A recent Zoom call interview with Chicago-based playwright Terry Guest that was supposed to last for 30 minutes turned into a nearly two-hour chat. In all the years I have conducted interviews with artists, the length of my conversation with Guest was clearly a record. To say we connected would be an understatement. The main reason I reached out to him was to discuss his upcoming visit to Indy for the world premiere of his play “The Magnolia Ballet,” which opens on Thursday, March 17 and runs through April 10 at Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre. Afterwards, we meandered into other topics and time just flew by.
Guest is an award-winning playwright, actor, producer, poet, and teaching artist. As an actor, Guest has worked at regional theaters around the country, including Steppenwolf, Goodman Theatre, Alliance Theatre, Actor’s Express, and others. Guest’s play “At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen” was the recipient of the 2018 Out Front Theatre Spectrum Series Grant and had its world premiere in Chicago at The Story Theatre.
“The Magnolia Ballet” is directed by former Indy resident and NoExit Performance associate artistic director Mikael Burke. Burke serves as the Associate Artistic Director for About Face Theatre in Chicago, as well as with First Floor Theater. He’s the Head of the Directing Concentration for the Summer Training Program of The Theatre School at DePaul University. Locally, Burke has directed at Indiana Repertory Theatre, NoExit Performance, and is slated to direct “Ricky 3 – A Hip Hop Shakespeare Richard III” with Indianapolis Shakespeare Company this summer.
“The Magnolia Ballet “stars Isaiah Moore, Daniel A. Martin, Eddie Dean, and Andrew Martin. The play is a Southern Gothic fable about a queer Black boy, his father, and the ghosts that live in the walls of their old family home. Spanning 400 years, the show explores the complex relationships between multiple generations of Black and white people living in the state of Georgia.
Phoenix Theatre joins National New Play Network (NNPN) partner theaters, Alleyway Theatre (New York) and Williamston Theatre (Michigan) in producing this NNPN’s Rolling World Premiere of Guest’s play.
Below is an edited transcript of just a portion of my lengthy chat and email communication with the engaging Guest.
What does “The Magnolia Ballet” mean to you?
As a queer Black man raised in the American South, this play is hugely important to me. No young person should ever be made to feel the way I did, like they are wrong simply for existing. This play forces all of us to reckon with the legacies of toxic masculinity and racism in this country. It’s a play that demands we wrestle with the ghosts of our prejudices and recognize where the rules we once set to survive have become the killers of a new generation.
What’s it about?
It’s about the history of Georgia and the complicated relationships between the Black and white people who stayed in Georgia after the Civil War. This play resonates emotionally for me because it’s also about fathers and sons and, like everybody else in the world, I have some daddy issues, which I am working to sort out. It also has a historical importance to me because there is so much about Black people in Georgia and our history there and our stake in the land. It’s the third play I ever wrote and it’s the first play I wrote after I had my first taste of success as a writer, so I was really kind of experimenting a little bit. I was feeling a little confident. I’m proud of it.
What do you consider Southern Gothic?
I have such a respect for the Southern Gothic genre. It was such an influence on me as a young person. In particular, novelist Flannery O’Connor, who was from Georgia, inspired me. I almost shrink to say my work is Southern Gothic, but I certainly think I am inspired by that style.
Which other Southern writers inspire you?
Tennessee Williams. I am influenced by Alice Walker, which isn’t exactly Southern Gothic in the same way, but I can argue that it has some Southern Gothic leanings. Then there is film director Kasi Lemmons. She directed “Eve’s Bayou” and that is a Southern Gothic that was hugely influential to me as a kid. It is about Black children, and it takes place in New Orleans. It has a lot of elements of Southern Gothic, like the ghost story and the curse and certainly the atmosphere.
In interviews you have done previously, I notice you switch up your influences. Who are your current ones?
I am obsessed with Marilyn Monroe right now. Can’t say why, but I have been watching a lot of her movies. I am also obsessed with Josephine Baker and am reading a book about her now. As always, Stephen Sondheim, Janet Jackson. As far as fashion, it is Elsa Schiaparelli, widely accepted as the icon of the couture fashion world. Of course, Virgil Abloh, rest in peace, and all of the work he has done. I admired André Leon Talley. I still think about writing about him someday. Novelist Colson Whitehead, I love his work. I’ve been reading the Bible. The Bible is a huge influence. I am not religious, but I love history and I love mythology. I am like pulling shit from everywhere I can find it. (laughs) I like to keep a lot of books around, a bunch of art books that I can pick up and look through anytime.
It appears you are really “hot” on the Chicago theatre scene right now?
Yes, I feel very blessed. I feel like I am having my moment where people are interested in my work and in what I have to say. You know in 2020, a lot of theatres discovered racism, so a lot of people are just more open.
It would appear so. A prime example is that the leads in “Wicked” and “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway are women of color.
Why did it take so long?
Do you think there has been a sea change?
Yes, there has been a sea change in this country, in general, in the last 30 years and so that’s part of the reason. I also think it’s never been a better time for artists of color to sprout up and make something of their own. Also, we don’t need the big studios anymore. There’s streaming and the internet.
What about TikTok?
All the big studios are now going to Tik Tock to try to find people. Isn’t it amazing?
What are your thoughts regarding cultural appropriation?
There is now the problem of what people think is just internet culture or internet slang, which is just Black culture, and there are people who think lots of things are gay culture and they are Black culture.
Are you feeling your potential?
Yes. I am feeling it. I’ve worked so hard.
Do you consider yourself an overnight sensation?
No, I wouldn’t even call myself a sensation. I still feel like I’m an underground artist.
You and Mikael both appear to be on the cusp of major careers.
Mikael is just so amazing in so many ways and his capacity alone is so impressive, the things he can focus on at one time. I have never really seen him sweat. Mikael is brilliant. Though he is a visual master and a storytelling FORCE, his greatest skill as a director is also his greatest skill as a friend, his kindness and generosity.
Have you and Mikael collaborated previously?
Yes, Mikael directed “At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen” here. I am a governing board member at The Story Theatre. We are a small theatre company that is run by a committee, so instead of just one artistic director, we have seven. So, we are really trying something new. About Face is a theatre company where my play is being presented right after Phoenix. The Story Theatre is very mixed and About Face is mostly white, but Mikael is the associate artistic director there now.
What are you working on currently?
I am working on a bunch of stuff. Mikael and I are working on a couple of projects. I have a lot of things in the works, thankfully in different stages. I have one called “The Madness of Mary Todd (Lincoln),” which is done.
What do you teach and where?
I teach at Chicago’s Children’s Theatre. I am usually just teaching theatre to kids, fifth grade and younger. I am teaching them how to use the skills of theatre to have self-confidence and to express their emotions effectively and to have fun.
What satisfaction do you derive from teaching?
It reminds me that what I am doing is so much more important than who is reading my play and what grant can I receive and what award I can get nominated for and how can I climb the ladder and make something of myself and find success, whatever that means. It reminds me, and this is a little heady, that the work we do as artists, and particularly as theatre artists, is innate and is something humans must do. We must tell stories. These kids are not trying to make money from this, yet they are pretending so earnestly because it is important to them to communicate.
What does it feel like when you see plays you have written on stage?
It is always an out-of-body experience. It’s a mixture of pride and abject terror.
What are you trying to say in your work?
With my work, I am always trying to center on the perspectives of Black queer people in our understanding of American history.
How do you feel about having five NNPN productions of your show produced in the coming year?
I feel grateful that Black queer communities all over the country will be able to see this show and see themselves reflected onstage.
How about having two of your plays being produced in Indy this season? How does that feel?
(Southbank Theatre Company is presenting Guest’s “Marie Antoinette and the Magical Negroes” at Fonseca Theatre Company’s Basile Theatre June 17-26.)
It feels incredible to have the chance to get to know the Indianapolis artistic community! I also hope that my work will give a lot of Black people jobs!
What advice do you have for young people who want to pursue a theatre career?
Worry less about impressing “important” or “influential” people and focus more on nurturing the relationships you have with other people who are at your level.
What are your dreams?
I would like to continue to work with people I like and trust, people like Mikael Burke, and continue to push forward in this industry. I would like to have a play on Broadway, of course. I would also like to have a regional career, where regional markets are doing my plays and expanding their audiences through my work and building in their communities. I would like to be a writer-director for film. I am just starting to learn about cameras and film techniques.
For tickets and information about Phoenix Theatre’s “The Magnolia Ballet,” visit phoenixtheatre.org. For tickets and information about Southbank Theatre Company’s “Marie Antoinette and the Magical Negroes,” visit southbanktheatre.org.