In preparation for Hands Up: 6 Playwrights, 6 Testaments, which is being presented by ArtsCenter Stage and Common Ground Theatre with the support of MOJOAA Perfoming Arts Company and in conjunction with the Ladies of the Triangle Theatre (LoTT), I had a chance to speak with playwright Nathan James, author of “Superiority Fantasy”, about his writing process, inspiration for the play, and the power of theatre to serve as a tool for social change. Please enjoy this wonderful interview!
Jacqueline Lawton: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
Nathan James: I was being promoted from Beltzhoover elementary school in Pittsburgh, and I had to choose a middle school. I didn’t want to go to the neighborhood school, Knoxville (which is what it was called back then). My brother went to Rogers CAPA for Visual Art, and since I followed him around everywhere…quite naturally I wanted to go to school with him. The only problem was, I had no talent (or so I thought). My mom remembered that I did good in all the church plays. She went out and got me a monologue from the library, “You’re a good man Charlie Brown”. I used that as my audition monologue for Rogers CAPA, and the rest is history.
JL: Next, tell me a little bit about your writing process. Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write in the same place or in different places?
NJ: My writing ritual is really random. There are random pieces of paper all over the place in my apartment with my handwriting on it. I’ve started to consolidate by typing everything in the notebook app for iPad. I have a bunch of random playlists on my phone, and I usually listen to whatever type of music goes with the writing I’m doing (along with candles, incense, and beer/wine). I write as much at home as I can. Then I end up getting Cabin Fever and heading to a coffee shop. If I get stumped, I put it down and come back to it later. Usually I’ll be riding the subway and I’ll see a person with the mannerisms of one of the characters I’m writing, and I’ll pull out my phone and start writing immediately.
JL: Why was it important for you to be a part of the New Black Fest’s Hands Up: 6 Playwrights, 6 Testaments?
NJ: It is important for me to show that even though we are all black men, we are not all the same. These are not one-noted monologues. These are 6 different perspectives out of the many more experiences by black men everywhere. We are not all one monolith. And until people can start seeing us as human beings with differences and complexities in what makes us tick, no real change can happen. I think this collaborative effort on behalf of The New Black Fest is a brilliant way to open up this dialogue in the community. I’ve respected Keith Joseph Atkins and the New Black Fest for quite some time now. To be asked to be a part of this, with other writers I hold in an extremely high regard, is an honor and a privilege.
JL: Tell me about your play. What do you hope the audience walks away thinking about after experiencing it?
NJ: I want the audience to see the vulnerability inside my anger. I want them to see a person. I want them to see a man. A proud man. A proud man at his breaking point about apologizing for something as ridiculous as the pigment of his skin. I want them to feel the hurt, and the fear. I want them to feel my urgency in demanding change NOW…not later. My play is very unapologetic and honest. Most of all, it is my truth. But, I also want people to know that it is a state of mind that is not unrepairable. I just need more than a bone thrown to one black person here and there, before we start patting ourselves on the back for how “racially progressive” we are. Part of the reason I celebrated when Barack Obama became president was not because I believed the sickness that is racism was finally cured, but that the idea that a black man is not capable of running this country was put to bed. Yet, because we rejoiced, people took that to believe that all of our problems are over and we’re making excuses about everything. I want people to see that racism is an idea, and an idea that must die.
JL: What role does theater have in advocacy work?
NJ: I think theater plays a major role in advocacy work. Playwrights have been jailed and killed because of their words throughout history. The theater plays a major role on how we define ourselves as a society. It helps us learn about one another. It encourages dialogue about critical human issues, and starting the dialogue is the first step towards change. My aim is to show black people as human beings. This starts by changing the images of black people on stage and in film.
JL: What next for you as a writer? Where can we follow your work?
NJ: Right now I am currently working on a tour of my one man show, GROWING PAINS. It was just recently part of the 2014-2015 season for The Billie Holiday Theater. I am also working on a book series called “The Man-up Manifesto”. You can keep up with me through my website www.officialnathanjames.com and Twitter: @ImNateJames
About Nathan James
Nathan James is a proud native of Pittsburgh, PA, where he began his career with Kuntu Repertory Theater. He has most recently appeared Off-off Broadway in a one man show written and performed by Nathan, Growing Pains, at The Gene Frankel Theater. Prior to Growing Pains, he appeared as Ellis in August Strindberg’s “Easter”, (in which The New York Times considered him a “Standout actor”) and in the Off-Broadway production, Playing with Fire, with The Negro Ensemble Company and The August Strindberg Repertory Theatre for which he and his cast had been nominated for an AUDELCO Award 2012 for “Best Performance by an Ensemble”. Nathan is a recent recipient of the August Wilson Playwriting fellowship from the August Wilson Cultural Center, and his play Contrary to Popular Belief was featured in the Reader’s Theater at the National Black Theater Festival, The Blackboard Reading Series, The Standardized reading series at Center Stage NY, and in the Cultural Conversations Festival at Penn State University. In 2005, Nathan was ranked as one of the top 15 slam poets in the Nation by Poetry Slam Incorporated, and he performed his Langston Hughes inspired poem I too Sing America 2 on the 2006 Emmy Award nominated documentary soundtrack Torch Bearers. He has been a featured Poet at the South Africa International Theater Festival, as well as many Universities and Poetry
venues in the United States. He has also been commissioned to write and perform poems for some of America’s premiere black pioneers, most notably Mae Jemison, Roy Ayers, and Angela Davis.
HANDS UP: 6 Playwrights, 6 Testaments
Written by Dennis Allen, Idris Goodwin, Glenn Gordon, Eric Holmes, Nathan James, and Nathan Yungerberg
Directed by Monet Noelle Marshall
Dramaturgy by Jules Odendahl-James and Jacqueline E. Lawton
Featuring Malcolm Evans, Kenny Lampkin, Jordan Marshall, Justin Peoples, CJ Suitt and Marcus Zollicoffer
Stage Manager: JaMeeka Holloway
Produced by ArtsCenter Stage
Plan Your Visit
What: HANDS UP: 6 Playwrights, 6 Testaments
When: February 5-7 at 8:00 pm
Where: Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd, Durham
RSVP: (919) 384-7817
Online Tickets: https://www.artful.ly/store/events/4916
*HANDS UP: 6 Playwrights, 6 Testaments is produced in association with the New Black Fest.
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I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!