The belief inherent to the “Theatre Geek” beat on Geek Girl Authority is that there’s generous overlap between theatre geeks and other kinds of geeks. Playwright Kemp Powers is a perfect example of how this is true. The self-professed sci-fi nerd and former Star Trek: Discovery writer’s latest play, Little Black Shadows, opens at South Coast Repertory April 14th.
The play, set in a pre-Civil War Georgia plantation house, follows child slaves who serve adolescent twins. Powers drew inspiration from Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, collected by the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers Project during the 1930s. This piqued my curiosity, and I was delighted when he agreed to talk with me about the play, working on S.T.D., the convergence of the theatre and sci-fi worlds and more.
Leona Laurie: Little Black Shadows is making its world premiere at SCR this month, and I found your inspiration fascinating. Can you tell me more about that?
Kemp Powers: Sure, I mean it’s basically the Federal Writers’ Project, which is something that I hope more people learn about. In the 1930s the U.S. government sent writers all across the American South to document, in their own words, the lives of the last generation to have been born into slavery before they died. All these people were obviously quite old, 80s or 90s, but most of their recollections of slavery were the recollections of children. They were very, very young when they were slaves and were emancipated. That’s why this particular play is largely from the perspective of children, because I kind of wanted to show the impact of slavery on both the child slave and the child master.
The term “Little Black Shadows” is a real term; it’s basically a house slave, a small child slave, whose job is to be a slave to, and a playmate for, a child in the house– in many cases a child the same age or maybe a little younger.
What was fascinating reading through these stories was that a surprising number of these former slaves, in hindsight, were unusually diplomatic about having been slaves, and in some cases downright kind towards their former masters — even though in most cases they were describing horrors and abuse that had been exacted on them. There were often instances where it was like, “Master would whip us and do these things, but we really had it good, because there was a plantation further up the road where they really treated their slaves badly.”
It’s kind of chilling to read someone’s recollections of abuse and suffering and have them end it with, “but I had it good compared to that slave.” It made me think of this idea of self-loathing. It was like reading the recollections of an entire generation that had worked so hard to suppress their own abuse that they were almost in a fugue state. You know? Where the simple fact that master didn’t beat them every day meant that they had a good life.
And keep in mind these recollections were being written during a period of reconstruction, when there were lynchings all across the South and black people were being terrorized, so some of them were like, “Well slavery was bad, but at least we were being protected from other angrier, more evil white people.”
It was pretty horrific stuff to read. It was chilling; it was tear-inducing at times, because it wasn’t the whippings, or the beatings, or the violence, or the starvation or anything. It was stuff that was crushing the human soul and the human spirit that was the most heartbreaking to me, and that’s when I decided I wanted to tell this story, in this way.
LL: I’ve never thought about slavery as sharing so many traits with domestic abuse, where a big part of survival is that mental conditioning to accept that whatever terrible things are happening are better than the alternative.
KP: Yes! Absolutely, you just said it. I’ve described it as “collective battered wives’ syndrome,” because that’s what it reads like. You’re sitting there like, “Oh my God, this is awful,” and the person is saying in their own words, “Well you know I deserved it,” or “It could have been a lot worse.”
LL: Something that keeps people in abusive relationships is the uncertainty of what’s going to happen to them if they leave, and that would be, especially for children, a huge thing.
KP: And that is just it. The two slave children in the play, so much of their lives are filled with uncertainty, and we see how they fill in the blanks. They have to do a lot of filling in the blanks, sometimes about something as simple as “what is 30 paces from the house where they live?” because their lives are dictated by following and servicing the white masters. At night, they quite literally sleep on mats under their masters’ beds, and that’s the only time they’re able to communicate with one another.
LL: So, you’re not just sharing a specific story that comes from our nation’s history and giving a fictionalized account of what that might be like for the two slave children and the two master children, but also drawing parallels with more universal themes?
KP: Absolutely. Everything in the play is drawn from true stories. It’s a composite of a lot of things, of course highly fictionalized. And, believe it or not, there’s actually a lot of humor in this play. There’s a lot of magical, surrealist elements in the play, but it’s all drawn from reality, from research on various elements of real American history.
Working with the actors and May Adrales, who is a wonderful director, has been illuminating. You hear a story will be set on a plantation in the pre-Civil War South, and you immediately go, “Okay, slaves are good and their masters are evil,” but we remind the actors playing the entire family (the slave children, their masters, the masters’ parents who are the heads of the household) we that I didn’t write this to be judgmental about this family. By the standards of that time, this is almost like a “liberal” slave-holding family. This is kind of a best-case slavery scenario, which makes it that much more horrific.
I always believe that sometimes the greatest statement you can make about a thing is not making a statement about a thing. This isn’t a story about slaves trying to find their way to freedom.
I like to approach history very similarly to science fiction. I love history stories, and I love science fiction stories. What I love about science fiction is that it often begins by setting up the rules of the world. These are the rules of the future world we are setting up, and now we are going to tell you a story that exists within that world. Sometimes that story might be the story of an exemplary individual, a change agent, so to speak, but other times it’s a story about an everyday person who exists within that world, in which case they aren’t going to be commenting on the base rules of the world.
Whereas when we focus on history, we tend to focus on moments of change, or agents of change, exemplary individuals. I want to tell stories set during slavery, where slavery is all there is, there is no hope for, nor chance of there being any other world, therefore there’s no point in the characters even commenting on it. They just exist within this world. That makes it almost clinical in its approach. I think that makes it much more chilling, because it’s not a tale of someone getting their freedom, it’s basically a family drama set in this plantation house, during a time when slavery is just the rule of the land.
LL: That’s intense. Since you mentioned your love of sci-fi here, though, I do want to know about your time writing for season one of Star Trek: Discovery.
KP: It was one of the most exciting experiences.
I feel like sometimes people treat it as though it’s a crap genre, but while it might take 20 bad films in sci-fi to get to a good one, when you get to a good one it can be transcendent. It’s something like a Blade Runner or Children of Men or an Alien or even like lesser known films that I quite enjoy like Sunshine. My favorite TV show right now is Black Mirror, which is the most incredible dark science fiction that’s showing the ramifications of the technology we’re using right now in the very near future.
I’m not what you would call a “Trekkie,” as I told Bryan Fuller when he first hired me. I’ve been a Star Trek fan, but my favorite was The Next Generation. The Star Trek of my youth was Next Gen. I more grew up on the original series characters in the movies– Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Wrath of Khan— so when Bryan pulled together this team, and I heard about other folk who would be working on it, like Joe Menosky and Nicholas Meyer, I jumped at the opportunity.
When you get into a sci-fi writers’ room, you’re surrounded by some of the most intelligent people you can find in the arts. Everyone’s super duper smart about a whole lot of things in addition to the show that you are working on or the genre that you actually working on. A lot of folks who are into sci-fi have a general curiosity and interest in lots of different things, so the banter in the room can run the gamut from politics, to science and you end up on comic books. And a lot of these conversations end up trickling down into the episodes.
One of the wonderful things about starting from scratch, and there not being any characters at all, is that you feel like you just got this incredible playground and you can pretty much do anything you want. Of course you’re working within canon, so there’s of course specific parameters, but Bryan from day one was like, “Oh yeah, the lead is going to be this woman of color.”
That was super duper exciting, and the chance to create some new aliens, that was super exciting. The relationship between the lead and her mentor, who was another woman captain, that was really exciting. The whole mirror universe element was something present from the very beginning. When I met Bryan the first time and he talked about his vision for the show, the mirror universe element, which came pretty late in the season, was always present.
KP: It was exciting to see those guys get cast because RENT was one of the seminal musicals of my youth. RENT was revolutionary, because they had the rush line tickets, so the first two rows were always 19-22 year olds like myself, who went in the rush line and paid almost nothing and got to sit the front row, and it felt like the cast was quite literally singing to us.
Right now there’s so much overlap between film and television and theatre that I find those worlds colliding pretty much constantly no matter which genre I’m working in at any given time.
LL: Coming back to Little Black Shadows, what’s your hope for the play after it debuts this month?
KP: You always want anything you write to have a life. The best case scenario is that audiences receive it well. And I hope that for at least some members of the audience, this play will speak to something inside of them. Then you hope that after it wraps its run that other theatres are interested and the play is exposed to more people.
Star Trek: Discovery… more people probably saw that than will see every play I ever write my entire career. But theatre is just as valuable because the audience is able to make a real, human connection with the cast. It feels like you are there with them, and they’re really speaking to you in a different way. You’re engaged, because you have to actually make the effort to get up and go out and sit in a theatre to even experience it. There’s a different level of commitment that’s needed to even have theatre be a part of your life, but I think the people that make that commitment are then sometimes open to having a different kind of experience dealing with some more challenging material than they might be willing to if they walk into a movie theatre or pick up their remote control at home.
LL: Now I kind of want to jockey to get into opening night, so that I can shake your hand after.
KP: You should! I’m doing a pre-show chat on the 10th and 11th, and I’ll be there on opening night.
Little Black Shadows premieres on South Coast Repertory Theatre’s Julianne Argyros Stage April 8-29, 2018. Find tickets and information at SCR.org.