by NILINA MASON-CAMPBELL
[dropcap]Last[/dropcap] week marked the 92nd birthday of James Baldwin, the literary great whose work still remains a highly relevant reflection and critique on race, sexuality and the politics of simply being alive. In tandem with his birthday, emerging playwright Jeremy O. Harris staged three workshop performances of his new play entitled Water Sports; or insignificant white boys as presented by Bad Reputation Gallery. Staged at the Wilshire Westlake Building, the play unfolds around an imagined brunch between James Baldwin and renown photographer Robert Mapplethorpe while actors in the guise of Harris and an unnamed friend join as additional guests. In addition to writing the script, Harris stars as Baldwin.
In a nontraditional performance style, the actors playing the contemporary characters (Harris and Friend) divided the audience in two, guiding them up staircases and elevators, into small rooms and a hallway, while scenes were staged throughout. During the hour-long performance, the audience encounters intimate experiences and conversations between the characters that confront race, queerness, and objectification head-on. The audience is also witness to the emotional pain and discomfort of these characters, while simultaneously experiencing their admiration and moments of clarity caused by the presence of the two famed artists. At its crux, the two artistic titans of Baldwin and Mapplethorpe serve as yin and yang, acting as much as solid characters as stand-ins to represent ideologies that complement and give spark to one another. The historical realities of these two artists’ work, combined with the personal experiences of the playwright, results in an electric exploration of identity, artistic motivation, and social constructs.
Originally from Martinsville, Virginia, Harris is presently pursuing an MFA in Playwriting at Yale. Water Sports, which began as a series of poems, is his first work for the school, and it began to take shape during Harris’ residency at The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire (the nation’s oldest artist colony, and the very place where Baldwin retreated to write the groundbreaking Giovanni’s Room).
Do you feel James Baldwin has played a role in the exploration of your own identity?
Jeremy O. Harris: Completely. It would have been impossible to have been an out black boy in the South if there wasn’t a class in school when I was made to read Go Tell It On The Mountain and discovered it was written by not only a gay man but a black one, too. That was rare. “Representation matters” is one of my favorite pop political statements right now because it’s so stupidly true and simple. It mattered in the case of Baldwin and me, definitely.
Mapplethorpe was one of my earliest inspirations as an artist. His work was visceral, surreal, and sexy at the same time, yet as a black man I couldn’t just see the images as beautiful. There was and is something deeply violent about his imagery and his conception of black maleness.
James Baldwin was the first “fictive other” who I saw myself in because it was so easy to draw the sort of facile comparisons. Yet when I started to make my fictive other for the white men in my life Mapplethorpe kept coming to mind. Mapplethorpe’s violence towards black men was very similar to the violence I felt from many of my white partners, yet the more I started crafting these fictitious violences against the white men I felt had scorn me, the more I felt a kinship to Mapplethorpe. So he became another of my fictive selves.
Where did the first bits of inspiration for Water Sports come from?
I’m a “title first” writer. After a few years of really intense relationships with white men (some lovers, some friends), I wrote in my journal: “INSIGNIFICANT WHITE BOYS: is it ok to just be some an insignificant “other” they can use to accessorize their own insignificance?” It was meant to be just a book of poetry, but it became so much more the longer I let it sit in my hard drive.
You worked on it at the MacDowell Colony. What stage was the play in at the end of your residency?
At MacDowell I had decided that I was going to write my play, Daddy, but I couldn’t write it. I was there for two months and the first month and a half I had the worst writer’s block ever. All I could really do back in my cabin was read and watch movies and write these weird little poems to my exes.
What were the most challenging aspects of creating the work?
What pushed me to start seeing these weird poems as a play was seeing a really bad play that was sort of a memory piece. I remember thinking, “no one wants to see a writer’s diary. That’s why this play doesn’t work.” Then I decided I should just write my own [version of that]. (laughs) That was the most challenging — figuring out how to write this type of play that I hate in a way I would [not only not] hate, but love as well.
This play is the first play I’m writing for Yale. The playwrights first summer assignment is a one act play that’s ambitious. They sent us a big reading list of some of the best one act plays ever. On it was one of my favorite plays, Funnyhouse of a Negro, [and I thought about] mixing it with Fefu and Her Friends. Once I figured that out, the play opened up. I wanted to figure out how to give an audience different trips through my psyche — a sort of “colonized” track and a track towards decolonization.
In terms of the current climate of society, how do you feel your works fits in? And the works of James Baldwin?
Well, James Baldwin speaks to all events and climates. He’s one of the great minds in our country’s history. I think he fits in everywhere.
I hope my work does as well. I think a lot about the ways in which our politics are silently expressed, and desire is one of those major places. I think that my dissections of sex, desire, and politics (and how they intersect) will open up an audience to realities they wouldn’t have been otherwise.
What are your objectives when you approach the topic of race in your work?
My objective is mainly to process my own shit. I’ve been a poor black boy in elite white spaces my whole life, and I’m making a career within them right now. In many ways white supremacy has kidnapped me from my community and I’m just becoming aware that I’ve had Stockholm Syndrome. My relationship to race is in relationship to that awakening. It’s me constantly questioning how I’m making and why I’m making and hoping that questioning will help activate some other black girl or boy who doesn’t realize what white supremacy has done to them to make them scoff at whatever black space they avoid until a white person has gentrified it.
Where is the play going from here?
Well, it’s getting performed at the Yale School of Drama this winter, which is exciting, but I hope the play has a real shot at a life. The responses I’ve gotten — from specifically black gay men — have been so overwhelming, and has told me that there is an audience for whom this piece means something to. Deeply.