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Behind the Scenes: Clarence Coo Enlightens Us On PEOPLE SITTING IN DARKNESS

Playwrights’ Corner

Claire Willett

Claire: The specificity of the setting is so important to the way the story of People Sitting In Darkness unfolds.  I found myself wondering as I was reading how much of the play was rooted in real incidents - the bridge, the forced relocation to the camp, William Howard Taft - and what was invention.  What was the historical research part of your writing process like?

Clarence Coo
Clarence: I was reading Stanley Karnow's book, In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines, when I came upon his section on the Thomasites, the American teachers who came to the Philippines in 1901 to teach English and are seen as the forerunners of the Peace Corps. They arrived in the aftermath of the brutal Philippine-American War, and the description of their youthful optimism left an impression on me. I dug further and began to read first-person accounts by the actual teachers, which I read in parallel to historians' descriptions of the insurgency by Filipino guerillas. The tension between those two world views, educational and missionary versus violent and revolutionary, was what interested me most about that time and place.

Claire: The influence of Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream in particular, is beautifully clear throughout.  But I was surprised and delighted to find how much the story is also shaped by the writing of Mark Twain, especially Huck Finn, which stands in for the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe as the play-within-a-play.  What sparked the idea of blending themes from Twain and Shakespeare with the story of this town in the Philippines in 1901?  What drew you to those particular writers?

Clarence: Huck Finn came first and the Midsummer Night's Dream frame came later. Twain's Huck Finn was the original spark, because one of my earliest theater memories as a child was seeing an incredible (to me at the time) community theater production of Big River, the Broadway musical based on Huck Finn. I thought the idea of an occupied Filipino town putting on a production of Huck Finn as a sincere tribute to their colonizers would be kind of funny.  Mark Twain himself was disgusted by the American imperialist project in the Philippines, and the use of his book as pro-American propaganda would have horrified him.

In the first few drafts of People Sitting in Darkness, I was trying to figure out the exact story I wanted to tell. When I thought about A Midsummer Night's Dream as a structural device, a lot of the character relationships came into focus and the story became more clear to me.

Claire: One of the interesting questions this play seems to explore is the idea of what it means to be "civilized."  The residents of the town draw sharp lines between social classes, but the characters I found myself rooting for the most, Magdalena and Isabel, both blur those lines in some way.  Can you talk a little about this idea of "civilized" vs. "uncivilized" and why you chose to explore it?

Clarence: So much about the history of colonization revolves around the distinctions (real or imagined) between civilized and uncivilized. The distinctions are also there in A Midsummer Night's Dream, between the world of the court and the world of the forest. Shakespeare explores how the boundaries bleed into one another.  There's a lot of lunacy among the Athenians and there's a lot of statecraft among the fairies. Thinking of how Shakespeare set up his worlds, and mixed them together, gave me a way in to exploring the different spaces of the imaginary Filipino island in my play.

Claire: People Sitting In Darkness makes really innovative use of the conventions of theatricality - direct address to the audiences, actors playing more than one character, a play-within-a-play.  My favorite line of the play was Magdalena's, "Don’t worry, it’s not truly dangerous. It’s only the theater."  Which makes me wonder if you, as a playwright, believe that the theater can be dangerous, and what "dangerous theater" might look like to you?

Clarence: Whether or not theater is truly dangerous is something I think about a lot. On one hand, we call a theater performance a "play" because what the actors do in front of the audience isn't real, like the way children play pretend. So, the stage should be a safe place in which we can reenact  societal taboos like murder, anarchy, and sexuality and explore their consequences without creating actual danger. On the other hand, I think of the recent controversy here in New York regarding a planned production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado that would have had white actors dressing up as Japanese caricatures. And that would have felt dangerous to me. So, I don't really have a good answer for this question of whether theater is truly dangerous, and what dangerous theater is exactly. But maybe not having a good answer for it is what keeps me coming back to writing plays.