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Student Blog: Yale Drama Series Prize Winner Rachel Lynett on 'Apologies to Lorraine Hansberry (You Too August Wilson)'

An Interview with award winning playwright Rachel Lynett.

Student Blog: Yale Drama Series Prize Winner Rachel Lynett on 'Apologies to Lorraine Hansberry (You Too August Wilson)' The Yale Drama Series Prize is one of the most prestigious and sought after prizes in the playwriting world. Every year thousands of un-published plays are submitted, but only one can take home the title. This year, the 2021 Yale Drama Series Prize was awarded to Rachel Lynett for their play "Apologies to Lorraine Hansberry (You Too August Wilson)" This year, the winning play was chosen by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Paula Voguel.

The plays description is as follows:

Set in the fictional world of a post-second Civil War, Bronx Bay, an all-black state (and neighborhood) is established in order to protect "blackness." It's a utopia but enforcing utopia proves to be tricky when it comes to defining who is Black and who isn't.

I'm thrilled to share our Zoom conversation.

Describe "Apologies" in one word?

Blackness

What was the seed that sparked the idea for this show?

I was working at a museum at the time and I went to go see this gallery talk and there was a white woman talking all about the black experience. She was talking about it in a very monolithic way and that really frustrated me.

I also think about plays that are about the black experience and how sometimes they can lead into trauma. The more shock worthy plays that are getting out there, which I'm not saying that they aren't brilliant and great, but they also have a lot of deep trauma in them. So I wonder what it's like to be the black woman in Slave Play? Again, it's a brilliant play. What does that mean to go onstage and do that everyday? What does it mean to be the man in White Noise? So actors are put into these roles where they have to create this shock- the audience has to be shocked to be better. Again, not to say anything about the art. The art is brilliant and great. This play for me was, "How can we get catharsis for actors?" We spend a lot of time talking about catharsis for audience members and audience members walk away. Something I've been thinking about for the last couple of years is what do actors walk away with?

So for me the seed of the play is two things: One, I wanted to address that the black experience is not monolithic. That I am a black person, but I'm a black person who speaks spanish and my mom is Central American and I'm still black. Two, what does it mean when we ask actors to take on all these roles and what's the toll on it for them?

Do you usually approach your plays from the actors point of view?

Not usually. Not in this way. This play is different. Usually I think of the actors as what kind of person plays these roles, but don't think about the human on the other side of that. I think that's a fault of playwriting. We don't think that we're asking humans to do this who have their own lived trauma to then step into a different trauma. So this play was unique. It was me trying to do this, what I thought was, impossible thing.

Are there any other ways your writing process for this show differed from your writing process for other shows?

No, I'd say that's the main one. I'm always a very collaborative writer. I like to write a very fast rough draft in like a day and then just send that draft out immediately because I want to work with actors immediately. I usually do make changes based on actor suggestions.

At the beginning of the play there is a quote "exposition" where you are speaking directly to the audience through the character voices. Was this always a part of the show or developed with the actors?

Yes, it was there from the beginning. Most of the changes that we made within workshops were tinier changes. Some of the changes that got made were in part 1. You saw more of part 1 before. So there was a part where Yael was in jail and you got to see her in jail, but I don't wanna lean into any trauma porn here. So we had part 1 end even sooner, and I don't wanna give spoilers, but it ends sooner. And the way it ends is very new. We repeated how part 2 ends which was really fun to have that reflection.

Things that we added in were the scenes with the dancing and the music doesn't match the dance and they're talking about all of these plays- that was a new scene. And the ending of part 1. Those were the only two big changes. Everything else was word changes.

On the exposition thing- I love that people love it because that was just me as a writer being very petty. I get really tired when I get the note from artistic directors, "Hm, this section feels like exposition." And then you take it out and they're like, "I'm confused about xyz!" It's like, you made me take out what explained it! Theres no way to win. You feel stuck sometimes. So then for this play, I was gonna roll in hot. I'm gonna explain it, I'm gonna call it exposition if you want me to call it that, and then we're gonna move on because I need to get this information out. It came from this place of like, I don't wanna hide this in the dialogue because you're not gonna pay attention to it so i have to put it in a monologue. That is the only way you'll pay attention. There's also a thing that black women are the people listened to the least. That most people will not let a black woman talk for two minutes without interrupting. So I was like, cool cool cool...all monologues will be by black women and you'll have to listen to this black woman talk without interruption. That's also part of it too. The exposition is now in a very powerful place, but it started in a very petty place.

One NPX review says, "I'd put this on the same list as Fairview, Slave Play, Barbecue, etc." Would you compare/associate Apologies with any of these shows? If not, are there any contemporary plays that inspired Apologies?

There are no plays that inspired it specifically, but there are plays that inspire me that inspire all of my work. Whether or not I think it belongs on the same list as Fairview and Slave Play, I think those plays are doing something very different. I think that those plays are just in a different category. Maybe that's imposter syndrome? I'm still this little emerging playwright popping my head out of a little sand tunnel. I don' think we're in the same universe, so I don't think we'd be on the same list. I hope to one day be in that universe. It seems very nice up there! But I think that there are a lot of plays that try and talk about the black experience in very interesting ways. Brandon Jacob Jenkins is a playwright that I mention in the play. He's got "Appropriate" which doesn't even have any black people in it, and still talks about the black experience. It almost feels like an obligatory right of passage as a black playwright that you write the black experience play. I'd say the plays that have really shook me I mention in Apologies but they're not contemporary like Color Struck and Dutchman and For Colored Girls. Those are plays where I'm like this is the black experience in pieces, so what does it look like to put those pieces together? What I ultimately discover is that it's impossible. Even as I try, the play deconstructs because it's not possible.

What experience will theater goers have with your play that they can't get anywhere else?

It will have its world premiere in May with Fonseca and that will be outside. But what you won't get from a reading, or even from outdoor theatre, is how fun it is. I imagine it in a black box. There are parts where the set rotates. There are parts where two couples are in different houses and they're talking but the scene and dialogue is interwoven. I've had people ask me to split up those scenes. But no, it's so much funnier when you hear this one response over here and then another response over here that has nothing to do with that conversation, but totally relates to that conversation. I think a lot of the humor will pop more. The fun of it. I want it to feel like you're at a party. If you're a black person, then you're at a party you were invited to. And if you aren't a black person, you are at a party you weren't invited to but you're there anyways so!

What was it like to hear the news about your Yale Rep. Award?

It was very surreal. I was taking a nap and then I saw I had missed a call and didn't recognize the number. I thought it was weird, I've never been called about an opportunity before. You usually get an email and its: "Unfortunately..." or "We're pleased to announce..." So I called the number back and they were like, hey wanted to let you know that you've won the prize. And I was like, oh I'm a finalist that's great I'm really happy that I'm a finalist. And he was like, no you've won it. And I was like, oh I'm one of three finalists! It took him a while to convince me that I actually won the award. I've been applying for the Yale Drama Series Prize for years. It's one of those things you apply to and you know you're not gonna get but you apply anyway. It was really surreal. But then I couldn't say anything for a month! It was really hard, people were contacting me asking to do something with Apologies and I had to say, "You can't, and I can't tell you why!" Then when I could finally tell people, it was like hearing the news all over again. Hearing how the country is responding to it and being contacted by people I never thought I'd be contacted by. It's all really really surreal.

Last question, what do you think Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson would think of Apologies?

*laughter* I think Lorraine Hansberry would think it's hilarious. I think she'd be all about it and she'd think that it's funny. We would have drinks about it and laugh about it. She'd be like, "I don't know why my name had to be involved, but I love it." August Wilson...I think we'd have lots of words for each other. I think some of them would be words of support, and some of them would be words of disagreement. I think about the very very layered way in which August Wilson wrote about class and blackness. From the works that I have read, the mostly missing queer black narrative in August Wilsons work. Which I know why it's missing in Lorraine's. It's unfortunately a box she was pushed into, even though she was a queer woman. August, I have a question. Do I think he'd like the play? No. Do I think he'd tell me I couldn't use his name? Yes. I'm convinced Lorraine and I would laugh about it, and August and I would have a very stern phone call.

Rachel would like to thank the Yale Drama Series, the David Charles Horne Foundation, and Paula Vogel.


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