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Do you have any examples of that?
At one point we were at the waste treatment plant and there was a man there who was just in the booth, you know, the kind of people who tell you that you can’t come in. But he was very chatty. Once it was clear to him that we weren’t going to go in and were happy to just hang out with him, then he became interested and willing to tell us everything about the plant and the park next to the plant and his many years as a resident of the Bronx.
So, with all that material, how long did it take you to digest it and start to be able to write, or were you writing immediately?
It took awhile. I also read a number of books because I grew up in the Bronx…
Right, I should have started off with that question—what is your relationship with the Bronx? Your bio says you were born in Jamaica, lived in New York, studied at Williams College and then Columbia.
I didn’t grow up in the South Bronx and I hadn’t gone into the South Bronx ever. I grew up in Eastchester, which is in the Bronx but more of a Jamaican community. Actually I went to Cardinal Spellman High School, where Sotomayor went, which is just funny. So, I was on the other side, basically directly opposite in the North Bronx. And I remember growing up I had a friend in high school who lived in the South Bronx and it was just like no, my parents would say, “You can’t go there.” And I knew about the fires and I knew that it was dangerous but that was it. So I really had to start at zero. I started out by reading a book by Jill Jonnes [South Bronx Rising: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of an American City]. And from there I would just go to the bookstore and buy every book on the shelf, literally, if it had Bronx in the title I purchased it. So, I read for a long time. The Jonnes book filled in a lot of the historical picture. The other book that filled in the world of cities in general, the architecture of cities, was Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I read other books, The Global City, Saskia Sassen’s book. And then there were books like Jeff Chang and D.J. Kool Herc’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, which also was very good. And then, The Location of Culture by Homi Bhabha or Alain Badiou’s An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, and James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket.
Just to give the readers a sense of the machinery of creating a piece like this, how long was it from the initial conversation until now, with the show headed into its first performance?
I believe it was two years exactly.
That seems like a relatively short time, considering how much you did—how many interviews, how much reading, and then the time to actually write the piece.
I was on sabbatical last year, which gave me more time and was a happy accident. It was a lot of work happening very fast, a lot of drafts and a lot of emotions. Because it was hard to represent a place that has been persecuted by representation. And the anxiety for me around that was huge—being able to negotiate and come up with a position that both represented the realities of the place and also honored the people who live there. That was something that took awhile to negotiate.