Known for his audacious, sometimes incendiary plays, Thomas Bradshaw sets his sights on American politics with his newest satire Carlyle. In the play, Bradshaw, whose work last appeared at the Goodman with 2011’s Mary, traces one African American’s path to becoming a Republican. Shortly before beginning rehearsals, Bradshaw spoke with Tanya Palmer, the play’s dramaturg, about his inspiration for the work and its unique presentational style.
Tanya Palmer: What made you decide to write this play?
Thomas Bradshaw: I wanted to write a play about how a black person becomes a Republican, but I wanted it to be an honest investigation of someone’s trajectory to that place. I didn’t want to make fun of anyone; I don’t need to join the crowd of people mocking black Republicans because that would be too easy. I also had the thought in my head that black Republicans, in a way, really exhibit all the traits of the American ideal in the sense that we value individualism, independent thinking and pursuing your own version of happiness. As a society, we don’t talk about black Republicans in that way.
TP: Carlyle uses a meta-theatrical device in which the main character puts on a play about his life for the audience. What inspired you to use this device and why do you think it’s an important part of how the story is told?
TB: I really wanted this black Republican to tell his own story from his point of view, but I didn’t want this to be a play where someone just comes out and delivers a monologue about their life.
TP: You’ve previously said that your plays have no subtext. What does that mean and what impact does it have on the work?
TB: I say that all the time and I stand by it, but it’s a generalization. My characters are generally very honest and there’s a unity among everything they say, think and do. On the first day of rehearsals an actor might say, “Ok, This is what I’m saying, but what does the character actually mean?” They might be playing something completely different from the words that come out of their mouth. I find that you can bring a different level of honesty and higher level of drama to a play if characters are actually just wearing their hearts on their sleeves. In most of my plays, I start scenes in the middle of the action and then go on to the next scene, so it’s kind of like getting all the highlights. A lot of plays will have three pages of dialogue before that important dramatic moment. The playwright is building up to that event, where my thought is, “Let’s just get to it and move on.” It’s embracing the artifice of the art form of theater instead of pretending this is real life and an actual conversation is taking place. I want to get to the true moments of drama.
TP: The play is about a fictional black Republican who came of age in the 1980s and ‘90s, but you also evoke a very real black Republican of an older generation, Clarence Thomas. Can you talk about the play’s relationship to Clarence Thomas?
TB: Clarence Thomas’ success story is very typical in the sense that he grew up in extreme poverty, received scholarships to prep schools and then went to Yale. He is really a self-made man. I’m not so much interested in that story; we’ve seen that kind of story on stage many times. I’m more interested in telling the story of a modern black man, specifically the assimilated black man. I wanted to create a character that doesn’t have this typical story of struggle, someone who was privileged since the day he was born and who’s more or less as assimilated as a black person can be in American society. That’s a very different story than someone coming from poverty and clawing their way up. This play is about the black upper middle class. Clarence Thomas is a looming figure when you talk about black Republicans though, and I wanted him to have a part in the play so I made Carlyle be his acolyte. He is Carlyle’s idol, but they grew up in different generations and different worlds.
TP: In addition to the Clarence Thomas trial, the play references important moments of history and issues like affirmative action. How did you select which moments to touch on in order to tell Carlyle’s story?
TB: It seems like all black Republicans I’ve encountered have very strong feelings about affirmative action. It seems to be an issue that’s core to them so I thought that was important to address. I want to force audience members to have a wrestling match with themselves so that you can’t sit and watch the play with any sort of complacency. I picked issues that would do that and presented them in a way that’s honest to how black Republicans see these issues.
TP: Because Carlyle has this play-within-a-play device, the audience becomes a part of the event. When attending most plays, you’re not necessarily aware of other audience members. The main events happen on stage. With your plays, a lot of the action is actually happening in the audience. As an audience member you become incredibly aware of the people around you, what they’re responding to or not responding to and whether or not you feel like you can laugh. Is that intentional?
TB: For me it’s really about what happens after the play is over, once the lights come up and the audience is left with what has been presented on stage. In most plays, you’re left with a very clear idea of the playwright’s point of view and there’s no doubt what you’re supposed to leave the theater thinking. You know which characters are the good guys and which are the bad ones. My plays are more open-ended. It’s really up to the audience to decide the morality of the play.