Phillip Howze is a recent MFA from the Yale School of Drama and just received his second residency at NYC’s Lincoln Center Theater. He is an African American man who has spent a large portion of his career working in philanthropy and international human rights.
He just came off the heels of his world debut of All of What You Love and None of What You Hate, which recently wrapped at the San Francisco Playhouse. The play keenly channels the multifaceted culture of millennials, and grapples with teenage pregnancy, and our current culture of “noise” i.e. our habitual instinct and practices of cultivating social media presence, personal branding, and online personas, in addition to the 24-hour news cycle that celebrates stories of terror. This double-edged sword both consumes us, as well as dulls our senses too much of the world around us.
In March 2017, Howze will debut his next play Frontiéres sans Frontières at The Bushwick Star in Brooklyn. While the play focuses on fictional refugee youths, Howze continues his exploration in what young people represent in culture.
We spoke with Howze about his work, social responsibility, and his passion. Read the interview below to learn more about him.
Blavity: Tell us more about your background, what brought you to writing?
Phillip Howze: I’ve written consistently since I was very young—poems, short stories, songs. I loved the elasticity of language. I was also an avid reader growing up. Literature was the place where I found freedom. It felt like the novels were full of secrets nobody wanted me to know. I grew up on military bases so there were a lot of formal structures and expectations around us, some that I adopted and others which I rejected. At the time I remember some folks would call me out for misbehaving but I kind of just wanted to do my own thing, I wanted to create.
I came to playwriting sort of sideways. Most of my formative years have been in other kinds of professional work, primarily in education and human rights. Prior to attending graduate school for playwriting, I worked for an international human rights foundation. Before that, I lived in Asia for several years where I was an educator and also collaborated a lot with local artists there on grassroots projects in music, performance art and theater.
Writing feels like a kind of responsibility I’m constantly chasing. As young people someone teaches us how to read and write, and then what do we do with that? I’ve always been a writer, I imagine, but it’s also a process of discovery. No one can train you in how to be a writer. You have to wake up and do it. You have to be relentless. Like how Buddhist monks make daily devotions. You have to write and to fail and to write some more and, in the words of Samuel Beckett, hope to “fail better”.
So even though the arts wasn’t how I made a living, writing has been this improbable compulsion I’ve attended to. Like breathing, I just keep doing it. I keep trying to fail better. I’m a hopeful failure.
Blavity: How does your previous involvement in human rights work influence your creativity?
PH: I would guess it has a lot, but I try not to think too much about it. In my mind, the fields exist separately. Certainly human rights and the arts share some similarities, for example, they both are concerned with people. Both are fueled by empathy. Each requires much time, patience, humanity and humility to get it done. But the goalposts are completely different. In theater the intent is always, first and foremost to tell the story. I try to avoid overanalyzing or intellectualizing my writing process. I’m interested in exploring the characters. I try to come at writing anew every time. There’s great freedom and also joy in that. It celebrates difference, and hopefully this way I can also continue to grow as a writer. It’s not spoon-fed theater. It’s rigorous and challenging and demanding of the spectator. I want the spectator to feel something. My plays reveal a lot of emotions, it’s a very sensory-engaged theater. Unfortunately, on American stages, we see many of the same kinds of schematic stories being told. I haven’t yet figured out how to write a play about well-meaning, middle-class people in a kitchen discussing dividing their estate. My plays express themselves in other ways. They’re a little larger than life. They tend to inhabit the theater theatrically.
Blavity: Frontiéres sans Frontières premieres next year, tell us more about this play, what led you want to write a story that grapples with refugees?
PH: The play is interested in imperialism and different kinds of borders, both literal and not. I mentioned I grew up in a military family who moved around a lot. We lived in five different houses before I turned twelve, so I’m very familiar with the feeling of being uprooted. Through my human rights work, I became interested in statelessness as a formal structure for a life and for a play. Something about that actually feels like America to me, so I wanted to explore characters who are affected goodly or poorly by imperialism in intercontinental manifestations. The play is asking questions around urban displacement, philanthropy, friendship, and loss. The story centers on a trio of orphaned, displaced young people whose way of life is being quietly encroached upon, little by little. It’s frightening at moments but also very funny and features a lot of strange and beautiful dialects. Hopefully, for the spectator, it’s a story that feels both foreign and familiar at the same time.
Blavity: A lot of your work deals with cultural critique. With the current state of normalizing hate and bigotry (i.e. the current election), why do you think it's important now, more than ever to really examine and scrutinize our society?
PH: Hate and bigotry speak to fear and a lack of understanding. The arts contribute much to helping break down cultural barriers. Right now it feels like we have to be led by close listening and questioning. Writers and griots and storytellers have been doing this work since the dawn of humanity. News pundits and social media stars for far fewer years so beware. It’s great there are many new platforms now to share information which also means misinformation, and it's crucial we examine how the narrative of this historical moment is being shaped. Which voices are being elevated and what are they talking about? Art and literature threaten precisely because it can express a multitude of meanings and is incapable of being reduced, which frightens a lot of people. The non-binary is very powerful stuff and that power is dangerous because it threatens the dominant narrative. There’s freedom in true inclusion and we’ll not only see more restrictions to inclusion put into policy soon, it’s going to happen in underwhelming, insidious ways like whitewashing, public shaming, self-censorship and a desire for more art that appeals to populism.
Blavity: For many, art and activism are inextricably linked. In your opinion, what is the role of the artist in times of resistance?
PH: Perhaps because I’m a person of color it’s always felt like times of resistance. I’m reminded a lot of James Baldwin recently and certainly that harrowing quote, to be black in America and to be conscious is to be in a constant state of rage. I agree. And I also think we need to see more rage on the stages of the American theater. But I know, too, that there is room for joy and celebration within the resistance. There is also humor within the resistance. We need to see more of that as well.
Practically speaking I think the role of a writer is to write. In fact, I wrote this play a little selfishly because I wanted to create something unique for a talented group of actors of color in order to watch them perform a kind of stagecraft—especially commedia and dialect—which they are not regularly hired to do. This also relates to the kinds of plays that typically get produced and our expectations of black and brown theater artists. I’m interested in creating work that stretches myself but also creates opportunities for talented actors to be fascinating and unexpected. I think showing people who you really are and what you can really do—which is often a subversion of who they think you are—is a form of resistance, too.
All that to say, it doesn’t absolve artists from remaining active and engaged citizens. You, artists, can’t be holed up in a hermitage. You don’t have permission to be blind to suffering. We have to nurture each other. We have to be kind and take care. Not everybody is going to want to take to the streets, but maybe you can be the one who bakes a loaf of bread to feed the people on the front lines.
Blavity: What keeps you motivated and inspired to write?
PH: I’ve witnessed the impact of theater in very small and magnificent ways. That keeps me curious. I’m drawn to plays that are personal and problematic. I want to see more empathy in the world. Writing a play takes a long time, sometimes many, many years, so you better lace up. You have to have ambition. You have to care enough. You also have to keep writing and to finish your work. Ultimately I write because I’m curious. I want to know how the story ends.