Interview: Harrison David Rivers Discusses What Inspired Him to Write Plays

Fredrick Ngugi October 17, 2016

The National Black Theater in New York City is giving drama lovers a chance to #TakeABreath with a powerful play by America’s celebrated playwright Harrison David Rivers (HDR). The play titled, “Sweet,” debuts on October 22nd and is meant to shed some light on the sacrifices we all make to hold on to the people we love. It tells the story of two African-American sisters, Retha and Nina Baker, from a small town in Kansas during the late 1960’s.

The two characters have always been close, folding laundry, chasing fireflies and enduring the summer heat together. But their relationship is suddenly threatened following their mother’s death and the return of their neighbor George.

Face2Face Africa (F2FA) caught up with Rivers to discuss his journey to becoming a celebrated playwright.

F2FA: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

HDR: I was born in Manhattan, Kansas. I moved to Ohio for college and later to California for work. Then back east to New York for graduate school. I moved to the Twin Cities a little over two years ago on a Jerome Many Voices Fellowship though the Playwrights’ Center and decided to stay.

F2FA: When and why did you start writing plays?

HDR: I’ve always written on Post-It notes, in the margins of library books, on the palms of my hands, but I didn’t start writing plays for real until 2007. I mean, I’d written plays before that, but I didn’t get serious about playwriting until then. And I didn’t start calling myself a playwright until much later.

I started writing because I kept hearing voices in my head and I thought that I had “snapped my tether.” I was living in San Francisco and I remember I called my mom and I told her what was going on and she said, “Why don’t you write down what they’re saying?” And so I did and that became my first play.

Writing is hard and I don’t say that in a whiny way. I think it’s important that we respect the work that artists do. We grapple with the imaginary everyday. We make real that which does not yet exist. We create entire worlds out of nothing, and that’s no small thing.

The challenge for me, and this is an everyday thing, is this question: How do I keep making my art when it sometimes feels like I’m the only one who cares? Of course, the theater industry has its challenges but the big ones – the important ones – I believe are internal. The self-challenges are: How do you stay motivated? How do you keep pressing pencil to paper day after day? Having to answer these questions every day; having to step up to these challenges keeps my commitment to my art, to my craft, to my work, fresh.

F2FA: What inspires you to write?

HDR: I think generally I’m inspired by my colleagues, other theater artists of color, other queer artists, actors, directors, designers, choreographers, who are hungry for material that speaks to their experience of the world, who are hungry to bring to life characters and stories that reflect who they are.

I have a document on my desktop called “actors to write parts for…” That list alone will keep me busy for the next twenty-odd years.

F2FA: Of the many plays you’ve written, which is your favorite and why?

HDR: That’s a little like asking someone to pick a favorite child.

F2FA: What message do you hope to put across with your latest play “Sweet”?

HBR: As a Black gay man, I can count on one hand the number of times that I have seen myself on stage [and] witnessed my story being told with care and compassion. Those few moments (Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s musical “Passing Strange” at the Public Theater comes to mind) have been some of the most transformative experiences of my life theatrical or otherwise.

As a writer, one of my objectives has always been to provide others with access (via my work) to those (same) potentially transformative experiences. I seek, with my plays, to tell the diverse and varied stories of people of color (gay, straight, urban, rural) and to tell them as authentically as possible.

“Sweet” speaks to many of my thematic interests: race, sexuality, gender and gender roles, motherhood, death and disease, hopelessness, forgiveness, and redemption. I am interested in exploring how communities (especially communities of color) navigate these ideas — how they are impacted, changed for better or for worse. And I am passionate about putting the stories of these navigations on stage. It is my hope that the work will spark thought and action!

F2FA: As a critical thinker what do you think is the solution to the racial tension that still exists in the world?

HBR: Any potential solution must have empathy at its core.

F2FA: Does writing pay?

HBR: HA!  You’re joking right? Part of the business of writing is the hustle. You have to say “yes” more often than you would like to say “yes.” You have to make opportunities out of jobs that don’t necessarily feel like opportunities. Sure, I would love to make more money, my parents would love for me to make more money, but I’m not sure that this is the field you get into if money is your primary objective.

Do I believe that the work I do is valuable? Yes. Would I like to be compensated for my sometimes eighty-hour work weeks? Yes. If this doesn’t happen am I going to stop writing? Hell no! Deep down I think you have to know that what you are doing matters.

We are in an amazing moment in the life of the American theater. There are so many incredible writers from diverse backgrounds telling challenging and hilarious and heart-breaking and revolutionary stories. Being a part of that, of this specific theatrical moment, whether it’s beneficial to my bank account or not, makes the hard work and the long hours worth it.

F2FA: What advice would you give to upcoming writers who feel like giving up?

HBR: In a word, don’t. You have a singular voice. If you stop writing, if you stop sharing your work, then your stories, your insight, and your wit are lost. I feel like 75 percent of this industry is hard work and the other 25 percent is patience. Hard work and patience. It’s not glamorous. Most of the time it’s not lucrative, but if you hold out and hold on, it can be deeply, deeply rewarding.

Last Edited by:Charles Gichane Updated: October 17, 2016


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