Wednesday, May 14, 2014

HIPSTERS ATE MY NEIGHBORHOOD: An Interview with Robin Lynn Rodriguez

Director Michael French interviewed playwright Robin Lynn Rodriguez about HEDGE, one of four bold new full-length plays selected for this year’s PlayGround Festival of New Works. Each play will receive two public staged readings at Thick House the weekends of May 17-18 and May 24-25.  For more information on the PlayGround Festival and readings, click here.

Question: There’s little money and fewer and fewer new plays, so why would anyone want to become a playwright?

Answer: Because one day you might write a brilliant, provocative, and daring new play like “Hedge” by Robin Lynn Rodriguez.

The dynamic of “Hedge” revolves around four hipster friends newly resident in a “transitional” neighborhood in East Oakland. Lily is African-American; Jason, David, and Jen are not. One summer afternoon, a long-time resident from the other side of the street commits an act of domestic violence so ferocious and bloody that the friends, unlike the rest of the neighborhood, are thrown into shock. Jen doesn’t know what to do with her conflicted feelings about the act of violence or the neighborhood silence, and so she does the next best thing and invites the brother of the wife-beater to dinner. The result of the dinner is nothing short of nuclear war….

Robin Lynn Rodriguez is of Mexican and Caucasian descent, she’s the mother of two adopted African-American girls and a biological son, and her husband is Australian. I met Robin Lynn over English breakfast tea and zucchini bread at the Blue Dot CafĂ© in Alameda.

Michael French: You’ve got a great play on your hands….

Robin Lynn Rodriguez: Thanks.

MF: …and a pretty incendiary one too. Autobiographical?

RLR: Yes and no. If you remember back in 2005 to 2007 people were climbing over themselves to buy houses in East Oakland at exorbitant prices with the assumption that the neighborhoods were all gentrifying. Everybody thought these neighborhoods were up and coming, and some of them like Fruitvale popped, and some of them didn’t pop. Then when the crash happened they stopped being transitional, they were just…. Houses were being foreclosed on and some people were just getting out because their houses were worth less than half of what they paid, and as a result the neighborhoods started to get really shaky…. And these were old growth neighborhoods that had traditionally had some black families that had lived there for fifty years in the same house, generations, and then hipsters had moved in. It was just such an interesting dynamic. That was our street.  

MF: And the “Hedge” of the title?

RLR: There’s this hedge in the play that’s wild and overgrown because the neighbor’s house is going to pot and the friends, which are made up of two couples, are obsessively fixated on this hedge and the fact that it’s creating this shadow that is increasingly impending on the yard of one of the couples.

MF: The character description mentions that Lily has a “natural hairstyle”. Why did you feel the need to mention that?

RLR: Because, and I want to be really clear…To be perfectly frank there’s a lot of black sophistication in the theatre world in terms of understanding how different black identities come across, and Lily is socio-economically upper middle class, but she’s Berkeley upper middle class –

MF: She certainly has a hipster feel to her....

RLR: Exactly, so she’s got that hipster Mills graduate kind of a feel and I wanted that to communicate, and to me, her having pressed or relaxed hair would not communicate that… She’s black proud. She’s very much black proud… She’s the kind of person where that would be a political statement for her. I wanted to articulate that really clearly because I know that there’s a lot of white directors out there that are not going to understand that difference and put an actress with pressed hair in the role. I also wanted black actresses going into the role clearly understanding that this is a woman who is proud of her hair.

MF: Lily is a really complicated character to me because she has the veneer of white privilege.

RLR: I wouldn’t say she has the veneer of white privilege. I think she has what is called, at least in the Bay area… She has that upper middle class black experience. 

MF: I suppose what I meant by white privilege is that she’s attended good schools, her world view is not the neighborhood –

RLR: Absolutely.

MF: …it’s much larger than that --   

RLR: She’s privileged. Sure. It’s a common aphorism that I’ve heard said that when you’re poor, and we’ll use poor for brown and poor, you’re an Oakland resident, and when you’re white it doesn’t matter where you live you’re a Bay Area resident.

MF: The role of men in the play. There’s Craig, the brother of the wife beater, there’s the wife beater himself, who’s nameless, and there’s the hipsters David and Jason. Talk to me a little bit about them.

RLR: Well, it’s a woman’s play, there’s no question about that. The most interesting relationships to me were about the women. Jason, Jen’s husband, is a total asshole hipster, grandiose, save-the-planet type of person, and Lily’s husband is very protective, very insular, and cares about the family and stuff like that. Lily, as a personality, has more of a princessy vibe. In my mind she’s the youngest in a large family. Both the men are kind of jerks, not that Lily or Jen are any nicer people or better people than them, but we’re inside of them more and so we see things from their point of view and so they seem more reasonable because we’re actually relating to them, but they’re not any nicer or better.

MF: I suppose another reason why I asked about the role of men is that you could have picked any number of incidents to articulate the difference between the neighborhood and the hipsters, but domestic violence--

RLR: Which really happened, that’s why…

MF: But in terms of how black men are seen, it plays into a particular stereotype, and the violence in that scene is pretty extreme-- I mean, not extreme, it’s real, it’s raw, and I’m curious if you had any hesitation in portraying, at least in my view, another black man as beating up—

RLR: Yes, yes, yes! Absolutely! Right. I mean, the thing is…. One of the hardest things when you talk about white privilege is when you have to draw a comparison, and part of that comparison is identification of how the other….of how black people, brown people in general come across societally…. And then you get into a neighborhood and it’s like, really, I have to have black neighbors with pit bulls? Really? I mean, could you be more of a stereotype!? And what do you do with that, right?

MF: As a writer?

RLR: No, I guess, as a person…. As a writer what I’m interested in is the understanding that that stuff is going to be what some people experience, stuff that you see as writers… And so how can we examine what the core issues are without shying away from those things that you’re actually seeing. So I have Lily as juxtaposition, so it’s not like there are only black characters that fit a stereotype, but how do I deal with the fact that this is what some people experience and yet say unflinchingly that this is exactly what happened—

MF: It’s a very brave scene…

RLR: Yeah, no, it’s brave, and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of pretending this stuff doesn’t happen, or get scared and run away from it… I could never work in domestic violence, no way, never: Slam their hands in car doors, problem solved. And then you meet someone and realize,… You find out later that this person has a history of domestic violence and that they’ve dealt with their substance abuse issues or whatever, and cleaned themselves up. In the end you have to say everyone deserves grace.

MF: The domestic violence episode sets the scene for the dinner between the hipsters and Craig, the brother of the wife beater. There are many memorable scenes in the play, but I think it’s safe to say that the one that’s going to get most people talking the loudest is the dinner scene. It’s brutal.

RLR: And for all that I have to say about the hipsters, they’re the ones who break the silence around the domestic violence, the neighborhood insularity, by trying to do something about it with the dinner. It explodes in their faces, but--  

MF: It’s Lily’s behavior at the dinner, which really left me speechless, that led me to say that she has the veneer of white privilege. Everything she says to Craig is laced with “you people” and she and Craig are black.  

RLR: Well, at some point in time I’m standing outside my experience and observing, and it’s dangerous territory. I’ve been working on this play for years and doing a lot of fact checking, and there’s a huge responsibility to get it right when I’m talking about someone’s experience that’s not my own. I still wouldn’t call what she has as white privilege.

MF: It’s the hipsters that in many ways lose the most because of the dinner.

RLR: It alters them, their friendships, their expectations, what they are able to handle and what they’re not able to handle… What they want the neighborhood to be and what it’s not, necessarily. Everything changes for them.

MF: It’s a beautiful scene, beautifully put together. Do you have a writer’s process? I mean, do you sketch out the idea first or do you just start writing?  

RLR: In this instance I very much sketched out the idea first I guess, because it’s based on an actual event and I wanted to get it right, but in general I just start writing, and this took years to finish, years to finish. 

MF: You said you’ve been writing it on and off for how long?  

RLR: Three years. It was completed in about two years and then I took a break, took a pause, and had a staged reading at my husband’s church and brought the community in.  This led to good, hard, tough conversations where there was a lot of fact checking and making sure... It’s scary. It’s a very scary play for me and very personal, and I’m really hoping that I haven’t made a mistake.

MF: Oh, man, I get that, I really get that… So what do you hope to get from the PlayGround staged readings?  

RLR: I brought my community in and that was good, but I hope this reading starts an even larger conversation. That’s why I love theatre. It’s the perfect place to have this conversation because you have the complexity of characters instead of an academic discussion.  

MF: And you’re a writer of color?

RLR: Yes, absolutely! And here’s why, because there’s an expectation that I am.

MF: Ha!ha!ha!

RLR: No, right? When you’re standing in that middle ground— I believe in racial and socio-economic reconciliation and the joke is that I write one play, and I’m just going to keep writing the same play over and over again until people change. And that’s ok with me because I think there’s a lot of ground to dig up on that.

MF: Yeah, so do I. Thanks so much.

RLR: Make me sound smarter. Whatever you do with this, make me sound smarter.

MF: Ok.    

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HEDGE will be performed as a script-in-hand staged reading at the PlayGround Festival of New Works at Thick House (1695 18th Street, San Francisco) on Saturday, May 17 at 12 noon and again on Sunday, May 25 at 3pm. Admission is free ($15 suggested donation) and reservations are not required though encouraged. For more information on this or any of the other full-length staged readings in this year’s Festival or to reserve your tickets, visit http://playground-sf.org/festival/readings.shtml.

Robin Lynn Rodriguez has been writing with PlayGround for three years, joining the Resident Playwrights group this year. She is excited to present her full-length play Hedge in a staged reading at this year's Festival. Her full-length Hella Love Oakland was workshopped at the 2013 PlayGround Festival. The short version was featured at the 2012 Festival when she won the Emerging Playwright Award and the June Anne Baker Prize. Her work has also appeared at the One-Minute Play Festival and the Playwright's Theater at the Tao House.

Michael French is a company director with PlayGround. Originally from London, England, he relocated to the Bay Area in 2011 where he is now Artistic Director of The Aluminous Collective who will soon be moving into their new home in the brand new performance space "The Flight Deck" in Oakland. He recently directed FIRST by Evelyn Jean Pine in its world premiere at Stage Werx Theatre.

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