Thomas Bradshaw by Margo Jefferson

BOMB 109 Fall 2009
Issue 109  Cover Final
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Jerry Zellers, Peter Mccabe, and Hilary Ketchum in Prophet . P.S. 122, 2005. Photo by Ben Kato. All images courtesy Thomas Bradshaw.

“But what exactly is a black? First of all, what’s his color?” Jean Genet prefaced his incendiary 1959 play, The Blacks: A Clown Show, with those words. I’m happy to appropriate and apply them to Thomas Bradshaw, for his plays (published by Samuel French, Inc.) also invade dangerous, treacherous territories. I interviewed him at the Lark Theater this past July. He was preparing for a workshop of his latest play, Job, at Soho Rep, which gives that sacred biblical text some seriously profane and welcome revisions. Thomas Bradshaw is a “distinct shade of brown,” to use a phrase uttered by the father of Marvin Gaye in a Rolling Stone interview conducted after he had murdered his son. (“Negroes” calling themselves “blacks” were one of Reverend Gaye’s many grievances.)

These are the kinds of lethal facts and ironies that Bradshaw cherishes. His plays are full of high-achieving suburbanites—college profs, corporate lawyers—cheerfully gripped by sexual, racial, and religious manias, and often set on ignoring the fact that they are alcoholics and cokeheads. The first one I saw was Prophet, which began when a well-groomed, well-spoken man any woman in the audience might have mistaken for a decent prospect, clasped his hands together and prayed: “Lord, I have failed to be masculine. I am not worthy of my penis.” To become worthy, he is instructed by the Lord to time-travel back to 1865, that deadly year when slavery ended and the women’s movement was reinvigorated. His mission was to marry a “Negress” and re-enslave her.

In a Bradshaw play, no one in the audience gets to sit back in safety and crow over the sins of others. In matters of vanity and perversity, our lust for psychic and social power—in addition to our secret angers: class, race, and gender—are equal-opportunity employers.

Margo Jefferson Thomas, you look so preppy in your blue shirt with a polo pony!

Thomas Bradshaw Well, when you write plays like mine, you had better look responsible and decent! (laughter) People are often surprised when they meet me. I feel like they sometimes think they’re about to meet a monster with three heads that’s going to rip their throats out and kill their parents.

MJ Something like that.

TB People actually say to me, “You’re Thomas Bradshaw … you seem so, nice and, um, good-humored.”

MJ They’re probably expecting something like your character/caricature of the professor in Purity.

TB Yeah, someone like Vernon in Purity. Fifty years ago, writing was treated as art; it was assumed that what someone was writing was coming out of their imagination. Now we live in this moment of reality TV and everybody’s trying to tell their story. Being an artist of color, there’s an even higher expectation that you’re supposed to be writing about your struggle, your personal experiences.

MJ And your personal anguish. It’s very much permeated criticism; the life is ceaselessly read into the work. Your work is historically grounded. It occurred to me that with so much slavery showing up in your plays, in a way, you’re writing costume dramas. It’s historical, psychic costume …

TB Absolutely. I love costume drama.

MJ Gone with the Wind? (laughter)

TB Definitely not. But I loved the movie Mandingo. I actually didn’t see it until after I wrote Southern Promises, and I’m glad because—

MJ Oh God, yes! You must have thought, I appropriated Mandingo without having seen it!

TB Exactly. It was amazing! I was so glad that I hadn’t seen it before that, or else it would have influenced me.

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Detra Payne, Jason Grant, and Peter Mccabe in Prophet. P.S. 122, 2005. Photo by Ben Kato.

MJ I remember deciding, with a black feminist friend, that we were going to go see Mandingo. We joked about wearing big hats so we wouldn’t be recognized. The thrill that that supposed trash delivers! You’ve also nabbed on to a certain truth: our psyches speak in what our egos and rational selves call clichés. These pronouncements, these declarations, these extreme statements, like “I hate niggers!” That’s the way our fantasy lives and our internal dialogues work. You know, we all want to think we don’t have bad taste—we do! That’s the zone that you are always pushing the audience into.

TB You’re absolutely right; my characters speak in subtext. In traditional plays, we’re still in this moment of psychological realism that we’ve been in for a very long time. In that world, characters say one thing, but their intentions are different. So when actors are taught how to act, it’s “Okay, so you’re saying this, but what are you playing? You’re playing the subtext.” There’s none of that in my plays. There’s a unity of what the characters are thinking, feeling, and doing. They’re acting on pure id.

MJ All of the social habits and manners are still, nevertheless, at the service of the id. Like when the two wives crowd around the black professor Carl in Purity: they’re being good, liberal, sexually aroused, bourgeois women.

TB They’re doing what we were just talking about with the struggle: “Oh, we feel so bad for you! Oh, your life was so hard!”

MJ How do you get your actors to work that? You’ve been called a satirist, but often your satire is played with emotional texture, like in those moments of incredible grief and tenderness one feels from Essie May in Strom Thurmond Is Not A Racist. Your actors are amazing at giving us three-dimensionality within this world where it’s not “I’m playing subtext.” How does this happen?

TB This is the most difficult thing. Casting is really the most important part of any production, but especially with my plays. It’s about being absolutely present and in the moment and being able to turn on a dime. Let’s go back to the psychological-realism analogy. Actors often think about the arc of their character, but in my plays, you can’t think about any of that stuff. It’s like, right now I’m angry at my wife and I’m yelling and screaming, and, the next moment, I’m really happy that I’m going to go off to Ecuador. There’s this purity of feeling. I often talk about my work as hyperrealism; it’s more real than reality: reality on crack, reality without the boring parts, if you will. Psychological realism has too much of the boring parts of life: “Oh, let’s just sit around and talk for an hour.” Like anybody wants to see that on stage! I mean, I’m often in conversations thinking, Man, I really gotta get out of this conversation.

MJ You’re not just blaming the other person; it’s yourself also.

TB Right. This person and I need to stop engaging with the subject matter and just break away. Clearly, plays are artifice—mine too—but approaching theater in the way that I do is much more real than the truth that we claim to derive from psychological realism. In psychological realism the characters always tell the audience exactly what they’re thinking and why they’re doing what they’re doing, but people seldom have that much self-awareness. My characters don’t explain their behavior and that’s much closer to the way we experience life. If you came in here today angry and standoffish, I would have no idea why you were doing that. I wouldn’t know whether you stubbed your toe this morning, or whether something was going on with your family, with work, or anything. All I would see was how you were treating me, but with no insight into your psychology.

We respond moment to moment; we don’t know what’s going to happen during the day. This whole search for truth with reality TV and “your struggle”—I don’t think it gets at any real truth. I’m trying to get at an essence of the truth.

MJ There’s something similar going on, both sensational and earnest, in this search for truth in the conversation about race that we are nationally advised to have. It makes you feel a sense of weariness and dreariness, even though we all know, on some level, that we want it terribly. But we want it to deliver something other than this dutiful psychological realism that you’ve been talking about.

I remember reading that you had a responsible black father who wanted you to be a lawyer. You had majored in sociology and playwriting, thinking you might go to law school.

TB My father, who has always been very supportive, is an electrical engineer. He’s this man of science and numbers, so he just couldn’t understand that I was going to go to college and major in theater. Really, it has to do with the price tag: $34,000 a year to just make up things on a piece of paper and say them out loud. A lot of people think that about theater, That looks easy, I could do that!

MJ Movies feel much more central to the culture.

TB Yeah, absolutely. My mother always wanted me to be an artist. As a kid I went to this arts school where we did academics for half the day and arts the other half. I knew this was what I wanted to do, but I thought I should have a backup plan in case it didn’t work out, seeing how few people actually are successful in the theater. By my junior year it became apparent that I was not going to go to law school. I was going to try to go to graduate school for theater. My father accepted this decision.

Whenever I go see my father and his wife they’ll be like, “Why don’t you write something more mainstream, you know, one of these Broadway musicals, something that people want to see?” And my father, God bless him, when I won the Guggenheim, was like, “Oh my God! Wow! That’s so amazing; who arranged that? Did your agent do that for you? I knew you had a following, but I thought that they were some kind of fringe weirdos.” (laughter)

MJ You see, it’s a perfect example of your dialogue. It’s all right there. He wasn’t going to censor, it just got blurted out.

TB And he wasn’t trying to be derogatory or mean; he was paying me a huge compliment. But stuff like that you can’t even make up.

MJ I started this track about sociology and law; I’m thinking particularly about Strom Thurmond and Southern Promises, but it also happens in Prophet. At the end of these plays, a character steps forward and makes a public address that has elements of an elegant court summation: “Here is the case, for and against; here is why I had to find my freedom, why I was willing to be nailed into a box and escape.”

These plays also have the quality of those great 19th-century speeches that were politics andtheater: Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, just hundreds of people who made speeches that were a form of entertainment, but also intellectual and political enlightenment. Those speeches are risky theatrically, because of the legal-argument quality. Audiences get their backs up about being lectured to: we’ve had it pounded into us that theater mustn’t be didactic, that we shouldn’t make judgments. You’re asking us to weigh evidence, draw our own conclusions, but you’re infusing that process with multiple emotions.

TB Those speeches are almost a little comical to me—especially my placement of them.

MJ How so?

TB Because they end a play in a very traditional way. After you’ve watched this play that’s not traditional at all, whose form is not recognizable, then suddenly it’s, “And now we’re going to act like you just saw a normal play that you could have seen at any other theater.”

MJ That’s true.

TB Actually, Chekhov does that a little bit.

MJ He does. When you see good Chekhov, even if it’s just a particular speech that lights up, it stays with you; you keep repeating it to yourself, like you’re feeding on it.

TB Shakespeare too, with his speeches at the end. You’ve watched this fantastical stuff and then it’s like, “And now we’re going to wrap it up with this.”

MJ That wrap-up gives you a little space; it quiets you down. You’re very smart with that because you’re always in some kind of strategic negotiation or battle with your audiences. The speeches are defenses, arousals… They allow you to have some common order restored, so there’s more room for this tumult and turmoil to come up in a way the audience finds manageable.

TB I don’t do this in all my plays, you know. I’m perfectly happy to leave people in turmoil at the end. (laughter)

MJ You’re right. That’s not what’s going on in Prophet. It’s not what you do at the end of Purity either. It’s very disturbing—a death followed by the murderer’s lines: “I hope that tainting my white doves was worth it for you, because they’ll never be the same to me. A dark stain now rests upon them.” It’d be as if we ended Macbeth with one of the murderers just saying, “Calm down.” (laughter)

TB It pretty much ends with a Shakespearean couplet. It leaves you with a very unsettling feeling. Every play calls for something different. Purity is a very unsettling play and we need it to stay in that place all the way through. That’s generally considered my most controversial play.

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Matt Huffman, Derrick Lemont Sanders, Peter Mccabe, Erwin Thomas, and High Sinclair in Southern Promises. P.S. 122, 2008. Photo by Ryan Jensen.

MJ I read some of the reviews. Which play of yours received the most critically ignorant reviews?

TB The reviews for Purity are the most critically ignorant.

MJ What is it that people were missing?

TB I wish more critics understood that theater is in conversation with other theater. How does Purity interact with August Wilson? How does Purity interact with plays that were coming out during the Reconstruction?

MJ We do that with literature vehemently: that’s the critical approach. How does it interact with Amiri Baraka? You can’t not think about Dutchman when you see Purity: two college professors, one black and preppy, one white. Then the sexual underside: in Baraka it’s a black man and a white woman; here it’s the two men and a ten-year-old Latin-American girl. But when another black professor is hired, Vernon becomes obsessed with his own hatred of a certain kind of ’60s blackness. He hates “niggers” and this “nigger” must die. It’s as if Vernon in Purity contained both the white woman’s sexual rage and contempt and the black man’s cultural rage and self-loathing in Baraka’s Dutchman.

TB Criticism doesn’t often recognize theater artists as being part of this long tradition. What is the place of the theater that I’m making if you look at it as part of that tradition? And here’s the other thing: I write plays without subtext—characters’ motivations are left unexplained and no overriding message is being championed. This is apparently confusing for some people. In the case of Purity, there was this assumption that I didn’t know what I was doing. Some of the reviews came close to saying, “Well, he just hasn’t figured out how to write a psychological-realist play yet.”

MJ And he made Vernon, the black character, so unsympathetic.

TB Right, you can’t have these unsympathetic characters and hope to advance the racial conversation. How could a critic assume that I don’t know what I’m doing? The assumption should be that this is all done on purpose, and if it’s done on purpose, then what does that mean? Trash the play, by all means, but write about the play on its merit.

MJ I’d also add, from the critic’s side, maybe you don’t trash it but instead say, “I am in tumult; I don’t really know what to make of it; my feelings are incredibly mixed, but I have to coherently convey uncertainty, vulnerability, while making the work come alive.”

TB That’s a really good point. In most plays you can hear the playwright’s voice telling you what to think. One of the things that pissed people off about Purity was that the play never said, “Going to Ecuador to have sex with a kid is a bad thing to do.” Really? People need meto tell them that that’s a bad thing to do? I want audiences to think about what’s happening.

It’s for the audience to come to a conclusion about the play. A critic writing, “I’m confused about how I should feel about this,” is making a valid statement. I wish critics didn’t claim to have all the answers all the time. There’s a review for my play Dawn, which is all white characters—

MJ Ah, a black writer featuring all white characters!

TB Yeah, I’m not allowed to do that.

MJ That barrier has existed for several centuries.

TB I’m desperately trying to break out of it. One of the reviews of Dawn said essentially, “Tom Bradshaw should stick to writing about subjects that he knows something about.” I couldn’t believe that an editor would let that slip by; an editor should say, “Wait a minute, do you know Thomas? How do you know that he has had no experience with the subject matter?” There’s a lot of stuff going on in that play—the basic subject is alcoholism. I can assure this reviewer I know plenty about alcoholism, and having grown up middle class, in a primarily white environment, I’m probably more qualified to write about white society than I am to write about life in the ghetto.

MJ Or life on the plantation. (laughter)

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James Scruggs and Daniel Manley in Purity. Photo by Ben Kato.

TB I’m definitely more qualified to write about modern society, white or black, than I am to write about what black life on a plantation in 1854 was like. I just think that we’ve gotten away from this idea of the imagination as a source for writing.

MJ Which writers is your work in conversation with?

TB That question always catches me off guard. Emily Brontë is a huge influence on me.

MJ Interesting.

TB Wuthering Heights is told so brilliantly. Also Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises—his economy of language. He talks about very major plot points with such simplicity, that you could almost miss them if you weren’t paying attention. Camus’s The Stranger makes me think about why humans behave the way they do. It’s like, “I shot this guy because I was hot.” I’m reducing his philosophy there. Bertrand Russell—what is reality? Those people influenced me very early on, and I had forgotten the effects that those writers and philosophers had on me. Heart of Darkness also blew me away when I first read it. That, Wuthering Heights, and Hemingway showed me what literature could be; I could do whatever I wanted!

MJ Tell me a little more; you said with Wuthering Heights it was the way the story was told.

TB Heathcliff embodies the idea of acting on pure id. This guy is just doing what he wants; he isn’t adhering to any conventions of the day. And yet he is acting this way with this suit and tie—he becomes this refined individual on the outside, but inside he’s still totally brutal. The lengths that Heathcliff goes: he digs up Catherine’s body and hugs it, knocks out the side of her coffin so he can be buried next to her in the dirt and have their bones be together! It gets to an essence of truth that is more truthful than reality, and that’s what I’m talking about.

MJ You know what just flashed in my mind? The slave-master-turned-abolitionist husband in Southern Promises. He’s killed the mulatto baby, he’s killed his wife, and he decides to free his slaves. The way that’s played, the grimness, the horror.

TB That’s one of my favorite moments in Southern Promises because it’s having a conversation, historically, with other pieces of writing where freeing the slaves is a wonderful moment that comes from this place of pure goodness: “Let’s give the slave master a round of applause!” It’s unclear what my character’s motivations are; he could be doing it out of spite.

MJ Yes, he could.

TB He’s just like, “Fuck Elizabeth, cheating on me with this nigger! I’m gonna free this …” The truth is, with human beings it’s often a mixture of so many different things: there isn’t a pure motivation for anything.

MJ I want to know what blew you away about Heart of Darkness.

TB The descriptions of these English men engaging in brutal acts, yet they’re wearing crisp white shirts that they have to keep changing throughout the day.

MJ Because they’re getting bloodied.

TB Because they’re getting bloodied, they’re getting sweaty, and they need to maintain a sort of decorum under those circumstances … that just blew my mind. It’s like, What on earth are these guys doing? It crystallized the horror and the hypocrisy for me. I also deal with dark subjects, but what I try to do in my plays is bring out the humanity of these people—it’s about understanding, not about dividing, about the fact that we can all relate to each other a whole lot more than maybe we would even want to.

MJ That’s the thing: can one make sense internally of some of the monstrosity, of this drive to subjugate like the one we see in Prophet? You don’t only deal with slavery—very often it’s suburbia, religion, gender. It’s also the need for power and some sort of weird self-expression that gets turned into domination, and seduction.

TB Yes, that’s true. In Dawn, for example, what’s unsettling is that the characters are people that everybody can recognize. This might be you, your next-door neighbor, your kid—it’s all rooted in humanity. That’s more frightening than demonizing people and pointing at things and saying, “Bad.” It’s easy to separate yourself and put these people you don’t like in another category, but if you’re all standing in the same pool, what does that mean?

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Mckenna Kerrigan and Andrew Garman rehearsing The Bereaved, 2009. Photo by Ben Handzo.

MJ There are layers and levels of complicity. Tell me a little about the new play.

TB It’s called The Bereaved and it’s about a white family in Manhattan. The mother is a very wealthy lawyer and the husband is an adjunct professor. She wins this big case and they decide to do some cocaine to celebrate—she goes into cardiac arrest and dies suddenly. The play is about the consequences of that situation. It’ll play at the Wild Project, this new theater on East 3rd Street between Avenues A and B. It’s very nice.

MJ Are all the characters white?

TB There are lots of layers: the family is white, there’s a drug dealer who’s black, and the husband’s new wife is Asian. Race is not really an issue in the play; it’s more about what’s not said.

MJ Which is—hello!—often the way life unfolds.

TB I mean, the play is more of a commentary on modern culture. If there’s any racial commentary, it’s that there isn’t any racial commentary, mostly.

MJ Is that, you think, what is meant by this term “post-racial” that is being thrown around a lot? Do you buy that?

TB I don’t buy the way the term is being used. I was listening to some Republican pundits on NPR and they were like, “I’m glad Obama got elected because it shows that racism is over. There’s no need for affirmative action anymore. We can get rid of all these programs because we’ve proved that a person can rise.” We need to put the brakes on for a couple of moments here.

MJ Also with Sonia Sotomayor … In their minds, people of color are becoming the oppressors.

TB I can’t believe that someone like Rush Limbaugh, of all people, is calling her a racist.

MJ Don’t you love the way people like him have been screaming at people of color, especially blacks, for playing victim and playing the race card? I’ve never seen so many powerful white men enjoying playing the victim.

TB This gets back to this whole idea of the id, and being one thing one moment, and the exact opposite the next.

MJ They’re having the time of their lives.

TB Obviously, this Obama thing is truly amazing. It’s changing people’s perceptions in subtle ways. It’s just making it a lot more difficult for people to make the assumptions they made before. That’s a huge small leap forward.

MJ In a way, that’s what you’re doing with your work, notwithstanding those extreme shock moments.

TB If you described the plot of one of my plays, it sounds very unfunny. And yet the plays can be laugh riots and it’s like, Why are we laughing at these things?

MJ Which are usually a series of crises and catastrophes and follies.

TB The way we usually deal with major subjects in art and the media bears no relation to the truth. There’s comedy in the midst of tragedy and tragedy in the midst of comedy. You actually can never separate the two and that’s how theater should be.

MJ Who is The Bereaved in conversation with? I love this idea of the playwrights in conversation.

TB I see five to seven plays a week, and I am often left with the feeling that something important is missing. So many plays are just skimming the surface of important issues, and fail to connect in any real visceral way. I’m making an effort to fill that void. So, I’m in conversation with all theater at this moment, not just one playwright.

MJ You’re in conversation with our Western traditions. What are you working on today?

TB What we’re workshopping today is my honest, un-cynical adaptation of the book of Job; it’s called Job. I did a ton of research. The Talmud has like eight different theories about when Job lived and who he was, so I had to sit down with a Jewish scholar and figure out which would be best for my purposes.

MJ Why Job?

TB We live within this oddly religious moment in America. It’s funny, you go to Europe and society is so secular there. In many ways, the way people talk about the Bible and what’s actually written in the text bear no relation to one another. Mainly, I just love Job. The beginning of Job is Satan coming to a meeting of the sons of God. God says to him, “Hey Satan, what’s going on? Have you seen my servant Job?” So they start having this conversation about Job and they make a bet. Satan claims that Job’s only righteous because God gives him everything and he lives this perfect life. He says to God, “If you took away everything that’s dear to him, then he’ll curse you to your face.” And God says, “Okay, take everything away from him, but don’t harm his person.” So Satan kills Job’s family and takes away his home, but Job doesn’t curse God. God goes, “I told you so!” Satan argues that it’s because his physical well-being wasn’t harmed, “If you take away his health, then he’ll curse you.” And God is like, “Go ahead, do whatever you want to him. Just don’t kill him.”

I started thinking, What is their relationship? In my play God and Satan are brothers: that’s what their relationship seemed like to me. They have kind of this love-hate relationship, and they very much seem like equals. Then I started thinking about the sons of God. In my play, they are Jesus and Dionysus—I see a lot of similarities between the God of the Old Testament and the Greek gods. That’s all part of the texture of the play.

I’ve always been fascinated with religion. In Mary, a play I’m writing right now which was commissioned by the Goodman Theater, the title character is an old black lady who can’t read but can quote the Bible. One of the stories she quotes is Lot. Do you know the story of Lot?

MJ Lot and his wife fleeing without looking back. It’s sort of like Orpheus and Eurydice.

TB There might be some plagiarism going on in the Bible from Orpheus and Eurydice. Lot insists that two men, strangers to the town of Sodom, stay in his home. Then every single man in the town comes to Lot’s house because they want to have sex with the two guys. Lot is like, “No, please! That’s not how we treat guests!” Then he says, “Look, I have two virgin daughters. You can do whatever you want with them, just don’t touch these two guys.” The guests happen to be angels of God.

MJ And the daughters?

TB The angels of God save them. What does this say about the world we live in, if we’re supposed to look at this book as the guide for our morality?

In Dawn, there’s a character, Steven, who has sex with his niece. His justification is that incest is all over the Bible. Adam and Eve—their kids had sex with each other. I mean, this is how the world got populated. And in the story of Lot, after Sodom is destroyed, his daughters get him drunk and have sex with him because they think they’re the last people living on earth and they want to repopulate the world.

MJ From “The Devil and Daniel Webster” to “The Bible and Thomas Bradshaw.”

TB I guess you could say one of my major influences is the Bible.

MJ There we go, a properly pious ending. (laughter)

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Originally published in

BOMB 109, Fall 2009

Featuring interviews with Allen Ruppersberg and Cheryl Donegan, Allora & Calzadilla, Joel Shapiro, Lydia Peelle, Rebecca Solnit, Cherien Dabis, Karole Armitage and Lukas Ligeti, and Thomas Bradshaw.

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