Amina Henry writes plays that are big question marks. Plays that don’t have the answers but instead dig deep into the intricacies of human contradiction. She finds sustenance in the parts of humanity that are simultaneously vexing and enticing. There’s something valiant and audacious about the questions Amina asks in her work. And there’s something special about a playwright asking you to think something rather than telling you to think something.
In anticipation of her new play, Hunter John and Jane, opening this August at JACK, I sat down with Amina and talked about playwriting. I wanted to know more about who she was as a playwright, her process, and her upcoming work.
Joshua Young (Rail): Some playwrights strive to be invisible and create their plays as separate entities. And others like to embed their identity and personality into their work. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
Amina Henry: You can’t always look to a character in one of my plays and say, “That’s her. That’s Amina.” My plays aren’t necessarily autobiographical. In that sense I wouldn’t say I am the art that I create. But I’m not wholly separate either. I do tend to write about things I’m obsessed with and things that are personally and emotionally interesting to me. For example, I might be really interested in writing about class, but that’s because class is something very personal to me. I write about gender and being a woman—often—because that’s something I think a lot about. I write about being a black person in America. More specifically, I write about being Jamaican American, because it’s specific to me. Definitely, if you see one of my plays, you’ll know that I wrote it. But they’re all very different. And my inspirations come from a lot of different places.
Rail: Are there any traits or themes that you consider part of your signature?
Henry: I do write, generally speaking, very dark satires. There’s a darkness that’s pretty much throughout all of my work, even the children’s shows I write, that’s very clearly my own point of view. And I have a lexicon that I tend to return to, images that I tend to return to. Eggs show up in my plays a lot. Dogs. There are a lot of characters that will show up in various plays and talk about, “Should we get a dog?” And it’s all about this “American dream” thing that I’m looking at all the time.
Rail: How do you mean?
Henry: The American dream. What is it? Who has access to it? What does it include? I never have the answers. These are all questions that I have that I do not have answers to, that my plays never answer.
Rail: I read on your website: “I would never claim to present the truth in my work.” Is that the same as writing plays that ask questions? You’re asking questions to figure out the truth?
Henry: Truth is a very subjective thing. I try to present a variety of truths so that we can figure out what the ultimate truth is. If five people tell one story, eventually—hopefully—you’ll get closer to what the story actually is. Everybody has their own sense of what the truth is. And a fact is different than a truth. A man can say, “It’s true that I love you.” And maybe it’s true to him, but is it a fact in terms of his behavior? I like to present different sides of the coin. In my play Burned there’s a man—a black man—who sets a synagogue on fire. Maybe killing three people. We get his perspective. And he’s hiding out in his mother’s backyard, and we understand her truth, where the love of her son makes everything complicated. And we also have a cop, a white cop, who keeps coming around searching for him. I’m trying to get to the truth of humanity by presenting people who are complicated. Because I think nobody is simple. People are horrible—they’re so bad—and yet they can be so amazing and so lovely at the same time. In Burned we have this character who is a murderer, but he loves his girlfriend and he loves his mom. And we have this cop who is kind of a racist but really loves his wife and his kid. I’m interested in that sort of thing that makes us all human, that complicated thing. Where we’re both awful and really beautiful at the same time. How do we reconcile those two things?
Rail: If Burned is an example of showing the different sides of a coin—asking those kinds of questions—is there a play of yours that explores a character’s—or a type of character’s, or a group of characters’—nuance?
Henry: Bully. It’s a modern re-adaptation of Lord of the Flies. It’s about a group of women who are all in the same exercise class. And they ride around on the weekends, led by this crazy aerobics instructor, and they beat up other women. When one of their victims is in the same aerobics class and realizes, “Oh, it’s them,” she starts plotting revenge. It’s a play about how women treat each other and how they treat themselves. There are many scenes where you just see women on stage in an aerobics class. Just on stage sweating, just exercising, because that’s not something I’ve seen on stage, and it interests me. The play is sort of a physical manifestation of what women can do to each other mentally, but what we also do to our selves every day. I’m sort of interested in that phenomenon where women are just so awful to each other and to themselves because society has told them that’s the way to be.
Rail: Can we return to another kind of question you’re asking, when you were talking about questioning the American dream?
Henry: I’m really trying to understand Americanness and my relationship to being an American. And I’m trying to understand my relationship to my family’s country, because in some ways my family’s very new here. And as a black person I distinctly remember as a child not understanding certain cultural cues. In terms of, “I don’t know what jazz is,” or, “I don’t know what this thing about the South is.” This African American history . . . I know it in an academic way—as we all learn it—but it wasn’t something I could talk through in terms of my own family’s experience. And I just think it’s really hard to be a particular person in this country when you’re put in a box. “Oh you’re black, so therefore you must like this, this, and this. And you must understand these references. You must and you must and you must.” And I had to learn it. So in some ways the angst that I always had informs my work because I’m always trying to make people very particular. Even though I’m often drawing from the world of stereotype. I take a broad stereotype and turn it into a really particular person.
Rail: When you craft a character you’ll sometimes work backwards from a stereotype?
Henry: Often. If you look at it like a sculpture, like a big piece of clay, then you can whittle away at it and create your own expression of that thing. It’s my way of figuring out, “Well, what does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a black person? What does it mean to be poor? What does it mean to be a poor, black person?” And I don’t really know, because they’re all sort of moving targets. All of these definitions.
Rail: Class is something I return to a lot in my own work. Is there anything there that you’re exploring or keep returning to?
Henry: Oh, another thing that comes up in my plays a lot is real estate.
Rail: Literally real estate?
Henry: Literally. Because Jamaicans are obsessed with real estate.
Rail: Really? I didn’t know that.
Henry: We are. But it’s because of class. And I have a major anxiety about having a place to live. And being able to look after oneself and survive. My economic anxiety —it’s in all of my plays. And I don’t understand this “rich” thing. I’m just used to an existence where I’m living paycheck to paycheck and you really have to worry about money all the time. I don’t understand people who have enough money to buy a home and have things. And I don’t understand money talk. Like “refinancing.” What? Because to me that’s the language of people who have money. But I think that anxiety of having a place to live is sort of broader. There’s a lot of anxiety in America —not for everyone, but I think for a lot of people who don’t know how to be here or who to align themselves with. “We see people over there, who are living this amazing dream. That’s what it is to be American, to be so successful. And we’re not that. Did I do something wrong?”
Rail: Hunter John and Jane, how does it fit into your bigger body of work?
Henry: Hunter John and Jane is yet another play where I try to highlight voices not generally highlighted in American theater. It’s about a homeless alcoholic man living in a park, and the ghost of a dead black female prostitute approaches him and says, “I need you to help me find my remains because I’ve been missing for many years in this park. And I need you to find my bones so my mother can finally bury me and move on with her life.” The play is really about noticing. And I think all of my work is about noticing things we don’t generally notice. This idea that everyone deserves to be looked for, no matter who they are. Again, there are questions: Why do people do awful things? Why do people think it’s okay to dismiss prostitutes? They deserve to be found too. Exploring the selective empathy we all have.