Idris Goodwin Talks Representation in Theatre

Idris Headshot

Morgan Greene (BFA Theatre Arts ’15) talks with playwright Idris Goodwin about Representation in Hip Hop Theatre in relation to his essays, plays, and recent HowlRound article, “Where Broadway At?: Meditations On the Closing of the Tupac Musical.”

Morgan Greene: One of the questions we’ve grappled with during rehearsals for In the Heights is the responsibility involved in honoring the performance context of a show when performing it with a limited casting pool in a university setting. It reminds me of These Are The Breaks“Whose imagination is being enacted?” What complications present themselves with representation in institutional settings like college theatre departments?

Idris Goodwin: By and large most college students who’re majoring in theater are gonna be white.  That ain’t gonna change over night. But it’s unacceptable to just use that as an excuse to further promote a limited canon and to exclude/ neglect the actors of color (as few as they may or may not be). They deserve to learn and try and fail and succeed in a myriad of roles. Shakespeare is a great tool for learning, but so are August Wilson and David Henry Hwang and Maria Irene Fornes and Luis Valdez. We gotta be better. We gotta try harder.

MG: Diversity (and the lack thereof as you mention) in the majority of university theatre departments exists alongside a dedication to producing work from a variety of voices. Can commitment to diversity in theatre progress without a diverse student body? What are the implications of producing important work outside of the mainstream, whether Hip-Hop plays, queer plays, plays with young people- without having large groups representing these labels?  What are the responsibilities students have when stepping into an experience outside of their own?  

IG: It’s tricky because representation is important to people. For me the entire point of theater is to immerse yourself in a world not your own so that you can a. Broaden your understanding of the world outside your own small sphere and b. Hopefully see yourself somewhere within the story of someone else.  I don’t have a hard line stance on the color blind casting thing. It’s complex and varies from production to production. Sometimes it’s just a matter of directors stepping outside their usual pool and taking some extra effort to cast wide nets. I have heard, “I’m not sure if we could cast it,” or, “our acting pool is limited,” which comes out of laziness. What they are saying is, ” I don’t know where to look,” or, “the search is gonna be too much work.” That said, if a production hinges on one or two parts …hell the show must go on. For me the play being produced is the main thing.

MG: In the HowlRound article, you write: “I do believe and eagerly await the day that a multitude of Hip-Hop oriented dramas and spectacles, comedies and tragedies ‘gentrify the Great White Way’ to quote Holler star Saul Williams.” In the Heights doesn’t stray from gentrification- with constant references to raising rents forcing businesses to relocate, lyrics calling out the eventual influx of “rich folks” and “hipsters.” Do you think it’s possible to turn the tables and gentrify Broadway in a positive way?

IG: In addition to actors or even playwrights, we need diverse producers…Will Smith, Jay Z, Alicia Keys, and other prominent African Americans are starting to produce for Broadway. I am sure across the cultural spectrum this is growing. It’s coming. Right now it’s about creating and owning space. Creating new lanes and venues for people to receive content. About finding ways to improve and provide for your community regardless of the presence of outsiders. It’s like what Magic Johnson did in black communities in Los Angeles.

MG: You write of rap as a coded language that can be continually rediscovered. Do you think a play can confront traditional forms while drawing from them?

IG: This is a matter of intended audience. How We Got On was written for a “general” audience- not an audience of hard-core hip hop heads. It’s inviting and there is constant contextualization for anything drawing from the Hip Hop aesthetic realm. Across all art mediums the artist negotiates the level of accessibility between his or herself, their peers and the audience.

MG: This is coming from my reading – but I think How We Got On and In the Heights share a desire between characters to claim a space for themselves where they don’t feel like outsiders. How does Hip-Hop as a movement relate to the experience of “otherness” in America’s so-called “mixing pot”?

IG: Hip Hop was founded by, and continues to be, the space where the marginalized can empower themselves. To become proficient in any of hip hop’s major art forms does not require you to be admitted to any sort of institute or organization.  Hip Hop is very well documented. Since it’s birth there are recordings, films, book and most of the pioneers are still alive. Just study and participate. Find the people around you who do it and join in. Be alright with being bad for a while. Just start saying your name and telling your story and celebrating your community.

MG: There’s a line from How We Got On:

“Rich People. Poor.

Handsome people.

Ugly. Citizens.

Immigrants.

Everybody”  

that seemed to be a utopian call for the kinds of audiences theatre can reach. Do you think Hip-Hop theatre has the possibility to break out of being a “niche” genre?

IG: Hip Hop Theatre is a conversation about possibilities, not necessarily a rigid form. Hip hop has influenced every corner of the world. For myself and countless others it provided an outlet to express and explore. As KRS-ONE says: you don’t do hip hop you are hip hop. So the question really is, what are hip hoppers bringing to Theatre in terms of form and content? As a professor my classroom is affected by Hip Hop. As a father my parenting is affected by Hip Hop. It has already proven itself. 

Idris Goodwin is an award winning playwright, essayist, and spoken word artist. His play HOW WE GOT ON, developed at The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, premiered at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 2012 Humana Festival. Nominated for an ATCA Steinberg New Play Award. Critically acclaimed and published by Playscripts, HOW WE GOT ON is being widely remounted across the country. Goodwin was back at Humana Festival this year as co-writer of Remix 38. Upcoming productions include: THIS IS MODERN ART at Steppenwolf Theater and AND IN THIS CORNER: CASSIUS CLAY at StageOne. He holds writing commissions from B Street Theater and InterAct (as recipient of their annual 20/20 Award). Goodwin has been a writer in residence at Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor Program, The Kennedy Center and New Harmony Project. Goodwin is a Core Writer with The Playwrights’ Center and a proud member of the Dramatist Guild. An accomplished poet and essayist, his book These Are The Breaks was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He’s performed on HBO, Discovery Channel, and Sesame Street. Goodwin teaches performance writing and hip hop aesthetics at Colorado College.

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