‘I am striving to breathe dynamic life into stories of the Black Midwest’

University of Kansas faculty are striving to advance knowledge, interpret our world, solve problems, spark innovation, create beauty and catalyze imagination through their research, scholarship and creative activity. Through the “I Am Striving” series, we’ll learn more about what inspires KU researchers, as well as the goals and impact of their work.

Q&A with Darren Canady, professor of English

What is the focus of your creative work?

The focus of my creative work as a playwright has changed over time. I started focusing on stories that came from my own family's past — things that I had grown up hearing about. I became invested in thinking about what Black life in the Midwest meant to my family members and to people I grew up with. Over time, that still is at the core of a lot of what I'm writing about. But I think I’m finding myself even more and becoming engaged with, “What are the things that bring me joy? What are the things that make me angry?” There was a time where headlines that intersected with Blackness and queer identity were always finding their way into my work. Now, in the past couple of years, it's been about stretching the boundaries of how I tell a story. It's a lot of those same concerns, but now challenging myself to find out new ways to do it.

How do you incorporate research into your creative process?

I don't think there is a line between research and creative production. That's been one of the great things about becoming a professor. One of the great things was to start to say, “OK, my creative production is research.” What I have found over time, though, is that nothing I've ever created exists in a vacuum. Every piece I've ever done has always involved interviews — it's involved going into physical and memory archives to engage oral storytelling and histories. It's funny: It took me forever to realize that the label we call oral histories, I have been experiencing that my entire life. My family is bizarre in its ability to remember random details that make a story go for five hours. If I have a question about something, I talk to someone who has lived it. I have now a battery of questions, such as, “What does that feel like on your body? What are the sites that you remember? The smells? What are the emotions that you have?” Because those are the things that I end up basing my dialogue on.

What inspires your creative work? Why are you passionate about it?

The big answer is I'm inspired by humanity. I’m a Scorpio — a nosy person. The joke in the family is that Darren always wants to know into your business, and that's true on some level. I find people endlessly fascinating. I want to know not just what makes people tick, but some of the greatest and most awful things we do all have a story behind them. That has always inspired me. When I was a child, I wrote things of people or characters being transgressive. My first piece of creative writing was about a hamster that escaped from the class cage. She had been awful, but it's because she wanted to go have fun. That's the thing that I always wanted to play with and what inspires me. But I also am inspired always by — and I'm thinking about this acutely this week because of the shooting massacre in Buffalo — all the features in the various conflicts and joys and triumphs of Black life in America. My parents, and my mother specifically, exposed me to African American literature when I was a child. Some of the stories my family told were tragic, but the sense of humor, motion, movement and constant change were always there. That is still so much at the core of what I'm curious about and what I care about.

How does your creative work interact with or reflect the outside world?

Theater is a fascinating art form. People are always calling it the fabulous invalid. There's been this notion for a few generations that the theater audience is shrinking. Theater certainly occupies a different place in our culture than it did at one time, but the human-to-human sharing of stories and acting them out and performing them, that's ancient. We've been doing that since the very beginning. By saying, I'm going to write a play or a piece that someone performs, I’m automatically always thinking about, “Who's my audience? What do I want them exiting with? And in the world that we inhabit, what might they be bringing in with them? How do I make space for these 90 minutes or two hours for the actors, the director, my text and these wonderful audience members? What happens if they get into a breathing space?” And so, I say, which is now probably a cliché, “It's called a play, not a read.” My scripts exist in this three-dimensional space of trying to create not only a conversation but an experience. In terms of subject matter, I have never been interested in looking too inward. I think humans are so fascinating and wacky. I'm always eavesdropping and paying attention and asking, “How did that feel for you?” with my friends and even strangers. I think the most exciting theater is doing exactly that. It's asking about not just what's in this room where we're performing but asking people to take these feelings and apply them to the things they're experiencing outside in their everyday lives. Otherwise, why are we doing it?

What is a recent example of your work you’d like to share?

There are two recent examples that have stretched me in fascinating ways. Lawrence High School commissioned me to write their spring play. I wrote an adaptation of “Lysistrata” set now in a high school. The original play is about an ancient war between Athens and Sparta, and the women decide that they will enter the war by withholding sex from their husbands. I was not really prepared to write about sex with high schoolers, so instead, the play explores the way that we use various things in our lives to influence those who are important to us. It's about a group of high schoolers who decide to leave social media and how that affects their power, who they can influence in the school and how they handle conflict. It got me into these fascinating conversations with the students about the kind of art that they cared about, and who and who did not have power in the school. A lot of people have taken on these things — “Sixteen Candles,” “Mean Girls” or even “Euphoria.” It's something we keep coming back to as a culture. I found it invigorating not only to inform the work that way but to let their concerns and experiences guide the piece. At the same time, I was developing a play that was released online through the Playwrights Center called “The Percy Meacham Dance Experience.” It’s about a Black choreographer who decides to integrate his company. The Black dancers who he has worked with for years feel that he is selling out and undercutting the core of the company. The conflict is something I have watched a lot of my friends have to think through ever since the murder of George Floyd. So, how and what does art mean? What does art making mean? Where does identity land? How much space do we make for artists changing, evolving and being political beings? Or are they just strictly artistic beings? I was working on both plays at the same time, and it was fantastic to explore something that was driven by my own concerns and conversations with peers and to also have something that was driven by people like high schoolers who are very different than me.

What do you hope are some of the outcomes of your work?

Every one of my plays is different in terms of what I would like it to do, so it's hard to make a blanket statement. For a number of years, I told people, “I don't know that making a play changes anything in and of itself.” The performing of a piece does not create new laws. It doesn't necessarily enact a new policy in and of itself. But what I can do is start a conversation. I can ask people to sit with me for a little while and see things slightly differently. Then maybe that will spur action or a different way of viewing what's going on in the world. One of my pieces, “Ontario Was Here,” is about two frontline social workers, and I think I have gotten the most out of that piece. Social workers who have seen the play have said, “Thank you for seeing me. Thank you for creating a space where people who don't know what it's like to live this life can get into conversation with it.” I doubt this play necessarily gets people to change the rules and regulations around social work, but if it can get all of us who don't know what social workers do to see what that is and to treat that profession differently — if it can get a couple of legislators to think, “Maybe we need to revisit some of these things,” then that's something worthwhile. That's ultimately, writ large, the most I can ask out of any of the things that I’ve created.