An Interview with Kermit Frazier
In the following interview, TMR intern Jed Graham talks with Kermit Frazier about his essay “Snow.” In that essay, Frazier delves into his childhood years spent in the Washington, DC, area during a pivotal period of American history. “Snow” was a nonfiction runner-up in the 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest and first appeared in print in TMR 42:2. You can read the essay here.
A revised version of “Snow” also appears as the second chapter in Kermit’s recently released memoir, First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age, published by McFarland Publishing. First Acts is a candid and emotionally evocative glimpse at his coming-of-age as a Black youth, set against the backdrop of the social revolutions of mid-twentieth century America.
Jed Graham: “Snow” begins with a powerful metaphor for the Black experience in America. Would you say this metaphor embodies your philosophy about where we are culturally and as a nation?
Kermit Frazier: Well, I suppose that one key expression, which appears in both the opening paragraph and as the final words of “Snow,” is “the stuff of dreams.” And if the dream, the ideal in some respects, is a kind of complex, substantial integration in this country or at least a respectful mixing of races, ethnic groups, classes, even points of view, perhaps, then yes, it’s still, forever, seemingly, “the stuff of dreams” as far as I’m concerned.
JG: Your childhood took place during a momentous time in American history. As you point out in “Snow,” segregation was on its last legs, and integration brought with it new benefits and complications. As a part of the generation that grew up during these times, how is your perspective different from the generations that came before you and those that came afterward, and do we get to see more of this perspective in First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age?
KF: I suppose that whatever perspectives there are of generations that came before me are rooted principally in the portraits of my parents, who were born in Washington, DC, in the 1920s. My grandparents migrated to DC earlier as young adults from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. And all of them, parents and grandparents alike, knew de jure (by law) segregation and lived through it, even thrived through it in many respects, despite it all. My memories of segregation, though, are much more short-lived, and my kids have no such memory, so to speak. And I suppose you might call that some sort of “arc of history.” Nevertheless, de facto segregation—segregation in reality—persists. Much of it has to do with housing patterns and perceptions of difference and, of course, at times out-and-out deadly discrimination still. Driving, walking, breathing while Black.
As far as the entire memoir is concerned, the actions, and incidents, are rooted in the past, principally the 1950s and ’60s, although, of course, my present self is watching over in perspective my past selves, so to speak. Also, the final chapter, “Flux,” is an afterword, whose perspective is essentially 2020, both literally and metaphorically.
JG: An especially poignant moment in “Snow” is the recounting of your mother’s experience during the upheaval of urban renewal/removal. You wrote, “When they had to move, their search for housing was traumatic for her: she was so afraid that they’d wind up homeless and on the streets.” How strongly does her experience echo today’s issues of “social and economic isolation,” and “increased gentrification?”
KF: First of all, let me say that both my mother and my father were extraordinary people. I’m largely here and who I am because of them, however critically I’ve also managed to shape myself as myself. My mother was just seven years old when her father died of meningitis at thirty-two in 1932. Her mother was only twenty-nine, suddenly widowed with four kids. She went to work during the Depression as a housekeeper for white families, helping in some sense to raise their kids as she strongly raised her own. Back then, a lot of my mother’s relatives lived in Southwest DC, which is the smallest of the four sections of the originally diamond-shaped, one-hundred-square-mile nation’s capital. But in 1847, Virginia, which, along with Maryland, donated land to create DC, had all the land she’d donated retroceded to her. Land across the Potomac River, essentially Alexandria. Supposedly, some say, because folks wanted to preserve the active slave trade there. But that’s another story. . . In any event, that’s why Southwest is DC’s smallest quadrant and why DC is about sixty-eight square miles rather than the original one-hundred. In fact, if you look at a map, you can still trace the vestiges of the southwestern diamond shape by including Arlington County, VA.
Southwest was more swampy and mosquito-ridden and thus less desirable, which is why Black folks could live there in their “shotgun” houses. But then the federal government wanted the land for itself, claimed it by eminent domain, and Black folks, all folks, had to move. And that’s not only part of the story of my mother’s memory but part of the continual co-optation through eminent domain or gentrification without building affordable housing. And that’s a main root of increasing homelessness today in cities across the country. It’s something I briefly allude to in “Flux: An Afterword,” the final chapter of First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age.
JG: What are some positive lessons you hope that individuals and families who are bearing the brunt of the current iteration of inequality can glean from “Snow” and your memoir?
KF: First of all, that memory is more than a “theatricalization of the self,” as one writer has essentially put it. It can also be both an anchor and a perspective that affects change. Look how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go. And also, that growing up itself should be a form of positive integration as one strives to merge aspects of oneself into a meaningful, positive, progressive whole. As for the country as a whole, well, that’s a whole other story.
JG: You are a playwright, TV writer, essayist, and now a memoirist as well. How has working in these different genres challenged you as a writer?
KF: Even before I enrolled in the PhD program in English at the University of Chicago, I was writing prose fiction. Then when I dropped out of that program after a year to study acting at NYU, I kept writing and had a couple of short stories published in literary journals. I didn’t write my first full-length play, which had actually begun as yet another piece of prose fiction, until the characters just wouldn’t shut up while I was acting in a play off-off-Broadway. (It was a revival, by the way, of Paul Green’s 1940s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son.) From then on, I switched to writing plays, although I continued to write prose fiction, off and on—and still do—being a playwright was suddenly essential to me and my artistic relationship with theater, especially since acting wasn’t getting me all that far. So, I kept focusing on writing plays and getting them produced. Much later I got my first television writing job, worked in Los Angeles a bit, then back to New York and on to the wonderful Ghostwriter, which I helped to create and for which I was a head writer, and then on from there—more than a dozen different television series in various genres thus far. And through it all, I’ve learned that for me, television writing is as much about making a living as it is about creating, however wonderful that can always be, while being a playwright is first about complete ownership of one’s artistic vision and then about possibly making a living.
Meanwhile, I was writing the occasional essay and book review. And then, twenty years ago, I began looking back more on my life, how I grew up, and the twists and turns of it all, which led me to begin writing about it. But I wasn’t interested in crafting some chronological autobiography or memoir, which I think would have bored me, but rather in writing a series of discrete essays, memories, each of which would begin with and grow from, or be rooted in, some metaphor. That approach was much more interesting to me. “Aspects of perception,” one of my early working titles, was more interesting to me creatively than rote, chapter-by-chapter chronology. Hence, most of the titles of the ten chapters in my memoir are one word— “Snow,” “Drive,” “Pee,” “Fire,” “Ironing,” “Geometry” —that are both concrete and image-bearing. Or they are expressions that circle and then embrace both the concrete and the metaphorical— “How I Danced,” “Reading Apprehension,” “Of Crickets and Boys.” It’s a way, I suppose, to “see” three-dimensionally as I write in whatever form. And hopefully, in some sense, each form “informs” the others as I write, as I shuffle between, or perhaps more ricochet among, them.
JG: Your body of work spans the full range of audience age groups. Are there themes or common threads that, say, individuals who watched Ghostwriter as children can revisit in your plays, essays, and memoir?
KF: Hmm. How to answer that question. . . I would say, of course, that principally I write about people, characters who are striving to define, refine, or rediscover themselves. And their struggle and drive grow out of specific needs, desires, and obsessions. To live, to be alive, after all, is to want, hope, seek, create, discover. And of course, that which constitutes story, which creates drama, which causes one to lean into what one sees or reads, to want to viscerally experience what happens next, is the obstacles characters face, be they internal or external. Hence, the characters in Ghostwriter, the multi-ethnic group of smart, curious, courageous young folks in Brooklyn, were striving to simultaneously solve mysteries and to discover more about themselves, to grow. And I hope that’s the same for the characters or narrators in everything I write in whatever form, or genre. That’s perhaps some common thread.
JG: In recent years, one of your early plays, Kernel of Sanity has received renewed attention. How does the theater world of today compare with that of 1978 when it comes to getting your plays into production?
KF: Actually, Kernel of Sanity, is that first play that I wrote while acting in Native Son off-off-Broadway. That very next year I was fortunate enough to have it selected to be workshopped at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. It wasn’t formally produced, though, until 30 years later, by Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre in New York. But the wonderful, Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright, Paula Vogel, selected it in the spring of 2020 as the inaugural presentation in her new online series, “Bard at the Gate,” which she created and produced to showcase what she considered to be overlooked plays. And that generated a full-page feature article in the “Arts and Leisure” section of the New York Times (June 24, 2020) entitled, “A Timely Reading for an Overlooked Play.” That attention has generated further interest in my work, ironically, I suppose, during the pandemic and hence online. Overall, though, except for the necessary “BIPOC Demands for White American Theater” movement that has caused theaters to deal more honestly, if still fitfully, with a number of inclusion issues, getting one’s plays produced remains an incredible challenge. Nevertheless, it’s always about the work. There’s nothing for me quite like being in a theater, in rehearsal for a new play of mine. That’s what I’m forever seeking. But of course, one must write it first. And writing, in whatever form or genre, will always be what I do.
Kermit Frazier’s more than twenty-five plays have been produced at such theaters as the New Federal Theatre, Detroit Repertory Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Seattle Children’s Theatre, and Baltimore Center Stage. Some have also been published by Broadway Play Publishing and Dramatic Publishing. In addition, he’s written for several television series, including head writer for the popular children’s mystery series, Ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in: Callaloo, Essence, Black World, Green Mountains Review, American Theatre, and the New York Times Book Review. His memoir, First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age, was published in May 2022.
Jed Graham is a 2022 summer intern at the Missouri Review and a junior at Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri, where he is majoring in English and creative writing.