Good Kids, a play by Naomi Iizuka, will be read October 12, 2015 at The Kennedy Center as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. A prolific playwright, many her recognitions is the 2005 recipient Alpert Award in the Arts. She is the first playwright to be commissioned by the Big Ten Theatre Consortium’s New Play Initiative for which she wrote Good Kids. She has taught playwriting at the University of Iowa and the University of Texas, Austin, and is the head of MFA playwrighting at the University of California, San Diego. Iizuka’s work is cited as influential by several other playwrights in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival and has been seen on DC stages at Constellation Theatre Company and Arena Stage.
The Kennedy Center’s major contribution to the Women’s Voices Theater Festival is a full production of Darius and Twig, a commission for local DC playwright and Welder Caleen Sinnette Jennings. But there are free readings of some amazing plays by nationally-renowned female playwrights as well, including one I am particularly excited about: Naomi Iizuka’s Good Kids.
Good Kids is a story about a fictional (but all too recognizably real) rape, told through the eyes of high school students who experienced it, witnessed it, committed it, and were affected by it.
Alan Katz: So this play is the first Big Ten Commission, designed to bring new plays by women and roles for young female actors to the forefront. This play seems to be “ripped from the headlines” with many examples of young people and rape in the news, especially in the Steubenville case. Why this play for this commission?
Naomi Iizuka: When Alan McVey of the University of Iowa first approached me about writing a play for the Big Ten Initiative, he said that it was his hope and the hope of his colleagues that the plays they commissioned would explore subject matter that would speak to the students, faculty and university communities that comprise the Big Ten. This particular topic, which has been at the center of discussions nationwide, became the center of our discussions as something that the many communities that the Big Ten represents were grappling with.
When you get a commission like this, what’s your initial process like?
It really varies. I talked to a great number people when developing this play, and I did a lot of archival research as well. I started with the Steubenville case, but, sadly, as I worked on the play, I found so many other cases that were arriving, literally as I wrote. I remember a particular case at Dartmouth, but many others around the country, where this issue was being faced. I talked to students. And I read a great deal, especially online articles. Particularly, I read the comment sections of online articles dealing with these cases. Those comment sections were eye-opening: the level of discourse, the mindsets being reiterate again and again about women and men and sexuality. I found it disturbing, but I needed to dig deeper into it. It wasn’t a particular article or comment thread. There was so much of the same thing; you could take your pick.
Where did you start with your words for the play?
It started chronologically for this play with the first section, since rewritten and revised over time. The first scene is a like a chorus, a multitude of voices, young women and young men [talking about how they and others in their community view the rape and it’s results]. Some of the first things that I wrote. And it comes back throughout the play, beginning and end. I think that it was really important: that Good Kids is not one or two people’s stories, but that it was a community story, many different attitudes and points of view that shape what happened and how we talk about what happened.
WOMEN’S VOICES THEATER FESTIVAL
October 12, 2015
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
This is a free event
Is it your goal to send a particular message?
If this play gets people to start talking in deeper and different ways, that would be a great thing. I don’t presume to have the definitive word. One thing that’s really important to me is that there are assumptions that come out in the comments sections I was talking about, but they also come out in conversations, that are really troubling. And instead of ignoring those assumptions, I wanted to put those disturbing and toxic ideas into the play to show how an idea or way of talking can have real life consequences that are more destructive than one would ever imagine. Those ways of speaking and attitudes can affect events, decision-making and action.
What’s it like, when those views are so foreign from your own, to have your words be that voice?
It’s really hard. What’s spoken is challenging, disturbing, and sometimes ugly. I don’t think you can get away from that and tell a story that is informed by those attitudes. There’s a responsibility that I feel intensely to deal with this material in a responsible way. Striking the balance is hard. Writing a play that ignores the attitudes that make up the environment where this can happen is to write a play that isn’t accurate and not dealing with the subject matter. But it is personally hard to present some of these misogynist or toxic ways of thinking and speaking.
Do you see that toxicity in your day to day life?
I am a teacher and in a university environment, but I don’t go out to parties on Saturday nights with college-age students. So the short answer is no, because I’m of a different generation and have a different life. But anyone who is in this culture and stops to listen to what’s around them, even presented in social media even in everyday life, you can’t help but find these attitudes. If that ends up being the starting point for a discussion that isn’t quite happening yet, then that’s important. It’s easy to villainize and isolate particular individuals and events. What’s harder is to look at our own unconscious biases, look at how we talk about men and women, what we don’t examine in our own lives in terms of speech and attitudes. That’s a much more challenging activity. That’s what we need to be talking about. Ask “How are my unconscious biases contributing to an environment where this is happening with terrible frequency?”
Will you answer your own question?
I grew up in a time and I work in a university environment where we are constantly examining these micro-aggressions, so I may be a bad example. If you speak to people of an older generation, even people who identify as progressive, you will sometimes hear attitudes like “A young woman should dress in a certain way or comport herself in a different way.” What I think is hard is to talk to someone and say “What you said is not cool. You can’t engage in that kind of discourse and expect that it’s not in some way on a continuum with a something horrible, something that you would never in a million years tolerate or countenance.” That’s the harder conversation. Getting people to examine their attitudes towards their children or their neighbors’ children. Really take a hard look at those.
You keep mentioning generational difference and generational conflict between, for lack of a better word, Millennials and older generations. How does this you address those generational politics in this play?
There’s a whole sequence where young characters are playing their parents and their coaches. That was purposeful. There’s a way in which something that may seem problematic but innocuous that is spoken or believed by a parent gets internalized by someone younger in a much darker way. So an idea of how a young woman should act in the universe gets [dealt with], by the time it trickles down to a younger generation, in a much more troubling way that wasn’t anticipated.
You have a son who is 9. How do you see him growing up in a culture like you show in Good Kids? What do you do as a parent not just a playwright?
It’s horrifying to contemplate that. It’s scary to think what’s out there in the world. You deal with that literally one interaction at a time, one conversation at a time. I hope my son has multiple strong female role models who will challenge him. Those role models are part of it. There’s a fear of sending your child off to a place where people may not share your values, but with each child that you raise as part of the community, you hope will live those values.
Respect. Respect for oneself and respect for others. There’s no shortcut.
What does this play mean to you personally?
Good Kids is not an easy play. It’s a play that presents characters who are not sympathetic and attitudes that are ugly, and in so doing, exposes things that are hidden from view, exposes things that there might be a polite veneer in front of. And by exposing them, neutralize them. That’s my utopian hope.
Candidly, I would hope that other people create work around this subject. That work, songs, performance art, or whatever else, elevates the discourse. I hope that this isn’t the play about this subject, I hope it will be one of a hundred that push this conversation in a healthy direction.
I’d like to finish up with one question: if you could take a brief moment in the weird multiverse of spacetime and deliver one message to a character before they go into this play, who would you pick and what would you tell them?
I don’t think I could pick just one character, but I know what I would tell all of them. By the end of the play, different characters talk about what they want for themselves and for others. I would echo what they say to themselves. Maybe if they got to go back and talk to themselves, the play wouldn’t happen.
I would say it to my child, and to my loved ones, and to these characters. I would say what they would say: Be your bravest self.