Education Dramaturg Ted Sod interviews Jeff Augustin, Playwright of Little Children Dream of God.
Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated and why did you decide to become a playwright? Did you have any teachers who had a profound impact on you?
Jeff Augustin: I was born in Miami, Florida. I am one of seven children. My sister and I were the only ones born here in America; everyone else was born in Haiti. A mentor of mine in high school saw me at a poetry slam competition and she said, “When you go to college you should check out the theatre department.” I wound up going to Boston College, planning on becoming a corporate lawyer. I went in as a poli sci and economics double major, but I took Intro to Theatre and it was there that I discovered the theatre. At the time, I thought that acting was all there really was to theatre, I thought all playwrights were Sam Shepard and the like. I ended up taking playwriting with Scott Cummings, a brilliant man. I knew by my junior year that I was not a good actor and I should not be acting. I was in a green room before a performance saying, “What am I going to do with my life?” and Scott magically appeared out of nowhere and said, “You’re going to be a writer. Come talk with me and I’ll show you how.” And then he vanished. During my last years of college, I started writing plays. Scott’s the one who really pushed me into writing. In Miami there’s a big Haitian population, but I wasn’t seeing plays about the Haitian-American experience, and that’s where I was coming from. That was my in to theatre. I was interested in seeing those people and hearing those voices on stage -- my mom’s story, my neighbors’ stories. There is a play by Gus Edwards titled Lifetime on the Streets, and in the prologue he says, “These are the stories behind the faces we see, but never get to know. Their hopes, loves, dreams and desires.” I became fascinated with that concept. Who are these people on the streets that we don’t get to know? But, more importantly, who are these Haitian-American people that I’ve grown up with, why aren’t their stories on stage?
TS: You are Roundabout’s resident playwright. Can you describe what that’s been like?
JA: I just graduated from the MFA in Playwriting program at the University of California – San Diego, where I was for three years. Little Children Dream of God is a play I wrote my second year of grad school. Jill Rafson, who is the Director of New Play Development at Roundabout, was really pushing for it to be produced here. Last November we had a reading for the artistic staff on a Friday and I heard from them that following Monday -- not only did they want to produce my play, but they wanted me to apply for a residency underwritten by the Tow Foundation. A residency means you can spend the year writing and working on other projects. They applied, and I started my residency in July. I moved to New York, and it’s been an amazing, luxurious thing for an emerging writer to be able to focus on writing and not have to worry about basic living expenses. I’m planning on going to Haiti with my mom, which I haven’t done in years. I also get to interact with other aspects of Roundabout, like the Education department. I’ve been working with high school students, and that is something I’ve loved doing.
TS: Tell us about the inspiration behind writing Little Children Dream of God. Was it your mother’s story that inspired you?
JA: It actually did start with my mom. I’m very close with her. We talk weekly, if not every other day. One time we were having a conversation and, I’m not sure how it came up, but when she immigrated here she was pregnant with my brother. And let me just say, my mom loves Haiti. She always says that when she retires she wants to go back. I think if the political and economic situations had been different, she would still be there. When she was pregnant with my brother, she decided to leave because she wanted all of us really to have a better life. Like Sula, the main character in my play, my mom was highly educated. She came here speaking English, Haitian Creole, French and Spanish. But, when she came here, she had to raise her son. She tried to take college classes, but it was hard for her to keep up, so she became a security guard. She worked a bit in a nursing home, like Carolyn in the play. So, yes, my mom was kind of the jumping off point of Little Children…
TS: Could you track the development process of the play for us?
JA: I’ve always been interested in the magic realism of theatre and also Haitian mythology. I was challenged by my grad program and my mentor there, Naomi Iizuka, to write this play about a woman on a tire who was eleven months pregnant. There was a point when I thought that this play was just going to take place on the Atlantic Ocean. Naomi then told me to just write. She said, “Here’s this opening idea, now just write and see where the world takes you.” So, I just started writing and these characters just started popping out to me. In grad school, I finished the first draft of that play right at the end of my first year, then put it away. I had a workshop production at school at the end of my second year, and then I submitted it to the O’Neill, where it was accepted in the summer of 2013. The O’Neill brought in Giovanna Sardelli, who’s directing the show at Roundabout. Giovanna and I started working on it, and entire scenes and characters were crossed out. It’s just been constant writing and rewriting. I actually just sent in a new draft last week that moves things around. I’m changing the ending of the first act, so even now it’s still very much in development.
TS: Did you have to do any research about the world of the play?
JA: Most of my research has been me spending hours on the phone with my mom. For example, the nursery rhyme at the beginning of the play. I called my mom and asked her about nursery rhymes and how basic rituals go. A lot of my research tends to be talking to people and finding out information that way.
TS: What do you want audiences to take away from the play?
JA: One of the things I want people to think about is that you can’t really move on without confronting your past. The play also connects to the dreams we have as children that we hold onto into adulthood and that sometimes we just need to let go of. Also, because immigration is such a topic right now, I want audiences to think about the people who immigrate to this country and the importance of different cultures in our society.
TS: Was there a part of the play that was most challenging for you to write?
JA: Oh, so many. Something I constantly think about when I’m writing this play is the aspect of vodou. There’s a way that people think when they think of vodou. So, it’s a challenge for me to make it authentic and real. I have to make sure that I’m being respectful of this religion and that I’m not fictionalizing it. That’s actually been something that is difficult for me to write and finesse.
TS: Is there a part of the play that was the most fun?
JA: I think writing about all these characters and the way they exist in this world has been fun. One of the most fun scenes for me to write is the dream scene between Sula and the adult version of her baby.
TS: What do you look for in a director?
JA: I look for someone who is game. Someone who will go on this journey with me. Someone who’s constantly asking questions and pushing me. Someone who can say, “Okay, that’s a great image, but dramaturgically, how is this functioning in the play?” Someone who can challenge me, but who can also come up with brilliant ideas.
TS: What type of actors did you need for this particular play?
JA: We needed actors who could handle language and different dialects. We needed actors who could really find the darkest place within themselves. All of our actors are brilliant and fun, but they’re also actors who own the characters. They can’t be afraid to go really dark and realize that within darkness there is laughter and fun.
TS:. Do you have favorite playwrights? Do you find reading or seeing other people’s work inspiring?
JA: You can learn so much from other writers’ work. I learn the most from reading and watching other people’s work. I love reading Adrienne Kennedy, Jose Rivera, Dael Orlandersmith -- I’m a huge fan of her ability to turn a phrase and create images. It’s such visceral work. I’m also a fan of some novelists, especially Haitian novelists like Edwidge Danticat, who I really jive with.
Little Children Dream of God begins previews at the Black Box Theatre January 24. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Little Children Dream of God, Little Children Dream of God, Roundabout Underground, Upstage