The Rumpus Interview with Chinaka Hodge

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The shooting of Oscar Grant showed that Oakland is in serious need of a discussion on race. The poet and playwright Chinaka Hodge provided such a discussion in her groundbreaking play Mirrors in Every Corner at Intersection for the Arts. Mirrors in Every Corner holds up a mirror to modern-day Oakland and reflects a reality that is both slightly distorted, while at the same time being very familiar to those who grew up in Oakland in the 1990s.

I sat down with Chinaka Hodge at Panchitas Restaurant at 16th and Valencia in the Mission District, San Francisco in April 2010.  –Matt Werner

The Rumpus: How did navigating society between growing up both in the Oakland Hills and West Oakland influence your writing?

Chinaka Hodge: I would spend half the week with my dad and half the week with my mom until I was twelve, and so I would go from being one of the more affluent kids in a poorer neighborhood to being one of the working class/middle class kids in a richer neighborhood. I got a perspective on both ends on a daily basis. We would move from my dad’s house where the hustle was going on outside to being in my mom’s house, where deer were in the neighborhood.

I think that’s the dynamic kind of existence that most folks who grew up in Oakland have. And I think it’s rare that we get to talk about both sides of the table. And I think that I’m really privileged to be able to pinpoint exactly when and where I saw a deer eating from my mom’s lemon tree, in the same week that I learned how to play craps with my friend on the block.

Rumpus: How did moving away from Oakland to study at NYU help inform and shape this play? Some writers call it the James Joyce dynamic, where it’s not until you leave the place you’re from and encounter people from different backgrounds, with different ideas, that you really start to process.

Hodge: While I think that New York is a bastion of culture, and a mixing ground for lots of ethnicities, I’d never lived in a place that was so racially polarized. We don’t have any places that are “black neighborhoods” in the Bay Area. We have neighborhoods where it’s predominantly black, but in New York, they talk about a Jewish neighborhood, and I can’t think of a neighborhood in the Bay that’s like that.

You go to specific neighborhoods in New York to consume certain types of food, and that’s not the same in the Bay Area either. I guess the Mission to some extent, and parts of East Oakland, but for the most part, ours is a different kind of mélange. And I wouldn’t say that one is better than the other, but there’s just different nuances between the coasts, and the more time I spend in New York, the more appreciative I was of my time in the Bay Area.

I also had the good fortune of having a two-month-hiatus to write, and so I moved to New York for two months at the start of this writing process. I think that my time in Brooklyn really changed the way I saw Oakland as well, and changed the way that I thought about community and family.

Rumpus: Chinaka, back in 2007, my sister Gretchen stage-managed an early draft of what became Mirrors in Every Corner. How did that piece end up being reformed and reshaped into the full-length piece that it is today?

Specifically, how did the director Marc Bamuthi Joseph help put form and action to your writing?

Chinaka Hodge

Hodge: When your sister stage-managed the piece back in 2007, we did an 8-page excerpt—the first scene in the play that you saw and then two other scenes. And those scenes stayed fairly stagnant in terms of writing, not much changed from 2007 ‘til now. And so it was kind of the skeleton of the piece, and then we built other scenes around those, and used those as the basic framework for the piece.

And Marc Bamuthi Joseph and I have been working together on a number of stage plays since early 2000, when we did our first piece Decipher. And so we have what he calls a really nice shorthand in terms of collaboration. I’ll raise and eyebrow, and he’ll go “Gotcha,” or he’ll give me a look, and I’ll be like, “Yeah, exactly.”

And really he kept bringing me back, he was my anchor in this, asking: “Is the story clear?” “Are the characters well developed?” “Not everybody understands time in the way that you understand time, Chinaka. You look at a room and see everything that’s ever happened, but everyone doesn’t think that way, so what are the ins for your audience?”

So between him and Sean San Jose, the director who came from Intersection for the Arts, I wouldn’t have gotten through it without them. So I’m very thankful for their involvement.

Rumpus: Your play, like many good works of literature, eludes easy categorization. I could sense an uneasiness with the audience such as with an audience watching Buried Child or Ibsen’s Ghosts. You really made them uncomfortable—but it was uncomfortable in a good way.

In a recent audience exchange, Margo Hall who did an excellent job playing Willie and Random, said that the play is about “privilege”: how whites take the privileges they have in U.S. society for granted. And while I think that is an important point, I think that the play delves into much deeper issues of exploring race as a construct.

Some of the audience members thought that you had Random as “passing,” meaning that she was light-skinned African American, light enough to pass as Caucasian. But you clarified during the Q & A that Random is in fact a white girl born into an African American family.

What I thought you were doing, was that you were challenging society’s current construct of race by introducing this fantastic character that defies easy categorization and shows how arbitrarily racial boundaries are drawn. This play challenges our questions of “How black is black? How white is white?” It shows how ludicrous those questions were that came out around the election: “Is Obama black enough?” “Is Michelle Obama too black?”

Hodge: Right. I would say that the character of Random—she’s a wild card. She’s a character that represents what we have yet to see in terms of race discussion. And I think you’re right. I think we do hit on this question of “What is black? How black is black?” How can you tell if one is black if skin tone belies history? And I think that with Random—her privilege rests in her skin tone, but her conundrum rests in her heritage, and I think that that’s true for a lot of folks I know, but none of them would identify as being a biologically white descendent of a black family.

And so, for me it calls into question what race is. How productive race is now that we’re trying to move past a eugenecist society. What difference does it make how Random came to be the skin color that she is? And yet, it’s something that everyone fixates on. It’s the touchstone trope in the play—that she’s one of the first characters we’ve seen like this.

I just like messing with people, and I like messing with what our notions of “is” is. I think Random is just as troubled as everyone else in terms of defining herself.

I think if she had to fill out the census today, she’d be really troubled. I think that the more we populate the Bay Area, the more we get to play with notions of race and love and gender and class. I think that our ideas of privilege will change.

And, I don’t know—it’s a lot to take in, and it’s a lot to think about, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers about it. And I think that the play is my flustered response to my experience in race:

In that I’m a light-skinned black girl from a family of mixed tones;

That I had the opportunity to move between these two neighborhoods;

That I was “the whitest girl” in my black circles, and often the only black girl in my honors and AP tracks at school;

That I’m a dramatic writer, and so my classes at NYU in dramatic writing were for the most part white men. And so I often felt “othered,” and didn’t feel like any of the characters I see on TV really reflect that.

Random is the character that’s closest to me on stage. While all the characters are some part of me, Random’s conundrums are the conundrums that I experience, even though I’m not white—not entirely white. And I love this question because I do have Irish ancestry. And how black do I need to be to be considered full black? And is anybody full black? And why is that even a question that we continue to ask each other? What difference does it make at this point—except for the fact that it does make a difference. And so I guess the question that Random answers is “what is the difference?”

[laughs] Chew on that readers.

Rumpus: One way of viewing the play is that it could be a postmodern take on Invisible Man, set in Oakland.

Hodge: We see that Daveed Diggs’s character, Watts, is reading the canon over the course of the play. If we were to see Watts’s character on any given day during the twenty years of the show, he definitely would’ve been reading Invisible Man. He definitely would’ve read Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith, [and] the Susan Lori Parks canon. Because the play ends in 2008, he’s got the entire canon of black literature to work with.

The folks that experienced black/white relations pre-Invisible Man didn’t have that kind of reference, in the same way as folks who have read the book do. That’s what I wanted to address with the piece as well. This is the next step of the conversation. We’re not post-race yet—I don’t buy that, but we are in some ways past where our parents were. And these are things people our age have to contend with.

The play is really about location. It’s about growing up “othered” in the Bay Area, in the time that we grew up. And the ways in which events like Rodney King, and the [1989] earthquake polarized the Bay Area.

There is something specific to growing up in West Oakland, and there’s a reason that there’s mostly black and poor brown folks living there. There’s a lot of invisible men and women who will grow up in West Oakland, and I want to tell bits of their story as well—and not just the sad parts, also the jubilant parts, and I think that Random gets to experience both sides of that game.

Rumpus: Could you explain the crescendo scene, where you have Random being lynched by a black ancestor within her?

Hodge: Joy Leary wrote this book called Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. And it’s about the ways in which black folks living in the United States carry some amount of trauma, whether or not they experienced slavery first-hand, but by virtue of being descendents of folks who were enslaved. And, there’s also the other side of the game that’s like, “It’s 2010, when do we get over these wounds?” And I think that it’s a really easy thing to say: “Get over it.”

But, my father pulled out a book today [by Hubert Harrison]. There’s a picture in the book of four black men being hung from a tree. And it’s one of those images that after a certain point, after years in Diasporic Studies or African American Studies, you kind of get used to the idea of a lynching, and I think that’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy that we can brush over and gloss over those images. So that scene is about the tactile nature of a lynching; the disregard for human life that one must have.

If you knew that your grandfather was lynched from a tree, that would be a hard wound to get over. It would be a trauma that you would pass onto your kids, unless you had a way to process it, and I don’t think we’ve begun to process it yet.

So Random’s character experiences a lynching of an ancestor. And there’s later in the play where her sister says she was lynched by a black person inside her, but it’s really this memory Random has of a black ancestor being lynched by white folks in the South.

I don’t think any of us have real-life memories of those instances, but I think that trauma comes back and it hits you in the middle of the night. You dream odd things about it. You see it in the interactions on the street. At least, I do. And I think that that kind of haunting is something that doesn’t get exercised in silence.

And also, the more we begin to talk about it, the more we can have honest conversation about race…. and identify the violent moments that stick with the assaulted.

And so Random’s gotta experience that in order to really understand her own blackness. It’s the first moment that she understands what it feels like to be traumatized and haunted and confused about it all. Her question more than anything else in the play is this “Why?” And she’s trying to figure out why she has to sound a certain way in order to be understood by the black community. Why she has to feel these things in order to be accepted. And if I were to encounter Random, I would not be able to answer her frankly on the “Why?” but I can tell her, “Yes, we all experience these things.”

Rumpus: In the play, you reference the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You even work in this quote by Rumsfeld about “known knowns and known unknowns,” which actually ties in thematically with issues of race and gender in the play.

Hodge: Very well. I think it’s impossible to discuss race without discussing time. And I think that the key issues that we bring up in the piece are the key things folks my age have to contend with. We don’t necessarily talk about South Asian folks or Middle Eastern folks and the ways in which they’ve been profiled since 2001. I think talking about the war and the ways in which folks here in the states have distance from folks that we’re killing overseas says something about race and privilege. And says something about the privilege that black folks experience with that distance as well.

The same thing with this queer folk on stage. That part is written to be played by a woman, and in that case, the character is transgendered female to male, or to be played by a male actor, in which case, the character is an out gay male. Both things are issues that are difficult to talk about in the black community for a number of reasons, and if we’re going to talk honestly about race, then lets challenge ourselves black folks as well. So I think it’s all good to point fingers at other folks, but unless you’re willing to really self-examine, then the conversation is pretty stagnant.

Rumpus: The voice that you use in the play is very ‘Oakland.’ In the audience exchange, someone commented that this was the first time she’d seen a play where “they spoke how I speak.” I’m curious to see what the reception of the play would be outside of California.

Hodge: I’m really nervous about it. I’m curious as to how Bay Area dialect reads to folks who haven’t experienced it.

That said, the dialogue moves between the way in which I hear people speak naturally, and there’s verse. [It’s interesting that people respond] ‘these people talk how I talk’ because nobody talks how some of the folks talk onstage. And in other scenes, it’s very clear that this is how folks talk.

My first way of interacting with the world has always been language. And so, wanting to be true in some ways to how my block sounds and wanting to be true as well to what my experience has been, and that’s been everything from the block to the Louvre. And so the characters have that gamut as well.

Rumpus: In your dialogue there’s a lot of lyrical worldplay. On your Facebook profile, you have “I like peas, pears, pearls, and wordplay”

Hodge: [laughs] I do in fact.

Rumpus: I bring this up because you have this character Watts who introduces himself saying, ‘It’s Watts like the riots, or Watts like the lightbulb.’ How do you navigate wanting to challenge people with verse and wordplay, while trying to make the dialogue sound like real Oakland people talking?

Hodge: I try to strike a good balance, and some nights it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. And I also think that on a night like tonight, where we have a group of 30 young people who are visiting from Oakland Tech, it’s going to read in a different way when it reads on Saturday nights when it’s a traditional theater crowd. I think in a lot of ways they’re captivated by the language, but don’t understand it entirely.

I go to the opera. I don’t understand everything, but I’m touched in some way, and I hope to reach that kind of point. I don’t think I’ve arrived at a climax with my writing with Mirrors, but it’s my first baby steps into understanding language and the ways in which I can challenge the audience around language without losing them.


Matt Werner interned and volunteered at McSweeney’s Publishing for five years. He currently works as a technical writer at Google. His interviews and DJ mixes can be found at mattswriting.com. More from this author →