An interview about writing, plays, and MFA programs.
Conducted by Jeremy Williams, Nonfiction and Scriptwriting Reader
I asked Sharai Bohannon for an interview to discuss the debut of her play, Craigslisted, and she happily agreed. Later that day I visited the set of Director Trent Reese’s production of Bohannon’s play to get a better feel of what the play is about. After breaking from a scene rehearsal, the cast returned to the center area of the stage. “I need you on books,” Reese said to his production assistant. Then he turned to his cast and shouted toward center-stage, “We need pace, we need drama, we need action.” Heads nodded and Reese turned towards the top of the small seating area to take birds-eye view of center-stage where characters “Dave” and “Maggie” try to work through a complex dilemma of love and betrayal. Reese has a genuine smile and jovial personality but he is very much in charge of this production. Reese told me that Bohannon’s play was chosen in efforts to support more unpublished playwrights. After rehearsal I returned to campus to make arrangements for my interview with Sharai Bohannon:
Arkana: Your play, Craigslisted, will debut on September 15 at The Lantern Theatre in Conway, Arkansas. I know that the play took shape and form during the last half of graduate school. Can you elaborate on the conception and development of your play, tell us what it’s about, and how it made its way to Lantern Theatre?
SB: I was nearing the end of my time in school and worried about how I was going to pay off all of my student loans and find work with the modest collection of degrees I have. When it was time to begin my thesis play in earnest those fears sort of manifested in Maggie. I wrote a SUPER rough draft that was chosen for Texas Tech University’s 2015-2016 Lab Season and also chosen for the school’s WildWind Performance Lab where we workshopped it until it was a completely different, and better, script. All of the subsequent drafts happened because we had all of these smart artists in the room giving me feedback and making me look at everything from different angles. While I owe everyone during that time some major gratitude, Kamarie Chapman was the MVP because she served as the original Dramaturg and helped me narrow the monstrosity that I’d written down to the smaller list of what I really wanted the play to address. She also had the original idea of “seeing what was on the screens” which became all of the projections that are seen throughout the play.
During my last year of grad school, I was sending the play literally everywhere that had a submission opportunity that fit the script. My friend Trent Reese (who is directing this current production and is on the board of The Lantern Theatre) sent out a note to playwrights from our undergrad letting us know that The Lantern wanted to do more new works. Eventually, my play was chosen and it’s been a fun whirlwind ever since. Trent also directed my very first play in undergrad, and The Lantern produced my first non-academic production, so this production does bring me full circle in a couple of ways. I’m excited to get into town and thank everyone in person and see everything come together during tech week.
A: How do you decide what to write about? Where do you find inspiration?
SB: Lots of times projects find me. I’m definitely guilty of forcing some pages out because an opportunity calls for it, or just so I can keep saying I’m a playwright, but the projects that I love come from sitting down with people who spark my imagination. I’m currently working on a retelling/adaptation of Faust with my friend, Sophie Duntley, because she had the idea and asked me if I wanted to collaborate on it. We started firing ideas off of each other, discussing the gender politics of there being a Lady Faust, and now we have a wonderful cast, a wonderful venue, and I’ve been spoiled by having a writing partner to help shoulder the stress of writing a full-length. I hope she realizes what she’s done because I definitely want to do it again (and soon). A different project that I’ve been loosely working on started as an inkling because I had the final image in my head. I started writing but wasn’t really excited until I went on vacation and a different friend randomly mentioned a topic that sort helped to make everything I wanted make sense while allowing me to learn about an important topic. That’s all I can say about that one right now because it’s still sort of abstract and I don’t want to start committing it to being something that it might not be.
A: What is the job of the (African) American Playwright?
SB: I think the job of the African American Playwright it is to write what’s in their heart and on their mind. I believe that’s the same of any playwright though. Everyone on the planet has different views of the world that comes along with being born into our ethnicity, gender, society, upbringing, family’s income level, sexuality, etc. I think the job of The African American Playwright is to not let people get in their head for being true to themselves and their vision. It’s very easy for someone to tell you what you “should” be writing instead of evaluating what you have actually written.
A: What have you found to be the biggest struggle publishing your work?
SB: I’ve only had one piece published so far. I typically submit to productions, workshops, and residencies though. There is something about a play being published that makes it feel permanent and I definitely enjoy the freedom of changing things up from production to production. I went to a Sarah Ruhl event earlier this year and she also mentioned that a play isn’t finished until it’s published when someone asked her how she knows when a script is done. I’m not saying that I’m not interested in being published but I admit that I’m not putting enough energy into that part of being a playwright at this current moment. I’m still really excited by having a dialogue with production teams, hearing actors make discoveries that influence the next draft(s), and watching audiences respond to my work (which is the most honest feedback there is).
A: What are some of the challenges currently confronting the writing community?
There are a billion writers and a lot less than a billion opportunities. I also think the lack of funding prevents most of us from pursuing it full-time. We have to support ourselves which often means writing gets set on the back burner and/or we’re forcing work that is not our best because we’re tired and only have so few moments to write while riding trains or eating lunch. It’s a hard field we’ve chosen and I don’t think we talk about that enough.
A: What advice would you give to current MFA students?
SB: Take the note and say thank you. I see lots of playwrights argue with every single note they are given and it’s obnoxious. I’m not saying every note you’ll be given should be treated as the gospel, but if you’re defensive all of the time then you’ll miss the notes that are helpful too. The flipside of that is to learn which notes to ignore. Lots of people want to help, and sometimes they seem right, but you know your play at the end of the day and need to know what best serves your script. It’s a balancing act that I’m still learning myself, and being too far on either side isn’t ideal.
My second piece of advice is to make your own writing communities. Having friends who understand what you’re going through, and who are facing the same concerns, is invaluable. I learn from my writer friends every day and like to think that we’re indirectly responsible for encouraging/supporting each other to do better as artists.
Sharai Bohannon’s Words of Wisdom:
On playwriting: Figure out who you are and write from that place. There are enough people trying to imitate someone else. Write about what excites you instead of what you “should” be writing.
On race, class, and gender in writing and MFA programs: You have to be your own advocate. Don’t let anyone tell you what you “should” be writing. I tend to write strong women and some people don’t know what to do with strong women so would encourage me to put more male voices in my work, or want me to attach my characters to men to “give them purpose and goals,” and I rightfully refused. I’ve also had people tell me that they were hoping I would give them “the black scene” when they asked me to contribute to something but were surprised that I followed the guidelines of the assignment. I’m not saying all of this just to end the interview on a negative note, but to sort of point out how easy it is to get outdated/offensive feedback in these situations that makes you just want to give up. These are the situations where having your own writing community, knowing what types of feedback to ignore, and writing the types of stories you want, comes in handy. Focus on the mentors/faculty members who actually get it and learn as much as you can from them because those are the ones who have actual things to contribute to your development anyway.
Jeremy Williams is pursuing an MFA at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Detroit: The Black Bottom Community. In his spare time he records music and watches reruns of Sanford & Son. He was once a member of the Detroit Writer’s Guild.