When most of us get bit by the genealogy bug, we produce family trees that are, at best, moderately interesting to our relatives and perhaps a few polite historians. When Keith Josef Adkins got interested in his ancestry, he made a play that imagines a world few of us have even considered. His newest work, Safe House, which premieres at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in October, was inspired by his own forebearers—a free black family of shoemakers in Cynthiana, Kentucky, before the Civil War. The 1983 Princeton High graduate’s work has ranged from comedy (he’s written for Girlfriends on UPN) to controversy: He put together a collection of short plays called Facing Our Truth, written in response to the Trayvon Martin killing. When we spoke, it was the first anniversary of the trial that found George Zimmerman not guilty in Martin’s death. So that’s where our conversation began.
Facing Our Truth had a performance at the Public Theater last night. How did that project come about? Me and many other people I knew from every possible demographic were really confused and frustrated [by the Trayvon Martin killing and the trial of George Zimmerman]. What I decided to do was to commission six writers to write in response to the verdict, or to write about race, or privilege. Then I reached out to several theater companies to ask them if they’d be willing to present these short plays. [They] all said yes even before they saw the plays. It went viral after that. More theaters got on board.
Have there been different reactions to the work in different cities? Oh my God, yes. The Goodman Theatre did a two-day presentation of it back in March, and the literary manager called me to say that it was the most diverse audience the theater had ever had in their space—age, ethnicity, race, gender, class, it was the most amazing thing. She said the conversations there were really frank and it got explosive, but everyone kept listening to each other; it wasn’t that anyone was fighting. And then I went to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. They did it too—the students produced it, directed, stage-managed, everything. And during the post-show conversation, there was an older gentleman who said he didn’t understand what’s the big deal around profiling. He said it was the police’s job to profile. People were going, “What are you talking about?”
I know you went to Princeton High. Were you a theater kid who got interested in writing or a writer who got interested in theater? In high school theater was not on my radar; I was a reporter for the school newspaper and editor of the yearbook and I really liked the idea of writing. Although my mom took me to New York once when I was pretty young; we saw a couple of plays and I was really excited by that. I think we saw The River Niger and Purlie Victorious. And in a way it was kind of legitimizing the black experience—even though it wasn’t my experience—by having it play out on stage.
So at what point did you decide theater was the way you wanted your writing to go? My mother’s side of the family was always telling stories, impersonating people. My grandmother probably should have been an actress! And my dad’s family—they’re from Georgia, so there’s always a good story there. So I grew up in an environment where stories were always around. In high school I thought I was going to be a broadcast journalist. But it wasn’t until my senior year at Wright State University that I decided I wanted to act. I graduated and moved to New York briefly. I tried acting for about nine months, but I didn’t like the idea of being judged; I felt kind of powerless. I moved to the Bay Area and spent four years being a poet and elementary school teacher. Then a friend of mine challenged me to write a play.
I understand that your play Safe House was inspired by your family. How did that come about? Growing up, I didn’t know much about my grandmother’s family. When my grandmother was a widow, she was finally talking about things—about herself, and about her family. I was writing something for school about slavery, and she said casually, “Oh, we were never slaves.” I just figured she didn’t know what she was talking about. So when I got interested in genealogy I decided to start with her family first. [Through research] I found she knew what she was taking about! This is why no one ever talked about slavery on that side of the family! What was exciting to me was, in the 1850s, part of her family was living in Cynthiana, Kentucky—a family of shoemakers. I got really fascinated by the idea of this free family of color. What would it be like to explore this idea of what it means to be free when the majority of the black community are enslaved? That’s what Safe House came out of.
What are you working on now? I’m working on re-writes to Safe House, of course. But I’m also working on a new play that’s opening here in New York in early November called Pitbulls. It’s about a black Appalachian community—very rural—and their industry is pit bulls. They raise them, fight them, and sell them.
You live and work in New York, but you seem to have the ability to put your finger on the heart of what’s happening in communities where the rest of us live. Is that hard to do? What inspires me is place. Cincinnati had its ups and downs; it’s complicated like any other city. But I still love that region. Even though I may have judgments about the people or the politics there, I can sometimes remove my politics and just see people. That allows me to go back to Ohio and Northern Kentucky and black Appalachia to explore where I come from without always judging. With Pitbulls, when we lived in Woodlawn, one of our neighbors down the street had a pit bull farm and he fought dogs every Saturday. Those Saturdays were just horrifying. A part of me wanted to revisit that.
Safe House, Cincinnati Playhouse In The Park, Oct 18–Nov 15, cincyplay.com