UVA DEPARTMENT OF DRAMA MAJOR MICAH WATSON IS THE CO-RECIPIENT OF THE KENNEDY CENTER NATIONAL UNDERGRADUATE
UVA Drama major Micah Watson was notifiedlast week that she is the co-recipient of The Kennedy Center National Undergraduate Playwriting Award for her play Canaan. The award is part of the Michael Kanin Playwriting Awards Program of The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival and supported by the Education Department of the Kennedy Center. Plays submitted for the award must be full-length and written by current undergraduate students.
UVA Drama had a Q&A with Watson about her play.
Drama: What is the focus of your play?
MW: Canaan tells the coming-of-age story of a teenager and his community, caught between love, activism, and spirituality in 1968. As generations collide during a transition in the Civil Rights Movement, Washington, D.C. neighbors must decide where their loyalties lie.
Drama: What was you inspiration for the play and when did you have that inspiration?
MW: The summer before my third year, I interned at TV One, outside of D.C. I lived with my aunt in Southeast D.C. Every day, I’d walk home from the metro, passed a series of houses of assorted colors and was really fascinated by that street. I often imagined the lives of the people who lived inside of them. This neighborhood is in the midst of gentrification, so I was even more captivated by what these streets would have been like decades ago when Black life dominated the city. I knew there was something special about this space that I wanted to explore.
During that same summer, I also remember Black men, old and young, complimenting me and other Black women as we walked down the street. It didn’t feel intrusive or objectifying. It felt like an honest, sincere, and bold appreciation for the beauty of Black women, that so often goes unnoticed. That’s my favorite thing about DC. I was really impressed by the poetry of these compliments and felt as though this had to have been a tradition passed down through generations. And so, the first scene of Canaan was born.
The characters in this play are really personal for me. While none of them are biographical, I really draw upon the cadence, stories, and language of older people that I’ve come to know through my experiences in the Black church. Church communities are very dear to my heart and have really shaped my worldview. So I guess you could say that these really complex and vibrant people have been inspiring me for my entire life. The younger characters draw upon my experiences as I’ve come into adulthood and continually look for the places where Jesus and justice intersect. They are pieces of me and reflect my own political and spiritual journey.
Drama: How long has it taken you to write this play?
MW: I first began writing this play in the fall of 2016, so it’s been a little over a year now. I still don’t feel like I’m finished writing it. I initially wrote the first scene because I needed an emotional break from writing Wake Up Music! which centered on police brutality and mourning. I wrote a couple of scenes that fall and didn’t touch it again until the summer of 2017. After taking some time away from the script and really getting to mull over these characters, I fell in love with world of the play—that’s when it really took off. I’ve been continuously working on it since then.
Drama: During the writing of the play, did your focus shift from your initial inspiration to something different?
MW: Canaan was originally titled “Brown Skin Girl,” inspired by the song by Leon Bridges. It started off as a chance for me to exhale, after taking in so much trauma when writing about violence against Black bodies. Playing with the language was like a nostalgic game for me. I had so much fun drawing from people I knew. I was really intentional about celebrating Black life and writing about the joy and pride that my people carry. That is still very much a part of the play. However, as I got to know the characters better, I remembered that people are complicated—we carry hope, struggle, and uncertainty all at the same time. That’s dramatic conflict. When the characters became more personal, I knew that there were very few differences between 1968 and 2018. So this became an opportunity for me to talk about the people that drive the #BlackLivesMatter movement through really personal stories of the Civil Rights Movement.
Drama: What have you learned from the play?
MW: I’ve come to find that I’m funnier than I thought. I don’t usually use a lot of humor in my work, but I’ve really enjoyed writing things that make me laugh. I’ve also learned a lot about myself. In writing characters that are so personal, I’ve had to confront my own fears and faults in a way that has really pushed me forward. That’s been very cathartic, actually. I’ve been able to grow as an artist through this process.
Drama: What do you want audiences to take away from seeing this play?
MW: As an artist, I’m always hoping that people walk away with a lot of questions. A lot of times, audiences expect the playwright to give them answers (especially Black playwrights). I hope that the audience leaves thinking about the ways that spirituality, love, and politics complicate one another. I believe wholeheartedly in Freedom, but I don’t think that there’s one path to seeing my people overcome this struggle. I want the audience to leave asking God to show them what gifts He’s given them to help us reach that Freedom.
Drama: In the past, you’ve stated that your goal is to be a screenwriter. Has that changed at all with this experience and seeing your works on stage?
MW: Through this process I’ve realized that I’m a writer. Not just a screenwriter or playwright, but a writer who can tell stories in a lot of different mediums. I’ve been writing and making films at the same time that I’ve been working on Canaan and both art forms have informed one another. While I still have aspirations in film and television, I’ve come to realize that I can’t imagine a life without theatre. The liveness and sense of community is something that you can’t find in a lot of places. I want to do this over, and over, and over again, and also make room for my screenwriting dreams.
UVA Drama will present Canaan as part of their New Works Festival in late April. Ticket information will be available in mid-March at drama.virginia.edu.