Playwright Chad Beckim has been writing Lights Rise on Grace since 2007. Here he talks about why. And also what kinds of stories interest him.
Bi Jean Ngo in Azuka’s production of Lights Rise on Grace
Azuka: What is your mission statement as an artist? What kind of work excites you?
Chad: Bare knuckle theater. Theater with teeth and claws and heart. Theater that challenges and breaks you down and builds you up and changes the way you thought about the world (even if it’s a tiny bit) before the houselights darkened. Some examples are Robert O’Hara’s Insurrection, Stephen Adley Guirgis Our Lady of 121st Street and Sarah Kane’s Blasted. I’d always written privately for myself, but experiencing those pieces were the collective sparks that inspired my first attempts at writing.
I think my ideal theater is multicultural and multi-palette-ed and reflects the people and places and cultures and the struggle where I cut my teeth in NYC …Washington Heights and Spanish Harlem in NYC, East New York and LIC and the South Bronx for the kids I taught. And structurally, my favorite theater kind of shatters the traditional boundaries and shape of the kinds of theater we generally mass experience in school.
An example: I remember taking a group of Dominican students to see In the Heights and watching them delight in the play – they absolutely f*cking marveled at it and on the train ride home talked of nothing else. I realized it was quite possibly the first time they’d ever seen themselves, their neighborhood, their culture, reflected on the stage. And I’d like to think my mission statement simultaneously reflects what I saw on those kids’ faces that day and strives to put folks you might not normally see in the theater on the stage.
Azuka: Why did you write this play? What larger themes or ideas were you hoping the audience would connect to?
Chad: When I first started writing I tried to drown in new work, hitting up the library at Lincoln Center and borrowing a bookbag’s worth plays at a time. On one of those visits I snagged a copy of Dael Orlandersmith’s wonderful Yellowman and I literally read it three times straight on a bus ride trying to figure out how it worked, the entire time thinking, “This is just freaking magical and terrifying.” That was the impetus for Grace, I think – taking a stab at that fusion/explosion of the love story alongside racial and social politics.
Grace really did begin as a more traditional love story, but quickly grew into something else (I know when Woolly Mammoth got their hands on it, they suggested that this was what appealed to them as well.) I kept trying to steer it back to the initial concept but the shape and structure and universe of the play kept shifting and morphing into something else, resulting in what you now have on your stage.
There’s a reason why folks still love Romeo and Juliet. That sense of impossible, illogical love still resonates, especially in the increasingly borderless world we (esp. younger generations) now inhabit. One of the starting points was, “What might that look like now?” This was a very rough starting point for this play (coupled with the inherent brutality of sex and sexuality) that spiraled into something bigger and all encompassing.
Azuka: Why did you ultimately decide to portray the characters in the play the way that you did?
Chad: Here’s the thing about writing (at least from my experience, I’m sure it differs for other people): As much as you’re writing them, they’re working you. You can’t force a play to take the shape you want it to. You can’t write if they’re not talking –for me, the characters talk and they tell you a story and that’s the story you work with. I don’t really work from an outline, and when I think back on the genesis of Grace, this is the way these characters spoke to me; this is their collective universe and their collective truths.
Azuka: Why is it important to you to write diverse characters? How you do feel about writing about these characters from an outsider perspective? What do you do to make sure you are respecting the lived experiences of people with different backgrounds than you without undermining what the play wants to be?
Chad: Because for my formative years in New York City, I was Grace/Large/Riece. I was the outsider, the “other.” My first two years I lived with a Dominican family in Washington Heights – 10 of us to a 3-bedroom apartment. I shared a room with 2 grown men and had a curfew and was treated as less an adult than a teenager, the only white face in an almost entirely Dominican-American neighborhood (my nickname was “blanquito” to the people on my block). It was an amazing and frightening and eye opening and altogether wonderful experience.
From there I moved to Spanish Harlem and lived with an African American family in East River Houses, a housing development off FDR Drive and First Avenue. My family basically told me what streets I would/wouldn’t be safe on, who to trust and who would take care of me, who to steer clear of. I built relationships and connections and a family that forever shaped me.
And as a 10 year veteran Teaching Artist in the NYC public school system, the place where I felt most at home, where I felt like I was changing lives and emboldening confidence and making the biggest impact (big ups to The Leadership Program in NYC) has consistently been in those schools working with kids who don’t look like I do or come from backgrounds that I did.
This is why I write what I write – and it’s also why some might suggest I’m encroaching on territory where I shouldn’t (particularly when considering I grew up in Maine, the whitest state in the union). But I’m (hopefully) writing something that strives to connect us all on a human level, and I think the last thing the world needs is another straight white guy writing more straight white guy plays. I’m fascinated by the interplay (collision?) between race and culture and class and gender and sexuality, by the way our world looks now and will look in years to come, and in trying to provide voices for the characters I haven’t seen represented on stage, however successful (or not!) those attempts might be.
And I think as long as you’re honest and human and respectful and are operating from a place of truth and humanity and fundamental decency, those stories are safe to tell, to try to tell. If it’s not always a challenge and a struggle and a truly worthwhile pursuit, what’s the point?
Chad Beckim is a New York City based playwright whose writing credits include …a matter of choice, `nami (which received its West Coast premiere at the Hayworth Theatre in Los Angeles in October, 2007), Lights Rise on Grace (Winner, Outstanding Play, 2007 NY Int’l. Fringe Festival; Finalist for the 2007 Princess Grace Award; Finalist for Ojai Playwrights’ Conference), The Main(e) Play (Semi-Finalist, The O’Neill Festival), That Men Do (Member of The Lark’s 2009 “Playwright’s Week” and Naked Angels “Out Loud” Series), Mercy and most recently the critically and audience acclaimed After. He has also authored a number of shorts and one-acts, including The Fluffer and Marvel Super Hero Squad (both produced at Ars Nova), Tha Bess Shit, Alexander Pays a Visit, Blac(c)ident, and Last First Kiss, which was adapted into a Columbia Grad film and produced in July, 2008. Mr. Beckhim holds an MFA in Playwrighting from Mac Wellman’s Brooklyn College’s Program, and in July of 2007 was named one of “50 Playwrights to Watch” by the Dramatists Guild. His work has been published by Samuel French, Playscripts, Smith & Krauss, and in the Plays and Playwrights 2007 collection by NYTE. He is a proud member of Ars Nova’s acclaimed “Play Group,” and is currently finishing an original pilot script entitled “The Fam.” Mr. Beckim is a co-Founder and co-Artistic Director of Partial Comfort Productions.