You can walk across Durham proper in two hours, east to west, along Main Street. I frequently do. It’s nicer than driving because I get to say hey to all of my neighbors out on their porches, and also, the Carolina climate is a fine wine indeed.
I moved here by chance. After I left a scientific career, my sister volunteered her guest room. Durham seemed like a sleepy university town where I could ponder my next move. The day I arrived, my brother took me on a long motorcycle ride through old neighborhoods, past southern mansions and red gardens, down long leafy avenues like green cathedrals. It felt like a place where I could rest.
That was seven years ago. Durham is still a city of green avenues and red gardens, but it’s no longer sleepy. Now I keep my eyes open so that I don’t miss anything. It seems like every other day I hear about a new artist, a new gallery, a new theater company, a new gourmet food truck, a new urban garden, a new performance space, a new restaurant, a new social media venture, a new artisinal café, a new salon, a new installation, a new organic farm, a new small press, a new celebration, a new festival, a new protest, a new parade. The very soil is humming. Everything we plant grows.
Durham is one-third of the Triangle, the heart of North Carolina, whose other points are Chapel Hill and Raleigh. The 2009 U. S. Census identified the Triangle as the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country. Local business was exploding even in the worst of the recession; the Triangle is consistently ranked one of the best places in the country to launch a small business. Due to the presence of Duke University, the University of North Carolina, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University, and Research Triangle Park, the largest biotechnology campus in the country, we have the fourth most highly-educated population in the United States. Our state arts council is legendary for supporting individual artists—to whom they hand out eighteen $10,000 grants a year—as well as county arts councils that administer smaller grants. Definitive festivals of two art forms, the Full Frame Documentary Festival and the American Dance Festival, are held here. The Durham Performing Arts Center is the fourth most-attended theater in the country.
Each city in the Triangle also has a strong identity, strong opinion about its identity, and strong opinions about the others’ identities. Snarking is a local sport. I oblige whenever I go to Chapel Hill (“God, I have to wear a handkerchief so I don’t inhale the twee”) or Raleigh (“oh, roundabouts, cute”). There’s an edge to these jokes, a healthy animus. I think of us as ancient Greek city-states, allying when necessary and competing when not. Athenian thespians were preoccupied with defining themselves as not-Other—not Thebes, not Sparta, not Corinth. The same energy exists in the Triangle, including in the theater community. Each city has a reputation for a different style: Chapel Hill, for academic theater; Raleigh, for traditional and musical theater; Durham, for avant garde theater. The more the scene explodes, the more exceptions outnumber the rules; however, reputations still inform our choices. The result is strongly evolved microcultures, all of whom support new work in their own ways. Because I belong to the Durham microculture, that’s the one to which I’ll speak.
In 2006, I saw an adaptation of Cymbeline in a drafty warehouse by the now-defunct Single Shot Productions. They were high school kids. It was a ragamuffin show, steampunk on a shoestring. The production was ecstatic, inventive, and deeply weird. I have a vivid memory of watching the cast warm up in the rain, a small army of youths posing and flexing like wrestlers in an Athenian gymnasium. I realized, No one has ever told them what they can and cannot do.
It was the beginning of my education in the Durham aesthetic.
Six months later, I introduced myself to their director, Lucius Robinson. I asked (practically digging my toe into the ground) if maybe I could work with him sometime, maybe be in one of his shows, even though I had no credentials to speak of. To my surprise, he was warm and gracious. We exchanged numbers. We met later at a bar, but we had to go elsewhere, because—I didn’t realize—he was only nineteen. He cast me in his adaptation of Othello, never having seen me act, just because I was eager.
Three months later, I had a parallel experience: I’d seen Lucius in a production of The Pillowman at Manbites Dog, a Durham theater that had been producing new work for twenty-five years. The character of Katurian was played by one Jay O’Berski, the Artistic Director of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. Again, I approached him and asked if I could work on one of his shows. Again, to my surprise, he was warm and gracious. Again, he cast me even though he’d never seen me act, and it went well. So a couple of years later, when I wrote my first play, Jay asked to see it. I thought it was way too weird and dark even for Durham. But not only did he love it, he produced and directed it, and it sold out its entire run. I haven’t wanted for opportunities since.
My story is something of a fairytale. I see Durham through rose-colored glasses; not everyone has as easy a time getting new work produced. But still, these stories illuminate the heart of Durham theater: we say yes to each other. It doesn’t matter where you trained or where you studied. What matters is if you have soul, spark, duende. Passion is rewarded; pedigrees are not. A person’s résumé has no relationship to whether or not she can tell the truth.
Willful ignorance of the larger national scene does have its drawbacks. Speaking for myself, I end up asking dumb questions on Twitter like What is a LORT? and worrying about what I don’t know. Durham has its own norms. The more I learn about the national theater scene, the more I’m baffled, even angry: There’s categorical resistance to producing new work? Why? Women and people of color have a hard time getting produced? Why? Plays are workshopped endlessly without ever being produced? Why?
Because that’s not the way it has to be. We’re proof of that.
I don’t want to give the impression that Durham is All Elysium All the Time. We have our issues. For example, nobody makes a living just doing theater—maybe one or two artistic directors, but no playwrights or actors, certainly. I freelance, others teach, and others have day jobs. And though DPAC is a major international venue, and Playmakers usually mounts a production of whatever was big in New York last season, hoi polloi usually can’t afford tickets to either, so both are only marginally relevant to local artists making new work. And like Vincent Delaney noted in his column on Seattle, though we’re thick with wealthy biotech companies like IBM, SAS, and GSK, their investment in local theater is glancing.
It’s their loss. The Triangle is hungry for art, and hungry for mirrors that reflect how fast we’re changing. Durham is on the cusp of a vast demographic shift: whites are a minority, Durham being the historic capital of the Black middle class; meanwhile, the Latino population is ballooning. The state at large is also in the midst of a huge sociopolitical shift: North Carolina went blue for Obama in 2008, but then passed Amendment One, which did profound violence to North Carolina families. It pained me to see so many artists declare that they’d boycott North Carolina. On the contrary, this is exactly why we need you: to help us build the new age.
In talking with a friend about writing this article, he asked what I hoped would come out of it: “So do you want playwrights to start sending their plays here?” My reply was immediate and vehement: “No. I want playwrights to move here and make new work. I want to see new work every weekend.” I thought of all the buildings I pass in downtown Durham, and for that matter, in downtown Raleigh and Chapel Hill—dozens under renovation, filling up one by one—and how I keep hoping that one or two or ten of them will be colonized by some enterprising theater artists, sent by the Muse and filled with duende, who got sick of being told what they could and couldn’t do, who have a dream of making new work in a community, for a community.
No one’s telling us no. We’re only beginning.
At the end of the classical era, the Greek city-states had fallen to in-fighting, weakening themselves into irrelevance while to the north, the Alexandrian empire was a glimmer in young warriors’ eyes. Maybe the Triangle is not the Greek city-states after all. Maybe we’re Macedon.
Thanks to Professor Carol Dougherty of Wellesley College.