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Suspension of Disbelief

Our practice at Steppenwolf is to connect our entire staff with the art we are collectively supporting. Before rehearsals begin, for example, we have an in-house reading of each script. We also have meetings with members of the staff in which we invite artists to share their vision of the play. Recently, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney spoke via phone to a group that included members of the artistic, marketing and production departments. An edited version of that conversation follows. Martha Lavey (Artistic Director): Tarell, it would be great for us if you could give us an idea of what inspired you to make the play. Tarell Alvin McCraney (Playwright): First of all, thank you all so much for meeting. It’s really important to me to say that the play is inspired by-rather than based on- the Book of Job. I wasn’t inspired by the dramatic form that Job already has. What calls about the Book of Job to me was this sort of sense of faith and how we hold onto it. The Book of Job doesn’t give you the conversation that Job has with himself or even with his friends about that faith. We see him rend his hair. We see him rend his clothes. We see him in pain and crying out to God, but we don’t necessarily know what it is that’s keeping him from turning away from his faith. ML: So the subject of faith drives this conversation you want to have with audiences. TM: It struck me as fairly odd in the theater that I found so few people willing to talk about bedrock faith being a sort of human need. Faith seemed to be something that people didn’t really need. It was something they could kind of use if they wanted. Whereas I disagree: I do think the way in which that faith takes shape is different, but everybody needs to invent or hold onto some inalienable truth. Or at least that they feel is the truth. ML: Tarell, can you unpack what you mean when you talk about people in theater and bedrock faith? TM: If you look at every cosmology, all of theater has emerged from deification or religious practices of that group. We are inextricably related to religion in many ways. But I also think that just the way we practice theater is related: we ask people to come into a room and shield their eyes from things that they can see and imagine with us other things. To believe in those things and to have an experience. ML: You allude to the willing suspension of disbelief that is the description for the theater. Which-maybe stated more actively–is faith. “Head of Passes” is described as the mouth of the Mississippi. Why that environment? TM: As I told Tina Landau, I wanted to set it where the natural world was constantly shifting. Nowhere is that more true than on the Head of Passes. There’s a book that Tina gave to me about a portion of the Passes that vanished. A storm comes up and pushes the Gulf against the river and that part of the Passes just disappears. Overnight. People were living there. There was a party going on. The Mississippi itself has a long history of being either the grave for-or the birth of-something. ML: Did you grow up there? TM: I grew up all through the south. I’m mainly from Miami, Florida, but my maternal grandparents are from Georgia, Alabama and the Mississippi area. So I spent a lot of time traveling back and forth through there and going to church there. For instance, one of my vivid memories is my cousin being baptized in the creek and getting in and having to beat back water moccasins from the occasion. Thomas Weitz (Digital Assets Director): You’ve written in a character that’s not of this world: the Angel. In conversations with Tina, have you talked about the elements in the production that will echo that? TM: The way we have talked about the play so far is that when we first come in we think of something almost-and this is a bad term-kitchen sink realism. And then the play, the actual set itself should somehow change into something that is of another world. And that includes Shelah. She comes in looking like a normal woman of her time and place but she transforms into something almost unreal, while still rooted emotionally in the very real here and now. John Zinn (Director of Marketing and Communications): The all-staff reading the other day generated discussion about family. You’re dealing with family secrets and family responsibility in the show, particularly when it comes to Shelah’s daughter, Cookie. Could you talk about that? TM: When I think of our support-of our pillars in life-family is one of them. Shelah thinks of herself as a sort of bedrock in which her children all can find strength. But when they are no longer there, it turns out that she was drawing strength by supporting them. At some point the ability to do for someone outside yourself will go away. What does that do to a person? What happens to your moral compass at that point? Aaron Carter (Literary Manager): In the Book of Job a man is at the center of the story—why did you choose to center your story on a woman? TM: Tina at one point said “I think of Job as a woman.” And I said “Yeah, me too,” and we sort of moved on from there. In retrospect I can say that my experience of faith in the African American culture is with women. They were charged-for right or wrong-with the upkeep of the family. It is sort of matrilineal. If I have a brother or sisters via my Mom, that’s my brother or sister even if you don’t have the same father. If I have a brother or sister via my Dad, that’s my half-brother. The root of faith and the pillar of the family are almost always automatically given to women in my family. ML: Tarell, when you were writing this play was it a revelation to you at all? Did you discover anything for yourself? TM: I’m still discovering things. I can almost say without a doubt that this play will be a defining point in my life personally. I don’t write bio-drama. I know people say that The Brother/Sister Plays are sort of directly from my life. They’re not really. None of the events of it actually happened in my own life. But this play to me is so frighteningly mirroring what has happened and what is happening. This play is about a literal discourse in faith. The more I work on it, the more I think about it, the more I investigate it... I know I’m never going to get to a kind of mythic gold ring. But at least I feel less alone in the conversation. And that’s important right now. ML: Yes, that makes it very alive.