Whiting Award winner Donnetta Lavinia Grays on plays everyone should read and the secret to writing in verse
The Whiting Awards have long been pinpointing important new literary talents before they hit it big — past honorees of the annual writing prize include Ocean Vuong, Ling Ma, Jia Tolentino, and Nadia Owusu. This year's crop of recipients has just been revealed in a virtual ceremony, and EW had the honor of checking in with winner Donnetta Lavinia Grays. A playwright by trade, Grays is also the Executive Story Editor on Joe Exotic, the upcoming Kate McKinnon-starring NBC series about the big cat enthusiast. Her most recent play is Where We Stand, a solo show about a community that is seduced by a mysterious benefactor — it uses fable-like storytelling to explore class issues.
Below, Grays answers EW's burning author questions, telling us how she fell in love with writing (there's an unexpected connection to New Edition), what it was like to craft Where We Stand, and which playwrights she hopes everyone knows about.
What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
There's a reason why people have never heard of the internationally acclaimed girl group that my sisters and I started when we were kids. Mostly because DLG (we all had the same initials, you see) played gigs exclusively in our living room and in our back yard. Nevertheless, our fan base — though small — was passionate. Shout out to Mom and dad. Basically, in our minds, we were the all-girl version of New Edition. And I humbly take credit for my contribution to two of our biggest hits. "You're My Sister" and the sultry R&B breakup ballad "Never Again."
What is the last book or play that made you cry?
I recently read Toni Morrison's A Mercy. So much of this book moved me to tears. The specificity of time. The wild psychology of a young nation on the verge. Decades of bloodshed and cruelty in its early building just behind it and centuries of brutality and injustice just ahead of it. A frenetic crossroads as seen through the eyes of extraordinarily complicated women who are forced to carve out what looks like a family together. And Morrison brilliantly manages to examine what love might mean through it all. It's stunning.
Mfoniso Udofia is a playwright everyone should know. Her play Adia and Clora Snatch Joy is a love letter to the ancestors. It's the holding of what is familiar, shared, and lovely between West Africa and the Black American South. It is a beautiful queer love story. And for both Africans in America and African-Americans, it's a roadmap to a healing into each other that we may not even realize we need.
Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?
If you are unfamiliar with playwright, novelist, screenwriter, actor, and activist Alice Childress read her plays immediately. Start with Trouble in Mind.
Where do you write?
From bed. Keep it cozy.
What play first got you into drama writing?
Like so many Black theater-makers I would have to say George C. Wolf's The Colored Museum. I took so many cues from his boldness in my early writing.
What is a snack you couldn't write without?
Raw pecans (pronounced pee-cans. I'm from South Carolina)
If you could change one thing about any of your plays what would it be?
I don't know if I would change my plays too much. My work has evolved as I have. And it's wonderful to have an accounting for what's come before. My first two plays are a delicious hot mess. As they should be.
What is your favorite part of Where We Stand?
That there is no clear "beginning" to Where We Stand. Once the audience has entered the space they've been cast as townspeople and we have already begun. What calls us to order is a delicately hummed refrain that starts with one person, extends to the next and to the next and so on until the space is filled to crescendo. It is spiritual. It isn't rare that people weep through this exercise. Just to hold the sublime with strangers! To practice this soul connection. To me, it speaks to why live theater is such a unique experience. Our gathering. Our intimate and immediate connection to each other. The play's questions of what makes a community and what our responsibility is to each other start right inside that moment.
What was the hardest plot point or character to write in this play?
Because the play is mostly in verse my director Tamilla Woodard and I really had to drill down on what could live as metaphor versus what plot points really needed to live as fact. So, even if audiences didn't understand all of the poetry being thrown at them, they could still navigate the play and understand what was at stake for them as 'townspeople." For someone who can swim inside of metaphor having Tamilla was a godsend. But, she pried what was literal out of me so that those metaphors could shine.
Write a movie poster tag line for your play.
One town's destiny. One man's fate.