Behind the Curtain: In Conversation with Playwright-Director Monty Cole

On June 4th, as we reported, the four playwrights slotted for this year’s Ignition Festival at Victory Gardens published an open letter withdrawing their plays. On the evening of June 5th, as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Chicago drew thousands of marchers to the streets, I sat down (virtually) with Monty Cole for a wide ranging discussion of his project-in-progress, BLACK LIKE ME, that had been slated to headline Ignition. We spoke about the play, his progression from director to playwright, and how Radical Empathy is at the core of his work.

The following is a distilled transcription of our wide ranging conversation (minus many minutes of me fan-girling about his recent projects including his flawless BROTHERS SIZE at Steppenwolf for Young Adults, his triumphant INCENDIARY at Goodman New Stages, and the deceptively soapy ‘til it wasn’t KISS at Haven.) 

As we wait until it’s safe to make theater once more, I hope this conversation about BLACK LIKE ME will give you a sneak peak of what we can expect at the next public iteration. The piece is sure to be an important touchstone for our community, forged at a particularly salient moment.

Q: You’re one of Chicago’s most innovative directors. How has directing led you to playwriting? 

A: I have a very specific thing I want to do in theater. I’m not one of these people who believes that theater is the “best medium” or the “only medium.” I think that each medium has specific areas where it succeeds and I’ve been trying to circle what that is specifically for theater.

And so, as I try to do that, it’s hard for me sometimes to just pick up a hot new play from New York and be like, “Let’s go.” I’m finding that the specificity of what I want to do has become really important and in theater, in America, it’s hard to find that as a director. People understand the playwright as an artist who has something to say, and less so the director. So I’ve been finding myself move toward directing my own work because it’s allowing me to be very specific about the work I create.

Q: What inspired you to adapt BLACK LIKE ME?

A: The genesis of BLACK LIKE ME was — I was specifically trying to look for an old movie to adapt, and I saw this big, insane movie poster that said, “I changed the color of my skin and now I know what it feels like to be black.” And I was like, “That’s crazy, I feel like I don’t always know how to describe exactly how it feels to be black. What makes you think you can do that?”

Then I found out that it was a book, and then I found out that the book was a true story and then I found out the book is structured as a grouping of journal entries. And I got really interested so I read it and I had this experience of being really sucked into the story.

BLACK LIKE ME follows John Howard Griffin, a white Texan journalist who decides he wants to know what it’s like to be black. So he goes to this dermatologist (laughs to himself) who tells him to take two pills per day, sit under a sunlamp, apply dye to the skin, and eventually your skin will look black for six weeks. He flies to New Orleans to start this experiment, travels through the south and writes a journal entry every day. The book is a collection of those entries.

And so when I first read it, I was really sucked into the story, and there are moments where I was like, “Fuck you, that’s not what it’s like to be black, you’re making a generalization.” Or, “Oh shit that is what it’s like to be black, damn how does he know that?” It was this experience of being sucked in and then pushing away and getting sucked in and then pushing away. Repulsed and seduced.

If the original book was an Idiot’s Guide to Being a Good Ally in 1961, the play is an Idiot’s Guide to Being a Good Ally in 2020. The play is both an adaptation and a commentary on the book. It pushes back at some of the things John did and also admires him simultaneously. John Howard Griffin did an incredibly offensive and perverse act out of a place of wanting Radical Empathy. He gets some things wrong and at the same time he actually cared to understand black people and educate white people. It’s juicily complicated. It asks people of color to say, “Okay. If someone fucks up and offends us, but then learns, and gets better, and passes the mic, and shuts up, and goes back to the community, and tells them what’s up, and does all these things we want an ally to do: What do we do then?” What happens after the clapback? How are we giving people the space to learn and evolve and become the people we want them to be? And at what point do we give up on them?

BLACK LIKE ME has a very practical purpose to me. That’s why it’s so hard to see it misused. The purpose of it is to form a town hall on stage. What’s interesting about the play is that whomever is in the play is supposed to talk back to it. It’s written in such a way that, whether it’s my writing for the actors, or their encouraged impromptu ad-libbed opinion, the play is meant to be a platform for however the ensemble is feeling about the story that night. It requires opinionated actors and it requires conversation.

Q: So what was the beginning of the piece’s development?

A: [The first workshop was at] American Theater Company. Will Davis gave me the opportunity to workshop BLACK LIKE ME with his CORE program. I set up mics on a folding table, and those mics were attached to looping pedals and voice modulators for the actors to take on different characters and play with the text’s rhythm. There were clip lights surrounding the table attached to a power strip with a button that could turn off all the clip lights and cue me to turn the work lights on. It was hyperdramatic. There were shadows and uplight on the actors and they read directly from the book. Then suddenly Rashaad Hall would click the power strip and the dramatic lighting would turn off, the theater work lights would turn on, and he’d be like, “Okay, what the fuck is up with this moment? What is John even thinking here?” And they would just debate that part for a second, and then one of them would be like, “Alright, let’s get back to it.” And click, it would get really dramatic again. So we’re constantly shifting between the hyperdramatic and the metatheatrical, the adaptation and the commentary. In the end there was a huge applause. And Will was like, “Does anyone have any thoughts or ideas or questions?” And the whole audience immediately raised their hands.

Q: And you also workshopped the piece at CalArts?

A: Yes, I attended CalArts to receive an MFA, but mostly to hone my work as an artist and find that specificity I was talking about earlier. They gave me the opportunity to develop the play on my feet with incredible resources, an international team of designers and an unbelievably talented ensemble of six Black actors and one white actor. The life that you see in the script today is completely because those young artists put their heart and soul into that process. I have their different voices and opinions in my head as I continue to make edits to the script. As a writer/director, it’s so useful for me to have that workshop production in my head as I move the piece forward.

Q: What challenges have you encountered as you’ve taken on the dual role of writer/director?

A: I know how to make experiences. The biggest challenge that I have as a writer is that I don’t always know how to translate those experiences to the page. Both of the writing projects that I’ve worked on recently… When you went to see them, they were powerful and people had an amazing time. However, when you look at what’s on the page, it’s just not the same.

And it’s because I’m a director first. I’m in the process of being able to hone that vision to the page, which is why something like an Ignition, or any other development opportunity, is a big deal. Those opportunities allow me to figure out how to make this not just “the thing that Monty did one time,” but actually create a guide for someone else to be able to pick up [the script for] BLACK LIKE ME in the future and do it themselves.

Q: That makes so much sense because your work always has such a powerful visual text alongside the language. In part that’s why your viral essay about PASS OVER in the context of the Chicago theater aesthetic was so needed and so applauded. In particular, your point about making room for the highly symbolic. 

A: I think we are very much used to a literalness. Even the phrase “we say it to their faces” is supporting literalness. It’s made our audience expect it in a way that’s not always helpful. I find the idea of “getting” something—that in order to find meaning in something you have to understand it—is pretty harmful. We don’t watch with our hearts. We’re watching with our brains. So when we’re watching something we’re not saying like, “Oh, I really felt that.” Instead, we’re trying to think about what it means, “getting it.” A lot of the times when I’m doing something, I don’t necessarily know what the specific meaning is on a universal level. I know what it means to me. I know what it feels like to me. But I can’t speak that for you.

And I want to encourage audiences to start to feel for themselves because I think that’s where, when it hits the right way, theatre can actually have more meaning to them.

Q: I appreciate that distinction you’re making between the emotional and the cerebral in theater, which is one of the central tensions of our craft. 

A: We are so quick to seek “understanding” because we can Google something so fast. If we don’t understand something, we can [remedy that]. Something that we feel takes more time to marinate in one’s body. This is also what makes writing reviews so dumb most of the time. Critics have to quickly come up with a response to the thing when they really haven’t let the thing sit in their body long enough to actually feel what happened. They can only try to “get” what happened, but that doesn’t always give you the answers.

I’m generally looking for some kind of depth. And I’m generally looking for us to try and understand an experience outside of our own. That’s what KISS is about. That’s what BLACK LIKE ME is about. If we try to understand a struggle outside of our own, we can access empathy. If we can access empathy, maybe we can become better as a society.

Q: Beautiful. We’ve come full circle. I want to thank you so much, Monty, for taking the time to speak with me, on a busy day, during what might be one of most historically important weeks of our lives. It was such a gift to get to speak with you personally.

A: Thank you, thank you for doing this. It’s such a nicer way to have an interview.

Photo from the CalArts workshop of Black Like Me, April 2019. Photo credit: Hao Feng.

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