t figure things out. Every time I sit down, it’s like being in a playground. So I have been delighting in the form. I just did a play at Company One Theatre called Greater Good that was over three hours, and so this interest in looking at a situation where many different people each have a truth of their own is something I’ve been doing with my writing for the past few years — making pieces where many people get to tell many sides of things, and just hoping that I’m not holding people back to tell the story. 

Shalita Grant and Francesca Choy-Kee in "Luck of the Irish" (2012)

© 2021 The Huntington. All rights reserved | Trouble viewing this site? Please download Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome.