Chisa Hutchinson Talks "Life and Motion" with A. Zell Williams
A. Zell Williams' The Biggest Valley tells the story of an over-worked single mother in California's Central Valley, as she struggles to referee the growing conflict between her pious, pregnant daughter and her gifted, smart-mouthed son. Though each makes starkly different choices in their rush towards adulthood, they must grapple with the same challenges of defining belonging, identity, and love. A. Zell's fellow playwright, Chisa Hutchinson, interviews him about the impulses and inspirations behind this new play.
CHISA HUTCHINSON: One black playwright to another: do you ever get tired of writing about black people? Sub-question: do you think anyone ever asks white playwrights if they ever get tired of writing about white people? Sub-sub-question: you ever watch something with black characters in it written by a white writer and think, "Thiiiiis was clearly written by a white writer?" I guess what I'm really getting at here is this: Are writers obligated to rep their own race? Why or why not?
A. ZELL WILLIAMS: This really is a question all playwrights of color deal with, isn’t it? I love writing about black people. I love writing about hurt people. I love writing about dominatrices. I love writing. To this day, my most successful play is about South Philly Italians and I’ve spent the past two seasons writing for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I write about whatever I choose and most of the time, I choose to write characters rooted in my culture.
I don’t think white playwrights ever get asked that question, which is the definition of artistic privilege. But I also know writing is hard work. Anyone should write any story they can finish. But you should be very aware when you’re interrupting someone’s history. And, yes, I do see and read a lot plays by white writers with black characters and wish they’d put more consideration in their development. But I go into it with the keen awareness that I’m observing that writer’s riff on that culture.
CH: The Biggest Valley is set in a reeeeeal specific time and place (1998, Fresno). That offers up some delightful status details (which surprisingly are fun even for folks who were not in Fresno in 1998). Why this time? Why this place? What's your relationship to the setting?
AZW: The Biggest Valley is probably my most autobiographical piece to date. It’s loosely inspired by my teen years growing up in the California Central Valley and the specific dynamics of that place in the late 90s. Fresno’s a lot like other American cities that aren’t tourist hot spots. Its history is in a constant battle with fast food franchises and anchor-store malls. Cell phones were just becoming a part of everyday life when I was a teenager. Many lower-middleclass and middle class families didn’t have Internet at home.
All these factors put a different kind of pressure on a nuclear family. The 90s were the last time a kid couldn’t go to their room and FaceTime their way out of an argument with their siblings. Now that I’m twice the age I was when the play is set, I felt I finally have enough objectivity to look back fondly and honestly in order to understand what was really happening.
CH: The Biggest Valley features a rich language of gesture (the tap-tap-tap of a finger, the fixing of an air conditioner, a mother and her teenage son "playing with" his old toys she saved, etc.). How important is gesture to your writing in general? How do you balance it with dialogue?
AZW: My focus is usually on giving the actors the right words and just enough actions to convey emotional truths. With a character like Bradley whose mouth rarely closes, I find that what drives his dialogue and physicality is masking vulnerability. For Cheryl, she is driven by a need to please others until that comes directly in conflict with her own happiness.
CH: In your stage directions, you use words like "Life" and "Motion" to indicate significant or loaded beats. I think this must be a great gift for actors, as it gives them room to interpret, find motivation, and make big choices. How consciously do you think about your future collaborators when you're writing? Not just actors, but also directors and designers and producers whose job it is to kill dreams with budgets. How/where/when do you leave room for their interpretations/visions?
AZW: I was a musician long before I was a writer and I think I’ve kept that creative mindset. “Life” and “Motion” to me are as important as a time signature and rests to a composition. When I find collaborators who can play those beats and respect the importance of a script’s rhythmic structure, I hold on to those people tightly.
I’ve never written a piece for a specific person. But as a script develops, I think, “God, this would be a great role for ABC to play,” or, “I need someone like XYZ to direct this.” Coltrane and Davis were both geniuses, but you want one on the sax and the other on the trumpet for things to sound their best.
The Biggest Valley will receive a Lark Studio Retreat Reading on April 25th & 26th. Click Here for tickets and more information!