This is the full text of the interview… I hope I'm not rambling too much…it was pretty off-the-cuff!
Our Ruth Easton New Play Series continues with Goddess of Mercy, a compelling new play by Core Writer Jenny Connell Davis. Join us February 3, 2014 at 7 p.m. for a free public reading of this exciting new work. Details and RSVP
Playwrights’ Center Associate Artistic Director Hayley Finn sat down with Jenny Connell Davis to discuss the new play.
What inspired you to write Goddess of Mercy?
When I taught in New York, one thing we talked about a lot in Civics class was “circles of responsibility”—the idea that people draw circles around themselves in terms of what they consider themselves responsible for. There’s yourself, the people who are the absolute closest to you, and then beyond that people in our school, or people in our neighborhood…and even beyond that, people in our city or country, or the world. So there’s many different ways to draw the lines that help us think about who we’re responsible for in the world, and to whom we’re responsible. I have always taken pride in trying to do right by the people who are very close to me—to put a lot of attention and energy into those circles of responsibility and community. But at the same time I turn on the news and I start thinking about circles that are a little bit further away. I can get really overwhelmed by them, and I beat myself up about it. Then I started thinking about what somebody else would do that was even more focused on their inner sanctum than I am. What if someone like that was faced with somebody who was all about those outermost levels? And what’s the worst thing that could happen? And the result is this play.
And those opposing views are manifest in the characters of Kate and Brianna?
Yes. Kate is somebody who, especially at the beginning of the play, is absolutely overwhelmed by the negative things she sees in the world that she can’t control. Her response to that is: “I’m going to exert absolute control over these 1,200 square feet of space, and just going to try to pretend that the rest of the problems of the world aren’t there.” She’s probably the queen of Pinterest.
Why did you choose to set the apartment in the neighborhood of Red Hook/Gowanus and what significance does that neighborhood have in relationship to the themes of the play?
Gentrification is a primary issue in the piece. In the history of New York City, Red Hook was basically created by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway cutting through the old port neighborhood that Arthur Miller captured so beautifully in A View from the Bridge. So what the play points to is the insanity that we’re talking about the same exact neighborhood, only now it’s wealthy. It’s very possible to drive into Gowanus and into your underground garage and come up the elevator in one of these buildings, having a wonderful view of downtown Manhattan and never have touched the neighborhood you’re in. Even for New York it’s relatively unique in that way.
Tell me a little more about the connections you see between this play and A View from the Bridge.
I think in both plays you’re talking about a very very localized play that’s also addressing some broader geopolitical issues. It’s pretty easy to lose track of the fact that something small can happen on one part of the planet and yet have huge resonance on the other side. You have economic problems and postwar problems happening in Italy, and then suddenly you have this influx of immigrants that upsets the balance in this one family in Red Hook. By the same token now, we can have a shooting and torture in a small province in Southeast Asia and you can’t necessarily predict the ways in which that might come home. Which is something I focus on a lot; listening to NPR and thinking, “This is something that has no effect on me. Or does it? Or would I even know?” There’s something about finding ways to explore the greater moral valences of questions that I’m drawn to and that I think theater does really well.
What inspired the title Goddess of Mercy?
The events in the play that happen abroad are based on events that happened in the Aceh province in Indonesia in 2000-01 that had a connection to an American-based oil company. In researching Indonesia I found a picture of Dewi Kwan Im, and one of the translations of that is the “Goddess of Mercy.” The explanation that Brianna gives in the play is that she is basically the Buddhist Virgin Mary. There are a lot of myths about her, but one of them is that she hears all the suffering of the world. When I heard that I thought: Oh God, that’s what Kate’s trying so hard not to do, but that, at the end of the play, it’s, finally, exactly what she’s doing.
What can the audience expect when they come to see the piece, and with what questions do you want them to be left?
I hope that they leave thinking about their own circles of obligation, and that they leave not sure who is right. I hope that they come knowing it’s still a work in progress! I hope they leave with a sense that the characters they saw onstage are iterations of people they know. And maybe they aren’t their favorite people, all of them, but that they leave with some empathy for the unsympathetic characters and some hard questions for the ones who at first seem more sympathetic. I hope they want to look into what Americans are doing abroad when it comes to oil production.
Taking a step back, who—in addition to Arthur Miller—have been your influences, not just on this play but on your work in general?
I don’t think you see it as much in this play, but August Wilson is a huge influence. He’s just so good. I’ve taught his plays again and again and I come back to them again and again. So he’s big. Charles Mee. He plays with language, takes on bigger stuff and doesn’t always need to live in a place of pure realism. My mother’s a Spanish teacher, so I grew up around a lot of Latin American literature and storytelling. For a white girl from Maine, I read a lot of Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Borges; those are huge influences. Kushner for sure. I’m not sure you can be a playwright of my era and not have been influenced by Angels in America in particular. At least if you’re somebody who deals with 20thand 21st century naturalism and what’s come after it. Chekhov. I started as an actress, so a lot of those kinds of “tear into it” actor roles are ones that I want to spend time with.
How did you get interested in theater? Why theater and not some other medium of storytelling?
I do also write screenplays, but I always come back to theater because of its immediacy, and because I think there’s room for the long form, the long scene, to live with people within a moment for a greater time than some other forms really give you a chance to. I love that sense of: “anything could happen tonight. Maybe the play will end the way I think it will tonight.” And I love that it’s collaborative in a way that really relies on everybody. I don’t want to write plays that are director-proof or actor-proof or design-proof. What I’m always just absolutely blown-away by is the potential of anything to happen based on the other minds and talents that come into the rehearsal room. I think that can be true in other mediums, but I think that often there’s someone who gets to call the shots. If you’re talking about film there’s someone who can decide to put a clip on the cutting room floor. But when you’re talking about stage, at some point you as the playwright have to let go, and the director has to let go, and as an actor you only have so much. So I think it’s deeply collaborative, and it dies without that. In the theater that I’m drawn to, there’s no such thing as the “auteur theater maker.”