"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."
BRENDAN LEMON: Your new play Admissions deals with acceptance policies at a prep school and at elite universities. Why in the U.S. are prep schools and universities so often the locus for debates about diversity and inclusion?
JOSHUA HARMON: Although the play is called Admissions and is about an Admissions officer, it's not really about applying to college. That's the container, I suppose, to be able to ask the larger questions with which the play is trying to engage. At its core, this play is an examination of whiteness: white privilege, white power, white anxiety, white guilt, all of it. Conversations on matters of race are happening with greater frequency and intensity all over the nation, which is so necessary, and there are so many ways to have them, and so many different aspects and views to consider and digest. This play is trying to hold up a mirror to white liberalism, while remaining very conscious of the fact that this is just one narrow slice of a much larger conversation.
I suppose I was also writing in reaction to something I've noticed in stories and films and plays which are purportedly about race. In my experience, white characters are often relegated to one of two roles: either they're monstrously insane psychopathic racist villains (think Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson in 12 Years a Slave; James Woods in Ghosts of Mississippi; Bob Ewell in To Kill A Mockingbird) or they're saintly white saviors (think Atticus Finch; Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave, Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill). There are many reasons for this phenomenon, going back to our nation's Puritanical roots, and the desire to simply and quickly ferret out good from evil. Reducing characters in this way also provides clarity to the audience. We know exactly how we are meant to feel, and with whom we are meant to identify. But in real life, most people are not all good or all evil. Most of us live somewhere in between those two extremes, whether or not we like to admit we do.
I wanted to try and capture an aspect of race as it pertains to white people that I'd never seen onstage before, one which presents white people who live in that grey area, and doesn't delineate between clear villains and saints. Many times in stories with white casts, the audience is not overtly asked to contemplate race, as if the story being told exists outside of that discussion. I wanted to write a play where the characters' whiteness was actually a defining factor, where we see their whiteness and contemplate it openly. In the play, Sherri is constantly dealing with issues of race: at work, at home, in her marriage, in raising her child, in her friendships. None of us exist outside of history. We are bound up in it, always, even in our living rooms, even when we are alone.
I began writing this play long before he-who-shall-not-be-named declared his candidacy for President, but as I reflect on this moment, it feels like we are living in a time of intense hatred. It is everywhere, it is oppressive, it is debilitating. It has been so painful to watch the rise of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism as it creeps out from dark corners and occupies a larger space in the limelight. But it's also dismaying watching the way the left, and particularly white liberals, disassociate from those people whose views they find reprehensible, as if "they" have nothing to do with "us." As if we are two completely separate entities. As if we are not all somehow in this thing together.
In an editorial for The NY Times last month, Ibram X. Kendi wrote, "Racist is not a fixed category like 'not-racist,' which is steeped denial. Only racists say they are not racist. Only the racist lives by the heartbeat of denial. The anti racist lives by the opposite heartbeat, one that rarely and irregularly sounds in America-- the heartbeat of confession."
It is easy, in times like these, to point at someone else as the problem. We see it on the right, and we see it on the left. What we see too rarely is self-reflection. This play, I hope, creates a space for some self-reflection, to look within, to consider the ways in which, even with the best of intentions, we can remain complicit in the perpetuation of something that we simultaneously abhor.
BL: You wrote a play called Ivanka, which was performed around the time of the 2016 election. Any chance that this work will be performed again?
JH: I specifically wrote the play during the last Presidential campaign as an act of civil disobedience. I was so terrified by the level of discourse, I was binging the news, a truly disturbing diet, and I had no release. So I decided to channel my fear into something productive. I adapted Medea, rewritten to accommodate our now first family. The play was read all over the country the night before the election in 2016. There was a real feeling, at least in my mind, that our ability to speak freely was in peril. It was imperative to speak up while we still had that right. Now the play feels like a kind of strange but lovely time capsule, of my fears but also my hope that things might have turned out differently. But the play is also a capsule because the news cycle changes so quickly, there's no way to keep up, not on stage anyway, so the play is a representation of pre-election fears. A theater company in Pennsylvania did a reading on the one-year anniversary, and I'd be very happy if other theaters were so inclined, but my hunch is if the play is going to have a future life, we will need more distance from that election. The play might mean more down the road, in the future. That is, if we survive. (As you can see, I'm a great optimist.)
BL: You are a big fan of Joni Mitchell. Imagine that her songs were to be incorporated into a jukebox musical and you were writing the book. What aspect(s) of her life and career would you focus on?
JH: I would actually be heartbroken to learn someone had made a jukebox musical of Joni Mitchell's songs.
BL: Your play Bad Jews has been performed by numerous companies around the U.S. and around the world. Why do you think it has been so popular?
JH: Who knows? I really did write that play for myself. Before Bad Jews, which was also directed by the great Daniel Aukin, I'd never had a professional production. I was feeling very lost when I wrote it, which is scary at the time, but in hindsight I recognize that sense of being unmoored contains a kind of freedom in it. I had nothing to lose, so I wrote a play for myself, a play I wanted to see. The lesson I taught myself in writing that play is that there is tremendous value as a writer in creating an experience that you yourself are hungry to have as an audience member. The questions the play asks are so specific. But the play has spoken to people from all walks of life, which was another lesson to me: when you write specifically, you actually have the best chance of tapping into something universal. So much of my writing grapples with questions of identity. At the core of identity is the very simple question: who am I? And that's a question we are all asking of ourselves, whatever our background.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.