Entertainment » Theatre

Between Riverside and M-F'n Crazy with Stephen Adly Guirgis

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Sep 13, 2018
Stephen Adly Guirgis
Stephen Adly Guirgis  (Source:Monique Carboni)

Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis is known for ringingly authentic, if earthy, dialogue and stories that focus on the intricacies, and absurdities, of city living. A native of NYC, Guirgis started out as an actor but soon began to write his own plays. It's been a fruitful career; in addition to famed work like "Jesus Hopped the A Train and "The Motherfucker With the Hat," Adly authored the 2014 play "Between Riverside and Crazy," for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.

"Between Riverside and Crazy" is about to make its debut in Boston with a Tiffany Nichole Greene-directed production from the SpeakEasy Stage Company that's slated to run at the Boston Center for the Arts from Sept. 14 - Oct. 12.

Though the play premiered four years ago, "Between Riverside and Crazy" touches on one of the hottest of today's hot-button topics. Pops (played by Tyrees Allen in the upcoming SpeakEasy production) was a New York City police officer for many years, until he crossed paths with a young rookie cop who - as Pops tells it - had an itchy trigger finger coupled with an attitude around race. Eight years later, Pops dwells in the wreckage of his former life: His wife has recently died; his son Junior (Stewart Evan Smith) has made some unsavory career choices; and the spacious, rent controlled apartment he shares with Junior, as well as Junior's girlfriend Lulu (Octavia Chavez-Richmond) and his friend Oswaldo (Alejandro Simoes), is going to ruin around him.

Having refused to settle with the city, Pops now faces dwindling prospects, including the loss of his home. Enter Detective O'Connor (Maureen Keiller), who was a rookie back when Pops was active on the force; once her mentor, Pops is now something very different to O'Connor and to her careerist husband-to-be, Lieutenant Caro (Lewis Wheeler). But are their concerns for Pops rooted in questions of his own wellbeing - or their advancement? Add a mysterious, maybe supernatural, "Church Lady" (Celeste Oliva) to the mix, and literally anything might happen.

EDGE chatted with Stephen Adly Guirgis by phone recently, and had the pleasure of hearing about the playwright's career, his current projects, and his thoughts on the place for... and uses of... colorful language.


EDGE: I understand you are self-taught when it comes to play writing. Did that ever present any obstacles for you?

Stephen Adly Guirgis: I'm sure I could have, and currently now may be, writing better if I had a firmer foundation in the craft, educationally. But, no - it actually was kind of liberating, in a way. I didn't go to grad school; I didn't study writing, but I probably did at least 30 plays; good plays and horrible plays, in tiny venues and medium-sized venues. And I studied acting for a few years. I've spent so much time in theater. Including college, I think I did 50 or 60 plays. I think I had a sense for what the physical space was and what I wanted to see.

Now that I'm over 50, I'm certainly interested in reading some of the great plays and the great works of literature, and expanding my horizons. When I was younger, I don't know, maybe I was... I was doing my own thing, and I was a little bit afraid to take a look around because if I did I might see how bad I was in comparison. Honestly, I think that might have had something to do with it. So, there's pluses and minuses, but if I hadn't spent years and years in the theater I think my chances of being successful would have decreased quite a bit.

EDGDE: What are you reading now? Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes... or maybe Moliere, or the Jacobean playwrights?

Stephen Adly Guirgis: I remember several years ago I started having panic attacks, [fearing] I couldn't write and I didn't know anything. I thought of looking up grad schools online, but then when I looked, all the teachers, mostly, were either contemporaries of mine or people that I didn't think they were such great playwrights, you know? And so I went to see Oskar Eustis, who runs the Public [Theater, in New York], he's always been really nice to me, and I told him, "I feel like a fraud, I can't write." He offered to teach me Aristotle's "Poetics." He said, "You come each week, and I'll teach you a chapter." I came the first week, and then it kind of trailed off.

But, you know, when I started out, sometimes they would refuse my plays, but they'd reference, like, "Oh, this is like O'Neil," or, "Oh, this is like Chekhov," and I hadn't read the stuff they were referencing. Now... I'm not afraid. It can only enhance your experience as a human to be better read and be better educated. I wasn't a dummy; I'd seen more stuff than the average person, but I hadn't read Chekov or O'Neil. Tennessee Williams I had read a lot of; I always loved him.

EDGE: You mentioned a moment ago how, before you started writing plays, you were already an actor. Do you approach the writing of a play the way an actor might, by listening to what the characters have to say in order to learn what the story is - as opposed to coming up with the idea for the story and then shepherding your characters accordingly?

Stephen Adly Guirgis: Yeah, I think that's true. I think there's usually some kind of a deeper question that I'm pondering, so I'm not writing a play to present an actor but, oftentimes, to present the problem. You're always looking for a solution, but you never find it. There's always more questions than answers.

The other thing, too, is that as an actor you know what kind of roles you're attracted to. As an example, anything that I write, to the degree I can, I try to never create a role that I wouldn't want to play. So, what does that mean? It means that every role that I write for a character will start out one place and end up some place else. There's an arc. I strive to give them an action, a tension - something that they are pursuing with a certain amount of passion. Not every part can be a fully-realized, three-dimensional, active role, but to the degree that I can [fully flesh out each role], I do. I think that's helpful.

I think the experience of an actor is helping me to create real people. Like us right now, we're having a conversation. I'm trying to answer your questions, and somewhere below that there's an action: "I don't want him to think I'm an idiot. I want him to think I'm smart, but not pretentious." There's a little subtext behind what we say. So, I try to infuse all the characters with that, and then I try to create characters that I would like to see on stage, and create the scenarios and situations that I would like to see played out on stage, and that comes, I guess, from being an actor.

My history of theater going is that the performances are the main course for me. I think because of that I was able to write roles that are exciting for actors, whether they're large or small, and along the way I've got to round it out so that it's not just about performances and it's not just about actors; there's a theme. It's trial and error and intuiting, and then, also, in the very beginning I would write these little plays and then sometimes I would be in them. And then I learned early on that if I really wanted to become a writer, I needed to sit in the audience and listen to the audience watch the play. That's tremendously informative.

"Self-taught" is true in one sense, but not really true because I had a theater company and a community behind me, and I got to learn by doing. I don't think I've ever written anything that wasn't produced in some form, and that's an anomaly. And you learn from all of them: The ones that work, and the ones that don't work so well. You just try to get better.


The cast of 'Between Riverside and Crazy'  (Source:Nile Scott Studios)

EDGE: Somebody once characterized your writing by saying something to the effect of you being a "poet of the profane," but I find I don't take offense at what the characters say and do because it's very much true to the human experience. Is this a matter of pursuing a certain kind of authenticity?

Stephen Adly Guirgis: I guess, for better or worse, I write what interests me and I create characters that speak in a language that gets me excited. And then if the audience responds to it, there's a feeling of affirmation, of being on the right track. When I started out I was writing for people in my theater company and it was being watched by people in my theater company and by our friends; our community evolved from that. When my people were coming, after a certain point I got the sense that they were going to like it no matter what. That's why readings became less useful, because everyone's just going to say good things to you and not bad things.

EDGE: I remember there being some consternation a few years ago after a Boston company did an amazing production of "The Motherfucker With the Hat" that ended up being nominated for some theater awards here. We had to debate: Were we going to say "M-Fer With the Hat" during the awards ceremony? Were we going to be bold and just say the full title out loud? In the end, we went for it - and the crowd loved it!

Stephen Adly Guirgis: Well, you know, that play was just supposed to be in our little theater, so I never really considered the title to be that provocative. Then when it ended up being in midtown, I just figured, "If I change the name now, I'll look like a sellout." But I'm glad. It's good. You know, you don't have to say "motherfucker" all the time, but there's a certain liberation to cursing on occasion. It won't kill anybody.

EDGE: And this is Boston. We can probably get away with it a little easier than some other places.

Stephen Adly Guirgis: To me, writing in that way, it's easy to turn off a more mainstream audience. What I would say is when the plays have landed with an audience that is more mainstream, I think it's despite some of the things that might turn them off on the surface, like the types of characters or the foul language. But if you infuse the characters with humanity, that's hopefully identifiable and relatable.

And then, secondly, you can get away with a lot if the character has a sense of humor - if he's funny. Humor is a tool against prejudice, against us judging the status of the character or the ways that they express themselves. And then I try to infuse them with as much humanity so that when it comes through the audience isn't watching a play about "those people," they're watching a play about people that they can relate to.

I just did a reading of something that I did... it's an early stage of the work. Somebody had a summer retreat, and it was in Bloomington, Indiana, this summer, which was completely different from where we where we would ordinarily be. My company is very multicultural, and Bloomington is less so. But it was one night where we had to have a public meeting. It was probably, like, a 99 seat theater, and [the audience's] average age [was] 75 - white hair, presumably Republican-leaning, although it's a college town. I looked at the audience, and I was, "Oh, fuck. This is not gonna be good." But you know what? They really liked it. They were with it, and then they were, "Stay in Bloomington until you finish it." That was very encouraging to me.

And the flipside of that is, I think that our generation [less interested] in the world of some of the older white playwrights, and I'd like to see that work presented in way that would excite young people. I remember a long time ago my mother took me to see the A. R. Gurney play, "The Dining Room," and I remember I was, "Okay. I have nothing in common with an upper middle class story [set] in a country house. We never had a country house." But, you know, in fifteen minutes I was completely in it, and completely moved. If something is good, then it will contain a universality that will let everybody in.

EDGE: This play in particular strikes a chime with current and ongoing headlines about police violence against people of color, but there's an intriguing twist in that the black man who has been shot by a white officer is a police officer himself. Are you, to some extent, exploring both sides of the "Black Lives Matter"/"Blue Lives Matter" debate?

Stephen Adly Guirgis: Sure, yes. There's a female detective who was a rookie [when she worked with] the older black cop - they have this relationship that's sort of father-daughterish. And then she has a fiancée who is a striver, a "try and get ahead" type guy. He comes in and basically his job is to try to get Pops to take the settlement. When we were doing the original production, the two actors who were playing the white detective were a little hesitant to go all in. They didn't want to be the bad white people. I was, like, "Well, two things. Number one, I think you think you're helping him. Yes, you have a vested interest in it, yes, there's pressure on you to get this done, but you're helping him. And secondly, what does it mean to be the white people? Mike, you're Italian American, and Liz, you have got the map of Ireland on your face. You're working class people. You are who you are - your family is the salt of the earth."

This play was written a few years ago, and things are continuing to come to a head, but yeah, of course - there's nothing interesting about writing a play [that has the simple message] "Racism is bad." It has to be complicated, because life is complicated. I say sometimes, when I work with young people, "If it's a movie, the good guy and wear white and the bad guy can wear black." Like in the "Die Hard" movies - I love those kind of movies, myself. The bad guy can say some witty things, but if you're gonna put that guy on stage for two hours, he or she has got to have a fully developed emotional life, and be complicated. That's why I can't imagine writing about Trump. I know Kushner is writing a play about Trump, and I'm sure it'll be brilliant, but right now, even though I know he's a human being and he's suffered and everything, I can't see the other side of him. I couldn't put him on stage. I think that our white hats have dirt on them, and the black hats are gray, you know? In life sometimes things are just black and white - sometimes - but on stage and in literature, what's the purpose? What's interesting is gray. I try to make everybody a little dirty, and a little clean.


Tyrees Allen ("Pops") with director Tiffany Nichole Greene  (Source:Nile Scott Studios)

EDGE: That's what's so interesting about Pops; he is so flawed and cantankerous, and yet he's also an anchor for those around him. He's a father figure to the younger people in the play.

Stephen Adly Guirgis: That part also was influenced a little but by my own father, who was Egyptian. He came to this country when he was, like, 40. He cultivated his image, sometimes, of being cantankerous and complaining, but he took care of people. He took care of a lot of people - we had a lot of people living in our house my whole life. And then, after my mother died, I moved in with my dad, like in the play, and I was there for four years. We had lots of people staying here, and if somebody sat down my dad would feed him, and throw as much food at them as they could possibly eat and then some, and insist that they eat. And then, they would walk out of the room and he'd be like, "Son of a bitch, he ate the whole chicken!"

[Laughter]

Stephen Adly Guirgis: So on the one hand his nature is nurturing, but then he has that little bit of a rough image.

EDGE: Pops is also extremely stubborn, and at one point and he resorts to a sort of extortion. Is this a matter of preserving his pride? His dignity? Or is he really just abiding by his principles?

Stephen Adly Guirgis: I think so. I saw this in detail with my dad: As men - and women, too - lose their powers, it can be a battle to retain their dignity. Pops starts to attach his sense of dignity to things that he might not have when he was younger. If somebody slighted you, or didn't hold a door open for you when you younger, you might just think, "Oh, what an asshole," but when you're older it becomes something else. With my dad - my dad was an extremely dignified guy, and as he got older things would happen that would compromise his dignity, I hated to see that happen. I think that's what happens with Pops - I think he was a very conservative-type guy most of his life, and now his place is a den of iniquity. And there's that thing about him being shot and losing his sexual capacity - that's something that we men don't handle too well. And then also, having a feeling of being a cop, as being part of the establishment, being on the right side of things, and then this incident happens and his lawsuit happens, and all of a sudden he's on the other side of things. I think it's about respect; he could have settled [with the city] sooner, but it was a point of pride with him.

EDGE: You ventured into television with "The Get Down," a series that aired 11 episodes on Netflix and which you co-created with Baz Lurhmann. Is it more liberating to have hours and hours to work with on television, versus an hour and a half or two hours on stage? Or is it more of a challenge? Or is it a mixed bag?

Stephen Adly Guirgis: I would say it's a mixed bag, and I would say it's more of a liberation to be able to write a play and work in the theater. I've worked in television before, and I remember when we were going into rehearsals with this play I was in L.A. - "The Get Down" started in L.A. It was crazy... the lunches we ordered, it was so much money, people were eating fucking veal piccata... there was one morning we came in and there were samples of... it was, which kind of thousand-dollar office chair would you like? And then I flew in for rehearsal for "Riverside," and we sat on metal chairs at a metal table and everyone was happy that there was water and some fruit on the table. You know?

[Laughter]

Stephen Adly Guirgis: [Theater] is much more exciting, and I find it to be rewarding. And television can be great, but at the end of the day you're working for the man, right? It's a different beast. But, people need health insurance. If you're a playwright you can teach; you can work in television, or maybe film; or you can bartend. I've done all of them. Theater is where it's at, in my opinion.

EDGE: On the other hand we're seeing a real renaissance in television because so many playwrights have gone to work in that area.

Stephen Adly Guirgis: Yeah, the blessing is we have a renaissance in television because there are a lot of playwrights [working in TV], but also there are a lot of playwrights who are graduating from grad school with the intention to, as fast as they can, write a play, get a good review in New York, and then go and write for television. That's understandable; if I had $200,000 in loans, I'd probably be on my way to work in TV too, but in terms of developing our playwrights, it's a loss.

The one other thing I would say, though, is I've learned a lot about writing from writing for TV because it's so structure-oriented and story specific. I'd say it's helped my playwriting.

EDGE: What projects do you have coming up?

Stephen Adly Guirgis: Right now I'm writing a pilot for Netflix that's way overdue. It's due in five days... I'm scrambling now, like, googling "How to write for television," even though I've already done it. You always feel like you don't know anything when you start out.


"Between Riverside and Crazy" will run from Sept. 14 - Oct. 13 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.speakeasystage.com/riverside-crazy/


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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