Earning names and coming of age, talking to Khalil Kain

I learned about the Fire This Time Festival a few or more years ago, when I was invited to be on a panel of writers talking about making work, both on the page and on the stage. Founded by grad school classmate Kelley Girod, the Festival is named for a book of essays by James Baldwin, one of the greatest American writers of all time, and ever since he made me weep in Another Country like my heart was breaking, one of my all time favorites as well.

I don’t get out to see shows as much as I’d like to, primarily because plays and my five year old son’s bedtime happen at the same time, and there’s basically nothing I’d rather do than snuggle up and read to him at the end of the day. If I was going to as much theatre as I used to, the Fire This Time Festival is something I would not miss. They won an Obie this year (hats off to Kelley Girod and Erez Ziv!), and are doing such great work, that I wanted to support it.

I reached out to A.J. Muhammad and and Cynthia Robinson of the Festival about profiling the writers who are part of their inaugural writers group. After reading Khalil Kain’s An Uncovered Wagon, I reached out to talk about it. Short version: just take my money and give me a ticket, I need to see this play right now. The play is rich and deep but spare at the same time.

Your play An Uncovered Wagon is so mysterious. The play is in a future that has only minimal links to our present, where you’ve destroyed the internet but kept the sustainable technology of solar power capture and storage. It’s a fascinating contrast. What drew you to a future that feels like the past? Why did you set a play that has so many elements that we associate with the past– hunting, gathering, wagons, great distances to cover– in the future?

The future I saw is dealing with keeping what is helpful and discarding what is deemed dangerous to what would be considered human. What do I feel would be used to perpetuate a humane society? Even with the language, it was about a certain amount of formality that is based in a sense of respect for new found relationships. Violence against a fellow man is strictly frowned upon. Mutual respect is the bedrock of that policy. All of the aspects of our past such as bartering and hunting one’s own food are things that I think work, especially when put in contrast with a tech based existence.

I really like how the moral structure of the world is established early on. Just in the way the characters treat each other, defer to Esther, interact with new people. The foundation of respect comes through so clearly.

The world you’ve created for the play has a matriarchal society, where the sons must earn their mother’s name (can’t wait to see how that all turns out!). Was this a key element for you before you started or did it emerge within the story? Were there other key elements that you wanted to be intrinsic to this world?

The matriarchal aspect of the piece was purposeful from the start. If we had to start from scratch, because of a violent war started by men, it made sense to me that women would take hold of the reigns to ensure that war didn’t happen again. The population was depleted and only women could make sure that humanity was replenished.

Also my personal experience as a black male from a single parent home, helped to lead me down this road. When things fell apart in the hood it was always the women who got things back on track. It was the mothers that picked up the pieces and got things running again. There were many young men I knew growing up that had their mother’s name, because the father had never been in place.

That’s like what happened in Rwanda after the civil war. The male population had been decimated, and women stepped into positions of greater authority. I’ve written plays before that take place in a “post-disaster” world, and I’ve struggled with whether to explain that disaster thing that happened, or to leave it as a vague thing, but a reality to the characters. Where do you land on that question in An Uncovered Wagon? Do we ever find out what horrible thing happened or do you leave it to the imagination of the audience to fill in the blanks?

I will do a little of both. In the prologue Arthur speaks some about what happened and why. Later in the play he will touch on some other things I feel. In this world much of the specific information about what happened has been lost as much of the specifics was passed down through stories. Plus the responsibilities of taking care of your own has superseded the past. The present is key in living as a human being in this world.

The language in the play has the feel of mythology. It has the sound of what I feel like the ancients would sound like. There is a severity to it, almost a finality. It is very intriguing, also off-putting. The language itself is like a character. Is part of your intent to invoke the feel of mythology?

Ultimately I wanted to tell a tale about Davey’s rite of passage. In the recovery and rescue of his mother Davey [the youngest son] is able to earn his name.

Growing up in New York City in the eighties I came to understand that there was no rite of passage for my people. The young men especially. When I was growing up, young men in my neighborhood marked themselves as men by either going to jail or fathering a child. These were the clear cut ways of identifying yourself as a man. Not of the people, just among your peers (other young men). This play is a way for me to explore that time for myself. A way for me to create my own mythology about how the people are able to respect one another and identify themselves.

The coming of age story is such a classic in literature. For me, I feel like I went from child to adult almost without any real input. Here I am an adult and I don’t feel like I could pinpoint or even recognize that point at which I crossed the threshold to adulthood, maybe during the time when I was pregnant with my son. Is there something specific in your life that you feel marks that transition for you?

I feel like my decision to write has been a threshold for me into adulthood. I am being forced to tell the truth in a public forum before friends and family alike. My hope being that the catharsis will free me from the weight of a past that need not weigh in so heavily on my present or future. In this way I hope to walk freely in the world as a man.

khalil kain

Keep up with Khalil Kain, and his new play An Uncovered Wagon, at The Fire This Time Festival. Find out more about Khalil here.

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