A Lover's Guide to American Playwrights

Kia Corthron

A Lover's Guide to American Playwrights is a regular column by Todd London. It is part of an ongoing series of tributes to contemporary playwrights. Mostly begun as speeches at New Dramatists—for career achievement awards, to mark the end of seven-year residencies, or, in a few cases, as eulogies—these portraits celebrate the body of work, lives, and singular gifts of those brave, ferocious, foolhardy souls of those who write plays for the American theatre. 

 

A women smiling
Kia Corthron.

On September 15th, playwright Kia Corthron will officially receive a Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize from Yale University. The Windham-Campbell Prize is a whopper, a $150,000 unrestricted award designed to help writers do what they most need to do: write. The announcement of the award this summer made for one of those too rare and entirely welcome moments in the theatre, when the way gets paved for an important creative artist to cease worrying about money and, over what could be several years, do the pressing work ahead. In Kia’s case, this freedom may be doubly valuable, because she suffers from a pair of maladies that hinder playwrights in the United States: 1) she’s overtly political; and 2) she’s firmly planted in mid-career.

There is so much to say about Kia, because Kia herself has so very much to say, and because what she says in her work is always so urgent, so vital. Because to fail to listen to what she has to say is to fail some part of our own humanity, to fail in our responsibility as citizens of this world to engage the world.

Kia is an avowedly political writer, an activist playwright. She is a pioneer and an example. Her politics—each play is written on a subject of immediate socio-political concern—make up one side of what I see as her unique triple-gift. Whether tackling environmental racism, community policing in black communities, land mines, homelessness, or pharmacological control of teenage violence, she moves bravely, spiritedly, buoyantly, and forcefully through not only the conflicts and injustices, but also through the contradictory human predicaments of each topic. It’s hard to think of anyone writing today who risks like she does, in terms of subject matter or complexity of attack.

Along with Kia’s political commitment comes her huge capacity for empathy. She lovingly creates her characters out of her singular awareness that people are always larger than their environment and more rounded than any stereotype permits. I think of her precocious, research-obsessed project-dwelling teenagers in Splash Hatch on the E Going Down and Seeking the Genesis or, in Breath, Boom, the violent girl gang leader with an almost scholarly obsession with fireworks. Likewise, in Light Raise the Roof, there’s the homeless builder of shacks for other homeless people, a man on fire with the study of architecture. A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick overflows with the facts about American water use and sub-Saharan drought, and the characters’ engagement with those facts drives the action. Every one of Kia’s people has within her the capacity to think deeply, expansively, and critically about our society.

Actors on stage in a car
(L-R): Myra Lucretia Taylor, Kianné Muschett, and William Jackson Harper
in A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.
Photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

The third facet of her playwriting is gorgeous, vivacious, heightened language, as exceptional and as uniquely honed as the dialogue of any narrative-based writer now writing.

In this way, Kia is a descendant of Shaw’s. Like his characters, hers not only stand for something, but they can fully articulate what they stand for. But unlike Shaw, Kia is invested in the dimensionality of her creations. Her people live in ideas, and also in bodies, in feelings, in specific communities, in specific parts of town.

And they live in their words, their dazzling language, Kia’s dazzling language. The third facet of her playwriting is gorgeous, vivacious, heightened language, as exceptional and as uniquely honed as the dialogue of any narrative-based writer now writing. You can hear echoes of older African American writers like Amiri Baraka and Adrienne Kennedy, those most political and personal of playwrights, even as you are aware of another foundation, laid by British playwrights, social and political dramatists, over the past several decades, a tradition that Kia is Americanizing and making sound altogether new.

Her politics and her poetics come together on the tongues of her characters. Her language sings, jazz-like (soprano saxophone maybe), but it sings about the real world out of the mouths of fully formed, lovingly conceived human beings. It’s speeded up language, like a subway car or a cascade of water that’s been held under pressure or like Kia’s own way of talking when, after sitting without saying a word for hours at a time, the words start to tumble, trip, gush out of her.

Kia is forging a new kind of political writing for the theatre and is breaking new ground as surely as more formal or experimental writers. What she is saying and how she is saying it are equally revelatory. She has become that rare writer, about whom one can say: we need her.

Two women on a bicycle on stage
Amanda Granger and Sonja Park in 
Snapshot Silhouette. Photo by Rob Levine.

Specifically, we need her example, the example of art that is inseparable from activism. Snapshot Silhouette, commissioned and produced by the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, grew out of Kia’s interviews with kids from the burgeoning Somali community there. She has traveled to Liberia, interviewing survivors of that nation’s massacres, as well as workers (functional slaves) at Liberia’s Firestone plantation. She has worked with women prisoners, black cops, members of girl gangs, and many other overlooked, demonized communities, not only to tell their stories but to match those stories with an equally powerful artistic sensibility—dialogue and art.

She is the very sort of writer our theatre always needs and too regularly shuns: a writer of voice and political content, who can speak to many audiences. Without the example of a committed dramatic poet like Kia Corthron, the theatre feels blander, thinner, condemned to remain a world apart from the culture at large. With her our blood races, and we experience the hidden violence and self-secret integrities of the world anew. She makes exorbitant demands on the world, and matches those demands with her humane example, clarity of thought, and a voice that rises excitedly higher and higher, lifting us with it.

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An ongoing series of tributes to contemporary playwrights.

A Lover's Guide to American Playwrights 

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Beautifully expressed, Todd! There is indeed so much to say about KiaCorthron, who’s not only a writer of consequence and political activist, butalso a tireless advocate of other artists. I’m hoping more theatres will take notice of her work – including her epicplay TAP THE LEOPARD, about therelationship between the United States and Liberia. Spanning a couple of centuries, the play illuminatesthe troubled history of Liberia while also evoking the haunting legacy of imperialism.

Thank you, Todd. Kia had a major impact on many at the GPTC in Omaha this year. Her work challenges us to look deeper, to see more, feel more, to act and take action with more compassion. It does this, by way of example, through soulful/courageous observation and extraordinary imagination joining together with great artistry and craft. It provides a challenge that is, at times, painful because it acutely illustrates the ways in which we hurt ourselves and others (as individuals and collectively). It also explores our hopes, our dreams, and the deep fields of love that somehow survive inside us. It is an art that provides real and substantial hope because it helps us in our struggle to know and love the world (including ourselves) more deeply.

Todd - thank you for this - Kia is one of our most important, inspiring writers. Her work has made a deep impact on me; I can vividly remember the first time I experienced play of hers, and realizing that this was the embodiment of the kind of work to which I aspired. My admiration only grew when I had the opportunity to collaborate with her, and I believe the impact she has had on theatre makers in this country will continue to be felt for many decades. The muscular combination of political commitment and poetic rigor in her writing, combined with deeply moving drama, is unique, and epitomizes what theatre can do at its best. So glad to hear about the very deserved Windham-Campbell Prize.