Aleshea Harris
Aleshea Harris

Aleshea Harris Talks New Audio Play and Writing Diverse Stories

Aleshea Harris doesn’t want to be put in a box. The award-winning playwright of Is God Is and What to Send Up When It Goes Down wants you to know that Black playwrights ought not to be defined, and should be allowed to conceive of narratives of all forms. She wrote her newest play, Brother, Brother, a haunting illustrated audio play, as part of New York Theatre Workshop’s Artistic Instigator 2020–2021 season, and shows that she can tell diverse stories. “I wanted to write a horror piece,” Harris said. “I know that there are some folks who might wonder why I’m not writing about Black Lives Matter. But I think one of the many ways to assert that Black Lives Matter is to be free inside of my storytelling.”

As in-person theater announces its return to Broadway after a year-plus of pause, Harris is preparing for a new kind of theater. She dreams of a theater that lets her and other playwrights from marginalized backgrounds be at liberty to write whatever stories they are compelled to. Broadway Direct spoke to Harris about writing during the pandemic, plays about siblings, and what she hopes for as in-person theater returns.

Have you found yourself creating more or less during this live theater pause?

I would say it’s been about the same, honestly. I’ve been creating, but really trying to give myself grace when I’m distracted. Writing is a respite for me. It’s a way to be OK when so many things in the world are not OK. So I’ve been reaching for writing as a way to sort of feel productive, be productive, and hopefully put useful things into the world, even though this moment is very challenging.

Your new play, Brother, Brother, is part of the 2020–2021 Artistic Instigator season at New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW). Did you write this play during the pandemic, and was it difficult to do so?

Yes, yes, and yes! I wrote Brother, Brother after NYTW reached out and commissioned me to be an Instigator. I really wanted to follow the mandate, which was to create theater for this moment, for the challenges of this moment when people cannot gather and are stuck at home. And so I set out to make this piece. It was difficult to make, in part because it was a short piece. I think I thought at the beginning, in some ways, “Oh, it’ll be easy. I’ll write, like, a small piece.” But as I say, there’s no substitute for gestation, for how long a story needs to sit with you before it reveals itself. I was quite challenged, actually, in the writing of this piece, and generated many pages to land on the work as it exists in its final form.

Why did you choose to tell this specific story?

I wrote this play in this moment because I already had an interest in trying to write a piece that was a thriller. So I asked myself, What could that look like? What are the greater themes that I could explore in spite of that? What could be something that’s fun for me, inside of this challenging moment, to write? I think that, oftentimes, Black writers, or any writer who’s a member of a marginalized group, is expected to write a certain kind of story. We’re sort of redlined as storytellers into writing work that’s meant to be reactive to the way that a dominant culture is marginalizing or oppressing us. And I’m always sort of bucking against that. I think Black people should write whatever they want. In short, I wrote this play because it was fun. It was fun for me to write, and I wanted to provide for my collaborators. I knew it would be audio theater that was illustrated, a rich landscape. And I felt like this setting, this way of using language, these characters, this story, would provide for some really fun visuals, some visuals that were cool to explore.

I was intrigued that Brother, Brother displayed this illusion of a supportive relationship between two brothers, but then evolved into this haunting illustration of deception and betrayal. Then I thought about your play Is God Is, and the root of the story focuses on two sisters who, in short, are in turmoil. Can you tell me why you use siblings as the nucleus of these plays?

Sibling stories are a thing that I reach for quite frequently. What I’m interested in is sort of what it means to have people who’ve been housed in the same womb, be walking the Earth and have two completely different ideas about the world. And then, for myself as an artist, especially with Racine and Anaia — the twin sisters in Is God Is — it was an opportunity to sort of argue with myself around certain ideas. So the twins become an avatar for arguments that are in contention, but inside of the same being. I like the repartee that I can exhibit with siblings. I like that there’s a history already with them. I like that there are already stakes with a set of twins. With Brother, Brother I get to explore jealousy. We know the Bible story of Cain and Abel. It’s familiar, I guess you could say, but I get to put my spin on it with my siblings, with the way they use language and their cultural context. I just find it a delicious way to enter a story through these two folks who share parentage but may have really different ideas, and some similarities.

Another play of yours, What to Send Up When It Goes Down, will have a summer run at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden this year. This play was last produced in New York in 2018. What do you hope attendees receive from this production this time around?

I hope, primarily, that Black people will come into that space and have a sense of community, of affirmation, of not being gaslit, receive acknowledgment that their trauma is real, and that it is hard out here. I hope that the space is a respite for Black folks. That peace exists, in the language of the play, first and foremost for Black people.

We are watching theater deconstruct and rebuild in real time. What is your hope for the future of live art?

I hope for greater equity. I hope that theater is accessible to more kinds of people — radically diverse and reflective of the world we live in. I hope that monuments come tumbling down. I mean, gosh, that’s saying a lot. I think these simple statements encompass so much. There are so many roadblocks to being a theater artist. A lot of them are financial, and then some of them have to do with biases that exist in the culture, and biases that are systemic inside of many of our institutions. All in all, I want more people to be able to feel like the theater is their tool for contributing to the cultural landscape.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.