It’s possible to think of the theatre as a parade of strong, inimitable personalities—actors who compel attention on stage, playwrights with mind-opening perspectives, persuasive directors who rally teams of collaborators, designers who generate new visual realities, producers bold enough to bet that their tastes will jibe with those of the public. This issue of American Theatre just might convince you of that thesis. It’s packed with potent characters—theatre folk whose accomplishments are intimately connected to the force of their personalities and the narratives of their lives.
If you ever met Kwame Kwei-Armah, you remember the occasion. As interviewer Celia Wren quizzes the charismatic, British-born artistic director about the formative experiences that landed him in the artistic director’s chair at Baltimore’s Center Stage in 2011, what she refers to as his “ebullience, supportiveness and habit of welcoming ideas and questions” shines through in every answer. His is a personality writ large.
Playwright Mona Mansour, interviewed by fellow scribe Caridad Svich, shares Kwei-Armah’s expansive worldview. The childhood connection to her Lebanese heritage has generated a powerful pair of plays about the Palestinian question—in Mansour’s words, stories of “displacement and what it does to the psyche.” Her involvement in human rights issues and the rigors of her own life experience have given her a particular edge as a writer: “Getting out of my comfort zone,” she observes, “is an easy commute.”
The first thing colleagues of prolific playwright George Brant will tell you about him is that he’s a funny guy—but in his case, as reporter Davi Napoleon notes, that hail-fellow-well-met personality is only one clue to the transformative arc of his work. “My plays are darker now. I don’t know why. I’m happy,” Brant says, sounding nonplussed.
Playwright Danai Gurira, author of this month’s full-length script The Convert, tracks her path toward writerly seriousness all the way from Iowa, where she was born, to Zimbabwe, where she grew up, to present-day Los Angeles, where she defies the tenets of contemporary TV culture (in which she also participates, as an actor in “The Walking Dead”) by writing about religious faith and its implications in the developing world. In a remarkable condensation of the impulse that generated The Convert’s conflicted heroine, Gurira says to interviewer Tim Sanford, “If I were in Harare, like I was in my formative years, but 130 years ago, who would I have been?”
Chicago auteur Mary Zimmerman doesn’t create characters—she borrows them from world literature and imbues their stories with the aesthetic trappings of her own imagination. As Rob Weinert-Kendt’s interview reveals, Zimmerman paradoxically sees the artist’s personality as a force to be subsumed: A text like The Odyssey, she reasons, “is so much vaster than me, that it doesn’t matter, my little thing—it’s like a giant chorus that’s been singing for 2,000 years. My voice joins it and then it goes away.”
These artists wrestle in different ways with personality as a theatrical force. Their inner reckonings are the art form’s good fortune—and ours.