[Bathroom. ABEBE stands, staring at the toilet from the other side of the room for several moments. Then HE quietly walks toward the john, kneels before it, and flushes it, staring into the bowl: fascination . . . ABEBE stares with wonder into the running water of the toilet.] —from A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick
KARA LEE CORTHRON: I have some knowledge about this, but can you talk about what led you to write A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick?
KIA CORTHRON: In January of 2007 I was invited by Melanie Joseph and the Foundry Theatre to travel with about 25 theater artists to the World Social Forum in Nairobi. The Foundry partnered with Ma-Yi Theater and Hip-Hop Theater Festival for the trip. Sixty-six thousand activists descended upon the Kenyan capital, where literally thousands of sociopolitical sessions were presented, and I was most drawn to the ones focusing on water.
During the opening ceremonies parade, Katy Savard, one of my fellow travelers, befriended Kennedy Odede, a man in his early 20s from Kibera, the enormous slum on the edge of Nairobi. A handful of us took a matatu (minibus—the public transportation, except they were technically private) to the area. Of course there was no running water or electricity in the neighborhood of endless shacks. Kennedy ran a community center in Kibera; a youth theater was part of its programs. When he and his partner, the youth theater director, came to visit us in our central Nairobi hotel, they joked about bathing in the fountain outside. Kennedy spent the night in one of our rooms, marveling that turning a spigot in the shower would, dependably, produce a stream of clean water. This was the beginning of A Cool Dip before I knew there would be A Cool Dip.
That fall I was in Sewanee, Tennessee, just starting the first draft. At that time, Sewanee’s neighbor Monteagle was buying water from Sewanee; Monteagle’s reservoir had run dry. The Southeast? Such scarcity is expected in cities erected in deserts: Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles—not to mention Dubai—but the moist, humid Southeast?
To avoid the long answer, when people have asked me what the play’s about, I have tended to just reply “water”. Which inevitably causes my questioner to pause, then ask, “You mean the diversion of Mono Lake in California?” “You mean the struggle over states’ ownership of Great Lakes water?” “You mean the poor quality of water on Indian reservations because of government dumping or neglect?” No, No, No. Or—sort of sort of sort of. It’s a huge topic and every state in the nation and every nation in the world has its own unique water issues. I just drop a tiny stone in a large lake—and hope the reverberating circles the stone makes get a little wider and wider. (Is that mixing too many metaphors?)
KARA LEE: Nope. Those metaphors work together perfectly. You and I saw a brilliant, inspiring exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History a few years ago called Water: H2O=Life. Was this exhibit the springboard for you to begin thinking critically about water?
KIA: Yes, Yes, Yes! I loved that show! One particular display became a part of my play though I won’t address it here ‘cause it gives some of the story away. But it was a brilliant exhibit encompassing such an amazing gamut of water issues.
KARA LEE: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this play?
KIA: It would have to be the last scene of Act 1, which I can’t detail here ‘cause it gives too much away, but ends in a huge crescendo—literally. I’m still honing it, and it’s going to be challenging in tech as well because there is a requirement of offstage voices that need to be pre-recorded. So, with very little rehearsal (2 ½ weeks ’til tech, three weeks total ’til first preview!), we’ve got to record these voices from the climax of the first act—meaning having the actors tape this part of a hugely emotional scene long before they would regularly be at the emotional place in rehearsal to be ready for it—and then to plug in these voices in the midst of live actors—and pray there are no bumps in the recording!
Come to think of it, and related to this—it was a challenge in my writing, for the first time, to limit my characters to less than what I instinctually wanted to write. For a few years I was writing these big-ass plays with nine actors, ten actors, eleven actors—and getting produced! And then one day, it all seemed to come to a screeching halt. And with theaters’ economic intimidations since the financial crash? So there’s a child in Act 1 and my impulse was to bring him back as a teenager in Act 2 given the time passage between the acts—but, as that would require another actor, I didn’t do it. The flip side: the challenge/limitation led me to creatively figure another way out of the problem, and I love my solution.
KARA LEE: What was the most enjoyable?
KIA: The same scene! (End of Act 1.) And also the very last scene of the play because it goes to a world unseen before in the play.
KARA LEE: What I really love about your work is that, as you say, you always begin with a political impetus, but you also always have a personal impetus. How soon do characters and character relationships figure into your writing process and are your characters often based on people you’ve come across in your research?
KIA: Because, yes, I always do start with a political impetus, it means mountains of research before I ever get to the writing. Matter of fact, I finally have to make myself stop researching and start writing, or the research could go on forever. Somewhere in all that a personal story strikes me, and I start flying with that.
There’s a lot of autobiography in A Cool Dip. Maybe the last piece I wrote that was so autobiographical was Digging Eleven, which was produced by Hartford Stage way back in ’99. I gave the grandmother in that play many stories of my own grandmother, the little girl many of my own habits as a child.
The only time I remember basing characters on a real person outside of my personal world—well, in Life by Asphyxiation—the shorter version that at Playwrights was part of an evening of one-acts—was a fictionalized Nat Turner. (In the longer version there was also a fictionalized Crazy Horse.) But the only other time where I remember fashioning a character after a real person, albeit loosely, was the Professor in Seeking the Genesis that was produced by the Goodman and Manhattan Theatre Club. He was (loosely!) based on Peter Kramer, the author of that ludicrous (to my mind) book Listening to Prozac.
KARA LEE: As much as folks have talked about/written about your work over the years, few people remark on your sense of humor. There’s some funny, funny stuff in Kia Corthron plays! This might be a crazy question, but have you considered writing a political comedy?
KIA: Yes! But it hasn’t happened yet. Yes, there’s funny parts in many of my plays but to write a full-blown comedy—I guess the better word for what I’m thinking of is “satire”—that I’ve considered but haven’t yet done. Of course at some point the clowning would turn around and things would suddenly be not funny. The point of the humor would be to make people, who may be sympathetic but rather desensitized, see the whole issue new and differently.
I should say something here. I very much have a political point of view. I am not in the camp of throwing out issues and then sitting on the fence about them. What I write is not agit-prop; I do encourage an audience to think for itself. But you will know where I’m coming from. If, for example, you leave Life by Asphyxiation having no idea that the playwright is anti-death penalty, then I’ve failed.
KARA LEE: As you’ve mentioned, this isn’t your first production at Playwrights Horizons. Back in 2001, your gang-girl story of pain and redemption, Breath, Boom premiered at the old PH space. Can you remember how you felt when you began that rehearsal process and how does that compare to how you’re feeling now?
KIA: Breath, Boom had already been done in London at the Royal Court. It was the Royal Court’s commission and was chosen to be the play to open the Court’s renovated upstairs space after they’d been “slumming” on the West End for years. I was thrilled to be at the Court, had a lovely time with a wonderful cast—but Breath, Boom takes place in the Bronx: It’s a New York play, and I really wanted to see it done in New York with New York actors and a New York audience. So I was ecstatic when Playwrights committed to producing it! And, interestingly, just as it had opened the Royal Court’s renovated upstairs space, it closed Playwrights Horizons old upstairs space before they underwent renovations.
In the sense of setting, A Cool Dip is the opposite experience of Breath, Boom: It [A Cool Dip] takes place in a small town, not unlike our* own small town—Cumberland, Maryland. Like I said, there are plenty of autobiographical elements—the good and the bad of living in such a town as a minority, and some stories come out of my growing up. All to say, there wasn’t so much the longing desire that this play must be done in New York—except for the fact that New York is my home now, and has been for twenty years.
And Playwrights Horizons is a home for me. Life by Asphyxiation, my little meditation on the death penalty that I alluded to earlier, was produced at Playwrights before Breath, Boom, so A Cool Dip is my third production here. I’ve known Tim Sanford (Artistic Director) for many, many years, and really trust his vision. And Chay Yew (Director) is also a longtime friend, though this is the first time we’ve worked together. So—this is starting to sound too corny!—but to get all sentimental about it, it all really has a feeling of coming home.
IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at email@example.com