This is Eavesdrop. The first in a series of conversations between artists, playwrights and audience members participating in our world premiere production of The Firestorm, which opens at Dairy Arts Center on Thursday, Oct 13. Today, we listen in on a discussion between playwright Meridith Friedman and actor Jada Suzanne Dixon about the play development process.
My process began in 2013 with about three months of conversations. I talked to political consultants, many of whom had worked on one or both of [President Barack] Obama's campaigns. I talked to a lot of men and women who were in—or had been in—interracial relationships. I talked with black women who had had a wide variety of experiences navigating mostly white institutions about the covert, and often overt, racism they encountered.
Jada, you were kind enough to speak with me during those initial three months of conversations, and you read a very early draft and sent me feedback. I'm sure I must have the email tucked away with my notes, because a lot of of your comments resonated with me and found their way into subsequent drafts. It was a fun little turning-of-the-table because Jada actually took my playwriting class when I was the NNPN Playwright-in-Residence at Curious Theatre Company back in 2011. In addition to being a terrific actress, Jada is also a terrific writer. Damn those multi talented people!
2013?! That seems so long ago and not so long ago. I remember one of the early conversations I had with you, Meridith, about your idea. You shared the concept in two or three sentences and right away I was thinking, and I believe I said it out loud, "I'm in."
I think sometimes there are questions when it comes to storytelling: Whose story is it? Or, who has the right to tell this story? You, Meridith, knew you had a strong concept and needed voices of color and varying perspectives that you could rely on and trust to delve deep... I admire that. I am thrilled to be a part of this story because I think there is a theme that resonates with me deeply, and that is around identity.
What makes you, you? What defines who a person is? Is it where they were raised, who their parents were? And, might I add, just because someone was raised a certain way, in this case, Gaby from an upper middle class black family with a variety of different opportunities, does that not make her black? A real black woman.
I have been asked or accused of “talking white.” What does that even mean?
I love a collaborative process and to be able to be a part of that from the beginning and see it develop into this amazing play with fantastic characters is just a thrill. Plus, I really like you—you are one cool lady! And I'm not just saying that because of the nice comments you made about me. (Meri, the check is in the mail!)
Oh phew. I was wondering how I would make rent this month!
I'm with you. Collaboration is the cat's meow. The bee's knees. The…okay, I'll stop. I can pin-point so many specific moments in the play that were born from something an actor said or did in rehearsal. From small things, like Gaby sticking out her hip flirtatiously at the end of scene 1, to pivotal moments in the play, like Gaby's monologue in scene 8. Actors are the great barometers of truth, and I trust them more than anyone else in the room to tell me when they don't believe what they are saying.
The most exciting aspect of handing a script over to actors is that you get to meet these characters that have been living in your brain. They become autonomous. I can ask them questions. When you, Jada, portray Gaby, I'm going to feel like you "have" Gaby. That's the way I describe it. If I want to know something about Gaby, if I want to understand why Gaby does something, I'll ask you. During the rehearsal process, it is really the actors that guide my revision and rewrite process.
What defines who a person is? I love this question. Patrick and Gaby (the male and female protagonists of the the play) grapple with this question throughout, both within themselves and with each other. They struggle with trying to control what they will be defined by, and what they refuse to be defined by—and who they refuse to be defined by.
It is an interesting dynamic right? There is always that magical moment when the actor shifts from referring to the character by name, "Gaby," to the character as themselves. I think some of that, at least for me, is trust in the world that was and is being created. Trust in the story and the language being used to tell the story, and trust that the way I, Jada, am choosing to portray the story—the character's story—in this space and time. And then the beautiful journey of the continuous discovery begins.
I like having the playwright in the room—to ask questions, to dig deep, to unearth the underneath which helps fill up and into all the corners. I still get to choose how that serves me as the actor… in a way, part of the collaborative process is we start to see Gaby the same and differently... evolving her together into more than we thought she could be. It becomes a journey of trust for all involved: writer and actor, actor and director, writer and director, actor and actor.
And eventually actor and audience. Wow!
See Jada in Meridith's new play, The Firestorm, beginning Oct 13 at Dairy Arts Center. Tickets available by clicking here.