Playwright-actor-director-producer Kevin R. Free is unveiling his new play, Am I Dead? The Untrue Narrative of Anatomical Lewis, The Slave, with Off-Off-Broadway’s award-winning Flux Theatre Ensemble. The play is directed by Heather Cohn, the co-founder and producing artistic director of Flux.
Am I Dead? re-imagines the Isis-Osiris myth, in which four strangers from different eras are trapped in purgatory and tasked with rebuilding the lives of those they wronged in life. It confronts our country’s long history of violence on Black bodies, and examines Blackness as well as whiteness in unflinching, theatrical, caustically funny ways. Am I Dead? runs through Oct. 21 at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. For tickets, click here. The following contains excerpt from my long interview with the playwright.
Ed Malin: Did an actual incident, text or personal experience inspire this play? I note its subtitle: “The Untrue Narrative of Anatomical Lewis, The Slave.”
Kevin R. Free: Sort of. In 2014, my partner and I took a trip to Charlottesville and visited UVA. We saw a sign for a tour of “Slavery at UVA,” and took the tour. It turned out to be an easel with a pamphlet that described several enslaved people who helped make UVA what it was. One man, Lewis, worked in the Anatomical Theater, the university’s dissection chamber for the medical school. Because he cleaned up the theater after the students’ dissections, he was called “Anatomical” Lewis. When I applied at the end of 2014 for Flux Theatre Ensemble’s Flux Forward commission, I pitched my idea for this play. At the time, all I knew about Lewis was what was listed in the brochure. I know more about him now, such as his last name — Commodore — and facts about a court case against a student who attacked him at which he testified on his own behalf. So much has happened since then: Rachel Dolezal burst on the scene; Donald Trump became president; white supremacists marched and murdered in Charlottesville.
EM: I’d describe this play as more “grotesque” than “comedic.” In your play Night of the Living N-Word!!, you used comedy and horror to wake the audience up to lingering social justice issues. What is your current preference for blending genres?
KRF: I am Black. I am Gay. I like to think of myself as charming: it’s a Free family trait. I love comedy. I love horror. I love the grotesque. I fear for my life. If I am walking anywhere late at night, I worry I will get jumped by people who won’t think any of my jokes are funny. If I hear a noise in my apartment when I am alone, I think there’s someone lurking in the shadows, someone who will not care about my dimples and big smile. If I am driving and I see sirens in my rear view mirror, I worry that I’m being pulled over because I know my wallet, where my ID is, is not in plain sight — and my charm will not be enough to prevent a negative outcome. My life is a bit of a blended genre. I don’t do it on purpose. Everything I have ever written is comedy mixed with a healthy or unhealthy dose of something else.
EM: I saw a workshop of this play in late 2015. Have any of the most recent political trends led the play in any new direction? Or have any breakthrough films, like Get Out, encouraged you?
KRF: Get Out encouraged me! Before I saw that movie, several people told me it was basically Night of the Living N-Word!! It is not, but I was so excited about how similar it was. A friend told me, since I wrote N-Word in 2014 and I wrote Am I Dead? in 2015, that I needed to figure out what will happen next in socially horrific pop culture, then write it and put it out in the world before anyone else did.
EM: Do you like the term Afro-Futurism?
KRF: Not for my work. I think my work is of the present. I often write plays that lose relevance, but maintain resonance. I rely so much on American pop culture — and people forget the present faster than they forget the past sometimes. I was just talking about Rachel Dolezal a few hours ago at a rehearsal, and most of the people to whom I was talking didn’t even know who she was.
EM: I still haven’t seen a play like Am I Dead? before. Some of your characters are mildly evil.
KRF: I think the thing that’s really tough with the play is everyone on stage has to take responsibility for what they did in life. I’m loath to call them evil.
EM: Just the other day, I was watching Chris Hayes interview Ta-Nehisi Coates on MSNBC. Is this about the legacy for all of us, no matter who we are, of America?
KRF: White guilt is such an interesting thing. The most simple thing is when you hear people say “Why do we have to talk about that? Why do I have to go through this again?” That whole thing for me is hard, because I’m still constantly trying to figure that out. As a gay person, as a Black person, as an oppressed person. I’m trying to figure out why I can’t make sense of it. And that’s the reason I have to write about it, because I don’t have all of the answers. I have a couple of answers for myself but I have to ask these questions. How evil are people? And I think this play right now, especially in the wake of the Tiki-torch march at UVA — how do you have it figured out that somehow I’m taking away your freedom when you were there on the campus protesting the removal of a Confederate statue that honors people who took away other people’s freedoms — on a campus built by slaves? What are you talking about? I have all these questions and I am so scared that my questions, my existence, may be erased. Especially in this time where white Protestant men have now stood up and said “No more, we’re not going to take this oppression from you anymore.” I am really trying to work hard at not backing down and not hiding behind anybody. I don’t want to applaud Flux for doing what I think is the right thing, but I do want to applaud them for producing my play. They commissioned it. But also to think that this play, in many ways, holds white people responsible for breaking the spirits of Black men. I don’t think that Flux would call itself a white company, but they don’t traditionally do Black theater, so that’s why I call them that.
EM: I went to a few of the meetings that [Flux Co-Founder] Gus Schulenberg did to support all kinds of Black and minority organizations in the arts, and he talked about your play as a thing for people to support.
KRF: Flux is really wonderful. I feel like [the play] in such great hands because all of the actors in the play are so sensitive and so smart and so willing to make the play a good play. The questions they ask are such good questions. I want the play to be a great experience for them as well as for Flux and for the audience, and for me, too.
EM: What are some of your other playwriting influences?
KRF: I’m a huge Tony Kushner fan. Several moments in my plays are inspired by the Harper speech [in Angels in America] about the great net of souls that repairs the ozone. Another playwright whose work speaks to me is Stacey Rose. Tracey Conyer Lee is another amazing playwright who is about to burst onto the scene. I love her plays because of how smart they are and how she explores story and dialogue. I’m also working on a new project for which I’m re-reading August Wilson’s Century Cycle. That has been a really exciting experience because I’m starting to recognize the beauty and poetry in his writing, and the spirituality of it — the character of Aunt Ester in [Gem of the Ocean] and the way the characters revere her is exciting to me.
EM: She’s the ancient priestess of the neighborhood.
KRF: She is 285 years old in Gem of the Ocean. This reminds me of another influence, Samuel Beckett, and how he didn’t start writing until later in life. I hope to continue to grow, but it would be great to have a career like his, since I am not known primarily as a playwright.
EM: I really like how you combine pop culture and history in your plays; Angels certainly has a lot of that. Meanwhile, now we have a president who had Roy Cohn as his mentor.
KRF: Oh my God.
EM: And so here we are. Hopefully we can confront history.
KRF: I’m looking forward to seeing all the protest theater in the next four years. All of the things that I have been saying during my career as a performance artist and writer, other people will be saying.