WE SPOKE WITH PLAYWRIGHT KELI GARRETT IN ADVANCE OF HER NOVEMBER 2ND READING AT THE PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER.
from the desk of the DIRECTOR
In your own words, what is Space about? It’s about two events. It’s about the floods of Mississippi in 1927 and Katrina in 2005,
Last summer, while we were developing Ms. Garrett’s play Space at Penumbra Theatre’s OKRA New Play Development Program, I discovered a few things that, as a director, I found thrilling. The first was that the writing demands transformational acting skills by the performers. This type of code-switching, which has been inherent to African-American survival from the beginning of this nation, I had never seen manifest so organically in a play. The second was the multiple layers of meaning that the title holds. I always held on to the Space as the distances between the parallel existences— between Hurricane Katrina and the Mississippi Flood of 1927. On one level, Space seemed like the repetition of catastrophe on Black people. Ms. Garrett, being an artist, knows that Blues never gives tragedy the last word. Or, as she has Teacher sing so eloquently near the end of the piece, “the whole damn world ain’t bigger than we.”
and the specific people involved in those events. My impetus for writing the play was to
It’s really a tragic instance of history and a tragic reflection of a system of slavery that
Director, SPACE; Associate Artistic Director, Penumbra Theatre
look at those two events and to make characters who could make the events relevant, particularly considering the disparity of time between the two disasters. What was the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and how does your play connect it to Katrina? Well, the flood happened when the tributaries overtook the land in the region of Mississippi. Lots of black folks didn’t have many places to go, so they were refugees on the levee—they were housed there and held there against their will. There was a lot of internecine political conflict because essentially, black people were being held on the levee to be kept in this feudal system of sharecropping in the South. Many landowners were concerned about losing this virtually free labor force, which had been working for them in penury, basically. So there was a lot of conflict, a lot of vigilante violence. And this was essentially done at the highest levels of local and regional government. continued even after 1865. As a result of the levee, a lot of black people did, of course, migrate north to places like Chicago. There was a big political break in terms of Herbert Hoover working as the
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SPACE BY KELI GARRETT
grand rescuer of black people. Herbert Hoover ostensibly was there to rescue a lot
MONDAY, NOV. 2 • 7 P.M. • at the PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER
of people, but because he had his own political ambitions, a lot of black people were
“I am—we are, finally—neither from here nor there, from then or now.” In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, reporter Kassandra Dupris is taken hostage by a white supremacist group. As the floodwaters rise, reports of rescued puppies compete with underreported stories of loss and devastation. A door opens, and time and place shift between Hurricane Katrina 2005 and the Great Mississippi Floods of 1927.
simply not given the full succor, the full relief that they needed.
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I felt that Katrina, in terms of how the people who were affected reacted to it, was an extension of that kind of historical dynamic going back to 1927. I think that the way so many Katrina victims reacted to being displaced, and the fact that conspiracy theories abounded, had to do with the fact that those feelings, those reactions, were rooted
in a real historical context. So I felt like … the indiscriminateness of a natural disaster
that’s necessarily rewritten, but in some ways dramaturgically restructured. I’m looking
notwithstanding, the political ramifications associated with natural disasters become just
for fluency in the script, but at the same time understanding that in a workshop
as significant, because I think that’s what keeps them lingering, you know? The memory,
process, there are in fact certain limits to seeing its viability. Because as we all know,
the effect of them lingers.
plays simply need to be done in live performance over and over again with full bells and whistles. So, I’m working to see if this new restructuring makes sense, and I have a strong instinct it does, but I’m looking forward to actually seeing it done.
as I got older, I realized that theater demands a lot of rigor and a lot of work, and being a writer, I fully understand NOW how long this process is. —keli garrett
The play takes place in AND AROUND a great deal of water. Do you envision an elaborate set WITH REAL WATER, or a convention of some sort to get around that? Well, I think water would be great. I think some water makes a lot of sense. It doesn’t have to be a full deluge, but I would imagine, in the shoes of a designer, that I’d be really interested in designing a play like Space. Because the water is so active in the play—or at least, I’ve attempted to make the water as active as possible.
You’ve been working on SPACE for a while. When did you start?
We understand what happens in floods; it’s not just that water rises, but water
I started writing it two years ago. It was a really laborious process because it was a lot
swamps. Water upsets things and water drowns things and brings a lot of things up
of research to do, and it was a big challenge to frame a play around two major events.
to the surface. And in the script, the central characters are reacting to that often, as
I was working a lot to synthesize all of that information, to make the piece dramatically
you just said. The characters are on the water. They’re seen in the water. So, yeah, I
viable. So it took a while. A lot of writing and rewriting.
think water would be a great idea, but I suppose how deep is at the discretion of the design team.
Over the past couple years Space has been read at LAByrinth, the New York Theater Worskhop, and just this past summer at
How did you become a playwright?
Penumbra TheatrE. How did that most recent workshop go?
Well, I have been working in the theater for a long time. I started as an actor and I
It went well. It gave me an opportunity to look at one rewrite I had done, and it gave
always wrote, and I am originally from Chicago, so one of the first professional things I
me the know-how to do this rewrite that’s going to go up at the Playwrights’ Center.
ever did as an actor was an adaptation that I’d written of Alice Walker’s Meridian.
So it was great. Working in that collaborative process was really helpful; the actors were tremendously hardworking, and they grew a lot. It was great to watch them create the
I got into theater, I guess, because it was something I was really good at, and when I
piece, to get some semblance of what the piece would look like at full performance.
was young I naively wanted to express myself. But of course, as I got older, I realized that theater demands a lot of rigor and a lot of work, and being a writer, I fully
What will you be focusing on as you move into the Playwrights’
understand now how long this process is. But I like the sense, particularly as a writer,
of generating my work, you know? Of being a generative artist and having some
Just like with the Penumbra project, where I knew that I was going in with a script I had
control over the concept, or the frame, of a story. That’s really been significant, just the
rewritten, now I’m going into the Playwrights’ Center workshop with … not a piece
fact that I can make something.
Your workshop and reading are being directed by your husband, Dominic Taylor. What’s it like developing your work
work with someone that close to you? Well, even though we’re married, the critical lens between us is never suspended. We
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are in fact two really demanding people. So we tend to separate the personalness of our spousal relationship from our artistic relationship, because we both agree that the work is really what matters. I think that Dominic is really, really smart. And I always thought he was smart, even before I married him. He has a strong dramaturgical sense, he has a lot of vision, he’s really imaginative, and I trust him implicitly because we can
ADY BY RHIANA YAZZIE
talk about the work and he gives me an honest answer and vice versa. And sometimes
MONDAY, DEC. 7 • 7 P.M. • at the PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER
we do disagree. We disagree like adults, for the most part, so working with him is
A Lee Miller photograph of surrealist artists that includes a dancer from the West Indies naked to the waist is the jumping-off place for this play. A contemporary Navajo woman relates the mostly unknown story of the surrealist muse Adrienne Fidelin, Ady. A play that reveals the woman in the photograph through the lens of race, history, and art.
generally a pretty good experience. It’s not without its challenges, but I am a better artist for it, I think. What do you like or dislike in a play?
Ady was commissioned by Pangea World Theatre.
I love a play—and I think this is rare—where metaphor is exposed. Because, of course,
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plays aren’t real, and I think that stagework is really limitless in that sense. I love to see work that’s adventurous but meaningful, you know? I like to see a play where action is significant, where characters are engaged logically in behavior that is congruent to the world of the play that the playwright has constructed. That’s really essential to me—that whatever world this is, that it makes sense for what it is, and I’m willing to enter into it. I love when a play takes me outside of the obvious. The world you’ve constructed for Space seems to dip its toe in
In the 2008/09 seasons, RHIANA YAZZIE saw the production of four new plays in the Twin Cities: Rainbow Crow, a commission by Stepping Stone Theatre for Youth Development in Saint Paul; Las Madres, commissioned by Teatro del Pueblo for their 2009 Political Theatre Festival; Red Ink, a commission by Mixed Blood Theatre; and Ady, a commission by Pangea World Theatre. Rhiana relocated to Minnesota from Los Angeles after receiving a Playwrights’ Center Jerome Fellowship in 2006. She is also an awardwinning writer of plays for radio and for youth. Her next production is a Theatre for Young Audiences tour at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2010.
science fiction with the interchange between time periods. Yeah, that’s the Star Trek influence. I do love sci-fi because, of course, sci-fi is so imaginative. You know, I didn’t know how else to do it but just to do it. Speaking of plays not being real, it’s like, “Let’s just try this and see what happens.” That was actually a sort of terrifying thing for me to do, so I always hope that that means something for people; that as far-out as it is, it rings true.
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Published on Oct 20, 2009
We spoke with Core Writer Keli Garrett about her new play SPACE, which charts the connections - both literal and cultural - between Hurrican...