Reclaiming Feeling: Playwright Dylan Lewis
Dylan Lewis(she/they) is a daughter, an aunt, a sister, a friend, an occasional poet, a textile artist, a playwright, and a person who feels a lot. During their collegiate career at Brown University (2018-2022), they wrote and produced two plays and served as chair of Sock & Buskin, a student-faculty advisory board for the university theater department. Dylan was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, into a family of four. Primarily raised by her mother, an aspiring actor turned lawyer, she was born to dream. In their work, Dylan beautifully weaves words and knits alike - crafting a new world and vision. With each phase of life, a new art form finds them, providing the freedom to self express.
Dylan opens up about navigating predominantly white institutions, art as feeling, and the transformative capabilities of theater to create new worlds. She offers insight on how art can serve as a tool for expression and relief.
"I wish my mother had good health. I wish my father had a smile on his face. I wish my brother could live by the ocean. I wish my niece would grow up in the warm sun, and I wish peace for myself, and maybe on another small planet, this would all be possible. But in this reality, it's just not going to be. What would it be like on another planet?"
What was your first artistic experience?
My first art form was visual arts. I really loved to draw, and I wanted to be a fashion designer. I had always loved singing and performing impromptu and informally in front of family members and stuff. I would go see the plays at my school. They weren't that good, but for a five-year-old, this was the best thing I've ever seen. All throughout high school, it was musicals and visual arts. When I got to college, I did theater but stopped acting. I started writing.
Your interest in musical theater spiraled into an unyielding passion with every performance. What was your early experience in musical theater, and what were some challenges?
In fourth grade, I went to a really racist theater company where the guy who ran it only cast women of color, mainly Black women, as men. I still have nightmares about it to this day. He took a bunch of kids and had a power trip. Being in a lot of musicals, I was pigeonholed into playing really loud, obnoxious characters. I wanted there to be dynamic, multi-faceted roles for Black women.
Then, oddly enough, Hamilton came out. Seeing a musical genre that I love, such as hip hop and rap on stage made, musical theater-- this is one thing I will credit Lin Manuel Miranda with--feel much more accessible. At the same time, a problem that I have is - why does a Black woman getting a really dynamic, interesting role on stage have to play a white woman? Why can't it just be a Black woman's story?
You raise an interesting point: if theater has the ability to bring to life new worlds, why must they uphold racism? As you transitioned out of high school, where did you look to nurture your theater career?
I applied to Brown University specifically because they had had some pretty prolific playwrights go through there. Quiara Alegría Hudes, who went to Brown and wrote In the Heights with Lin-Manuel Miranda, went to my high school. Daveed Diggs went to Brown. These are all people who entered musical theater through another avenue versus the really old, white writers. If they entered musical theater in that way, I could enter musical theater in that way.
I went to Brown and did one musical. I saw the musical theater scene there and absolutely fucking hated it. I had some racist shit happen my freshman year where I was in a musical, playing a male soldier during World War Two, and they had me on my hands and knees twerking and shit.
Tying this blatantly racist experience back to your earlier experiences, how did you navigate racial terrorization?
I have on my hand love and fire tattooed, which is the slogan from Production Workshop, which is one of the theater groups on campus. This will lead back to an answer. Aside from that, being a slogan and loving production worship as a group, it describes perfectly how I feel about theater, which is that I fucking love theater. I love everything about it. It has some of the most transformative properties ever. It can just be amazing. At the same time, it really makes me angry because I think it perpetuates a lot of structures that are really unfair.
Going to Brown, I learned within the theater community how much I love theater but I also learned how much I hate theater and how a lot of the people who do it make me angry.
We read a play about minstrelsy, and one of my white classmates said that my analysis was lazy. I was like you're gonna call me lazy right now while we're talking about this play that talked about the idea of Black people being lazy?
You’ve mentioned another example of tolerating white supremacist space. How did you channel your anger about being belittled into art?
I started Garfield my sophomore year, when I was more angry that these white men were shitting on me while I was dealing with my mom being diagnosed with cancer–because she got diagnosed my sophomore year – than I was at some of the shit that they were saying. It's a play with a bunch of Black women who then magically transform into white men. They all have wigs. I wanted to write this play about how evil white men can be.
You put on Garfield as a department play and claim it was funny, but your tone suggests the kind of humor that comes out when you're so frustrated that all you can do is laugh in someone's face. What did it feel like to reclaim power from those that put you down?
That's one of my favorite plays. I wrote that out of spite, because each of the white men were just based off of people I've met at school. It was one giant subtweet. If you think you're safe, you're not. I want you to see how stupid you look. I want you to see how foolish you sound. This is what you sound when you speak to me. Can you believe yourself? Listen to yourself. As someone who had institutional power, I was then able to be like - remember when you said that? Remember when you called me lazy? We're not gonna be putting on your play. Remember that? Remember when you were racist?
Your words mirror a Toni Morrison quote from her interview with Charlie Rose in 1993:
"If I take your race away, and there you are, all strung out. And all you got is your little self, and what is that? What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself?... if you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they can do about it."
You used your art to force these white men to come to terms with their ignorance, for these men no longer had their white supremacy to stand upon. However, if anger and pain inspired your first play, what inspired your second play, Small Planet?
As I kept writing, I wanted to challenge myself not write a play out of anger and write a play out of love, which is what Small Planet was. It was a play about Black women wanting more room than what we're given now. It came from a song that I wrote about what I want:
I wish my mother had good health. I wish my father had a smile on his face. I wish my brother could live by the ocean. I wish my niece will grow up in the warm sun, and I just wish peace for myself and maybe on another small planet, this would all be possible. But in this reality, it's just not going to be. What would it be like on another planet?
Being in Small Planet, you put on a play that was based on the present but brought us into the future. In your writing, how did you explore Black futurity while playing into the past and present?
People expect us to solve the problem. It was codified into law, essentially, that Black women, our bodies, were what was providing and running the economy in terms of enslavement. Partus sequitur ventrem that which is born, follows the womb. If your mother was Black, you're Black. Black women are going to make it into the future if we protect ourselves and stop saving other people. This is not me saying anything about other women of color. There have been all these conversations about solidarity, and most of the people leading the frontline conversations about solidarity with other races are Black women. Then no one wants to show up for Black women.
Small Planet featured a cast and crew of Black femmes, creating a community of love and trust despite existing within a white institution. You built another world through playwriting. What does it mean to build a world in which Black femmes are free?
Freedom is being able to be complicated without it being a thing. Free to be. Now, we're not free to be.
As a final thought, Dylan points to a framed Audre Lorde quote on her desk: "The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us - the poet - whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free."