I think all in all, one thing a lot of plays seem to be saying is that we need to, as black Americans, to make a connection with our past in order to determine the kind of future we’re going to have. In other words, we simply need to know who we are in relation to our historical presence in America.
Blacks have traditionally had to operate in a situation where whites have set themselves up as the custodians of the black experience.
I had always been fascinated with Napoleon because he was a self-made emperor; Victor Hugo said, ‘Napoleon’s will to power,’ and it was the title of my paper. And I submitted it to my teacher, and he didn’t think I had written it. And he wanted me to explain it to him.
I’ve never seen ‘Seinfeld’, never seen ‘The Cosby Show’; I just don’t watch it. I saw half of ‘Oprah’ one time. I’d rather read.
All you need in the world is love and laughter. That’s all anybody needs. To have love in one hand and laughter in the other.
All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics.
I think it was the ability of the theater to communicate ideas and extol virtues that drew me to it. And also, I was, and remain, fascinated by the idea of an audience as a community of people who gather willingly to bear witness.
A novelist writes a novel, and people read it. But reading is a solitary act. While it may elicit a varied and personal response, the communal nature of the audience is like having five hundred people read your novel and respond to it at the same time. I find that thrilling.
I dropped out of school when I was 15 years old. I dropped out because I guess I wasn’t getting anything out of my investment in the school.
I’m a De Niro fan. I went eleven years without seeing a movie; the last one before that, February 1980, was De Niro and Scorsese in ‘Raging Bull,’ and when I went back, it was ‘Cape Fear,’ with De Niro and Scorsese. I picked up right where I left off at.
The blues are important primarily because they contain the cultural expression and the cultural response to blacks in America and to the situation that they find themselves in. And contained in the blues is a philosophical system at work. And as part of the oral tradition, this is a way of passing along information.
For me, the original play becomes an historical document: This is where I was when I wrote it, and I have to move on now to something else.
From Romare Bearden I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality.
I don’t write for a particular audience. I work as an artist, and I think the audience of one, which is the self, and I have to satisfy myself as an artist. So I always say that I write for the same people that Picasso painted for. I think he painted for himself.
I write for myself, and my goal is bringing that world and that experience of black Americans to life on the stage and giving it a space there.
My influences have been what I call my four Bs – the primary one being the blues, then Borges, Baraka, and Bearden.
I don’t write particularly to effect social change. I believe writing can do that, but that’s not why I write.
I don’t look at our society today too much. My focus is still in the past, and part of the reason is because what I do – the wellspring of art, or what I do – l get from the blues. So I listen to the music of a particular period that I’m working on, and I think inside the music is clues to what is happening with the people.
From Borges, those wonderful gaucho stories from which I learned that you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etc. From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political, although I don’t write political plays.
As soon as white folks say a play’s good, the theater is jammed with blacks and whites.
Jazz in itself is not struggling. That is, the music itself is not struggling… It’s the attitude that’s in trouble. My plays insist that we should not forget or toss away our history.
I work as an artist, and I think the audience of one, which is the self, and I have to satisfy myself as an artist. So I always say that I write for the same people that Picasso painted for. I think he painted for himself.
My hero when I was 14 was Sonny Liston. No matter what kinds of problems you were having with your parents or at school, whatever, Sonny Liston would go and knock guys out, and that made it all right.
In 1980 I sent a play, ‘Jitney,’ to the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, won a Jerome Fellowship, and found myself sitting in a room with sixteen playwrights. I remember looking around and thinking that since I was sitting there, I must be a playwright, too.
Between speeches and awards, you can find something to do every other week. It’s hard to write. Your focus gets splintered. Once you put one thing in your calendar, that month is gone.
I know some things when I start. I know, let’s say, that the play is going to be a 1970s or a 1930s play, and it’s going to be about a piano, but that’s it. I slowly discover who the characters are as I go along.
It was early on in 1965 when I wrote some of my first poems. I sent a poem to ‘Harper’s’ magazine because they paid a dollar a line. I had an eighteen-line poem, and just as I was putting it into the envelope, I stopped and decided to make it a thirty-six-line poem. It seemed like the poem came back the next day: no letter, nothing.
Most of black America is in housing projects, without jobs, living on welfare. And this is not the case in ‘The Cosby Show,’ because all the values in that household are strictly what I would call white American values.
I once wrote a short story called ‘The Best Blues Singer in the World,’ and it went like this: ‘The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.’ End of story. That says it all. Nothing else to say. I’ve been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story.
I’ve seen some terrible plays, but I generally enjoy myself. One play I walked out of, I have a tremendous respect for the author. That was Robert Wilson, something called ‘Network,’ which consisted of Wilson sitting on a bunk, the dialogue of the movie ‘Network’ looped in while a chair on a rope went up and down.
I first got involved in theater in 1968, at the height of a social tumult. I was a poet.
Suffice it to say, I’m not poor.
I don’t write for a particular audience.
In 1977, I wrote a series of poems about a character, Black Bart, a former cattle rustler-turned-alchemist. A good friend, Claude Purdy, who is a stage director, suggested I turn the poems into a play.
With my good friend Rob Penny, I founded the Black Horizons Theater in Pittsburgh with the idea of using the theater to politicize the community or, as we said in those days, to raise the consciousness of the people.
Scripts were rather scarce in 1968. We did a lot of Amiri Baraka’s plays, the agitprop stuff he was writing. It was at a time when black student organizations were active on the campuses, so we were invited to the colleges around Pittsburgh and Ohio, and even as far away as Jackson, Mississippi.
I do – very specifically, I remember Bessie Smith; I used to collect 78 records that I would buy from the St Vincent de Paul store at five cents apiece, and I did this indiscriminately. I would just take whatever was there. And I listened to Patti Page and Walter Huston, ‘September Song.’
Part of what our problem as blacks in America is that we don’t claim that. Partly, you see, because of the linguistic environment in which we live.
I think the blues is the best literature that we as blacks have created since we’ve been here. I call it our ‘sacred book.’ What I’ve attempted to do is to mine that field, to mine those cultural ideas and attitudes and give them to my characters.