In Dave Harris’ dark new tragicomedy Incendiary, Tanya is a mother dead-set on breaking her son out of death row. A few weeks before rehearsal began, production dramaturg Jonathan L. Green talked with Harris about the play and his inspirations.
JONATHAN L. GREEN: In reading this play, and some of your others, one theme that appears again and again to me is survival— characters in situations or on missions that they must survive or endure. Is that a purposeful focus of your work, or does it find its way into your plays unconsciously?
DAVE HARRIS: Growing up, I looked at life as a means of survival. Surviving institutions. Surviving systems of class and race that were established before I was born. I thought of myself as needing to triumph above circumstance. Eventually, this shifted into thinking of survival as a means of personal agency. Which is to say, survival has always been about desire. And longing. And capitalism. And personal choice. So when I think of my characters, what’s most important is that they are having to reckon with the consequences of their desires, their selfishness, their loves, their violences, their hungers. Survival may be the stakes. But at the end of the day, it’s always just you who has to measure the cost of your actions.
JLG: Incendiary calls to mind a few other kinds of media: it’s epic and its main character is ruthlessly single-minded like the film Kill Bill; it’s a hero story like so many comic books; and it’s serialized into different tasks and totems that Tanya must complete or procure, like a lot of video games. What are some of your other aesthetic and ethical inspirations when you write?
DH: My writing got so much better when I stopped trying to be pretentious about my influences. I can point to my literary ancestors and how they show up in my work, but there’s no reason why those influences should be any more important than the endless nights I spend watching battle rap, or playing “Zelda” until the sun comes up, or anime marathons, or my fascination with birds and Vines and Flying Lotus music videos. There are so many things that I’m obsessed with that have nothing to do with craft, and those personal obsessions affect my imagination as much as all my favorite plays and poems.
JLG: You are not only a playwright, but also a published poet, essayist and performer. Are you aware of ways that this influences your writing for the stage, and your sense of collaboration as a writer in the rehearsal room working with actors?
DH: These different forms force me to interrogate my relationship to audience, and what it means to manufacture a story for them. They all feed into each other. Poetry enables a precision and ruthlessness with language that can never allow you to settle. Spoken word performance allows you to play with an idea of “truth” with an audience and experience their immediate validation. Theater for me comes with the infinite possibility of knowing that none of this is real. In all writing, in all collaboration, I’m usually after surprise and new language. How can we create something we’ve never seen? How can we make something utterly unforgettable?
JLG: Many of the plays in this year’s New Stages Festival deal with generational tensions, especially in those generations’ values and assumptions. How do you feel this relates to your reason for writing the piece?
DH: There is something deeply unsettling about looking at familial history and patterns of trauma and connecting that to the ways you love and care and fear today. It’s so fatalistic and yet somehow entirely in your control. Incendiary, for me, is about the ways that the violences of your past interrupt the ways you care for someone in the present. It is about what happens when you have to remember violence and also take responsibility for the whole of yourself. It is about the most fun way to explore something terrifying.
Jonathan L. Green is the Literary Manager at Goodman Theatre