Rodney Hicks and Azure D. Osborne-Lee on ‘Pride Plays’ and Fighting for Black Queer Change in Theater
In the first of a two-part series on Black queer playwrights with work in the “Pride Plays” season, Rodney Hicks and Azure D. Osborne-Lee discuss racism, theater, and change.
This year’s season of “Pride Plays,” produced by Rattlesticks Playwrights Theater in New York City, is showing online at Playbill.com. This is the first of two articles focusing on the Black queer playwrights with plays in the season.
Rodney Hicks’ play, Just Press Save, is about the hopes, fears, and intrigues of a group of six high school seniors, including twins who are undocumented immigrants and a Black trans man. Hicks, 46, is also an actor who starred in the original productions of Rent and Come From Away. Just Press Save is directed by Michael Greif, who directed Hicks in the original production of Rent.
How have the last few weeks been for you, from what happened to George Floyd to all that has happened subsequently?
Everyone is growing and changing, as people let go of inherited ideologies, notions, and systemic, inherited American trauma. We now have a majority who want inclusivity and togetherness. I don’t think people have ever been as vocal as they are now. This is not white and Black, Black and white, it’s about all of us doing this together. Togetherness can change the world.
How have you coped these last few weeks?
I am surprisingly great. I have devoted the past six years of my life to learning mindfulness and meditation. I worked really hard to keep my own sense of groundedness. Sure, I have ebbs and flows, but I have a practice that keeps me centered. The past month and a half has been about creating this play.
How did the play come to be?
The play has changed. My first play, Flame Broiled, was pretty full-on and intense, about racism and adults. And this one was hard and tense in previous versions, with gunplay and drugs. Then I realized I didn’t want to write that play. I am a 46-year-old Black gay playwright. I’m not 26, writing all the angst in the world. I feel I had another level of responsibility. I wanted to find a way for young people, parents, adults of every age, to be able to see it.
I wanted to make sure the play doesn’t isolate people I was writing about. It’s not corny or Disney, but it is positive and uplifting. There are six characters. It’s always struck me that in usual TV shows or films, there’s a token Black character and they’re funny. Here there is one white character, and he’s funny. I reversed it.
The play is set a year on from this point, with the young people speaking about the protests of now as a past event. How was writing about young people?
I come from early childhood trauma. From a very young age I saw the world through a glaze of fear. If I am capable of writing a gentle piece that makes me really happy, as I can easily write from a position of trauma on stage. I had PTSD for a long time from early childhood trauma. My father was physically abusive. He was an undiagnosed schizophrenic. There was other stuff on my mother’s side. I was terrified of him and scared of people generally, to be honest with you. We figured it out by the end of his life. For a long time, I was an introvert. It was acting that saved me.
There were three times in my life where I didn’t want to be here. I was closeted. I felt no one would want to hire me because I was gay and Black as well. Then I was in a relationship for 10 years with a man who was not out at all. He was 16 years older than me. I was kind of living his life. My life didn’t really start till I left that relationship and met my husband (Chris Coleman). Then I went on this journey looking inward. After three years of appearing in Come From Away, I developed this neurological condition called Spasmodic Dysphonia.
How did you first start noticing it?
My speaking voice started to go, then my singing voice as well. It happened five months into the Broadway run. I gave my notice because I could not sing anymore. Sometimes there was just air there, sometimes my voice was much higher. Sometimes I sounded like Tracy Morgan. Some people in the audience thought it was a character choice. The producers were wonderful and compassionate. But I kept being told by doctors there was nothing I could do about it.
I was resigned to this being my life. I was also a college professor, and was worried I would no longer be able to teach. I was scared. There were times I couldn’t get out of bed. At the same time, 2017, my father was battling cancer. I was conflicted. I did not want him to die without me, his son, saying, “This is how you treated me.”
I was working on the first drafts of Just Press Save, when it was raw and dark. In that version the dad character commits suicide. I went to speak to my father at his hospice. I read him poetry. He wasn’t awake. I said, “I forgive you.”
The next morning he passed away, and I could talk again. It took a little bit of speech therapy, then on my birthday 12 days later, I gained the ability to sing again. It has taken time to retrain my voice, but I can do it.
Do you think the condition was trauma related?
Talking to doctors and researching it, people believe it is related to some point of trauma. From 4 all I knew was trauma. I was saved by the grace of fucking god not being a statistic. There have been angels all the time in my life guiding me. I’m not a fist-in-the-air kind of person, “I’m a survivor.” I’m more (he raises his palms outwards). Now I’m healed from the PTSD.
How do you feel right now as a Black LGBTQ person?
As a Black gay man in this moment, I feel proud. I also feel that more so than any other moment is the time for us all to come together. I hopefully feel we are all bringing our LGBTQIA community together. A lot of times people say, “You can’t compare the gay struggle with the Black struggle.” Yes, they are but they’re all rooted in one word—“hate” against us. That’s the commonality. I stand with my LGBTQIA brothers and sisters with my whole heart. Learning about trans culture, and Black trans people in particular, I am so filled with love. There is no better time to be a playwright. Everyone will have different stories to tell.
Of course I have experienced racism and implicit bias in my career and life, by multiple races (not only White), but I’ve also experienced, more than not, many kind, compassionate and loving people of many races in my life and career. For me, and where I’ve come to be in my life, I chose love. As Dr. King says, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I believe in change, and I do believe that people and organizations can change. I believe in love.
There has been much talk about the future of theater and the need for change. What do you think?
Theater needs to change. What I would like to see is a rainbow—so Broadway doesn’t have one “Black show” a season, or one Black or Hispanic or Middle Eastern director a season. People should be able to come to Broadway and see a palette of shows where white, Black, and Asian—where everything can fit in those theaters. The creative teams should be mixed, the casts should be mixed. We have been conditioning audiences to think that all or mostly white productions are all they want to see. I really think that I have more faith in humanity.
This is the first time we have had this huge awakening. I don’t think theater can go back to what it was. I don’t think theater will come back and be Blackety-Black or brown, brown, brown. I think it will take time. But this is the first time I have seen so many Black and indigenous playwrights speaking out. Those people causing racism on Broadway, inadvertently or purposefully, I think they got the memo.
Azure D. Osborne-Lee’s play, Crooked Parts, is a semi-autobiographical play about an adult trans man, Freddy, and the younger Winifred undertaking reflective journeys of self-discovery. The multi-award winning Osborne-Lee, 35, is a theater-maker, interdisciplinary artist, and creative writer. He said the play originated from a writing exercise focusing on a childhood ritual—and the moment it was disrupted.
And so in the play…
Every Sunday, Winifred’s mother does her hair. They bond in that way until she reaches a point where Winifred wants to express herself differently. The play looks at how that affects her and her family. The play is semi-autobiographical. It is dramatized but very similar to my upbringing.
The play really hit home for trans and queer people. In the chat function of Zoom, a lot of moms were really responding too. People were really able to identify with the different characters in the play and open up to different experiences. The process of writing this play helped me to reflect on my own experiences. It was a real struggle for me. I was really trying to understand this experience I had with my family and how to translate it to the theater.
How did your mom feel about it?
My mom is very supportive of my work. I did talk to her last night, and she said her feelings had been hurt because the mom is sort of based on her. Of course, I felt bad, but I also tried to explain I don’t think the character is a villain and that I had spent a lot of time giving all the characters arcs; everybody has some kind of loving treatment. Family relationships are not easy.
What was it like seeing the recent, massively attended Black Trans Lives Matter march in Brooklyn?
Wonderful, a little overwhelming. I followed the protest online. It was great to see so many people show up to it, and so many people I know showing up to support it, tuning in, and sending donations.
Is this a lasting moment of change?
Change is hard to see for both people and organizations—and how much they are able and willing to internalize it and make lasting change.
Theater is closed down at the moment and facing calls for huge change. What do you think about theater at this moment and the level of change it requires?
I’m a bit of a radical. I’m also an arts administrator. I really feel like a season is more than enough time to make a change. We’ve reached the point where people are really fed up, and people are getting really honest about their experiences.
Black artists, artists of color, and trans artists are starting to feel like it’s OK to share these experiences they’ve had. I want to be pessimistic, but I really feel we’ve reached a point of: “We’re not going to stand for it anymore.” There are not going to be any more white male seasons. It’s not acceptable anymore.
Have you faced racism and/or transphobia at work?
Oh yeah. I worked at a theater for three years as a box office associate. One day there was construction outside and I spoke in a raised voice to patrons to understand what was happening. A tall white producer yelled in my face that he didn’t want to hear my voice. He told my bosses. They let me go. I told them I could not believe that after three years of working for them they were siding with him.
I have been misgendered in a rehearsal room and in one audition saw they had pre-transition headshots of me that were a decade old.
What form should change take?
There should be change coming from the top and change at the top. Frankly, people need to be moved out of positions they have been in for x number of years. It’s not fair for a “diversity associate” to plug away for change when they’re not actually given the power to do so. Organizations need to invest in artists. Black trans artists should not be put on the small stage; they should be on the main stage.
Was the success of Michael R. Jackson, recently winning the Pulitzer for A Strange Loop and many other awards, a welcome sign of change?
I know Michael. It’s great he’s getting awards. It’s a lovely play that deserves to win awards. I also think there is this phenomenon of tokenization, where one play or artist is picked and championed, and then it’s business as usual otherwise. I challenge the industry to say “Yes, and…”
A Strange Loop is one example of amazing work made by Black queer artists. There are so many other Black queer amazing artists out there. I’m critical of the Sonic the Hedgehog effect in theater, where people decide to give one artist all the things. A more equitable distribution of resources is key.