It seems like this was a very organic process so it doesn’t seem like it would have jarred too much, but did you feel like at any moment you were confronting a strange form that you didn’t quite feel comfortable in?
I think that the form came to meet me. Initially the expectation from Melanie was a very performative text and I have always lived in a very contemplative text. And so the idea of going from a field of contemplation into an active space was frightening to me. And not something that I naturally know how to do. So, what had to happen was we had to both kind of move towards each other. My notion of character became the character of the play but I don’t think it would have ever initially been Melanie’s idea of character. But I think in the end it is the right choice. I think that the reason she asked me to do this is because there was, I have to believe, I guess, that this is the way that perhaps she actually wanted to go. I think that we both initially were working from where we knew. And so a lot of the process has been coming closer to each other. She has to stand in the meditative moment and I had to move forward in the performative moment.
And did you ever have a conversation at all about why she has chosen to work with poets twice now?
I know that with me, Melanie said that she wanted the language to become a kind of character and I was interested in working with language as character. We did have the conversation about why not get somebody who is Puerto Rican, or why not get a writer who has lived here. I did ask her that in the height of my frustration. Why me? And I think she, again and again, has gone back to [Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine’s latest book] and said that it was really the sensibility of Lonely that made her want to have me do this.
It does seem like the work in that book has such a strong voice in terms of character, they are very much character-driven pieces, monologues in a sense, in the form of essay and poem. It seems like that’s very much a part of your writing—this sense of the unique perspective of the individual in the world.
Yeah, I think that must have motivated her. But you would have to ask her. It’s been amazing working with somebody that has the kind of vision and experience that she has.
The Foundry does do really thoughtful work.
It got to the point where I would cross something out and she would say to me, “You know we really need to cut that line.” And I would hand her the paper where I had just crossed it out. We definitely share something. There’s a real sense of sensitivity to the landscape that I think we share. And it’s been a real experience learning to trust. As a writer who has not worked in a collaborative way before, I think the main thing is that you have to learn to trust the person you’re working with. And you get to that position by realizing that they too want what you want, you know. It took us some time but we got there. And it’s been a very satisfying experience for me.
Has this experience made you interested in looking at other ways to incorporate live experience into your work?
Yes. It seems like my work has become more and more interested in a kind of documentary mode and also in negotiating the lyric moment into the actual moment. And I’m also really interested in the kind of assumptions we bring to bear on any given moment. Especially ones that are captured visually. I just finished a series of films with my husband where I wrote in text. You remember when Zidane [French soccer-player Zinedine Zidane] head-butted that guy in the World Cup—not this past year but a couple of years ago. It was one of those moments where everyone had an opinion about what was happening but we couldn’t hear anything, we could only see it. And so we made a short video where I wrote text to fill in the silence of that image. It’s funny because this play seems like the next evolution of that. Like you have this landscape and it is very fraught historically and it’s like, make it talk, make it come back at you.
(photo credit: Sunder Ganglani, The Foundry Theatre)