Interview: A Play About a Bay Ridge Bookclub

Barbara CassidyLast week I sat down at Al Safa over a cup of Arabic tea with local playwright and Bay Ridgite Barbara Cassidy to talk about her time at Brooklyn College and her recent work as a both a playwright and teacher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, examining and recognizing the culture of rape within visual media and the world around us.

Our academic trajectories followed almost identical paths: an undergraduate degree in English and an MFA (playwriting for you) from Brooklyn College. What led you to Brooklyn College?
I didn’t go to college right away after high school; I worked for a few years and, after a bit, didn’t see myself as forever in the corporate world. I started taking acting classes and then decided that I needed an education. There was a gap. So I picked CUNY Brooklyn; it had a really great English department. Allen Ginsberg had taught there, and I could afford it, and I really loved it. I loved the discussions about literature; smoking outside Boylan Hall, talking about Kafka—that was the life. For grad school, I had applied to NYU, Columbia and CUNY Brooklyn, and I got in Brooklyn College’s playwriting program (not the other two), and the semester after I started, Mac Wellman took over the program, and that was it—it took off…

Where did your interest in theater come from?
I did write a play in third grade, but my teacher put it in her desk drawer. I don’t think she read it. That messed me up a little. But I think I had always been into film more than theater. I liked the subtlety of the acting in film and the power of it. I had worked with a German filmmaker, Thomas Roth, who introduced me to a lot of European film and avant-garde stuff, so my vocabulary was expanding in film. Whereas, with theater, I hadn’t seen very good theater before grad school, so my idea of theater were all Broadway musicals and maybe some naturalistic plays, but I just didn’t know what was out there on the edges, what some theatermakers were doing and experimenting with. When I studied with Mac, my ideas about theater exploded.

I think a prompt he gave, which kind of changed the way I wrote, was right after 9/11, whenever the next class that the school was open was. Obviously everyone was really shaken up, and he told us to write “broken plays.” This was totally appropriate and liberating, I think. I am interested in theater—in art—that asks questions. I approach my work that way too. If I have a lot of questions about something, or if there is a situation in which I am unsure of what to do, or what the right answer to it is, then that seems something worthy of writing about. I am not so interested in didactic work, but [rather] things that make me question myself and my assumptions. I enjoy a good argument after a piece of theater—not a pat on the back.

The influence of Bay Ridge is clear in 2010’s Anthropology of a Book Club. Can you describe your process for producing this work and what the subsequent product was like?
Anthropology of a Book Club was spawned from a night of drinking and carrying on with friends from Bay Ridge in a book-club that was mostly white. We started talking about changing the world, etc., etc., and we came to realization that we lived in this diverse community and we did not really know any of our neighbors. So we said, let’s start a “Muslim/non-Muslim book club,” and Maureen Landers suggested I write about it too.

So I started canvassing and approaching people in the street, and got many a weird look, and once rather verbally assaulted by a white woman (who was a little drunk) one night while giving out fliers. But once I got Linda Sarsour on board, I had a space at [the Arab–American Association] and book clubbers who were so generous of spirit and ideas for my play, and [who] let me audio tape every meeting. We had a reading in Bay Ridge at a very early stage in the development, and it caused a lot of conversation. I am critical of a lot of stuff that has happened here, and I want to talk about it.

Anthropology of a Book Club
Anthropology of a Book Club, 2013. Front row: Cyndi Rivera, Kari Hinkson, Gulshan Mia. Photo by Ezra Bookman

Have you shown this work in Bay Ridge?
We had a very small Manhattan production in 2013.

Would you like to show more in the area?
Yes, I would love to do in Bay Ridge.

What’s preventing this?
What stops me is money. It’s a large cast and I need the right space…If you have any ideas, let me know. Generally, I would like to produce more [stuff] locally. I think folks in Bay Ridge are adventurous in tastes and maybe aren’t given enough credit for that.

You are currently working with another Bay Ridgite, Shonna Trinch, at John Jay College on a project.
I work with Trinch (anthropologist and linguist) in a class at John Jay called “Seeing Rape,” in which we examine rape in theater, film, literature and, of course, our world. We have a serious rape problem in this country and the world as a whole. We have a problem with talking about rape too. The class at John Jay examines rape as a phenomenon in our world that has been going on for a very long time. Sometimes people’s eyes pop out of their heads when I say we teach a class on rape and depictions of rape. We teach at John Jay College of Criminal Justice! There should be more than one course on rape. We live in a world that is very antiwomen.

It was not until 1993 in this country that marital rape was criminalized in every state. Husbands could rape their wives any time they wanted because the wives were theirs to give them sex. Marital rape is still legal in India. College campuses, date rape. “Why did she go with him there if she didn’t want it?” These are questions I still hear. There is a lot of work to do and our class tries to complicate things, not have easy, pat answers for things. The students create plays, which are real artistic works, sometimes based on their own experiences, sometimes based on what is going on in the world. One of our students, Muhammad Khan, wrote about rape in Iraq perpetrated by soldiers. So it is a rich learning and creating experience, and this work at John Jay informs my own artistic work.

Barbara Cassidy
Barbara Cassidy, right, with Jibade-Khalil Huffman, Abou Farman. 2010-2011 Workspace Salon, Winter Holiday.

What’s on the agenda for the rest of 2015?
Going to MacDowell Colony to write a new piece, working with Anne Hamburger on a site-specific work for the first weekend of October on the West Side of Manhattan (a fundraiser at Elizabeth Street Gardens August 23; all welcome—first part is free bits of theater, then a pay-for-party after). I’m also collaborating with playwrights Sara Buff and Amie Hartman on a play about a missing girl.

Barbara Cassidy’s work has been seen in New York at The Flea Theatre, Little Theatre at Dixon Place, The New York International Fringe Festival, Manhattan Repertory Theater and Bric Studios. Her play, Interim, was nominated for the Barrie Stavis Award by Playwrights Horizons, and premiered at SMU (Dallas) in March 2012. It is published in the anthology, New Downtown Now (University of MN Press eds. Lee & Wellman). A scene from her play The Director is included in DUO: the Best Scenes for Two for the 21st Century.  That play, about a film director who approaches women on the streets of New York, was inspired by Cassidys experiences with the film director James Toback.

Cassidy was a 2010-2011 Workspace Resident with Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and received a 2011 grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council for her play Anthropology of a Book Club, about a Brooklyn book club composed of Muslim and non-Muslim women. She is currently working on an existential piece called The Propositional Function. Additionally, she has received a 2014 SPARC grant to create a piece of theater with blind seniors from the VISIONS Center in Manhattan. She lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with her family, teaches at John Jay College, and is a Brooklyn Arts Council Teaching Artist.

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