The Interview: Playwright and BU Professor Kirsten Greenidge

Where does Kirsten Greenidge find inspiration for her award-winning theatrical works? All over Boston, of course.

Photo by Philip Keith

Growing up in Arlington, Kirsten Greenidge loved theater so much that she put on shows with pals in her mom’s living room—with a concession stand, naturally. Fast-forward a few decades, and though the stages (and the audiences) have gotten much larger, the playwright’s affinity for the spoken word hasn’t changed one bit. One of the most searing and relevant new voices in American theater, Greenidge has had six of her plays commissioned by the Huntington theater, two this month alone: Our Daughters, Like Pillars, which runs through May 8, and Common Ground Revisited, based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning book by J. Anthony Lukas and premiering on May 27. We sat down with the Obie Award winner and BU professor to talk about eavesdropping, being a control freak, and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.

How do you make dialogue sound natural?

I would say that I make it sound natural to me. I listen a lot, although I think my family would say I don’t. [Chuckles.] But when I first started writing, I rode the T a ton. So I’d just sit on the T and listen to people, and to their patterns of speech. I’m really nosy as well. And then, playwrights are trying to essentially persuade an audience to a point of view, so I have to get the dialogue to sound the way I want it to in that sense, too.

Is everything you hear material?

When people say that, I feel a bit bad and guilty because I don’t want people to think, “Oh my God, I don’t want to talk to Kirsten, anything I say will end up in her play.” But I like to believe that I’m curious about human nature and how people interact. I’m actually really, really interested in conversation.

Our Daughters, Like Pillars is about sisters. Did your sisters see this play and say, “We have to talk”?

With my two sisters, one is a novelist, and one is a historian, so they’re both writers, which is really helpful, because they both understand the process and that we draw from our lives. But the characters that are ultimately rendered are not ourselves, and are not necessarily the people in our lives. It’s good to have people who understand that. Although I will say that after one of the first readings of this play, one of my sisters was like, “What did you do?” And I was like, “I’m so sorry.” I’ve pulled back a little bit from our story, but the characters will not be unknown to people who know a little bit about my family. I think it’s okay when we draw a little bit from our real lives.

Common Ground Revisited examines the era of busing in Boston and a very tense time in the city, racially speaking. How much, if any, progress do you think we’ve made?

I do think we’ve made strides since the 1970s in terms of how we relate to each other racially in Boston. It is not the same world as it was 40 years ago. I don’t think we can point to any one indicator and say it signifies that change. Just because we elected a mayor who is a woman of color does not mean Boston’s struggles have eased; it does mean they have shifted. Boston and its surrounding cities still struggle with race and economic inequity in a way that is specific to the Northeast. It is a paradox. In a region that cherishes its work regarding civil and equal rights, we have a very hard time discussing race and a very hard time living side by side. Our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces still suffer from a lack of equality and equity and representation. We do not need quotas. But if we want to live and work in a more just manner, we do need to reach a point where one person’s basic civil rights do not automatically feel like a threat to those surrounding that person. We are far from that point.

Photo by Philip Keith

If you’d had kids then and had the choice, would you have allowed them to be bused to, say, South Boston?

I don’t know if I can answer this directly. We are each products of our times. I can perhaps work to shutter some of my personal history to try to place myself in the position of a parent in 1974 Boston. But I can’t fully erase my own experiences with racism, microaggressions, sexism, or classism. I don’t fully know what I would do if I sent my child to a school and they were met with physical violence and danger as a matter of course. We know a lot more about trauma now, so I have the privilege of hindsight and not wanting to cause harm to my children, or others’ children, which I think is important to say when discussing integration and schooling.

Do you have any desire to write screenplays?

Yes, I do. I have a lot of plays on my docket as commissions, so in my mind, I’m like, “Okay, I’ll move those out of the queue, and then maybe I’ll settle into writing feature films.” I’m not so sure where I would sit in the TV world, though. TV is really exciting, all the content. But I think I prefer that longer form.

What’s the most outrageous stage direction you’ve ever written into a play?

I don’t know if it’s outrageous, but in one play, I had these girls in gym class, climbing a rope and then clanging the bell, so the stage direction said, “More cowbell.” Nobody picked up on it until the dramaturg finally said, “Oh, I love that you put ‘More cowbell’ in.” I was like, “You are welcome.”

Who would you say is your favorite playwright of all time?

Oh, gosh, I could never answer that question, because I’m a really easy audience. I just love going, and I’m like, “This is amazing! This is the best play ever!” I do have some plays that have influenced me more than others, though. One of those would be The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks. And as a Black, female playwright, anything by Lorraine Hansberry is extremely inspirational.

How about SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical?

[Laughs.] I’m sure there are many wonderful things about that, and I will say that at the beginning of most playwriting classes, we have a check-in. I remember one time, a student said, “I saw this over the weekend.” And they were so excited. And I thought, Hmm, because that was the one show I banned my kids from watching. It has been scientifically proven to deplete brain cells. So the musical is probably not in my wheelhouse.

Is there anyone you’d never work with again?

I don’t think there’s anyone I’d X off the list. One of the things that anchors me as a playwright is being able to see all sides of a story, so if there’s someone who, maybe during those weeks when I was working with them, it wasn’t their best time, I think I’m always up for giving somebody a second chance, especially because I, too, have been given many second chances. And now that I’ve said all that, I’m remembering somebody who I would never work with again. That person rewrote part of my play. Overnight, they were like, “Wouldn’t it be better if this happened?” and they actually gave me the pages. They handed them to me, and I read them. There were some great points. But you just don’t do that. For a long time, I was the youngest person in the room, and I think sometimes, people thought, Hey, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. And maybe I didn’t, but you just don’t hand a playwright a new ending, or a new scene.

There are certain playwrights whose words an actor will not deviate from, even with a minor interjection. Then there are playwrights who completely welcome some improvisation or deviation from what’s written on the page. Which are you?

Because actors know what the words feel like coming out of their mouths, I try to always listen to them. Sometimes they put an “ahh” or a breath there because it sounds better that way. I’m working between my brain and the screen, and not necessarily embodying the experience. I’m not an actor. I wasn’t bad; it’s just good for everyone in the world that I am no longer an actor. And I also had very bad stage fright. So that’s what I love about working in the room, and around the table, with actors. There are some times when words are placed for a specific reason, so if someone interjects something, and it doesn’t sound right, and it has to be exact, I’ll usually say to the director, “No, that’s not cool.”

Is there a character from one of your plays who’s most like you?

I would have to say right now, because she’s top of mind, the main character, Lavinia, in Our Daughters, Like Pillars. She’s the oldest daughter, and she kind of takes care of many things. I don’t take care of everything by myself the way Lavinia does, but that need to be like, “Hey, everybody, let’s all do this activity,” the same way I did when I was 10, is very much me.

Lavinia seems like a control freak. Would you describe yourself that way?

I think I’m steering people toward their best choices. [Chuckles.] Yes. I think my family, particularly, would say so. I live with not only my nuclear family, my husband and my two kids, but also my mom, my two sisters, and my sister’s toddler, and we’re together a lot. A lot of those dynamics that were layered into our personalities as children are very present in our adult lives, because we still live together.

Were you the neighborhood kid who was like, “Hey, guys, let’s put on a show!”?

Oh, yes. Growing up in Arlington, I had a theater company, and many of the neighborhood kids were part of it. We ran concessions, because that gave us more money to put on our shows. I did a lot of dramas, but my neighbor, who was my exact age, he did a lot of comedy. So we’d have a whole evening of entertainment designed for these legions of people who obviously never came, because the plays just took place in my mother’s living room.

That’s hilarious. Which is harder for you to write: comedy or drama?

I would most likely say comedy, because oftentimes, by the end of a comedy, you have things coming together, and I don’t have a lot of that at the end of my plays, even though there are comedic elements.

From where do you think theater derives its power?

People are drawn to story, so that’s where the power of theater comes from. Also, even those of us who feel like we want to be alone all the time, as human beings, we’re often drawn to wanting to gather. So it’s not just what you’re seeing in terms of the story, but it’s sitting next to somebody else, and experiencing it with them. You’re in a communal space, similar to going to worship in a church or a temple or a mosque, experiencing the same thing.

Is there anyone you’d be horrified to see in the audience at one of your plays?

I’ve learned to give up a certain amount of control over who’s in the audience and who’s not.

All the world’s a stage, and we are merely players. Is that true?

I guess, in an abstract sense.

Does being a Black, female playwright inform everything you do?

Yes, it governs my whole artistic career. I have no idea what it would be like to be a white, male playwright, or a male, Asian playwright, or a Black, male playwright. I only know how to be me. And it’s taken so long to get comfortable being in a room in that capacity, mostly because I’m an indoor, nervous, cat kind of person.

Okay, so when are you going to win a Tony?

Well, that is completely not up to me. I have to have a play on Broadway first. I’ve made peace with the idea that my plays might not get to Broadway. That’s okay. But that said, I would certainly love a Tony Award. I’m a very competitive person.

Photo via Tarpmagnus/Getty Images

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