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We Talk with Kirsten Greenidge about BALTIMORE, Her Black Lives Matter-Inspired Play

In Kirsten Greenidge’s new play Baltimore, a racially-charged incident divides students on a college campus, and reluctant resident advisor Shelby must decide if she will enter the fray. We spoke with the playwright about the inspiration behind the play, the Big Ten Theatre Consortium, and her advice for aspiring writers.

BaltimoreWhat was the inspiration behind BaltimoreWhy this play now?

When Alan MacVey, the Chair of the Theatre Department at the University of Iowa, approached me about the Big Ten commission, we talked about what the play I would write might be about. I more often than not write about race and how it intersects with class and history and, usually gender as well. Around the time I began writing and thinking about the play Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement exploded onto the national landscape. I will not say that America began to think about race at this moment. America is and always has been preoccupied by race, skin color, sex, class, gender. These things are woven into our fabric. I think they are woven into the fabric of any society, but in the United States, they are often embedded, deeply embedded, with violence. And Michael Brown’s death and the pain that overflowed for many people after that, exposed this in ways that made silence and complacency about racism impossible to endure in the same ways that maybe they might have been before that moment. And then the moments kept coming in very public ways because the media became attuned to them. They have been happening for years. Parents of children of color would not be so vigilant about their children in public spaces and their children’s interactions with law enforcement if they didn’t. I remember talking with my mother, when I was very young, about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I am from Boston. Talking about John F. Kennedy’s assassination is very serious business around here. And one thing I remember her saying is that as a young person in 1963, unlike perhaps her white classmates, who were horrified by the violence (they said), my mother was not. Black people were used to unexpected violence happening to loved ones. It was that it could happen to the president. Violence, death, the accumulation of black bodies, is not new. It is that finally, the world as a whole, it taking notice, which is why I think this play exists now. It exists at a moment where we are perhaps, more than we did a bit ago, examining how we got here, how we interact with one another, and wondering, hoping, working to do better.

Why did you decide to set this play in college? How is the setting important to the story?

Well, the most obvious answer is that the parameters of the Big Ten commission are to create a play that can be performed by college-age students. This is important because the Big Ten commission’s purpose, as conceived by Carol Macvey and instituted by the University of Iowa, is to create more roles for female actors in BFA programs. In many programs, female students can go four years possibly never having performed a role with a full arc, even a smaller role. One could say, well, that’s unfortunate, but even in the field, casting in not guaranteed, so that is just the way this business is. But we owe students more than that, if their male counterparts, who often, in numbers, make up less of their class in number, do get those roles and so get more experience and therefore learn their craft in a different, perhaps even unequal way. So, the commission stipulates that the play must have at least six roles for female actors. In Baltimore, not all parts have equal stage time, but I worked hard to make sure the roles have arcs. Early drafts were wildly uneven, but eventually they got fleshed out (I hope).

Another part of the setting that was important was that actors were playing parts meant for them in terms of age—that is, “age appropriate”. Many times college-aged actors play roles that are much older than they are, or much younger, and the purpose of this particular play was to create a piece where that was not the case.

However, the setting did then need to be purposeful. Baltimore is set in a college because for many people, college is the first place—and maybe the only place—where you live and work with people who are very, very different from those you grew up with, especially in those first few weeks of school. Maybe after that people get shy or scared or find the people “more like them” again, but those first few weeks are like a giant mixer—as those in my parents’ generation might say—and so that is why I chose the setting I did.

Each character in Baltimore has a distinct background and perspective on race. How did you approach the challenge of writing from so many perspectives? And why did you feel it was important to give voice to each perspective?

I actually wish I could have included more perspectives, but then I wonder if the play would have been three hours long. I wanted to write about stereotypes without perpetuating them. And I wanted to make sure, as much as possible, that while the actors might find the material difficult, that they did not find it untruthful. The University of Maryland and Boston University held workshops, and these helped me to get students’ perspectives on our current moment from their points of view. I blended their stories. Some stories overlapped in really surprising ways in terms of where students were from and what their experiences were. But it was important to me that I include as many perspectives as the play could hold.

kirstenAmbivalence, as seen through Shelby’s actions and inaction, plays an important role in Baltimore and seems to speak to the particular pressure people of color can feel to define themselves.

I wanted a person of color to be the central character but I did not want a person of color to have to figure it out on her or his own and I definitely did not want the problem solved in 90 minutes so audiences could go home feeling good about race or having sat through a play about difficult issues.

I think what Shelby represents is the impulse many in the generation below mine (or maybe a few below mine) who are reluctant to put labels on themselves and yet are also called to act and speak up. And I think this does create feelings of conflict and ambivalence and sometimes confusion. I think an easy answer is to say that Shelby is sheltered. But a more nuanced answer is to say Shelby is part of a very complicated world where identity is constantly visible and on display and her life has been curated in a way that does not allow for mistakes or missteps. There is real risk for her if she is wrong in public, and so the answer for her is to just coast and never truly use her voice to question at all.

How did you first get involved in theatre?

I’ve been creating plays since I a preschooler, but I did not take my first playwriting classes until college. I have been writing in some form for basically my entire life. In high school I took classes and performed at Wheelock Family Theater in Boston. And in college I did as much theatre as possible, even tough my major was U.S. History.

How did you get involved in the Big Ten Theatre Consortium’s New Play Initiative?

Alan MacVey approached me in the spring of 2014 to write for the Big Ten. I attended Iowa’s Playwright’s Workshop for graduate school. If you write, Iowa is probably a place you might want to check out.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Keep writing no matter what. There are a million things that will conspire to make you stop writing: time, money, rejection letters, illness, kids, messy houses, dogs needing to be walked . . . everything. Keep writing, even if it is only five minutes a day. Write for that five minutes.

Another is to find training. I think this means different things for different people. For some it means a solid BFA program. For others an MFA or low residency MA and for others it might be a series of classes at the exceptional theatre that happens to be in their hometown. Plays are written, sure, but they are also wrought. They are crafted. We learn our craft from those that came before, and to do that, you need to take classes and sit in rooms with other people who have written and had their work produced and most likely you need to do this more than once and over the span of a few years. You also need to hear your work out loud often. So seek out workshop opportunities, not just productions and prizes.

Be the kind of person with which you would want to work with. This one is can be difficult for us writers. We spend a lot of time in our heads, hashing things out, and I know that activity can make me grumpy. Not because the writing goes badly, but because it takes a lot of energy.  I often emerge from a writing session, bleary-eyed and drained, and sometimes forget to tell this to myself. But it is worth telling it to myself as I sit down to work with actors, directors, designers; as I give my family the rundown of what is cooking for dinner and where the clean pajamas are.  Be kind (not the same thing as a pushover, by the by). When you are a playwright, to get the thing really done, you are not the only one in the room.

Kirsten Greenidge is a recent NEA/TCG Theatre Residency Grant recipient, during which she wrote The Curious Walk of the Salamander at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. She is the author of Bossa Nova, 103 Within The Veil, Rust, Sans-Culottes in the Promised Land, and The Gibson Girl. She has enjoyed development experiences at Madison Rep, New Dramatists, Mark Taper Forum, The Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Hourglass Theatre, A.S.K. Theatre Projects, and The Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center. Her work has been presented at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, the Moxie Theatre Company, the Huntington Theatre, Playwrights Horizons, New Georges Performathon 2002, Flirting With the Edge Festival of New Work, CompanyOne, and the Boston Playwrights Theatre. She has received awards from the Cherry Lane Theatre Alternative (Finalist), the American College Theatre Festival, the University of Iowa (IRAM Award 2000 and Richard Maibaum Award 2001), and the Sundance Theatre Laboratory (Residency at Ucross Ranch, Ucross, Wyoming). Ms. Greenidge has received commissions from South Coast Repertory, the Kennedy Center, the Guthrie Theater, the McCarter Theatre, Clubbed Thumb, Actors Theatre of Louisville, and Huntington Stage Company. She earned her B.A. at Wesleyan University, and her M.F.A at the Playwrights Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she was a Barry Kemp Fellow. Ms. Greenidge is a member of New Dramatists.


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