Interview with Darren Canady – Part 1
July 7th, 2014
By Aaron Klein
Darren Canady is a rising star in American theatre and won the American Theatre Critics Association 2012 M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award for best emerging playwright, recognizing his Brothers of the Dust, which premiered in May 2011 at Congo Square Theatre Company in Chicago. Canady is an assistant professor at the University of Kansas and is a recipient of the America-in-Play Residency and the Lecomte du Nouy Prize. He was the winner of the Alliance Theatre’s Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Award in 2007, and his winning play, False Creeds, had its world premiere on the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage that year.
I was recently given the opportunity to sit with Canady to talk about his latest production, Right On, which will have its world premiere on the Horizon Theatre stage July 18, 2014.
Right On follows Bella, a former civil-rights activist on her old college campus with her son Kyle as they visit Bella’s alma mater and run into Bella’s college friends, who have reunited to recreate their black student showcase “Right On!” for a new generation of students. Old flames and rivalries heat up, new challenges arise, and Kyle gets a real talk, no jive education about the choices made in their complicated pasts. In the funky groove of Soul Train and Sly, two generations take each other higher in this powerful and funny story of change makers and their legacies.
PART 1 – Meet Darren, and Where Right On Comes From
AK: Your biography for the University of Kansas, where you are an associate professor, mentions that your love for and style of writing comes from stories your family told when you were growing up. Can you tell me a bit about that?
DC: My Dad used to joke a lot about my mom’s side of the family: “Y’all got a story for everything. Y’all can’t just tell a story, there’s always extra. Ya always gotta act it out.” That was true for both sides of my family, so I really did come by it naturally. No one ever just told a story. No one ever just “went to the store.” Everything was performative, and it was engaging. Having that in my life as a child – that’s how I grew up thinking people communicated – and my playwriting just kind of grew out of that.
AK: And that’s why you write plays, not books.
DC: Yeah, it was funny, actually. I started out in undergrad mainly focusing on fiction, even though I was performing pretty regularly. My life in acting feels like another lifetime all together now, but I transitioned very quickly to being more focused on playwriting, and it felt like a very natural fit when I did.
AK: You also said most of your stories are inspired by personal journeys. Does Right On reflect a personal journey of yours?
DC: It does. There’s a really complex and thorny mother/son relationship at the center of Right On, and it’s a nightmare version of my relationship with my mom; my mom and I are really close. What happens to Bella and Kyle is what I’d never want to happen between my mother and me. There are certain biographical details I stole from my mother’s life and her own activism, but Bella’s personality is very different from my mom. I think I locate it in a place where if my mother had made different decisions in her life, this is quite possibly what could have happened. I think so much of the play is about the early 1970s and what politics were for African Americans, especially those on college campuses, but because I didn’t live then and so much of that I’m receiving second hand, to make the play work, I had to find a way to make it as much about now as possible. It’s that conversation across time periods and also that idea of, “What if I had taken a different route?” “What if I made a different decision?” All of those things play into Right On.
AK: And that’s a big part of how Right On is different from False Creeds and Brothers of the Dust, since those take place in the past and this play in the present. What made you want to take a modern day approach with Right On?
DC: A couple of things. The first, less interesting one, is that I had read a book about the musical Follies, which is a reunion of Follies girls. It takes place in the 1970s, but all these performers performed in the 20s and 30s, and they’re all haunted by the ghosts of their pasts. That was hanging out in my mind when I had gone home to Kansas, and went to a holiday party with my parents where I was the only one under the age of 50. A lot of my parents’ friends had been activists and were talking about that time in their lives, and they became very frustrated about what they perceived as apathy in my generation. And, you know, I listened to it and listened to it and listened to it, and I finally just had to say, “We can’t care if we never knew what happened. That was the frustration for me,” I told them. And this is the second reason, “There are so many stories I’m hearing here tonight. This is the first time I’ve heard about any of this. You can’t get angry about young people if none of that shared knowledge is passed on.” What came out of that discussion is that there’s pain attached to that, and the generational question can only be answered if you’re looking down the line. So that structure kind of presented itself to me.
AK: So when Patrice bemoans that she passed down “dreams and music and nothing else,” is that the same thing you’re talking about?
DC: Yeah. I think Patrice is definitely a voice of “Oh Gosh, I didn’t think that what my life is now would be a natural outgrow of what it was.” Because there’s this bitterness surrounding her feelings of her past, she has inadvertently passed that bitterness on to her children. She did not take the time to really think about the celebratory portions, so she’s just angry about the things that didn’t pan out for her. The bitterness has piled up.
AK: So the bitterness was passed down without her explaining why there was bitterness or going to any positive notes?
DC: Mhm. A lot of the play as it’s shaping up now (there’s a lot of rewriting happening) is honoring both of those impulses. There’s betrayal at the center of the play and a lot of unfinished business that propels the action. There’s a need to cathartically purge the anger and whatever we carry with us, but also to honor the power of whatever’s in the past and to make sure that that story doesn’t stop with you, but that that story does get told.