Interview with Playwright Sharai Bohannon

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 Reese told me that Bohannon’s play was chosen in efforts to support more unpublished playwrights.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.
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In Defense: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to this Form

Converting a TV Script to an MFA Play—a tale about defending a Master’s Thesis.

by Jacqulyn West, Nonfiction Editor

In order to graduate with a Master of Fine Arts degree, you have to write, complete, and defend a thesis. Your committee guides you through the process of writing, and finally spends about an hour interrogating your work, at which point you answer their questions in order to defend the choices you made, and ultimately, the quality of your work.

Since the Arkansas Writers Workshop allows candidates flexibility in choosing a genre, these can look widely different from one another. These reports are based on my observations at the defenses of our upcoming graduates.

First up is Shua Miller, Arkana Scriptwriting Editor, who is the first in our program to write and defend a script for his thesis.

We gathered in a conference room on the third floor of Thompson Hall, the building where most of our Writing courses are conducted. The wide room is filled with long tables arranged in a U shape surrounded with big office-style armchairs.

Shua sat at the end of the left side of the U – the hour’s hot seat. His committee lined the outside to his right, and the audience took the other side of the room, filling the remaining seats on the opposite side. Many of us had completed our teaching and classes for the day, and came for the comedy we were sure would ensue. We were not disappointed.

Originally, Shua intended to write a TV series with an ensemble cast about some misadventures in a small Arkansas town in order to complete his MFA and create a script that could be filmed with the help of some talented folks across central Arkansas. That did not work out, but the descriptions of what he had planned had me laughing out loud only a few minutes into his defense. I won’t give any spoilers, just in case that opportunity manifests in future.

Shua’s thesis advisor insisted that the work he completed for the MFA would need a defined end point, but Shua didn’t want to end his TV show after only one season. Back to the drawing board, where he decided to table the TV idea and instead write a play to complete his degree.

Meanwhile, the November 2016 elections obstructed that plan. Shua says he heard from and about many outraged artists who couldn’t make art following the presidential election, and after some days of sorrow, rage, and reflection, decided to use his response to fuel yet another new trajectory for his work.

Shua thought a master’s thesis should be a little confusing and theatrical, but still had that quiet voice inside reminding him that simple is good, and encouraging him to use the skills he developed as a graduate student in writing, but the first draft of his play came out too pretentious. He actually created more work for himself by trying to make the work complicated instead of following his instinct to simplify, an instinct that had been honed by his coursework.

But how can classes about poetry and fiction inform and improve play writing?

Shua says they all tie into each other. From poetry, he learned an economical focus on images, and used that economy in constructing concise informative dialogue among his characters. Prose taught him how to describe efficiently by using fewer but better words. Both forms helped him understand pacing, diction, and word choice. Now he writes to find the musicality and rhythm of how his words can best fit together.

The play, tentatively titled “Stamp of Hope,” depicts an angel and a demon working in the bureaucratic behind-the-scenes offices of hell. This appeals to me in a serious and personal way because I was an administrative specialist for a university English department before coming to UCA to join this program. I already like this play.

“The things we imagine when we think of hell—fire and brimstone, tortures and flames— those things are like an amusement park. But someone has to do the paperwork in the office to make sure those things run. That’s what this play is about.”

I’m laughing through tears and squirming in my seat.

“This vision of hell is more like science fiction than traditional or Biblical depictions.”

I’m nodding so vigorously that my chair is squeaking.

“Most of all, I don’t want my audience to feel like I’m telling them what to think through the characters or the action.”

I’m wishing I had the means to produce this play, because I know there are people like me who would empathize, sympathize, and laugh – like me – through relatable tears. People who, like Shua’s unusual creatures – including the human office manager – are doing with their time, how they interact with each other, and their own internal struggles, and still manage to find hope in the most desolate of places and situations.

While some defenses can be intense grilling sessions, this one felt more like a conversation, dashed with smart office humor and enough humility to make it accessible to just about anyone on a scale from demon to angel.


Jacqulyn Harper West is a poet of unfinished parts who prefers writing nonfiction. Her heart is in classic country music, especially the Bakersfield sound, and her scholarship ranges from feminist explications of her hometown’s cultural heritage tourism sites to code-meshing and hip hop as texts in first-year and creative writing pedagogy.