interview by DANI OLIVER
Utopia, to me, could not be more relevant to the conversation that we’re having in this country about race, and about instances of police brutality. What was particularly compelling about this story, however, was that the struggle wasn’t race-against-race, or police-against-civilian. The struggle was a rift in ideologies between two individuals who ultimately wanted the same thing — to make their art, and to tell stories about their communities through the work. As one of Utopia‘s co-writers, what was it about these two characters and the differences in their thinking that inspired you to write this piece?
David Douglas: You’re right, it wasn’t necessarily race-related (although that’s there, too) but it was how — in someone’s pursuit of financial success and recognition — how easy it is to assume certain people, or a group of folks, forfeit their right to exist.
It constantly jolts me how we still haven’t gotten a handle on that. How we celebrate making money at any cost, and also protecting what we have so the other guy doesn’t steal it. Making a dollar (and how we drive toward success) is so deeply a part of who we are as a country that it affects our lifestyles, our media, and our politics. Even the ones we elect never seem to consider people’s basic welfare until it’s too late, and then holding them accountable seems nearly impossible — whether it’s the Flint water crisis, or the prison industrial complex, or too-big-to-fail and corrupt bankers.
Even the rise of the “Trump,” with his cheap charisma and racist bully rhetoric. It’s all a con that’s made valid simply because he’s a successful businessman. He always seems to be able to shrug off the most heinous things because his success can act as some golden shield.
But that driving force for being successful and being recognized is a key factor for Martin [played by Martin Head]. He is very American that way, very capitalist. David [played by David Douglas] is less driven, but also more able to see what he gives up in that chase for success. He knows his soul will compromise ultimately, so he decides to give up on his art to start over.
What sort of conversations did you and Martin have when you started working on Utopia?
DD: We started with a back-and-forth about the Mike Brown case. We were trying to find a play to work on — and ended up reading about six, I think — when one day we just started… not arguing, but having an impassioned fencing match I guess… and we both played devil’s advocate and after a while we thought, Hey, what if we wrote something that involved two characters going over specific details about this case in real time? And that was really the beginning of Utopia.
I found it unbelievable that people could justify killing this child. I mean, he was a kid. Sure, he made serious mistakes, he was in the wrong. But I thought back to something I heard Donald Glover mention in an interview — about how, a lot of kids in this country, a lot of poor kids, white and black, weren’t allowed to make mistakes. They really aren’t allowed to learn from mistakes because it will mean their life. It will be justified and then, posthumously, they will be slandered. They are assassinated twice, in a sense.
There is no such thing as “affluenza” in predominantly poor black and brown areas. Their lives are justifiably cut short under the pretense of being “threatening.” I started to wonder what differences there were between people that made them different and more threatening, and also what rights we assume are forfeited because someone is in a more seemingly desperate situation than our own.
What were the challenges with writing this piece?
DD: Writing it, basically. I’ve never written a play before. I’ve written monologues, lyrics, and even poetry pieces, but never a play. Um… fleshing it out 15 to 20 pages at a time, and then seeing what works and what doesn’t.
I would say the hardest thing might’ve been actually transferring it to a live theater piece. I mean, we had the idea for the set — with the suspended frames in the art space. We knew we were going to reveal the final center piece and what that was going to be, but making that transition — especially for a one act — was difficult. We eventually ended up having multiple blackouts to transition from one to the next.
Utopia takes place in a converted art gallery space Downtown Los Angeles, off Skid Row. One of the characters mentions it was able to open, in part, due to a government arts grant. How do the issues of both government subsidized creative spaces and gentrification come into play in this narrative, if at all?
DD: Well, in this play at least, the fact that Martin’s investment allowed him to get away with murder, although he didn’t pull the trigger himself, showed how much more his business is valued over another man’s life. Martin was being protected, in a sense, because he could contribute economically to the area. It might imply the city would do what it thinks necessary to keep things calm and not escalate. It’s interesting, because if the authorities practiced “non-escalation” at the beginning, they wouldn’t risk millions of dollars in damage with the city.
In this play, these are all things that happen because of something. Something deep and systemic. The way we wrote it had Martin keeping certain facts to himself, such as already having the grant money in his account, and a not too subtle message from the police commissioner implying that Martin would be “okay” and protected, as long as he remained in the area and remained a success.
The Utopia set utilizes empty, suspended frames, the fourth wall, and your audience’s imaginations to create the art that is hanging in the gallery, but the final piece is physically realized by your character onstage and hung dramatically at its conclusion. Can you talk a little bit about this piece of art, and its significance to both your character and your partner’s?
DD: Well, without giving anything away… [laughs] Yes, we wanted to deal with the art that was already hung in the space as being something played with [through imagination], and then, as Martin comes up with more of his own ideas — those ideas (like the arm) being big and obvious — having these ideas dealt with more objectively. Sort of in-your-face and very actual, even clunky and hard to handle. Something David would take on reluctantly and have to fumble with, since they are foreign collaborations. See, Martin isn’t the “artist,” really. He’s the businessman. David saw that early on in their relationship and decided to split creatively from Martin, which Martin never really has forgiven him for. But since Martin’s artistic decisions are financially motivated, his ideas should feel heavy and hard to negotiate into the space.
Without spoiling the ending, one of your characters arguably has the opportunity to become the “villain” of this show. Do you consider him a villain?
DD: [thinks] I really don’t want to consider either of them more innocent than the other, because ultimately David is a shady person himself. He’s just not willing to compromise his art, and that makes him seem more consistent — though in every other part of his life, he isn’t. He barely makes it to the art space, has no ability to manage his money, rifles through private messages that aren’t meant for him, and desperately tries to get money upfront to start all over. But one thing he won’t do is sell himself out, or become trapped under a need to provide money — not through his art, anyway. I think the only thing that makes Martin seem more villainous is because of what he’s willing to do in order to ensure his opening is a success.
What do you want people to walk away with after they see Utopia?
DD: I think it would be great if it tempted people to reflect on how personal ambition and the drive to make ourselves into the important people we always dreamed we could be, shouldn’t take over our basic humanity.
Finding ways to protect and serve communities, and not just protect our right to engage in conflict and death.
But really, I just hope they enjoy the show as well.
NOW PLAYING: UTOPIA, through March 5 at Bootleg Theater, produced by City Players.
After investing his entire life savings into a condemned building, Martin Tomas, a 40-something burgeoning art impresario is committed to establishing his name and his studio as a way to bring culture back to the neighborhood. He calls on his old art school friend, who’s made a small name for himself, to ensure a successful opening.