“…the further I pull back from what I know . . . the closer I hit home to what I do know” Talking to Adrienne Dawes

I don’t know Adrienne Dawes personally, although certainly I know her better since this profile. She sent us a play for Sticky in 2012, and we produced it. It was called “It’s Goodbye,” and was directed by Christopher Burris, one of my favorite all time directors, and performed by Shawn-Michael Bowles and Jordan Dann, of whom I’m also big fans. Then I started following Adrienne on Instagram, and last fall she started posting about her new show going up with Salvage Vanguard. The play looked so intriguing, scary, and personal, and I wished I was in Austin to check it out. Then it won a local award, and I decided I just had to reach out and get a copy. What an intense play you guys. It hit the Kilroys list, so I’ve got fingers crossed that someone picks it up in NYC so I can see it off the page. Adrienne and I went to the same college, and if you’ve been following along you know how I feel about my fellow Sarah Lawrence alums. It was great talking to her; seriously I could have talked all night.

I just finished reading I Am White. It’s a hard read, emotionally difficult. I kept wanting so much for these characters. What was interesting to me is how they could have seemed trapped– by circumstances, by poor choices, society, whatever else– but they were all making such active choices. Each character exhibited agency over their own lives and decisions. How did it feel to be inside the play while writing it? Did the characters feel active? Did you feel like you were making the choices for them, that you were using these characters to tell the story, or did it feel like the characters determined the story? I guess this is a writery question about what was the first essential for you: the characters or the story? Or did they emerge simultaneously?

The writing process for Am I White was stretched over ten years – starting my senior year of college and wrapping it’s first big chapter with the premiere in October 2014. I have always felt really strongly about the subject matter but the work comes with a lot of emotional weight. A lot of times I had to put down the project because of my day job or other things going on in my life, other art distractions. But sometimes I think I needed a breather. I would get really depressed. I come from a comedic background so it was a weird struggle for a long time – to just let the story be what it wanted to be. I definitely found some ways to get in a joke here or there (usually at the expense of the lead character), but the play absolutely wanted to be a serious, experimental drama. I had to just let it be that, even if it meant potentially making an audience very uncomfortable. I took a lot of diversions from the real story the play is based on (Leo Felton and Erica Chase) and that came directly from the characters. It’s that playwright thing of listening to when a character says, “I NEVER WANT TO BE A FATHER” and going, “Ohhhh. So you’re totally going to be a father in this play. Yeah, that’s totally going to fuck up your whole world.” 

Did you study with Cassandra Medley at Sadie Lou? I took a course with her first year and she said “go to the place where you’re afraid and write from there.” It sounds like you did that. And giving yourself the freedoms to let it take 10 years, I feel like once I have the feel for a piece I rush to the end in a dead sprint, probably because I’m afraid.

I LOVE CASS. I came to Sarah Lawrence to study theater but I was one of a few students that specifically wanted to be a playwright so it was my mission to make alllll the playwriting/dramaturgy professors like me. Cass was tough but I learned so much from her. My favorite Cass story is the time I brought in 60 pages of a new play (what eventually became You Are Pretty) and I was soooo proud of myself. Cass looked at the stack of paper and just asked me, “So what is this play about?” And I floundered awkwardly for ten minutes before she smiled, patted the stack of paper and said, ” Well it’s good you got that out of the way. Now you can put these pages away and start your play.” I remember being SO FURIOUS, she didn’t read a word! But her diagnosis was spot-on. I didn’t have a play, yet. I think maybe 5 pages of that original draft remained in tact? She taught me a lot about letting go. And how much work you really have to give before you get anywhere close to a complete draft.

Divorce, the break up of the family, the creation of alternative families, the need to change course from the one your parents took, or even from the one they set you on, are big themes in this play. Are these things that come up alot in your work? Are these questions you are actively exploring? 

Great question – YES. These themes do come up a lot in my work but not intentionally. I come from a really unique “alternative” family – my siblings and I are all adopted from different families – so I think it’s just storyteller residue, you know, I come from that experience so I will nod and nudge in those directions, even when I’m not trying to. I am actually very hilariously oblivious to stuff – I forget my “otherness” all the time. When I moved to Bronxville for college, for example, I thought, “Woah, what a diverse community!” Because I thought all the nannies (all women of color) were Moms to the white kids they towed around. Through my particular lens, my first assumption is that they could be related, because that’s closer to what my family looks like. 

I haven’t actively written a play about my family but I have at least three in my back pocket. What is funny-witchy-crazy about it is that I spent so much of my early career trying to write as far from my “experience” as possible . . . I think in part because writers of color get marginalized, put in a specific box or pocket of the community, never to be heard from again . . . I want to be able to write ANYTHING. . . but I think also in part because I am always up for the challenge of writing what I don’t know. I love a good research project. I love that the further I pull back from what I know . . . the closer I hit home to what I do know. I am working on a new play that for me felt like “Adrienne’s coming of age as mixed-race dysfunctional family comedy.” But what I wrote instead was “Adrienne talks about healing from trauma.” I don’t fully understand how this magic works but you often end up focused on what you really need to say or write, no matter where you aim. The target is back to you, your story, your history, your fears, your dreams. 

Yes don’t be boxed in! It’s a hard thing. I remember when I started specifically reading women writers, then realizing I didn’t want to be “a woman writer,” and that doesn’t even get into the added delineation of minority woman writer, who somehow is expected to speak for all women and all people who share her racial and ethnic background. What crazy pressure, when all the heart wants is to create, to tell stories. My family is non traditional too. I have three half sister and two half brothers, and if you look at parentage, four of us are the only children of our set of parents. How do you throw off, or can you throw off, the concerns about how your work will affect, or be interpreted by, your family? 

Fortunately or maybe unfortunately, I totally forget about an audience being in the room until previews/opening weekend. I don’t know if that’s developed as a survival mechanism, to keep myself focused on what is in front of me . . . but I seriously forget about the live audience until they arrive. And then I get REALLY NERVOUS and have to hide in the production office.

I am really fortunate that my family has always been super supportive of my work. They’ve never been like, “Hey why do all your character have complicated relationships with their fathers?” Because that’s a recurring thing in my plays – – either very abusive or absent father figures. Both of my dads have seen my work and they are both just blown away by anything I make or create. No one takes it personally. But again, I haven’t written anything directly about my family. I nudge and point with different characters. My friends are also scattered all over everything. And ex-boyfriends. Watch out. 

Working on a play with difficult themes can create controversy in the rehearsal room. Did that happen with I Am White or were you pretty much all on the same page for the whole process?

I wasn’t in the rehearsal room a whole lot for the premiere because I was writing and performing in another show at the time but I know the cast and creative team would have lengthy, lengthy discussions about the themes the play brought up. Rehearsals like that can get to be like therapy sessions. I think you absolutely have to slow down and handle explosive material with care. Everyone who auditioned for us knew the story we wanted to tell. It wasn’t like, “Surprise! You have a lot of racial slurs to memorize!” Everyone knew the real story and then also understood why I wanted to tell my version of it. I think what helped us is we had an amazing cast and creative team who, for the most part, all knew each other really well. We all trusted each other – that was really key. You have to trust the material and trust the director. This is such a hard story to tell but the rewards have been opening up a really unique conversation with our audiences about racial identity. The audience responses were always surprising, some people left the theater mad. Some left in tears. Some people really felt for Wesley. Others were really happy to see what happened to him. It brought up a lot of strong feelings and I think some really important questions about identity and how those stricter labels and definitions can be confining. Our director kept Wesley onstage the entire show, stuck in a white box painted on the floor. I loved that choice. Wesley built the box (of his racist ideology) and he stayed firmly within it. Ultimately, he lost everything.

Did anyone walk out during the show?

We were trapped in the prison cell with Wesley. No intermission. So, as far as I know – no walkouts? But definitely some angry audience members. We did a talkback with a class at UT-Austin and a student was really upset that it seemed like all the White audience members were laughing during the minstrel scene. There were definitely some laughs in places we did not expect or design. So that could be really uncomfortable for me as the writer to hear that response and think, “Nooooooo. Not funny! Wrong response.” It’s made me think about those moments, how much I intervene and lead the audience by the reins directly to my point and how much I step back and let people put it together for themselves, even if what they put together is something I don’t agree with.

Find more Adrienne Dawes here:




Here’s some images from the 2015 Salvage Vanguard production of I Am White. 


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