by Martin Denton · December 3, 2015
To begin, I would love to know more about Intersections International, which commissioned UNIFORM JUSTICE. How did you become associated with them? Can you talk a bit about their overall mission and accomplishments, particularly other accomplishments you have had working with them? How did the commission come about?
Intersections International is a nonprofit NGO whose mission is to bring people together across lines of difference in mutual pursuit of social justice. The company has an arts program – Arts at the Intersection – which carries out our mission via arts initiatives. Within this program was a theatre company called TE’A (Theatre, Engagement & Action), which I’ve been affiliated with since it was founded in 2008. Initially a partnering company, TE’A officially became part of Intersections from about 2012-2015.
Intersections and TE’A do lots of great work, and I can list many projects we’ve done over the years that I’m very proud of – Under the Veil (2009), which I co-wrote and starred in, addressed Muslim and non-Muslim conflict in NY post-911; Cadence: Home (2012), which I also co-wrote and starred in, addressed veteran-civilian barriers that existed for vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and their loved ones. I’m most proud of Uniform Justice, however. I’d never been more submerged in the creative process of a new work, and taking on the role of director is a very different experience from acting, which I’ve cherished.
The commission was actually orchestrated between TE’A, The Mayor’s office of Memphis, TN, and a pilot project that was going on there called the Retaliatory Violence Insight Project (RVIP). The RVIP was created initially to engage the Memphis Police Department through teaching officers about an approach to conflict transformation called Insight. The goal was to have them incorporate the Insight approach into their policing methods in a way that would build trust between them and the community. The idea to write a play came up many months into this project, as their Mayor’s office sought a way to engage the community just as the police were being engaged. What better way to bring a community together than through art? I was tapped to spearhead this new creative piece, along with Farid Johnson, who is the Director of Arts at the Intersection, which manifested with me writing and directing Uniform Justice. Farid helped compose the music and served as co-director for the Memphis production.
Why is theater a good way to reach out to audiences about important social/political topics?
Theatre, like performing art in general, provides a temporary escape for people, which is already a great thing that we all need from time to time. Theatre is also able to show us who we are by bringing life to characters who we can relate to. When addressing social and political topics, seeing people live through the issues, building an emotional investment in them knowing that there’s nothing to lose in doing so, perhaps learning things you didn’t know before, but in an entertaining way, and taking this in as a shared experience with other audience members, all of these things provide a very unique experience that’s healthy for the mind, body and soul in my opinion. I should also add that ideally, theatre that addresses these topics would be done in a responsible way, respectful of different perspectives, careful not to lecture, or present mistruths as fact, or feed the lingering of negative stereotypes of false representations of identities.
What has been the reaction to UNIFORM JUSTICE from audience members? Was the response different when you performed the play in Memphis versus when you performed it in NYC?
Thankfully, audience members have loved the performances. The New York International Fringe Festival run yielded three rave reviews. Many say they are surprised, which is the most profound response to me. To further touch on that, one common response I get: Due to our current social climate, where community-police relations are in a fragile place, people will just see the title of this play and draw conclusions about what they will see if they go to see it. A person once asked me straight out if this play was about police brutality, or about making a statement on gun control, or about exposing the public to some intricacies of police corruption. He asked me as if the play HAD to be about one of those things… So fascinating that some of us are so polarized and/or jaded by the way this topic has been presented to us that it’s become hard to imagine an authentic unbiased portrayal of Americans facing this issue… and so without fail, people who approach me after EVERY performance have said some version of “wow, that’s not what I expected…”
There’s been no major difference in the responses of Memphis audiences and NY/ East coast audiences. Nor between law enforcement and civilian. On that note, the other most meaningful response I have gotten has been from police officers who have seen this show. Dozens of officers from different cities who have seen the show have repeatedly found it to be an authentic portrayal of them. That means a lot, because I’m not a cop, but I did go to great lengths to capture an authentic portrayal of a group of people who, to be honest, have come to see this show particularly skeptical. Their approval is immensely validating.
How did you first become interested in the theater? Who taught you to write plays (this could be teachers, other playwrights, or anybody else that inspired or influenced you)?
I was interested in theatre as far back as I can remember, but I first got the courage to try it when I was 13 and decided to audition for my high school production of Guys and Dolls. I guess the initial draw was that it allowed a very shy kid like myself to be expressive in public, which built my character over the years, and helped me discover my deep love of communicating with people. So at 13 I knew I would build a career as an actor… writing plays came much later.
I took different kinds of writing courses in school – screenplay writing, poetry, speech writing… but never really saw myself as a playwright until my early 20’s, when I joined a theatre company called Nitestar that focused on group-devised plays. So I guess I was kinda pushed into it, but when that happened I quickly developed a love for it, to the point that I started to see myself just as much as a writer as a performer.
Who are your heroes? Who are your theatrical heroes (if different)?
I have many, many heroes. What instantly comes to mind… My mother, MLK, Barack Obama, doctors, firefighters, police, our military… My theatrical heroes? Denzel Washington, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Viola Davis, Tom Hanks, August Wilson, just to name a few…
In your bio you mention several upcoming projects. Can you tell us a bit more about them? I’m particularly curious about your collaboration with John Gould Rubin.
There are many exciting projects on the horizon!!! The project with John Gould Rubin is a new play titled There’s Something About America, which I’ve co-written and will star in, and which will be directed by John. This is a group-devised play that the company – a collaboration between TE’A and The Private Theatre - has been working on for over 2 years. The play addresses different ways conflict is processed in America, from a personal to a political to a social level. It should premiere in Spring 2016.
I’m also excited about a new operetta I’ve been working on, called Moonshine, with Mind the Art Entertainment. The writing team includes myself, Christian Degre, Serrana Gay, and Joseph Reese Anderson – a very talented group that I’m happy to work with. I will star in this as well, and you can look for this in Spring 2016, after There’s Something about America.
I have a few solo projects coming down the pike as well, including a currently untitled play I’ve been commissioned to write, that will touch on the NY education system. There will also be more performances of Uniform Justice in 2016… very exciting stuff!