Chisa Hutchinson's Audio Play 'Proof of Love' Finds The Nuances In Writing About Love, Black People, And Class
The first playwright from Audible’s Emerging Playwrights Fund to hit the stage, Chisa Hutchinson discusses the complicated issues she tackled and how fun it was to work in a new format.By Abby WestJul 24, 2019 1:03 PM
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Playwright Chisa Hutchinson thought it was a longshot when she applied for Audible's Emerging Playwright Fund last year, but it wasn't too long before the acclaimed writer, whose work has graced the National Black Theater and Second Stage Theater, got the call that she was in. Her lovely and poignant play, Proof of Love, became the first of the Audible playwrights to hit the stage and is now out on Audible.com. The one-woman play finds Constance, an upper middle-class woman facing the possibility that her marriage would end in a most devastating manner.
Listen in as we talk about the personal wells Hutchinson drew inspiration from, how stereotypes of Black life threatens us all, and how excited she was by the challenge of writing for audio.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Abby West: Hi, I'm Audible editor Abby West, and I'm here with the acclaimed playwright and Newark native Chisa Hutchinson, author of Proof of Love, the inaugural stage production from Audible's Emerging Playwrights Fund. Welcome, Chisa.
Chisa Hutchinson: Thank you.
AW: Now it's, I think, about a year in from when you first learned you were joining the fund.
AW: The Emerging Playwrights Fund. What drew you to it? What was it about the plan for this Audio-first stage production?
CH: Okay. This is a funny story because I remember when the news came out that Audible was going to basically earmark, like five million dollars or some ridiculous amount of money to commission playwrights to write radio plays. And I was thinking when I first read the article, oh man, that would be so great to get a piece of that... like, "That would be so cool." But they're probably going to go with the more established writers who've at least been finalists for Pulitzers and things.
And then I didn't think that they were going to be looking at me. But shortly after that, I got a call from my agent saying, "Hey, so Audible wants to sit down to discuss the possibility of a commission with you." And I said, "Really?" I was not prepared at all, but I sat down with Amelia Lapenta and we really hit it off. And I was so excited by this idea that you can do basically the same thing that you do with live theater, but like through people's ears. So, to have this platform and the challenge of trying to get people's attention or to move people through their ears.
AW: Yes, yes.
CH: I'm always up for a good challenge. When they said, "Okay, yeah, you can basically write anything you want, but it's got to just have one or two characters, and it's got to work in the audio format," I said, "Okay, cool, cool. I can do that." And it's been a very cool process. Again, challenging to sort of land on an idea that works. But that's how I came into it, just super grateful and then also feeling kind of scrappy like, "Yeah, I can do this. Yeah!"
AW: I like the idea that you were just jazzed by the potential. You saw all the potential there.
CH: Yeah. Like, how could you not?
AW: Well, it seems that when some people first hear about it, they're daunted by the fact that you do have to go to minimal characters to be able to keep it pretty straightforward. Was that one of the challenges for you?
CH: Definitely. First of all, plays come at me visually, typically. I see people, I see the characters. I see a really striking opening image or something. I'm a very visual person. Oh and I typically write plays that are...[large]. Man. My first agent that I had would get really frustrated with me because I kept writing these plays that required a minimum of six actors.
CH: And she's like, "Girl, nobody's going to do your play. Just write a nice two-hander."
AW: Pair it down, pair it down.
CH: Pair it down. And I just didn't have any ideas that I wanted to write. I didn't have anything that I wanted to write that only required two characters.
CH: So but for this, I've gotten to a place where I feel more confident about my ability to grab people with as few... using as few tools as possible.
AW: Right. I think you're using a lot of tools, honestly. And in Proof of Love, I think that you hit on a way to keep that narrative going and keep people engaged, and bring in other characters through the monologue and the sounds from...
CH: Yeah. Because what I didn't want to do, and no offense to anyone who's ever done a one-man show or a one-person show. But typically, the one-person shows are basically stand-up comedy routines, but sometimes not funny.
CH: So, what I wanted to do was sort of the antithesis of that and have it be not a one-person show, but a one-person play.
CH: Like to really have it be a drama that's unfolding in real-time for the audience, but not directly addressed to the audience. Which, I feel, has its limitations. If you address an audience directly, and that audience isn't really into... It's risky.
AW: It's risky.
CH: You're very heavily reliant on the audience members' ability to relate personally to whatever it is this person is sharing.
AW: Rather than watching a story unfold in front of them.
CH: Right. Exactly. So, I feel like there's more of an assumption of the, "Oh, you know what I mean?" Right. When someone is directly addressing you versus you get to sit back in your chair or be a fly on the wallandjust sort of witness this thing that's happening, and you don't necessarily have to feel some kind of way about it, however, you feel about it.
CH: Right. There isn't this pressure to relate.
AW: Right. Definitely. The play is about Constance Daily, a middle-aged black woman who is, and I love this setup, "as close to being wasp while bleeding black as you can get."
CH: She is.
AW: And how a tragic accident forces her to reevaluate her life and her marriage. I personally love the way you set things up so that you can pull in different stories. And it hits on socioeconomic themes, class, and interracial issues.
AW: So how did this come to you?
CH: In bits and pieces. I've observed a lot... there are a lot of women in my life. I'm really close with my mom, for starters, and my grandma, who have actually had this experience of discovering that their husbands were having years-long affairs. Which is hard enough, but they also both then had to deal with the very sudden death of their husbands. Either immediately after or because of the death, they then discovered this affair that happened. And what a...
AW: It's a lot.
CH: Yeah, to have the rug pulled out from under you. And I saw them really struggling with that. My mom, in particular, who is like the most lovable and loyal... She's just so warm and so giving. And to see her begin to sort of question whether or not the love that she was receiving, or thought she was receiving, was real. Or even if she's lovable at all.It was so painful to watch her going through that. And for a good year, year and a half, even to some extent still now to this day, still just not having a real sturdy leg to stand on as far as being able to take for granted that the man that you spent all that time with was really in love with you. And that's just...
AW: Everything is a question.
CH: Yeah. Right. And I know a lot of women who have had an experience like this. So I figured, okay, well that can be a vehicle. There's a very human story that people can relate to. There's a human story. I don't typically write dysfunctional family drama or, "Oh, I'm unhappy in my marriage."
CH: I don't typically write those plays or narratives. They don't really do anything for me when I feel like they're limited to the person who's experiencing it. When it's... I don't want to say self-indulgent.
AW: Just narrower focus.
CH: Yeah, yeah. When it's just a sort of focused on an individual, right? So I had to figure out how to layer in some messaging about class and the assumptions that we make about each other based on class. What money does for people, what happens when someone who doesn't have money suddenly does have money, and how that changes things or doesn't.
CH: As I actually am. I grew up as poor. And I'm doing okay for myself now, but in between, I lived with a very wealthy family while I was going to this fancy private school on scholarship kind of a thing. And so, I've been exposed to all the different... I've been very poor, very urban, hood chick. I've been that chick. I've been that hood chick. And then had this weird transition where it was like, "Okay, and now, okay 'ask.' Not 'ax.'"
CH: That's just like one. That's the shorthand. But I've been exposed to those two extremes, and so I think it was really easy to think, "Oh, okay, well what would happen if?" Because first of all, you never get to see a rich black person on stage. Right? Like how often does that happen? But they exist. I swear, they exist. So, what happens when you put one on stage, and she's got to confront the possibility that she's not as woke as she thinks she is? What happens when you put those two extreme ways of existing into the same room? And really force them to deal with each other, force them to call each other out on their shit. What happens when you see them interacting in a meaningful way and not just sort of like, "Oh, here's a housekeeper in a rich person's house."
CH: But her husband has grown up poor and really worked his way into his money. Right? I think he has had a very different experience from her and was constantly reminded of that in a way that was a little alienating, I think.
AW: That was one of the themes that I really loved about it. I recently had just that conversation with someone. I grew up as an immigrant kid. I think I was a full-grown adult before I had friends who were in Jack and Jill. I was like, "What's Jack and Jill?" Finding out about Jack and Jill...
AW: And cotillions and... It's like this whole other black life that I had no idea about.
CH: Yeah. I didn't either. I read... What did I read? Our Kind of People, that book. I read that book and that blew my face off, my head, [my] mind... I was not the same after that. I said, "Oh wow, there's this."
You mean there are black people who weren't descended from slaves, for example?
AW: Because you're not taught that.
AW: And if you're not exposed to it, you don't know.
CH: No. There are black people who haven't always been victims their entire life.
CH: Their grandparents didn't come over on the slave ship.
AW: They have no trauma story.
CH: No trauma story.
CH: And I'm like, "Wow, what must that be like?"
AW: I love that line in there because you have Constance with a little bit of a grist with her daughter, Maddie, who is now super woke...
CH: Yes. Yes.
AW: ... And rebelling against her middle class or wealthier upbringing. And Constance saying that "There's more than one way to be a black person."
AW: And that actually really lands... We had a number of people who work at Audible who went to see the stage show, and that was a big talking point coming out of it.
CH: Yeah. And you know what? Oh man, it still bothers me... but there are people who are going to come, who have seen this play or going to see it or hear it, and still not get that point.
AW: Because they're going to think it's an indictment on Constance.
AW: Do you think that's fair?
CH: Yes. It's really an indictment of any person who allows class markers to be the deciding factor as to a person's actual worth, or what they have to offer the world. The quality of their thought. Or whether or not they even think at all. There's, oh man, there is a review of this play in which the guy, the writer, said something like, "Yeah, I thought the dialogue, her speech was really not exactly believable. The only part where it sounded believable was when she was imitating the mistress from the hood. That was really the only part that sounded realistic to me." And I was thinking, oh yeah, because that's your frame of reference.
CH: That's what you think all black people sound like. And if they don't sound like that, then they're not really black or they're not real. They're not actual people. So, that was upsetting. I was like, "Oh dude, how can you watch this and not get the point?" Which was, there are different ways of being black and because there are different ways of being black, there's always going to be that potential for conflict and for judgment, not just...
AW: Not from just from without, but also within.
CH: Yeah! So, Constance judging poorer blacks is one thing, but poor black people, we...I still identify as a poor black lady. But we have thoughts about bougie blacks.
CH: We're like, "I don't know that I really want to associate with you." And you're like, "Oh, you identify with the oppressor or like whatever."
AW: Or you just won't get me. You won't get me.
CH: We make judgments... Oh, you won't get it right? And we make judgments about each other based on that, and we miss out. Who knows? Who knows what we're missing out on because we make those snap judgments. "Oh, you're one of those. You're a bougie black. Oh, you're one of those like hood black people. You're one of those aspirational blacks..." Yeah. Whatever.
AW: Right? It's a more nuanced conversation than most people are used to having in a public way.
CH: Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! I don't see that. I don't really see that dynamic explored a lot. Lydia Diamond did it with her play. What was it? Oh, something People. [Smart People] She did it with that, I think because there is the... I can't even call her poor because I think her mom is a professor or something.
AW: Right, right. Just not wealthy.
CH: She just wasn't wealthy. She probably didn't have a cotillion.
AW: Right, right. Yeah, we stratify. We love layers. We love to have layers and everyone has a place. And whether you get to fit into my place or not, or I fit into yours has become central to all relationships.
CH: Right. And oh, I experience this in my own marriage, actually, because he grew up with both parents. Both parents were professionals. One was a dentist, the other was a nurse. And they had a nice house, and they went to private school. And they summered on the vineyard.
AW: Oh yeah. That was a new thing for me. I was like, "What?"
CH: They did not have cotillions, but they were solidly middle-class black people. And I had a very different experience growing up. I didn't even grow up with even my biological mom. I just got passed around like I was a hand-me-down kid. So, to marry someone like that who has all of these friends who are very much like him or even better off than his family...
CH: ... Who have families who were even more wealthy.
AW: Actually wealthy.
CH: Right. I'll have these reminders every now and then at social events. We go out and I'll sit down with the women, and I'm trying to talk to them. And I'll ask, "So what do you do?" And they'll... I will never forget... this woman, I was talking to her, and she's very put together. And I said, "So what do you do?" And she just had this look on her face like, "What do you mean 'what do I do'? Like, as in work? You think I work?" And I was just sort of like, "Oh, I mean, how do you like to spend your time? Like, what interests you?" And then she talked about makeup.
CH: Like a lot. And no judgment because, look, I love me a good foundation. I'll take some tips from her because she was gorgeous and her face was beat to the gods. But yeah, it was just sort of like, oh, oh, oh right, right. And I did have the experience of listening to someone talk about mentoring a kid who could've been me. And having the experience of having to go into that girl's neighborhood and just being unprepared for that reality. Or just really harsh judgment.
CH: Passing really harsh judgment on her, on this girl's reality, on her life. So yeah, things will happen in that circle that will remind me. Oh right! Like we wouldn't have been cool 20 years ago. Y'all would've been really looking down your noses at me.
AW: Right, yeah. That's an interesting pull. You pull a lot of your real-life experiences into your writing. What's that like? How does your mom feel about it? How does your family feel about it? Do they understand?
CH: My mom is cool. And when I say my mom, I mean I have a lot of moms, but she's my third mom. So, my white wealthy mom.
CH: She's cool with it. I hope anyway that she feels honored by it. First of all, I just wanted to let her know, like, I see you. I see what you've gone through. I see what you're still going through, and I want to let people in on the nuance... I want to punch people in the gut with that. I want them to feel that because that's, I don't know, it was my way of honoring her. But then also there is a resolution of sorts at the end of it. And that's just sort of my way of trying to offer up some...
CH: ... Closure. Yeah! And I hope... I think she feels that. She came to opening night and she was pretty happy.
CH: So, I feel good about that. I do mention my husband in it, Kyle Winslow. And he came to opening night and he heard his name and this man, he's chocolate like me, but he was red. It was like he was red, and he couldn't even look up because there were so many people there who know both of us. And when they heard his name, they all sort of like turned and look. And he was like shielding his eyes... He said, "I gotta come back and see it again because I missed the next five minutes because I couldn't even concentrate." Poor guy. But people, I don't think anyone really minds when I use elements from my life, or what I've observed of their lives because I think, I try to do it in a respectful way.
CH: But then also I typically will change some detail. So that it's not totally...
AW: They're compositions.
CH: Right. It's not completely biographical, and I don't think anyone feels attacked. I hope nobody feels attacked.
AW: No. I think you've gotten a pretty good response.
CH: Oh, good.
AW: Talk a little bit about the challenge and the opportunity of writing for audio and what is going to be brought to bear in the recording of it?
CH: So, yeah, it was challenging. Again, I'm a visual person. Things come at me, come at my eyes first. So I really had to think about, okay, what can I do? What can I have this woman say that will appeal to someone like me, who has trouble processing things orally? How can I hook that person? And if I could hook that person then I can certainly get the people who have no trouble processing things through their ears. So again, you mentioned the sounds. I really want to place the audience in the hospital room. So the listener, I really wanna put them in that hospital room.
We're recording today. And I was sort of trying to close my eyes and imagine it. I think it actually works even better as a radio play because you're really... it's like a tunnel. And because she is addressing someone who's in a coma, it's almost like you take the place of the person who is in the coma. And who literally can't see whatever it is that she's referring to. Right? And so she has a reason to be describing these things. Oh, I have the binder. See? Oh, and it's annotated... So, her describing these things actually makes sense and I don't think it takes anyone out. I don't think anyone is thinking like, oh, that's clearly where the writer wanted to do something visual but couldn't because of audio. Right? So yeah, that was, it was a fun challenge though.
I never really felt overwhelmed or daunted by that. And again, I love that [actress Brenda Pressley] is really taking her time in the audio version. So there's lots of room in there. There's some air, so that the audience, the listener can really imagine.
AW: Yeah. Her process.
CH: Yeah, her process.
AW: There's an evolution of thought for her there.
AW: And you get to understand it so it doesn't feel contrived. It doesn't feel rushed. It's like, "Oh, you see how she got there and where she started from."
CH: Yeah. And I think the audio format allows more for that. A listener is more primed, I think, to follow that thread or is more inclined to like, "Oh, here's a trail of breadcrumbs. I'm going to follow that." Whereas a watcher, maybe not so much. I feel like they don't really want to work as much.
They just want to sit back and let it all sort of wash over them. So maybe they're not paying as close attention or...
AW: Or able to pick up more of the storytelling cues that you're leaving.
CH: Yeah. Yeah.
AW: Now let's talk a little bit about Brenda Pressley, who was the amazing actress on the stage version as well as the recording.
CH: She's a goddess. Like what more needs to be said about Brenda Presley? I worked with her for the first time. I've seen her in things because Jade King Carroll, the director, has worked with her on a bunch of things, and I always go see her stuff. So I knew of her, but I had never gotten the opportunity to work with her. And I thought of her immediately for this other role, in this other play that happened that opened just before... It actually closed right before... There was one week overlap where the closing week was the first week of rehearsal...
CH: ... For this Audible play. And she just did such an amazing job with that character. But also is just such a delight to have in the room that I said, "Oh, can we maybe get her, you think she would be interested in doing this? In doing Proof of Love?" And I sorta put the feelers out and I asked if she would be interested. And at first, she balked. She was a little like, "Oh, I don't know. It's a lot. I don't know that I... I need more time. I need more time than you all can give me to prepare this character." And I said, "Woman. You could just walk in there and read it and it would be fine. It would be." Because she has such great instincts and she's so precise.
AW: So she got it immediately when she read the script?
CH: Oh, yeah. She got it immediately when she read the script. But she was hesitant. She didn't want to say yes, and we were worried she wasn't going to say yes. So we offered to someone else, who ultimately wound up having to withdraw. And I think Brenda saw that as, "Oh okay, I think this is meant to be. I think I'm supposed to be doing this play."
AW: That's great.
CH: And I said, "Oh, hallelujah!" And the other actress would've been great too. I'm not going to name her. But she would have been really, really fantastic also. It's just that I had literally just worked with Brenda on this other play and was just so excited to be in the room with her that I wanted to keep it going because she's such a professional. She's so meticulous. She just works so hard. She works so hard. And she works even harder than she has to, honestly.
AW: How much direction does she ask from you or did you take from each other? And then we're going to wrap up.
CH: I don't even really have to give [direction]. I'm sitting there. I'm a playwright. See, this is why I'm not a director. Because I'm not. Jade [King Carroll] is, I think, much more of a stickler than I am for, "Okay. No, we need to emphasize that beat. We need to... You need to brush that up. How about you take that up instead of down?" Or whatever it is. Right? I'm just sitting there in rehearsal with a big old goofy smile on my face. Just like, "Oh, this is great." Just like reading the words that I wrote. I'm such a doofus in the room, man. I don't even. But occasionally, I guess, I'm useful in sort of identifying a particular motivation for saying a thing. Or if a line needs to be changed for whatever reason. But for the most part, I don't really direct. I leave that to Jade.
AW: Okay. Well, Chisa, I'm so glad we got to talk today about Proof of Love. I can't wait for the rest of the world to get to hear it. And I love that it is sort of democratized and taken, not just from people who can make it to the stage show, and get to explore it. Because not everybody lives in New York.
AW: Exactly. I'm really excited to get this to as many ears as possible. And yeah, again, just so grateful for this opportunity. It's so cool to go from like reading about it to reading an article about it to suddenly, "Oh, this is real."
CH: Like, this is actually happening. And my play is going to be published on Audible. I'm going to be distributed by Audible and that's cool.