Jackie Sibblies Drury on race, creativity and the legacy of Mary Seacole

에스eeing Fairview at the Young Vic in London in December 2019 was electric. The play had arrived in the UK from New York with a Pulitzer prize for drama attached – and an extraordinary word-of-mouth reputation. “Let me give you fair warning on Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s dazzling and ruthless new play,” wrote the critic Ben Brantley in the 뉴욕 타임즈. “If you see it – and you must – you will not be comfortable.”

But there was also a mystery. No one knew exactly what made this play – which Brantley went on to describe as a “sustained act of sabotage” – quite so special and discomfiting. The reviews were deliberately vague about how it delivered its blistering effects. They warned that as soon as you revealed its twists and turns, its shock value diminished. So on that night, it was a sensational surprise.

본질적으로, Fairview is a drama in three acts. The first shows the kind of happy, comfortable black family depicted in sitcoms; the second replays the same scenes but with an audio overlay of four white people debating race. The final act swerves again, asking those who identify as white to come up on stage. 나를 위해, being there under the hot lights, staring into a darkened auditorium, straining to hear as a character speaks quietly to a black audience, was a disconcerting experience, a physical dismantling of the white gaze that felt daring and direct. My “fair view” was suddenly challenged. The audience streamed out into the night, talking intensely.

Sibblies Drury remembers that British premiere vividly. “There were a lot of black British artists and young people,” she recalls. “It was one of the rowdiest, most joyful audiences that I had ever witnessed. There was something so deeply unburdening, so deeply affirming. I get a little emotional,” she says and then pauses, visibly moved. “It just feels that the experience of the play seemed to unlock an essential frustration that they had spent their lives not being able to articulate. So that was amazing.”

We’re talking at London’s Donmar Warehouse, where Sibblies Drury is rehearsing the British premiere of her new play, Marys Seacole, with the same Fairview team, including director Nadia Latif and designer Tom Scutt. 그것은, on the surface a more conventional play – “No audience participation,” says Sibblies Drury with a grin – yet also conceptually bold, linking the story of the pioneering Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole, who worked in Crimea, with the role of female carers today, travelling through history to make its points.

I’d imagined from the rigour of her writing that in person Sibblies Drury might be stern and forbidding. Yet this 6ft-tall woman in a floral dress is gentle and quietly spoken, entertaining, a good listener as well as an excellent talker. She laughs when I suggest that her work seems to have predictive powers, prefiguring debates about to arise more generally in society. “If that’s a real thing, then why don’t I invest in the stock market, or buy a lottery ticket or something?" 그녀는 말한다. “But I guess it’s about trying to have integrity and curiosity, to ask questions that feel pertinent to society.”

Marys Seacole, which she is rewriting slightly for its British premiere, 는 경우이다. “It feels almost too on the nose to be talking in London, 에 2022, about Jamaican carers, after all the NHS stuff, and all the Windrush stuff and the 그렌펠 fire, and also pointing to a war in Crimea with everything that is now happening in that region of the world. I’m not saying I knew that was going to happen, but if you are curious, reading the news and thinking things through, you are naturally attuned to asking questions that continue to be relevant.”

She tells a lovely story about her own mother growing up in Jamaica and being so bookish that she would walk along the street reading and tripping over obstacles in her way. “That was her way of expanding her mind.” Something of the same quality attaches to her daughter, who describes her way of working as “very slow and scattered, maybe diffuse”. She falls over things that snag in her mind and then explores them.

If you had to attach one quality to her plays – which are very funny as well as deeply serious – it is a sense of a high intelligence searching for answers, unwilling to accept an easy solution. “Theatre just became the way I thought about things," 그녀는 말한다. “I’ve never been a very good essay writer, I’m not a poet. But thinking through things with characters having different perspectives, being able to express themselves articulately and talk around things – it just felt more organic to the way my own brain works. My favourite thing is to point something out, ask a couple of questions and then just leave and let people work it out.”

Her breakthrough play, written in 2010 when she was a master’s student at Brown University, carries one of the longest titles in theatre: We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915. It concerns a group of well-meaning actors, three black and three white, trying to make a play about what has been called the first genocide of the 20th century – when the Herero were slaughtered by the German colonists – and realising that the only records of the massacre were made by Germans. As they struggle with history and who has the right to tell it – tackling the whole issue of cultural appropriation long before it became a buzzword – devastating emotions and prejudices emerge that send their plans violently awry.

After four performances at Brown, the play won a production in Chicago as part of a programme to encourage new writers. “I didn’t anticipate it happening, or I wouldn’t have given it as long a title as I did,” says Sibblies Drury smiling. “It was a sort of joke.” But the smile fades when she adds: “It was very much right place, right time for me.” But then the format was altered. “Which I am still very upset by, because there’s nothing else like it in America that makes your first play happen.”

Her own progress to becoming a playwright was not straightforward. Sibblies Drury grew up in New Jersey, raised by her mother and grandmother, and fell in love with theatre at her private school. “Every year there was a spring musical and a fall play. If I had been at a public school, I don’t know if I would have been exposed to any of that stuff.” Theatre at that point, 그러나, mainly meant musicals, an interest fed by trips to Broadway and shows such as CatsRent. “Musicals were definitely my first theatrical love," 그녀는 말한다.

Even when she went to Yale as an undergraduate, she had no idea that being a playwright was a real possibility. “And because it was a school for incredibly ambitious people, there were all kinds of people who had already written novels or plays, at 18 살이에요. To my mind, once I realised that people were writing plays, it was already too late because I didn’t know how to do it yet.”

She began to believe that she could be a writer when she settled in New York after college “and got exposed to downtown theatre and saw people making work in different ways”. Her early inspirations – Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett – were relatively traditional. “But they blew my mind.” Then she discovered Bertolt Brecht. “I was obsessed, obsessed, obsessed with him. I love his political yet sort of cartoonish yet deeply serious drama.”

Suzan-Lori Parks was also an important influence. “Her plays were so poetic, dense and difficult but also funny,” Sibblies Drury says. “Reading her really expanded my brain a lot. But I was also very inspired by popular culture, movies and TV. My teens and 20s were marked by the rise of the internet and YouTube, and it felt as if accessing culture became convenient. That feels particular to my age and generation.”

By the time Sibblies Drury moved to Chicago with her boyfriend, an anthropologist (he is now her husband), sharing a dorm room to save money, she was applying for creative writing courses, which landed her place at Brown. She was also using the extensive resources of Chicago University’s library to read unpublished ethnographies. That was where she came across the story of the Herero. The play feels so original that I wondered whether she felt confident writing it.

"맙소사," 그녀는 말한다. “Not at all. There were so many nervous tears and false starts and the panic that if I can’t figure out this play, I’m not going to graduate. I chewed on it, and chewed on it, and chewed on it. But there was an earnest desire to explore both the story and also my right to tell it, and to be very rigorous about that.”

Its 2012 New York production brought her to wide attention, but Sibblies Drury continued to progress in her own way. She spent time in north Africa with her husband and wrote two more plays (one a zombie apocalypse drama, one set during a photoshoot) before writing Fairview five years later. Like all her work, Fairview grew both from individual research and close collaboration with her director, designer and actors. “Theatre is so difficult, there are so many moving parts. As a writer I have control over the words, but not really any control over what the whole show ends up meaning, and so it feels good to be able to work with people I trust and who have integrity, intellect and, 예, also silliness. It feels rare to me.”

Fairview is blistering in its critique of sensibilities about race, yet its form manages to be thought-provoking rather than simply accusatory. Sibblies Drury is conscious of always writing for a mixed audience; she wants to make them think as well as wince. “I’m still so interested in how we all think about race," 그녀는 말한다. “It’s so much a conscious and unconscious part of the way everyone moves through the world. I see you as a white woman, with a cute bob haircut and a purple sweater. Yet there are probably hundreds of white women in London now with cute bob haircuts and purple sweaters and you are not the same as them.

“There’s something completely insane about that, about the intricacies of your own identity that I don’t really know. That’s true for everyone and it makes me feel tingly. We see whiteness as a monolith, blackness as a monolith, Asian as a monolith. Yet you might be Italian, you might be part Jewish or Irish. I don’t actually know. To me it is endlessly fascinating how we simplify and complicate ourselves.”

She has said in the past that it is difficult to write about race. 왜? She pauses before answering. “Because to write about anything, you have to declare something and I find that very hard to do. I do very much feel: ‘Is my blue the same blue as your blue?’ I have that about everything. I think it’s very hard to say Jamaican people are like this, or black people are like this, or white people are like this. That’s part of my attraction to writing through things in theatre, because in Marys Seacole, 예를 들면, we have three different white women who play different versions of themselves, but they also are able to refract and prismatically create something that’s more complicated than just one white woman is.”

She tries to write as if she is expressing a view that the majority of society will share. “It removes a chip from my shoulder. It makes me feel I don’t have to fight or lecture the audience. I can assume the people I am talking to are like-minded, and to a certain degree are going to go along for the ride. That’s a less angry way of making work, 나는 추측한다. Which is good for the blood pressure, you know.” Plus, she believes in theatre. “It sounds incredibly Pollyannaish, but I do think a big part of theatre is reminding people of their own humanity, in a complicated way. It’s to use empathy to think through the way that our society functions.”

Sibblies Drury smiles again. We talk about the way Mary Seacole is now part of the school curriculum in the UK and how that visibility represents a sort of progress. “Definitely," 그녀는 말한다. “Does it necessarily mean that there’s more equality in society, or that nurses are being treated fairly or paid well or respected for their labour? 아니. But I do feel like the schoolbook is the first step towards a greater awareness of black people who have been part of this society for so long.”

Once, she might have felt under pressure to write a more straightforward, different play about her heroine. “Historically, there has been pressure on black artists for visibility and uplift of the race, and that leads to a certain kind of work. I understand that mindset, and I have reaped the benefits of it. But I am not the right person to worry about visibility in that way.”

She recognises she is riding a great wave of writing by black US playwrights that is sweeping through American theatre at the moment. She points with pleasure at Aleshea Harris’s recently premiered On Sugarland and Michael R Jackson’s musical A Strange Loop, which is opening this month on Broadway. “It’s so exciting. I do have a fear it’s almost trendy, which is weird, because how can my identity be a trend? But I feel really excited that there are other people who are making theatre that I want to see who look a little bit like me.

“There’s something Michelle Obama said and a lot of black women have said, about feeling you are the first and that you have to make a path for people behind you. I feel very fortunate not to be in that position. I don’t have to feel I’m the first of anything. I get to feel like I am in a group.”

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