Chris Weikel

CHRIS WEIKEL – 2014 FOR "WORD FROM KAMPALA"

“The real transformative power of the theatre starts with the ability to turn a blank page into an entire world.”

In 2014, Chris Weikel won the Smith Prize for Political Theater for his play Word from Kampala, the story of Evangelical missionaries who, after returning home to America, have their ‘good deeds’ haunt them in a very personal way. It is a compelling story, which is no surprise, since Chris Weikel is a very compelling and witty playwright. I hope you enjoy this interview with him.

What made you want to become a playwright?
I started my life in the theatre as a performer, and I still enjoy stretching those muscles...

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What made you want to become a playwright?
I started my life in the theatre as a performer, and I still enjoy stretching those muscles when I can, but at some point I realized that I had more to say than other people’s scripts were allowing me to say. I had more to say than any character I could ever feasibly play could say. So I had to write words for others to say, which has proven ever so much more satisfying.

Once I started writing I realized that my love for the theater, even when I was a youngster, was rooted not in performances but in the words the performers spoke. I love actors, I love acting, but the real transformative power of the theatre starts with the ability to turn a blank page into an entire world. It’s also just plain fun.


You won based on your proposal to write a play called ‘Word from Kampala’. Briefly, what is the story, and what inspired you to write it?
As an LGBTQ person, I’ve been deeply concerned with the Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda. It is by far the most draconian piece of legislation criminalizing homosexuality in the world. It makes not only acts of homosexuality punishable by life in prison (the draft language of the bill called for the death penalty), but it further criminalizes anyone who speaks positively about homosexuality or anyone who fails to report a suspected homosexual to authorities. So it really promotes hatred and persecution of LGBTQ people across the board, and makes it impossible to speak out against the law without risking imprisonment.

While the law, which was passed early in 2014, was recently overturned by the Ugandan Supreme Court on procedural grounds, it is still widely popular and the climate of violent intolerance it has created is still very much alive. It is only a matter of time before it is re-introduced.

One of the dirty secrets of this legislation is that it can trace its roots to American Evangelical missionaries who have been traveling to Uganda for the last several decades and preaching a particularly homophobic brand of Christianity. They feel they are losing the culture war in American but think they can win it in Uganda, thereby reviving a worldwide Evangelical movement. And at the moment they are winning.

What inspired me to write about this was how many of my friends and acquaintances –very well-informed, liberal, left-leaning, straight allies – had no idea that this kind of persecution was going on and what Americans’ role in it has been. It’s also why I’ve chosen to focus my play on American responsibility, and I’m writing the story of a pair of white, former evangelical missionaries who are suddenly confronted in a very real and personal way with the consequences of their actions while preaching in Uganda.


How would you describe your work? Do you write about certain themes, or in an unusual style? In other words, why would people want to see one of your plays?
My cocktail party answer to that question (which I hate) has been that I write “gay comedies” but that has always felt a little too reductive. I don’t mind the associations of either word, I just hate having to pigeonhole myself. I will say that most of my work is filtered through my experience as an LGBTQ American, so that’s the point of view I offer. Whether I’m writing about super-heroes or pirates or fairy-tale pigs, they’re all filtered through my unique gay lens.

I mention super-heroes, pirates and pigs in particular because I have written plays about all three, so I guess you could say that I have a bit of a whimsical, theatrical side. It’s one of the challenges before me as I write Word from Kampala which at the moment doesn’t use any obvious flights of fancy to illuminate the pain of the characters.

I think that the common thread running through my best work, however, is that I always search for the heart of the characters. It’s that quickened, sometimes giddy, sometimes terrified pulse that hopefully seems familiar and makes the audience vibrate alongside the people who inhabit my worlds. Or at least I hope so.


Most people have only a vague idea what it means to win a commission to write a play in a year’s time. What does the process involve? Do you have to meet certain interim deadlines, or turn in the finished play at the end?
The Smith Prize and NNPN have given me a great deal of freedom to write the play I want to write. There are some deliverable dates for the first draft and then for a revised draft following a developmental reading or workshop. Then comes the process of putting the finished product in front of producing entities, which brings with it another whole set of deadlines.

The great thing about this commission is that it isn’t interested in creating merely a neat script that will sit on a shelf somewhere, or something that will be produced once and never heard of again. The goal is to create a viable, produce-able and reproduce-able property that is also politically relevant.


As you write Word from Kampala, has the story taken unexpected turns?
Absolutely. I had initially envisioned this play as being a very simple, emotional piece that took place, for the most part, all in one room, but I quickly realized you can’t write about gays in Uganda without having a gay Ugandan character on stage. That intimidated me somewhat, because it is culturally outside my comfort zone as a writer. I was much more certain about the American missionary characters, and what they needed to go through.

As I’ve begun writing, however, I’ve found I relate the most to the Ugandan character who at the moment I’m calling Ruthie. Her hopes and fears as a fellow member of the LGBTQ community are far more important to the story than any particulars about the white middle class American experience of the other characters that I had initially thought it would be so easy for me to break apart.


How much, and what kind, of research have you done?
In some ways it feels like that’s all I’ve done, though I still have a lot more to do. There are some terrific documentaries out there and of course the good old reliable internet. I’ve also been following the work of some terrific activists who work with NGOs both here in the US and in various African counties, both online and in person. That’s been quite illuminating. And daunting at the same time. I also keep dreaming that I can scrape together the resources to take a trip, but we’ll see….


Who do you rely on to give you feedback on a play-in-progress?
I have a terrific network of fellow playwrights who I trust to give me honest feedback. My cohort form Grad School at Hunter will always tell it like it is. I’m also lucky to be a member of a monthly playwright’s group at the Lark Play Development Center called the “Monthly Meeting of the Minds” who provide a wonderfully safe space to hear work aloud. Tina Howe has also been a particular mentor of mine over the years and always reminds me to be true to my own voice.


Did the Smith Prize help you in some particular way?
This issue has always been important to me and I’ve often thought: “This needs to be discussed!” and “Someone should write a play about this!” I never suspected that that someone might be me. I’d just never entertained the idea. The Smith Prize gave me the opportunity to think “Well, what if you wrote about this? What would that play look like?” I guess the Smith Prize gave me my “What if.”

Oh and deadlines. Nothing spurs me to write like a deadline.