Tracey Scott Wilson is no stranger to controversy, and that's likely the way she likes it. The multiple award winning playwright has enthralled audiences with her acclaimed stage works, such as The Good Negro, Leader of the People and The Story, and now her new play Buzzer, which has been called “a dark comedy… that pushes every button.”
Telling a tale about a young and successful African American attorney who returns to his rapidly gentrifying old neighborhood with his white girlfriend in tow, who are “soon forced to confront the simmering racial and sexual tensions that exist both inside their home and outside their apartment,” Buzzer will open this month at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago after a successful engagement at the Pillsbury House There in Minneapolis.
But aside from her stage work, Ms. Wilson has also been very active as a TV series writer, first for the short lived NBC drama Do No Harm and is now writing for the F/X network spy series the Americans.
Recently we had an opportunity to talk to Tracey about her work on television, her new play, what inspires her and what has surprised her the most about her the play.
SERGIO: Before we get into your stage work and your new play Buzzer, I want to start off with your current work writing for television. You first were a staff writer on the NBC series Do No Harm which sort of came and went.
WILSON: Yeah (laughs). Very fast!
SERGIO: That must have been really unexpected.
WILSON: Yeah that was my first experience writing directly for television and I had no idea how quickly those things can end. I mean, we finished writing and shooting all the episodes just before it was cancelled so that was good.
SERGIO: And then after that you’re now on F/X’s The Americans and I read in an interview you did that writing for TV is mainly a financial consideration and that unless you’re a Tony Kushner or David Mamet or someone of that stature, you don’t make a lot of money writing for the stage compared to what you can make writing for TV.
WILSON: Yeah right.
SERGIO: But here’s the compromise in that you’re writing for the stage, you have the freedom to write whatever you want and not worry about someone giving you notes. However writing for TV, you have to write what you’re assigned and you have these producers and the studio and the network giving you notes on what to change before they will accept it. You’re comprised in so many ways.
WILSON: Well it depends. I think TV has gotten so good these days and particularly because there are so many playwrights now writing for television like Alan Ball who was playwright before he created Six Feet Under and there are quite a few. But I’m writing for a show that I really liked before I started writing for it, so when you do that, it’s really exciting and beautiful. And also in both my experiences with TV, I work with really cool, great people and that just makes it worth it too. I can never complain about sitting in a room making up stories, you know what I mean, and to be paid for it. That is just a blessing.
SERGIO: So how did you get into the whole TV writing gig business in the first place?
WILSON: Well I had been trying for a long time. I had written some pilots that hadn’t gone anywhere, so I sort of had given up on that. But then I got this call from my agent out of the blue and that David Schulner, who created Do No Harm and who had previously also been a playwright, remembered reading my first play The Story years ago had called and he wanted to meet with me. He called on a Tuesday and a week after was offered a job and I had to move to L.A. in two weeks (laughs) It was very exciting.
SERGIO: One more question about writing for TV even though you’re writing for a series and have to basically follow the storyline are you still able to “put in your own voice’ as it were?
WILSON: Yeah you do. I mean when you’re on a show you have usually around 7 or 8 writers and they all have their own voices and so yes you do have to write in the style of the show but you’re also allowed to have your voice seep through it because there is no way you can completely imitate another writer’s voice. So within that you’re able to find your place I’ve found.
SERGIO: So no complaints so far?
WILSON: None at all I’m telling you. I’ve had a great time both times I’ve got to tell you.
SERGIO: So with Buzzer how did the idea for the play first come about?
WILSON: Well the idea came when I heard a story from a friend of mine who was around when Columbia University (in New York) was expanding over on the Upper West Side and these conflicts they were having, the racial conflicts that were happening up there and I started to think about gentrification in general. I grew up in Newark and started to see that city, believe it or not, being gentrified with white people moving in which was crazy because growing up I never saw a white people in person until I was six years old. (laughs) So it got me thinking about those types of issues
But gentrification in other cities like Chicago is so much different from New York. In Chicago, for example, it seems like they raze and move whole communities while in New York the very rich and the very poor live practically side by side. Like the Marcy Projects where Jay-Z grew up is literally in the middle of one of the richest neighborhoods in Brooklyn now. Because of the limited space in New York City it just works differently. Poor people are squeezed into tighter solaces. They’re not razed completely, but it’s all the same effect.
SERGIO: So the tension is still there?
WILSON: Yeah but I find in in city like Chicago it seems like there’s more segregation here. I mean literal segregation.
SERGIO: But that’s the oldest line about Chicago that’s it’s “the most segregated city in America”. They’ve been saying that for almost 100 years
WILSON: Yes, gentrification is different in every city but it’s all sort of the same definition.
SERGIO: And what has the reaction been so far for Buzzer? I mean when you deal with hot topic issues such as class and race people are bound to get upset, but personally I would love that.
WILSON: Yeah I know! I find that people have very strong reactions. Even when we did our first reading with the cast, people had very string reactions to the characters in the play, very strong reactions to what should have happened or what didn’t happen. But I love it! I think it’s great!
SERGIO: Right, because you have a certain idea of what you’re trying to express in your play but people will often have a completely different interpretation and I assume for you that’s fine as long as they feel something.
WILSON: Right. It doesn’t matter to me as long as they’ve moved.
SERGIO: But has there been a situation where the audiences’ reaction to one of your works was completely different to what you had intended?
WILSON: I never would say it was completely different from what I intended, but sometimes I am shocked at the point of view. Like I’m always shocked to the reaction the character Suzy in Buzzer and I’m always shocked at the sexism that’s directed towards her from women. The very subtle sexism that’s directed towards her character that always shocks me.
SERGIO: And by women, why is that you think?
WILSON: Man, I could talk about that for an hour! (laughs) That’s complicated (laughs) But it’s interesting though...interesting.
SERGIO: But let’s go back to the beginning what made you choose writing as your form of creative expression?
WILSON: It's because it’s what I wanted to do since the fifth grade. I had teacher who I really liked me and she encouraged me and my writing and told me that I was good at it. And when you’re at a young age and someone tells you you’re good at something you keep doing it and then I really loved it and I still love it.
SERGIO: But is there anything else you even wanted to do?
WILSON: No, nothing else. Just writing. Though once, though briefly years ago, around my sophomore year in college when I was concerned how I was going to make a living that, maybe, I ought to go to law school so I became a political science minor and I started hanging out with all these people who wanted to become lawyers and I couldn’t stand them. (laughs) And I said “No I don’t want to do this.”
SERGIO: So when did you know that writing was something else something more, that this was going to be your living, your path instead of just writing something for yourself?
WILSON: I think when I got into creative writing program at Temple University. I got a Masters in English at Temple when I was accepted into that program and I was around other writers, my peers, I said to myself “Yeah I can do that”. Because before then I had been in a sort of vacuum and not around other writers, writing for myself and reading it to people. But when you’re in a room with other writers and watch the process you sort of realize “Yeah this is where I’m at”. It’s similar to say you’re a basketball player and you’re the best in your hometown and then you go to a basketball camp and you see people from all over the country and then you realize whether or not you can hang, for real (laughs).
SERGIO: And of course the obvious question what playwrights inspire you, that you look as for inspiration?
WILSON: It’s always inspirational people like Caryl Churchill, Suzan-Lori Parks, Tony Kushner, George C, Wolfe, John Guare. I was obsessed with Guare for the longest time, And being in New York City I have this amazing opportunity because the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts has a video archive or every theater production since 1972 from all over the country. So, for example, you can go watch the original production of The Wiz. My Masters is in English so I fashioned of sorts my own graduate program in playwriting So I would go read plays and then go watch the tape at the library and it was the best education that I even could have gotten.
SERGIO: So when you write a play do you find that there is a consistent theme in all your work or do you just go with whatever grabs you at the moment?
WILSON: I go with whenever attracts me, but most of the things that attract me are matters that I think about, politically and socially, are the sort of things that stimulate my imagination. But you can take any idea, a political idea, and you can use any form to talk about it. Like for example a zombie movie could really be about politics or a film noir could really be about capitalism and corruption. But I like to talk about something larger because it interests me.
SERGIO: Finally when you write a play are you always rewriting in your mind thinking I can get it better or when it’s done it’s done and move on.
WILSON: No, I think you could always be better, but at the certain point you just have to stop. That’s one good thing about plays is that once it’s published at a certain point you have to stop rewriting it. I always think “Oh I could have done this or I could have done that” but at a certain point you just have to let it go and keep going.