STRANGE MEN at PlayPenn 2019

STRANGE MEN will receive a workshop at this summer’s PlayPenn Conference in July. Excited to get a chance to work on this play in Philadelphia. More info on public reading soon.

The 2019 Haas Fellows are (top row, left to right) Amy E. Witting, A. Emmanuel Leadon, Will Snider, (bottom row, left to right) Dave Harris, Kate Hamill, and Whitney Rowland. (Photos courtesy of PlayPenn)

The 2019 Haas Fellows are (top row, left to right) Amy E. Witting, A. Emmanuel Leadon, Will Snider, (bottom row, left to right) Dave Harris, Kate Hamill, and Whitney Rowland. (Photos courtesy of PlayPenn)

Mr. N

The capital of Tanzania is dusty and dry and empty half the year. The first president wanted government centered in the geographic heart of the country, but from the look of the place, no one else agreed. Aside from a few statutes scattered around the central business district, the city of Dodoma is nothing but an overgrown market town – major government agencies have long since returned to the coast.

But for three months each year, things change. The place gets jumping. Parliament is in session, and fat rich men arrive from Dar es Salaam in Land Rovers and Mercedes, leaving their families back east and filling the hotels and bars to capacity, drinking and eating and bankrolling the town for another year.

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Intro - How to Use a Knife

For as long as blogs were popular I resisted writing one. But no longer. More on that later. Maybe in a blog post. Then SnapChat in 2030. For now here’s an introduction I wrote to How to Use a Knife before its first public reading in 2013 through Youngblood, Ensemble Studio Theatre’s under-30 writers group.

THE ORIGINS OF THE PLAY

What's written below is self-centered and indulgent and all those things I abhor about a good deal of foreign writing on Africa. But writing about your own writing is always that way. Here are the origins of the play:

Moralizing History

My interest in East Africa started with my first hangover. In 11th grade I slept over at a friend’s house and woke up the next day with a headache so painful I thought I had brain damage. Nowadays I would address the problem with aspirin and coffee and lemon-lime Gatorade, but at the time I was ignorant of even these most basic restorative measures.

I was sitting in my friend’s living room staring at his parents’ bookshelves. They were economists and kept a library so well stocked it seemed an affront to my stuttering state. I decided to pick up a book to prove the damage wasn’t permanent and reached for the best title I could find.

We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We will be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch could never be called a normal choice for hangover reading – it would certainly not be mine today. But I was a macabre little Petri dish of hormones in high school, and the title had obvious appeal. I thought it was a thriller.

It was something else entirely, a first-person journalistic exploration of the Rwandan genocide and its immediate aftermath, written in the style of those long, pleasurable features in The New Yorker, the magazine where Gourevitch now works.

At the time I knew nothing about the Great Lakes region. I knew nothing about sub-Saharan Africa in general. In school we learned about the Middle Passage, but in that narrative, Africa was some kind of pre-historical paradise where people lived in harmony with nature and one another until bad Europeans arrived looking for people to buy. Beyond that (and because of that) I was completely ignorant.

This book, however, gave context for the genocide. I was immediately struck by its political nature. It was not an incomprehensible mess, a state-of-nature barbaric struggle between resource-starved Africans mired in poverty and violence, a sort of giant mass of black sadness. It also wasn’t the direct result of historical forces – Belgian colonial history was useful for setting the scene but it could not fully explain the magnitude of the event and why it occurred in that specific country at that specific time with those specific, deadly results. The story Gourevitch told had political actors with political agency and the problems traced to their political decisions. Africans with agency – a stupidly infrequent narrative concept in everything I had read before. This was exciting. Because of my American upbringing, agency implies morality, so I immediately set about trying to identify the good guys and bad guys. I was an individualist, a moralist, and I couldn’t have been more stupid.

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