Phillip Howze on how he wrote his biting satire ‘Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres’

The playwright talks about the artistic process that led to his 'burlesque intended for the talents of artists of color' now playing at Spooky Action.

Phillip Howze’s Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres almost seems a play made for Washington. Running at Spooky Action Theater in the District through May 19, the play appears to skewer the cultural and linguistic imperialism that, too often, accompanies the humanitarian and philanthropic efforts of large powers. In this case, it is three “orphaned, stateless youth” who live “at the corner of a country that feels both foreign and familiar” who are the recipients of the questionable largesse. What happens to them when various characters from the wider world transverse their “corner” is the subject of this biting satire, which wrestles with identity, language, and appropriation of persons as well as things.

A former State Department employee who worked in Southeast Asia before becoming a professional playwright, Howze is currently Associate Senior Lecturer at Harvard University’s Theater, Dance & Media program. His plays have been produced at the Lincoln Center Theater, the American Repertory Theater, Playwrights Horizons, the Public Theater/NYSF, and the Sundance Institute Theater Lab, among other venues. A collection of his works, Rarities & Wonders, is out now from Tripwire Harlot Press, and his new play, Six Characters, will have its world premiere this summer at Lincoln Theater Center.

LEFT: ‘Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres’ show art courtesy of Spooky Action Theater. RIGHT: Phillip Howze photographed by Tina Case.

I met with Howze on Zoom to interview him about Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres and his artistic process. Surprisingly, Howze asked me almost as many questions as I asked him, revealing a deep thinker’s curiosity about the ideas, experiences, and opinions of others. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Deryl Davis: Where did the idea for Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres come from? Why did you want to write a play about three stateless teens exploited by affluent do-gooders and charlatans?

Phillip Howze: You know, it really came from an image. A lot of my work springs from a need to investigate a recurrence, whether that is some recurrence of language or, in this case, image. I had this recurring image of some young folks on the top of a glittering, beautiful pile of detritus, and they were smiling and joyful. And I was thinking, What is that? It was such a powerful image. So, I wrote into the question of what that was, and this [Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres] is what emerged. That’s really my process of creating a new work. It’s very much a kind of creative inquiry into something that I’m unfamiliar with and also a lurch towards something familiar through [the writing process] and through time spent with the folks in the play.

So, you weren’t starting with a particular object in mind, like “Oh, I want to write a play that critiques the pretense of altruism”?

Never, never, never. The play, for me, is never a predetermined action. It’s always an inquiry, and in that way, I get to unfold and discover something about the world of the play in the act of writing it. The revelation comes through the writing. So, the questions and critiques that may have bubbled up for you in watching the play were things that I learned in the writing of it.

Surasree Das, Anna Takayo, and Victor Salinas in ‘Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Do some of the ideas in the play come out of your experience in international development and working abroad in education and cultural affairs?

Possibly. But when I sit down to write, I really have no understanding or expectation of what will emerge. It’s just a devotion to the craft of making the work and a faith and a trust that something will emerge. It may be that every work of art is a commemoration of something [in an artist’s life]. In this case, I can’t say if there’s any singularity, because the play is so prismatic. It’s like a lot of my work. Where does it begin and where does it end? It’s difficult to have a kind of clarity there. It’s like the people who come in and out of the play [an actress, a pop star, a Nobel Laureate, among them], these incredible, vibrant phantoms swooping in and out. That’s what the origin story of the play is like. Lots of different things coming together.

In the same way, I’ve never asked any actor or director to bring their identity into the work of this play, because the play is what it is. It’s this kind of burlesque intended for the talents of artists of color. Non-native English speakers, specifically…. Too often in the American theater, in the more formalized spaces of the American theater, the imagination of artists of color — actors of color, writers of color, people for whom English is not their native tongue — is asked to limit itself, in ways that this play actually demands the opposite. It demands a kind of liberty, a kind of freedom, a kind of wildness in the craft of creation. All those dialects that you hear on stage, the actors made those up. It’s the wild imaginations of the creative team and the technical capacity of the actors that brings a play like this to life. It’s that kind of collaboration.

The themes of this play seem very serious, even tragic, but there’s lots of humor and playfulness in it, too. In an early stage direction, you say the actors should be having fun.

There should be an element of joy in it. It’s interesting. There are these elements that people might say are incongruous, but it’s really about how we receive the play as an audience — the theatermakers in the space with everyone else, everything that’s happening onstage — versus how we feel about what unfolds over the course of two hours. Those are the things that create the combustion of the play. They are what give it an aliveness.

Surasree Das, Victor Salinas, Frank Britton, and Anna Takayo in ‘Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Are you critiquing how the West, in particular, goes about philanthropic or humanitarian work in other cultures? How it imposes itself on them?

Something that most people don’t seem to notice, because there’s a lot to notice in the play, is that, as I’ve said, it’s incredibly prismatic. But it’s also very specific, and one of the specific things early in the text that most people seem to gloss over is that the play takes place in a location called Here. And Here is what it’s called. I’ve always been confused that some people describe it as an unnamed place. It’s not unnamed. It is named Here. So if the play is taking place here, what does that mean? What does it tell you about the play? Or perhaps about your complicity in the play? The question of here is much more uncomfortable for us than the question of there.

That makes me think of one of the final exchanges in the play, when the character Win asks the character Pan, “What did we speak before we spoke Engaleash?” —  the language created from what they have absorbed from outsiders. They don’t even remember their original language!

And what are your thoughts on that?

I felt like it was a question about recovery. Can I recover my original identity apart from all the things that have been imposed upon me, that I’m supposed to be. How I’m supposed to fit into different identities or different boxes, linguistic or social or racial or economic. Everything. What is the person underneath all of that?

What you’re saying speaks to the core. It’s not about the clothes or the skin tone or any other external aspect of personhood. It’s about the interiority of these characters, of these people, of the people playing these characters, perhaps.

And the interlopers, if I can use that term, don’t have an interiority?

Or rather, it’s buried under so much garbage. Underneath all of that costume, whatever it is they’re here doing, whatever it is they claim to be here. And here is where they are.

Anna Takayo and Victor Salinas in ‘Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

At the end of the play, Win also tells Pan, “I want to unlearn you.” That’s a striking, poetically ambiguous statement. What does it mean?

What do you think it means?

It makes me think of Jerzy Grotowski [renowned Polish theater director and theorist] and the idea of the actor stripping away all the accretions and additions of life to reveal some essence underneath. To just “be.”

That’s great. To just “be.” You know, that’s a line from my most recent play. The last line is about how “to be.” I’m just trying “to be.” You know, again, I’m less interested in identity and more interested in personhood. And this is a question of personhood. How can or does one “be”?

“I want to unlearn you” has so many meanings, both interpersonal and on a larger social level. It could be something just for him [Pan] or something Win projects onto him, like “I want you to unlearn language.”

What you’re doing is refracting this notion of the prismatic and zooming all the way down to the line itself, to the possibilities in the play that are both large and small. There’s a density in the text, and also these small moments of intimacy that are revealed in a production of the play. There’s a great scale of intimacy in this work and in all of my work that tethers between the grandiose and the granular and that goes all the way down to the language on the page. In that way, perhaps it is poetic, because poetry is always lurching towards concision and clarity. A line like “I want to unlearn you” has a lot of resonance forward and backward in the play and in our world. The play is its own world, but a world that is also ours.

This is the first time that Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres has been performed in DC. What is it like to have it performed here, in the seat of power, where you have the Pentagon and so many international agencies and NGOs?

It’s exactly like you can imagine. It’s powerful and resonant. I don’t really know what this play means, you know? It means a hundred different things to a hundred different eyes. But, undoubtedly, a production of this play in Kansas City, Missouri, has a very different resonance than a production of this play in the seat of power, in Washington, DC. When this play was produced in New York, which is where it debuted, officials from the United Nations came to see it and had lots to say. So, the conversation that the play creates, dependent on where it is produced, is the conversation that it is intended to have. As we’ve said, the play set in a location called Here.

But more importantly for me, to go back to the beginning of our conversation, is for people to leave with those questions, maybe even leave with the last question or line in the play [“I want to unlearn you”], which is itself a question that anyone working in a position of power could meaningfully hold space for. So, I’m really proud that the play is happening in DC. It’s been a long time coming, and I’m delighted that Spooky Action and Beth Dinkova and her entire team have enlisted this community of artists to come together to reveal the story in the way that it’s being creatively expressed.

Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres plays through May 19, 2024 (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.), presented by Spooky Action Theater performing at The Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets (general admission, $37.50; students with valid ID, $20; seniors, $32.50; a limited number at $15) are available online.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes including one intermission.

The program for Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional.

SEE ALSO:
Spooky Action’s frolicsome ‘Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres’ gets spoofy for real (review by John Stoltenberg, April 30, 2024)

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