January 14, 2020 | Theatre,
Will Power, a playwright by and for the people
A playwright, performer, rapper, lyricist, educator, and beyond, Will Power is an artist who views theatre as a vehicle for transformation. Credited as a pioneer of hip-hop theatre, which made way for colossal hits like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, Power has fostered a career in the arts that focuses deeply on storytelling with numerous awards and accolades behind them. But Power always returns to the story and people at hand, whether it is an adaptation, new work, or historical retelling. The script for Detroit Red (FEB 01-16) is no different, highlighting the brief moments of history that otherwise might be looked over and finding the connections that bring audiences together in conversation.
“Theater to me is like secular church. That’s kind of how I look at it and that’s what inspired me in the community. I saw the importance of that and the electricity and aliveness of that,” Power explains, a mantra that can be seen in his body of work. Even the process of Detroit Red relied heavily on interviews and workshops with Roxbury community members who knew Malcolm X when he lived in Boston. For Power, storytelling is a community affair and relies on collective of orators, not just his sole perspective on the page.
With a story bank and a blank page before him, the process turns to rhythm as Power finds the musicality in his plays. It requires zero distractions with no music, no loudly colored posters on the walls, just the peace and quiet of a playwright with his words. “I like quiet places and I hear the dialogue. It’s all about the rhythm for me. It’s all rhythm,” Power describes. “If I write the songs for a musical, I’ll get the rhythm first then the words will come. With a straight play the words come with the rhythm, but it’s heavy rhythm.”
Because Power’s plays often rest on the stories of giants, with the likes of Muhammed Ali or adaptations of Richard III, his rhythmic approach is able to cut through the masquerade of historical fame and bring audiences into a vulnerability otherwise clouded by previous perceptions. Power’s words take audiences into the behind-the-scenes lives of historic figures and creates a unique relationship with audience members. “As a writer, it’s not always about having answers,” Power delves, “but about having deep, nuanced, authentic conversations with the audience.”
The beauty of his work, regardless which of his many hats he is wearing, is that Power always returns to the story and the audience in that story. Whether it is the community members meeting in Roxbury to discuss Malcolm X, broaching political polarity and division, and shining a light on the histories long forgotten, Power holds his people close. With each poetic line of dialogue, you feel the story and the people holding the rhythm, almost like an omnipresent metronome.
“Shakespeare wrote for his time,” Power states. “Today we write for our time.” And aren’t we lucky to have our own poetic Will in our midst.
Detroit Red (FEB 01-16) has it’s world premiere production at the Emerson Paramount Center in the Robert J. Orchard Theatre.