Sarah Schulman interview with Kathleen Dennehy
This play is so gripping, and coursing with tension, perhaps because of or despite of your primary hero’s locked in-ness. We are instantly entwined with Steve Coleman’s predicament even before we know who he is. Then we meet another man, Craig Williams, also as locked inside himself as Steve, yet in different ways. Both men live trapped within deeply rutted black-or-white perspectives on how people should be and how they react to challenges to their self-imposed stricture.
The brilliance in TRUST is you then show us both men’s opportunities to open their minds and to truly interact with the people around them, and awaken to change. It’s ultimately deeply emotionally affective to see whom they decide to be. Very tense, funny and cumulatively quite heartbreaking. It was virtually impossible to put this play down. I needed to know.
What (or who) inspired this play?
A friend of mine’s partner was arrested for selling crystal meth. He was enrolled in a Criminal Informant program and was guided to entrap people to produce meth and sell it at quantities beyond what they would normally attempt. He met people and entrapped them knowing he was setting them up to be imprisoned. His situation asked the Shakespearean question “How many people’s lives would you ruin to save your own?” In the end he was entirely acquitted. He told me the story and shared his court and police papers with me.
Funnily, my 5-foot tall 73 year-old law-abiding mother lives in terror of being mistakenly dragged to prison, so I felt that first scene like a heart punch. I’m curious- which came first in your writing a character like Steve Coleman?
I knew that the protagonist could not be a gay man, because he would not have the audience’s sympathy. And it could not be someone who was guilty of a drug crime for the same reason. But he could have been guilty of something else that would make him untrustworthy to those around him. In this case, a hit and run – a coward’s crime. I knew that more and more people are realizing that the war on drugs is absurd, and I thought they needed a dominant cultural protagonist through whom to experience that absurdity. I pictured on of my favorite actors Matt Damon, and took it from there.
In America, criminal punishment is doled out differently based on race. But Craig’s harshness with himself and his family- is that a meditation on another kind of prejudice? I’m not sure if ‘prejudice’ is the right word, but Craig’s treatment of his son (and his wife, and himself) goes beyond the normal bounds of ‘punishment’. I guess I’m asking if you intended to explore the double standard of race and punishment and race and culpability?
Thanks for asking this and giving me the opportunity to think it through. Since the play has never had a reading, this is the first time I have discussed it. Craig's problems with his emotional exhaustion and alienation from his family is not race-based, although I am sure his rise in the NYPD included racially specific tensions and pressures. But, his misunderstanding of who his son is (I don't want to give away any plot points here) is entirely a product of supremacy ideology. And certainly being a willing instrument of the War On Drugs is also a marker of dominance. So, Craig - like many of us, is on both sides of power divides. Even though he has power over Steve, Craig is in a lower economic and social class than Steve. Steve's class position was temporarily mitigated by bad luck and earlier transgression, which brought him under Craig's will. But normally men of Steve's class position escape having to answer to the law in this way.
Both Steve and Craig also have marriages, which sort of hang like fringe from the edges of who they are or what they do. What was interesting or challenging for you in writing the wives of both of these men? Were you exploring what kind of reactive woman would marry men like these men?
Well Steve’s wife is Lady M, right? She has also made a deal with the devil. She wanted financial and professional success and was ready to sell out her own sister’s representation to have it. It’s a similar kind of arrangement to her husband’s. Craig’s wife is religious and this helps her think through questions of right and wrong. She is not as exhausted as her husband, spiritually, and so she can nuance and hold complexities.
Back to race. The scenes where Steve goes outside of his comfort zone and actually interacts with minority and lower-income people are awkward to the point of painful. Can you describe how you dared to write these scenes? I use the word ‘dare’ because Steve says (in my opinion) what many people think. It’s brave writing.
Actually I have been doing this since I started writing. Since 1984 I have published 16 books, including nine novels and have another one on the way. I’ve had three plays produced and have written two produced films. Most of these works have characters of different races and classes, and of course sexualities. I have become quite comfortable with this, as these representations reflect my daily experiences and world view. Frankly, Steve is the person who is outside of my realm, but his kind is so over-represented in arts and entertainment that it’s not hard to write.
Once Steve steps out of his segregated lifestyle, he starts to understand the reality of the drug economy. He starts to see who is selling drugs and why. Mostly it’s people with other social functions who just simply need money that they don’t know how to get. Students paying high tuitions, working people paying alimony, young men with dreams who don’t have access to information about how things really work, etc. In this story the one true addict is the wealthy daughter of Steve’s boss.
Sorry my questions are so chewy, but your characters and scenes are so thorny and cut so many ways, that it’s hard to write a simple question. Okay, back to you. A question about identity: Craig is a black workaholic detective obsessed with right and wrong. What inspired his character?
I think it’s a type we have seen quite often – Ed Asner, Perry White, endless police chiefs, etc. with an edge. The tired, fat boss who has had it, and can’t wait to get out. He’s been so unhappy for so long that he’s forgotten who he is, but he still has a lot of power over others. CCH Pounder played this role as a black woman on the TV series The Shield and I found her mesmerizing.
I love how Steve’s wife Jessica wife writes for a Law and Order type of TV show, yet how easily Jessica supports his moral dilemma. The way Jessica and Steve discuss their choices, interact with others, and their child’s future, reeks of the 1% trying desperately to figure out how exactly to stay in that 1%, far away from the rest of us. Is this accurate or am I simply reading class warfare and protectionism into your play?
Absolutely. You turn on the TV and look at representations of people who don’t have power and it’s terrifying. Mexicans are gardeners, lesbians are pathological, Arabs are never students or bus drivers but are always terrorists. And then you get to know the people who write these shows and they are liberal nice people, who know better but feel they must replicate these dehumanizing representations, which become propaganda-lite for Guantanamo, occupying Palestine and using drones in Pakistan. Not all TV is like this, of course. But a lot of it is.
The rich are always panicking.
The ironies come well and trippingly- how people learn how to act like drug dealers from TV, the internet and movies. Also how ‘legal’ modes of entrapment can actually create crimes and criminals. It’s a bleak world you are depicting. Care to elaborate?
The War On Drugs reflects our personal desires to punish, to marginalize, incarcerate, exile, deport. The best solution to drug abuse is funded, available treatment on a harm reduction model followed by job training, affordable education and job creation. More and more people realize this, and yet we’re locked into the ideology of shutting down opportunity and refusing to listen to the experiences of people in distress.
I teach at a CUNY campus, The College of Staten Island, which has a graduation rate of 29% in 8 years. That is absurd. Instead of incarcerating young people, we should be educating them.
I’ve been around for a while and learned a lot. These social policies are direct replications of personal behavior: the refusal to negotiate, to see other people as real, to be fair, to be interactive and most importantly to be uncomfortable. These personal failings produce those social inequities.
Not everyone grows up wanting to be a playwright, and the story of how they came to be one always interests me. What made you a playwright?
When I was six I wrote down “When I grow up, I will write books.” And that turned out to be true.
I grew up in New York City in the 1960’s and 70’s and so was able to see live theater since I was a child. This was when matinees were under ten dollars. I saw Fiddler on The Roof, Moon For The Misbegotten with Coleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards, the original Hair, For Colored Girls etc. I also attended the Yiddish Theater with my grandmother. Theater was part of life. I wrote plays for Hanukah and acted them out at home and wrote my high school senior show at Hunter High. Honestly, I can say I am a natural and writing is a way of life.
My content, from the beginning, has been about expanding what kinds of people and experiences are represented. It is Point Of View that makes a play palatable or not to the powers that be, far beyond story. The dominant group regards itself as objective, neutral and value free, when actually their point of view is filled with value. They will viciously defend their sense of themselves as objective. Once a normally repressed Point Of View is allowed to be seen, it challenges this self-perception. It insists that in fact they are subjective and their centrality in representation is constructed and enforced, instead of rooted in natural superiority. That’s why work that expands this realm is often viewed with great hostility.
Theater is the most conservative art form because it is not a mass art form. Most subscriptions theaters are comfortable selling to only a handful of demographics. They don’t feel a need to expand into other communities. So many values are retreaded.
However, of all the forms I work in, Theater is my favorite. There is nothing like having a play produced, it is an ecstatic experience. Seeing an amazing play or performance is life changing and these experiences are always with me. Experiences like Cherry Jones in The Heiress or Shuler Hensley in The Whale or Fiona Shaw in Media or Janet McTeer in Doll’s House or plays like A Model Apartment, or ensemble pieces like Circle, Mirror, Transformation – these are experiences I relive over and over and use in my daily life to understand and survive.
What writers do you admire now and are they the same writers who initially inspired you?
I am lucky in that many of my favorite working playwrights are also friends. So, I am inspired and influenced by people like Gina Gionfrido or Jacqueline Reingold or Kia Corthron who I can pick up the phone and call. But, like many playwrights, I am inspired also by actors: ones I have worked with and those I have only seen work. I often imagine actors when I write, and I think that’s true for many of us. They live in our minds. Jessica Hecht and Didi O’Connell and Roslyn Coleman are among the actors I have worked with who live on in my imagination on a daily basis.
I was Maria Irene Fornes’ assistant for a year, and that influenced me a great deal. Funnyhouse of A Negro by Adrienne Kennedy looms large. But I would say that Threepenny Opera, which was a record my parents had at home, is by far the most influential work.
I was so compelled by the original Blitzstein translation that as a 12 and 13 year old I listened to it over and over again on the record player and typed out the lyrics. I needed the physical experience of typing out those words, having them travel through me onto the page.
Another follow up question! Your childhood! Were your parents supportive of your life in the arts? Did they support your decision to become a writer?
Now that answer is so long that I wrote a book about it: TIES THAT BIND: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences was published by The New Press in 2011.