Kara Lee Corthrons Julius by Design
Back in March of 2010, my sister Kara Lee Corthron interviewed me for In Dialogue regarding my then-upcoming production at Playwrights Horizons. So I am turning the tables now. Her play Julius by Design will begin performances in July, the inaugural production of Fulcrum Theater.
Kia Corthron: What was the genesis of Fulcrum Theater? How did you become involved?
Kara Lee Corthron: Fulcrum was the brainchild of playwright Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas and stemmed from his belief that theater productions in New York should reflect the demographics of the city. This idea became one of the tenets of the company’s mission. Fulcrum is dedicated to supporting and producing playwrights of color. Our current resident playwrights are Jorge, Cusi Cram, Raúl Castillo, and myself. Jorge contacted me after reading Julius by Design and relatively soon after that the other playwrights joined the company.
Kia: The 2011-12 season is exciting for you: four professional productions, three of which will be world premieres! The first two are both in New York—an excerpt of AliceGraceAnon as part of The Germ Project at New Georges in June, and your full-length Julius by Design to be produced by Fulcrum in July. How have your experiences differed, being produced by an established theater versus self-producing?
Kara: Totally different experiences! There are just so many things to be aware of and keep in mind in a self-producing situation that wouldn’t normally be my concern as the playwright. Like setting up auditions and acting as casting director, for instance. Even smaller questions like “how long should an audition appointment be.” “Where can we store rehearsal props?” Or, “who’s printing scripts for the actors?” But I feel fortunate that we have a lot of amazing people working on this production—both veteran theater artists and a host of talented young interns—which makes all the difference.
Kia: Julius by Design was workshopped two years ago by St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre, and will be produced there in the winter. Did you find the workshopping process useful in the development of the play?
Kara: I found it really useful. We had 29 hours of rehearsal and it was spread out over the course of a full seven-day week so I had ample time to rewrite and try things. We had a lovely cast and quite an insightful audience for the reading so I think the play really grew out of that experience.
Kia: What was the inspiration for Julius by Design?
Kara: I wasn’t planning to write this play when it happened. I was actually in the middle of working on a commission of something entirely different when I caught an episode of Frontline on PBS. It was called “When Kids Get Life” and it was about young men in the U.S. receiving life sentences for crimes committed during their teen years. One of the stories on which the program focused was of a man charged with second-degree murder when he was 16. He got life. His parents visited him in prison, I think once a month. There was one particular image that struck me and haunted me. It was a shot of the parents sitting in silence while a voiceover narrative played. They sat at a small kitchen table. The father had his face buried in a newspaper and the wife held a cup of coffee in her hands while silently staring out the window. Her face was blank. Numb. This couple sat two feet apart but they could’ve been on two different planets for all the distance that separated them. This isn’t exactly the situation that Jo and Laurel are living in Julius by Design, but it’s similar. I really wanted to explore how a long-married couple—who probably know one another better than anyone else—could live day in and day out while sharing such an unthinkable loss. That was the kernel for the play.
Kia: You and I grew up among the minority of blacks in a small working-class Maryland town, and we both now live in Manhattan. Jo and Laurel, on the other hand, seem to be middle class (owning a cabin) and living in the suburbs. Is there a reason you chose this setting and this social class?
Kara: This is an excellent question that I must admit I haven’t seriously considered before this second. I guess I wanted to limit their struggles and life stresses. Focus their pain. I’m basically suggesting the alluring possibility, realistic or not, that if Julius had lived, their lives would be complete. Even happy. So essentially they have one concrete hole. Everything else appears to be manageable.
Kia: Interesting that the three principal characters are African-American, while for the other three you don’t define race (except for the young woman George whom you refer to as “most likely white”). Is there a reason why you were so specific regarding the main characters’ ethnicity while being more ambiguous with the others?
Kara: Well the main family is African-American because most of the main characters in my plays are. That comes from both a desire to see more black characters on stage engaging in non-stereotypical behaviors and the fact that I’m black and unless I’m making a point, my creative brain most readily creates black characters. It just does. But the reason I don’t specify ethnicity for the other characters (with the exception of my semi-non-committal designation for George) is because grief and loss are about as universal as it gets. I also didn’t want to create a world where the only victims of violent crimes are African-American. I prefer the “population” in Jo’s house to reflect different cultures.
Kia: Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker staff writer and author of several books, plays into the story. You’re a fan?
Kara: Indeed! I hope he comes to the show. I know someone who knows him, too, but I’ll tell you about that later.
Kia: Both Jo and Laurel suppress the reality of their pain with words—Laurel with his puzzles, Jo with her letters. And she is obsessive about grammar. Was there a particular reason you chose this motif?
Kara: There honestly wasn’t; it evolved organically as I wrote the piece. But now that I have some distance from the mental space I was in when I initially wrote it, I think their connection to words speaks to their growing inability to communicate with each other effectively. Laurel is on a daily search for words. Jo desperately needs to “fix” Ethan’s writing. But these goals only distract them from seeing what they really need to find and fix within their lives.
Kia: With the letters and the dreams there is a fascinating fluid movement between reality and the surreal. Is this approach common in your work?
Kara: My work has changed a lot over the years and continues to, so yes: I’d say this movement occurs in all of my recent plays to some degree. In plays like AliceGraceAnon, Spookwater, and Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night, the dance between the real and the surreal is more extreme, but Julius certainly has a touch of this elevated quality. I love good dialogue, adore complex and mysterious characters, but what I’m most interested in when I begin writing a new play is discovering what magic that play has waiting for me. In some cases, it’s a delicate magic that needs to be carefully teased out. Sometimes it’s big, Vegas-style magic. I like both ends of the spectrum and most of the destinations between.
Kia: While Julius by Design is unique, the style—humor and absurdity in the midst of tragedy—reminds me of John Guare’s work. Are there particular writers you feel influenced by?
Kara: Wow! That is a high compliment. I love Guare! To answer your question: yes. Many. Too many to list, in fact. So I’m going to pretend that you gave me a limit of five and list five right now: These are in no particular order and they aren’t even necessarily the top five—just five that I love that I happen to be thinking of right now. 1) Adrienne Kennedy, 2) María Irene Fornés, 3) William Faulkner (I just decided they don’t have to all be playwrights), 4) Edward Albee, and 5) Kia Corthron. And 6) John Guare.
Kia: As I said, you will have three world premieres this year via four productions: Julius at Fulcrum (and Penumbra in February ’12) focuses on a middle-class black couple, AliceGraceAnon at New Georges is a nonlinear piece threading together Alice in Wonderland with Grace Slick with the anonymous writer of the book Go Ask Alice, and Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night at Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company in June ’12 focuses on an African-American ex pat living in Iceland. I know among your other works are historical pieces focusing on turn-of-the-century Coney Island and Madam C.J. Walker. In exploring this vast range of communities and subject matter, do you undergo extensive research?
Kara: I do a lot of research, but I also try to avoid overdoing it. Sometimes too much research can be a little paralyzing for me. If I go too far, I start to become terrified of creating something inauthentic. But from my perspective, it’s theater: not journalism. So I always intend to be completely respectful and knowledgeable about any subjects I write about, but I like to leave room for discoveries and creative license. Which is a tricky path to walk, but I like the risk.
Kia: Is there something specific you hope Julius audiences will take with them when the show is over?
Kara: If nothing else, I hope the audience will at least think about forgiveness and perhaps question themselves about their relationship to it. Are certain acts unforgivable? And if so, are they eternally unforgivable? I don’t think the idea of forgiveness is held in high regard in our society. If I can get people thinking about this—even if they absolutely disagree with my point of view (which the play makes pretty clear)—I’ll feel like I’ve succeeded.