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Being funny in sad times

An interview with playwright Inda Craig-Galván

Playwright Inda Craig-Galván. Photo by Julián Juaquin.

In Black Super Hero Magic Mama, Inda Craig-Galván manages an impossible task — she tackles the epidemic of police violence against Black people, one of the most wrenching issues of our time, in a way that is not only honest and deeply real but also somehow humorous and wildly theatrical. At the beginning of rehearsals, I had the chance to chat with Craig-Galván about the origins of the play, the role of fantasy in the world she’s created and the importance of the audience being allowed to laugh.

The play has so many tonal shifts, often within the same scene — including the use of a lot of humor. Why was it important to you to bring humor into the piece?

Inda Craig-Galván: I’ve done a lot of sketch comedy. When I started writing plays, I tried to write very serious plays, because I thought that was what playwriting was. I left my sketch comedy background in my past and tried to leave it there — I compartmentalized it. And those early plays sucked. When I decided — during my second year of grad school, which is when I wrote Black Super Hero Magic Mama — that I wanted to find my voice and not mimic what I thought playwriting was, it occurred to me that I needed to stop separating my past from my present and my future. I realized that the plays that I responded to were never just one or the other, comedy or drama — I always preferred the plays that did both. And I also realized that if I was going to figure out who I was as a writer, it would have to include the tropes of sketch comedy — the moving around in time, flashback, flash forward and being funny in sad times or finding sadness in funny times. It clicked. So that’s, I think, what I’ve been doing ever since.

You speak about this piece as both a response to the expectations on grieving Black mothers and as an homage to fantastical stories. What was the spark of inspiration for you to bring these two seemingly disparate ideas together?

ICG: I was watching Tamir Rice’s mother at a press conference on the news when I started working on this play, so I knew I wanted to write something about the topic. Everything that I was seeing was very sad, and I didn’t want to do that. The comic book elements came from a time when I was with my daughter and I saw what seemed like a woman getting into an altercation with a man in a parking lot. They weren’t speaking English, and I didn’t want to approach because I thought, “maybe he’s just telling her a story and being very animated — or maybe she’s in trouble but I don’t know and I’ve got my daughter with me.” We got in the car and I said to her, “If I were a superhero, I would have gone over there and just kicked his ass.” And then I realized, “oh gosh, that’s it.” On top of that, the theory that Sabrina [the main character of Black Super Hero Magic Mama] has about Harry Potterand other fantasy stories — in which a child loses a parent or has some other trauma and then goes into a magical world, but doesn’t really go anywhere — that theory is just my theory. It’s my personal theory that none of it is ever real — that they’re just these wonderful stories about how children cope with extreme grief, but we forget that as we’re watching or reading and only see the fantasy. Children aren’t the only ones that need that coping mechanism.

What about this story do you think makes it right for the stage?

ICG: There’s an element of us not knowing if it’s happening at all — thinking that maybe all of this is only happening in Sabrina’s mind. There are ways to show that in film or television, but I think the audience ends up being let down. On stage, the audience can be let in on the fact that something might be happening in someone’s head — you can show what’s happening in a brain on stage, and everybody’s okay with it.

Is there anything else you want the audience to know going in?

ICG: I want people to know that it’s okay to laugh and it’s okay to find the joyous moments in the play. I didn’t intend to write a play that’s just about grief. I want them to feel excited at the fights, and laugh at the jokes, and find comfort in two boys hanging out together.

By Rachel Wiegardt-Egel

For tickets and showtimes, please visit geffenplayhouse.org/magicmama or call our Box Office at 310.208.5454 (open daily, 7:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.).

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