Interview with Darren Canady – Part 2
July 21st, 2014
By Aaron Klein
PART 2 – Love and the Pursuit of Happiness
AK: The Bella and Patrice dynamic struck me because the two are very similar characters, but they went in two directions in life. Bella ended up with her career and Patrice with her kids that she’s just frustrated with, but they’re both upset with their kids and their lives. What are you trying to say with that? And what do you think people need to be happy?
DC: This play deals with questions of happiness. I don’t know that I ever set out to or could define what it takes to be happy, but it does play notes about the things we carry with us, especially with Bella and Patrice. I think where I come from in looking at both of them is to say, “Be careful of the dreams you choose, especially when you’re in your 20s and you’re going into adulthood. More importantly, don’t ever let them just be stolen from you. Don’t bury them.” I think Bella had a very active and powerful existence on this campus, and she buried that because of this act of betrayal she experienced with her friends. And Patrice showed a lot of promise. She and Bella were best friends, but one change in your life doesn’t mean you have to hang it all up. And I think that’s something that both Bella and Patrice had to learn. I would hope, if they had taken different paths, they would have learned to be more flexible in their dreams, in their goals and in thinking about “Okay, I still want to achieve this thing. I’m going to have to go a different way at it. I’m going to have to go a different route.” And to make peace with whatever’s back there. Whatever skeletons are in the closet, you know, make ‘em dance. If you’re holding on to that, you can never advance. You can never reach “happy” when you’re bound by the past.
AK: So it’s about flexibility and allowing yourself branch out from what you thought you were going to do.
DC: Mhm. And it’s about knowing that our lives… ugh, our lives are gonna throw us curveballs. You just have to know that the unexpected is going to happen. You can’t plan it all out. Ronald and Janice and Sharonda all represent in various voices and different ways is saying, “You know what? Life happens. And it is not always fair, and most often it’s not fair.” But if you learn to say “Okay that’s what I’ve been given. I’m gonna work with it, with the values and the personality that I have, and stay authentic and true to who I am, then I’ll come out of the other side of this okay.” Maybe not the same way you thought you would, but you’ll come out all right.
AK: Another theme that you touch on in Right On is around is the perception and handling of mental illness within the African-American community. Can you talk about how that theme arises in the play?
DC: Bella, being black and successful for many years, would have been going into adulthood and forming her own opinions on mental illness with this stigma that African Americans “didn’t suffer from mental illness.” And that’s at the heart of the struggle between Bella and Kyle – at least over his bi-polar illness – that cultural perspective andthe fact that Bella is a character that really relishes control, and you can’t control someone else’s mental health. I think that can be very difficult for almost any parent to deal with. And parents deal with it in a variety of ways – sometimes healthy, sometimes not so healthy. Part of Bella’s journey in this play is to get to a healthier place with how she deals with what’s going on with Kyle. He’s clearly intelligent; he’s clearly very talented; and in that respect, he’s her dream. He is the person that she set out to be herself. And yet, no one is just what their parent created. They are their own person. Bella struggles with that, and an audience is going to naturally struggle with her struggle. I want the audience to see her flaws and weaknesses and to know that underneath those flaws and weaknesses is a desire for Kyle to be his “best.” But I think she struggles with that.
AK: So you would say her struggle does come from a loving place?
DC: I really think so. I really think that what she has learned, and the reason why this all comes out now in relationship to this reunion, is that she really does believe that you are on your own in this life. The betrayal she faced that ended her college career changed her. It changed how she thinks, and I think she carries that with her in her professional life and in her parenting. I think Bella, like a lot of parents come from a place of “look, this is what I went through. This is the pain that was caused in my life and I don’t want to see that happen to you.” And I think that’s where she’s coming from.
AK: Bella says to Kyle, “What’s wrong with you–and everyone in your whole damn generation–is that you even have the time–the LUXURY–to think about [things] like ‘emotional bargaining’!” In other words, she toughed it out, why shouldn’t he. Do you think those attitudes are changing?
DC: The long history of African American life is rife with a lot of injustice, a lot of oppression, and because of a variety of factors, mental health counseling and therapy comes into the African American community very late in history. So the thought is: if ancestors could survive without mental health intervention through slavery, sharecropping, etc., why is it that suddenly we’re now at a place where young people need intervention for bad grades at school? I think that’s an argument that is not actually a very nuanced one. There is psychological trauma that studies show has been passed down through African American culture and history, but to Bella and people like her, the only way to survive being black in America is to develop a sort of mental toughness that doesn’t need mental health intervention. I think attitudes are shifting greatly, and that’s what this play is about. I do think you see as we moved into the 21st century (the play is set in 2004) that a lot of those attitudes are changing by necessity. But some things are slow to change and I think Bella represents that tenor, that note that’s resistant to some of that change.