Supporting creative work by women
Playwright Christina Anderson‘s latest work Hollow Roots is featured in the 2013 Under the Radar Festival. The one-person play stars April Matthis as a woman investigating if it is possible to create a “neutral narrative,” one unaffected by race or gender. Lileana Blain-Cruz directs.
Christina, who is a member of New Dramatists and a Core Writer at The Playwrights’ Center. spoke to Works By Women about how Hollow Roots came together, the late poet Essex Hemphill and her love of sneakers.
WORKS BY WOMEN: Your piece Hollow Roots investigates the idea of a post race society. What was the original seed for this piece?
CHRISTINA ANDERSON: I wrote Hollow Roots as an exploration of solo performance, language, and race in America. I read several solo plays and soon recognized a pattern: actors of color often performed pieces that featured multiple characters. The theatricality lived in the agility and skill required to embody so many different people—Anna Deavere Smith, Dael Orlandersmith, John Leguizamo are writers/performers who come to mind. However, the lone character who recounts and reflects a singular narrative is a style often seen embodied by white men (e.g., Spalding Gray and Wallace Shawn). “What’s up with that?” I wondered. And promptly began creating a female Black American protagonist who tells her story directly to the audience.
I’ve always been interested in the concept of a “post-race society.” And the term seemed to catch mainstream attention once (President) Obama started his first term. As I did research I noticed the conversation focused mostly on white people’s ability to “see beyond race” in America. I wondered what it would mean for a person of color to exist in that society. What would it look like to be unaffected by and/or neutral about race or gender issues? As I crafted my protagonist for the solo play, I thought it might be interesting to have her search for this “person of color with no color to tell her neutral narratives.” Hollow Roots was born.
WBW: You mentioned that Hollow Roots (starring April Matthis, pictured left) is in the style of Spalding Gray and Wallace Shawn. Was it freeing to write in this way or were there unexpected limitations?
CHRISTINA: Gray was an incredible wordsmith as is Shawn, and I admire the skill it takes to paint a world or an experience based solely on words.
I really enjoyed focusing on the language. Creating the world of Hollow Roots turned out to be a form of meditation. I had to have the patience to find just the right way to describe an image in an active and theatrical way. That meditation offered a certain type of freedom.
Also, it might sound weird, but I didn’t expect to bond with this character. She’s tough, a bit quirky, warm, but also distant. She’s an enigma, but I also feel a connection with her. It’s most likely a one-sided relationship—I might like her more than she likes me. (laugh)
When I write plays with multiple characters, I definitely get to know them in unexpected ways, but there was something unique about shaping the Hollow Roots protagonist. I thought it would feel like a limitation to craft a single character for an entire play, but it was actually pretty cool.
WBW: I want to see everything at the Under the Radar Festival. What is on your list not to miss at the festival?
CHRISTINA: This is the first time I’ve been in town for the festival, so I want to see EVERYTHING! I’m especially excited for The Debate Society and Elevator Repair Service. Lemon Anderson and Taylor Mac are two performers I adore, so I’m eager to see their work, too.
WBW: You’ve mentioned that the late poet Essex Hemphill is one of the artists who influence your work. Is there a particular poem that speaks to you? Or is there something about his work that strikes you right now?
CHRISTINA: I love Essex so much! I saw (Marlon Riggs’) Tongues Untied as an undergrad, and I was moved by his poetry in that film. I immediately ran to the library and grabbed a copy of his collection CEREMONIES.
His work is so complex, passionate, political, and personal. I love that he owned and expressed his right to be seen and accepted in his communities—Black, gay, literary, and geographically. And he was unafraid to say: we need each other! You need me just as much as I need you.
And, simply, his poems are wonderful.
Although I never met him, or heard him read his work, I miss his voice in a profound way.
WBW: You have a love for sneakers and visual art. What attracts your eye and do these forms influence your writing?
CHRISTINA: I’m drawn to visual art that explores the unfamiliar in the familiar.
There’s a great series by photographer Olivier Culmann that captures people zoning out in front of the TV. It’s a familiar pastime for many of us, but Culmann captured a solemn perspective.
I also love visual art that tells a story. Jacek Yerka’s paintings do just that. Each one is filled with action—something just happened or is about to happen.
As for sneakers, I wish I had a deep, philosophical perspective, but I just like a clean pair of kicks!
I think these forms influence my writing by offering an escape from it. I create art, but I also consume it. I like traveling to landscapes created by other artists. Those journeys can take place within a piece of art, or the colorway of a pair of sneakers.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theatre?
CHRISTINA: From the perspective of a playwright, I think getting produced is still a challenge. Male playwrights dominate the season at several theaters all over the country.
There are fantastic writers, creating complex stories—Dipika Guha, Meg Miroshnik, Amelia Roper, Radha Blank, Basil Kreimendahl … just to name a few. With that short list, I could build a great season!
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theatre?
CHRISTINA: The Lily Awards and New Dramatists offer incredible support and recognition. Playwrights Horizons and LCT3 are pretty great. Two Artistic Directors I admire: Marissa Wolf at Crowded Fire and Loretta Greco at Magic Theater—both in the Bay Area. Charlotte Braithwaite, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Tina Landau are directors that give me hope. Playwrights include Quiara Hudes, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Christina Ham as well as the writers mentioned above.
Performances of Hollow Roots run through January 20th at the Public Theater. Tickets are $20 and available at Under the Radar’s web site.
Photo credit of April Matthis: Yi Zhao.