Master’s in theatre studies candidate and dramaturg Cheyenne Flores speaks with playwright Charles White about The DePriest Incident, the winning play of the 2021 Diverse Voices Playwriting Initiative. The play will be presented in a virtual staged reading on Thursday, March 25 at 7 p.m. and is directed by Master’s in theatre studies candidate Demitri Corbin.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cheyenne Flores: What made you want to be a playwright?
Charles White: I wrote in college but mostly short stories. I was in a creative writing program, but it was pass-fail. So, you only did so much because you had to work on your major. I finished college and thought about being a writer, but the pressure from home was that you have to be a doctor or lawyer because artists only starve. I thought maybe they are right, so I went to law school and practiced law for 30 years. Later, some friends of mine convinced me, “You want to get back into writing why don’t you try.” I took a playwriting course at New Federal Theatre and something clicked right away. Then I saw the play August: Osage County. I wanted to affect an audience the way this play has affected me. That play moved me incredibly, so thank you Tracy Letts. I was a patron of the arts, I went to plays, I supported theater. But that extra push from friends, the course I took, and August: Osage County (set in Oklahoma where I have never been, by the way), these were the extra triggers to get me writing plays late in life.
Are there other artists or playwrights you look towards for inspiration?
Oh yeah! I mean there are so many. Obviously, August Wilson I cannot overlook. Tennessee Williams. Of the current ones, there is Lynn Nottage and Dominique Morisseau, Eugene O’Neill to some extent. I mean there are thousands.
What does your writing process look like? How do you start writing a play?
I will first try to write an independent 10-minute play. Once I have done that, I will say, “Okay, this could be a scene in a larger play,” and expand upon it. There is no telling where that scene is going to show up. I will ask, “Where do I start? Where do I end?” A full-length play often develops around that first 10-minute play. What also often happens is once you have written the full-length play, you realize that the 10-minute play does not fit in here at all. So, you take it down altogether.
What made you want to tell the story of the DePriests?
I almost stumbled on it. I was doing research on something I cannot remember exactly now. Here is the best I can recall. I have a friend who is very much into Academy Award trivia. He always asks questions like, “What won best picture in 1969?” Every now and then we will try to think about it. So, I was looking up the Oscars, and Oscar DePriest showed up in the Google search. I had heard about him—that Congressman from Chicago—but that is all I knew. I clicked on the link and started reading his bio, which is where I saw the First Lady’s tea party incident. I thought it was silly that all these people went crazy about a tea party. Controversy over a Black woman going to the White House may have been interesting for its time, but I thought it absolutely would not be credible today. Still, my friend convinced me that I have to write about this. As it turns out, it is more credible in this time period than I ever would have thought. It started out as a ten-minute play that turned into Act Two, Scene One of a full-length play.
Was it ever intimidating to write on actual historical events? Were there challenges?
The tough part is I am not a historian. I am trying to tell a story that entertains an audience. When you start researching, you get caught up wanting to put in every bit of research you have done. You want to weasel it into your play somehow. But you really cannot because it can just kill your story. You will lose the audience in five minutes if you start giving a lecture. I asked, “What do I really need for the story? What is my story and what moves it forward?” Anything that does not, I cannot use. That is really the challenge, playing historian when you are not one.
How do you know when you have done enough research to start writing the play?
It is funny, I think I started writing before I finished the research. You found something in your dramaturgy research that I did not know about: Oscar’s office in the Capitol being a former bathroom. I noticed that this was not mentioned in Dr. Calvin White’s keynote lecture in the Department of History either. So, clearly there is still more I could do. And thank you for that bit of information, which I have worked into the play.
Since they are real figures, was it difficult to develop the characters? Did you ever face any obstacles as far as making sure you are accurately representing these historical figures?
Jessie DePriest, Oscar’s wife, is really the focal character in the play, but there is not that much about her in the research. I mean, you probably found more than I did. In a way, that gives me freedom. I can create a story around her since there is not much there. There was not that much about the activist Julia West Hamilton either, so I felt I had some freedom there as well. On the other hand, there was plenty about male politicians such as Oscar DePriest and Fiorello LaGuardia. Most of what is in the play about Fiorello is historically factual. Obviously, I made up the conversations and the interactions, but Fiorello did have the office next door to Oscar’s. He was Oscar’s only friend in Congress and very much a sympathizer. He actually did run for Mayor of New York that year and lost terribly. I am a storyteller, so I want to tell the story. But to some extent, you are penned in by the history. You do not want to flatly contradict the facts, but you also want it to work for your story. So, when you find a character that there is not much written about, it actually gives you a little more freedom.
Was there a favorite character to write and develop? Did you have one that you particularly just love?
That is tough. It started out being Oscar’s story. But as I wrote it, I realized this is really Jessie DePriest’s story. I teased some friends of mine including my wife saying, “You know what, I am more of a women’s libber than I ever thought.” The story I have written is really a story of growth for a Black woman. I did not intend it, but I think that is where it is now. So, it is hard to pick a favorite character. Demitri Corbin, the director of the staged reading, really likes Julia, and I kind of like her too. I will probably say Oscar.
What do you want the audience to take away from The DePriest Incident?
There are a lot of stories and history about Black Americans that are not told. I find this incident interesting, because it was a big deal at the time. But who knows about it now? I want people to come away thinking there are lots of stories out there about Black people—about successful Black people—that have not been told and need to be told. This is just one of them. But there are others, and I, hopefully, will write a few more.
Do you have any advice for students here at Illinois State University?
Looking at my life, I would say: Do not worry if you do not know what you want to do starting out, because sooner or later you will find out. And if you want to get there, you will. My friends are amazed that I am starting to write at this age when I should be thinking about retiring in a few years. I am still working full-time: working all day and writing at night. But I really want to do this. So, if you really want to do something, keep at it. It is fine if it hits you later, as opposed to immediately. Whatever your path is, you can make it work.
Any final words?
Sometimes I think, ‘If I had started writing earlier, would not I be further along?’ I would be a better writer, I would have a body of work to show. But I thought, ‘Well, this is the way my life went, and it is fine.’ It is my path and it seems to be working. I am a relatively happy person. So, accept who you are and work hard at what you want to do.