She’s talking and laughing with the girl behind the counter when I walk into the coffee shop. Traffic has threatened to make me late, and I’m feeling a little frazzled, but she turns to me with a smile that is so sunny that any anxiety evaporates on contact. Mona Z. Smith is a delight to be around.
We take our coffee to a corner table and start chatting like old friends, almost before I can get my phone set up to record. Mona was a journalist before becoming a playwright, an old hat at interviews (admittedly a part of the above-mentioned anxiety), so we start with how that came to be.
MZS: I grew up in a town of 62 people. One main street, with no stop lights or stop signs. But there was a weekly newspaper. I was the manager for the baseball team, mostly because, in a town that small, you’re related to almost everyone, and I wanted to get out and meet other people. The editor of the paper didn’t want to go to all the games all over, so he said “Hey, you keep the stats anyway, do you want to start writing stories, I’ll pay you ten bucks a story.” Which was huge money back then!
From there I went to the University of Nebraska, which has a fabulous journalism program. I had some great mentors there and ended up, right after graduation, at the Miami Herald. My first ever plane ride was out to Miami. My first story was the execution of a teenager whose body was found floating in a canal – it was the cocaine wars. This was the early 1980’s. It was not at all like Miami Vice. It was ugly and not safe, and I was one of six police reporters, by far the most junior, so I was working the late-night shifts. So it was pretty grueling training, especially for someone who was from a town of sixty-two people. But I was in my twenties, young, stupid and brave. After almost four years I decided I needed to take a break. I just got tired of writing about all the horrible things that human beings are capable of doing. So I told my boss I wanted to take a sabbatical. We arranged for me to be gone for three months and I went to Paris for four years. Never went back to the Herald. And that’s where I discovered the theatre.
GLB: Why Paris?
MZS: There were various issues involved, including a guy. I think we were both running away from various things at the time, looking for a cool-off period. He was there to write the great American novel. I thought I would just be stringing for various newspapers while I was there, but I met these actors, and they really changed my perspective. I saw everything I possibly could while I was there. Art and architecture and theatre. I soaked it up like a dried out old sponge. I had never been exposed to these things in my tiny town. It was a shining moment to see all of the good things that human beings are capable of creating. And I thought that I couldn’t go back to writing about all the horrible things. Not that theatre doesn’t take that up, but there’s just something so positive about the act of creation, even when you’re dealing with some of the darker forces in human nature. It just felt like where I needed and wanted to be.
After four years, we found ourselves expecting a baby, and so we moved back to the States. So suddenly I was a new mom, which is certainly an act of creativity too, and managing to write and get ready to apply to Columbia Graduate School of the Arts. My daughter was ten months old when I started that three-year program to retrain myself as a playwright.
Pretty quickly, I realized that that was not a great pathway to making money. Things between me and my baby’s father weren’t going well, and I was looking at being a single mom with a career in the arts. So I went to the head of my department and told him that I needed some kind of work study, so that I would have the skills to get a job when I graduated. I ended up working at Second City for two years, and then in my third year Andrei Serban invited me to come work on a production of Tales of Hoffman at the Vienna Opera House. That experience helped me figure out how to be a practicing artist, have a career, be a single parent and somehow make it work. I leveraged that experience in non-profit administration to have a series of jobs for about twenty years and continued to write books and plays on the side. It’s not easy, especially as a woman. We tend to end up having to manage not only children but extended family, juggling all of those plates. But I managed to get a new play up every four to five years. Which seems like forever, especially when I watched younger, unencumbered, unattached writers who seemed to put out a new play every year. And I was jealous sometimes. But my daughter needed to come first.
I’m someone, I still have one foot in that 1960’s traditional world that I grew up in, and then the world that I’m also trying to inhabit, that says “it’s perfectly fine for you to be a playwright, pursue a career, be a creative. There’s a quote by Mary Oliver that I really love:
My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
GLB: Your work is really about big things. There’s a lot of research that goes into it. What draws you to that?
MZS: I think that’s informed by my initial career as a journalist. Even though it’s important to me to not write about the horrible things that people can do, I’m very aware that from the moment I started writing plays I was writing about the human condition, and often our failings, specifically where our American democracy falls short of its ideals. That goes back to early inspirations. I wouldn’t have been a journalist if I hadn’t lived through Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein were superheroes to me. I feel that one of the roles of an artist is to be the Greek chorus, to call attention, and say, in a beautiful, compelling way, “we need to examine this. We need to look at our mistakes.” We should come out of the theatre feeling changed, and emboldened to make courageous choices and to ask others to live up to the ideals we all share as citizens of a democracy. That’s patriotism to me.
Sometimes I’m writing outside of culture. For instance, I wrote a book about Canada Lee, a Black actor and activist who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and whose death was attributed to that blacklisting. And I wrote a play about Japanese American soldiers during World War Two, and the racism they faced. But I have chosen to do that on occasions where I felt like the story really deserved wider attention and just wasn’t getting it.
GLB: What are you working on now?
MZS: My current project is actually the first full-length play I wrote in graduate school, Fire in a Dark House. But I picked it up again because it’s about anti-immigrant fervor during World War One. It looks at the impact of that on two families in a small town on the Great Plains. It’s based partly on research I’ve done into my own family history, one side of which is German American. It looks at the effects of propaganda and media in terms of shaping that anti-immigrant sentiment, so it’s really a timely piece. I actually did my first television pitch for this project, with my long-time collaborator and writing partner on this project, Traci Mariano, to a room full of people my daughter’s age. I was so nervous, but I did it, because I never want to stop learning!
GLB: So you start with a big idea, like the Japanese American battalion, for instance. And obviously in the case of your current project you had a personal connection, but when you don’t, how do you break it down and make it personal, make it theatre?
MZS: I do a lot of interviews and listen to a lot of oral histories, so that I can hear people talking about their stories in their own language. And then I read and research and try to immerse myself until I land on a story, a voice, a circumstance, a plot point. Something I know I can build around. Something that feels close to me, that I can live with for a while. Because if it doesn’t really touch you, then how are you going to live with it for, in my case, the four or five years it takes to get a project done, working nights and weekends and when my kids are in bed. Which is when it gets done.
Fire in a Dark House will be read on October 26th, at 7:30 p.m. at the Paramount Hudson Valley Theatre in Peekskill (more information in the link).