A Conversation With Jennifer Kidwell

  • June 15, 2018

The acclaimed performer, who has drawn rave reviews from theater critics, talks about the “pluck and nerve” of Philadelphia artists.

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Actors and creators Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard star as two teachers who assume multiple identities as they instruct modern middle schoolers about American slavery in the thought-provoking, complex, and much-lauded theatrical piece, “Underground Railroad Game.”

Each year, the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage provides 12 fellowships to artists in a range of disciplines in the Philadelphia region. Jennifer Kidwell, whose performer-driven theater work addresses the complexities of race and notions of American history with intelligence and humor, was named a fellow in 2016. That same year The New York Times in its “Best Theater of 2016” feature lauded “Underground Railroad Game,” a play she co-created with actor and director Scott Sheppard and their Philadelphia-based theater company, Lightning Rod Special. She talked about her career and the city’s arts scene with Trust.

How did you become an artist? Is there a particular experience that drove you to
this choice?

The summer before I began first grade, my parents sat me down and offered me a choice: I could either join the Brownies—which I had been begging to do—or I could start violin lessons. Since I failed to convince my parents to let me do both, I went out on a limb and began playing the violin that fall. Private lessons expanded into weekly Kodály, solfège, repertory class, and orchestra. I was hooked on learning and playing music and the ensemble nature of orchestra. I stopped lessons when I was 16 because performance had become too anxiety-inducing. I remember violently shaking with nerves at every solo performance, so I decided to put the violin down. I took a year off from music, but ended up getting a scholarship to study voice my senior year of high school. That program included private vocal and piano lessons, music theory, repertory classes, out-of-town trips, performances, etc. Somewhere around that time, I saw an actor perform a monologue from [Ntozake Shange’s] “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” I was blown away by the writing and the drama of it all, and continued to be into the rigor of the vocal program in which I was enrolled, so I decided against studying law and opted to study art and performance instead.

You’ve studied and worked in both New York and Philadelphia, among other cities. Why do you choose to work and live in Philadelphia? In your experience, what makes the city’s arts scene distinctive?

I feel that the impetus of the arts scene in Philly is one of absolute possibility. There’s a lot of pluck and nerve, as well as curiosity among Philly artists. I also find the community unbelievably tight and strong. The spirit of doing, the closeness of artists across disciplines combined with the relatively low cost of living make Philly ideal for experimentation and making. I have been blown away by the number of opportunities I’ve had here, as well as the support
of and interest in my work.

You’ve cited the work of 70s-era American comedians and their ability to “crack open dangerous truths” as a source of inspiration. What truths are you interested in uncovering as an artist? And what do you hope audiences take away from experiencing your work?

If I had to pare down what I hope are myriad interests of mine into an essential question, I’d have to say I’m most interested in paradox, the ways in which we act against our own interests.
I guess I articulate these inconsistencies of ours as lies, so the truths are the paradoxes we shun, but with which we nevertheless live. I think humor has the incredible gift of allowing us to both confront and celebrate our paradoxical natures, as opposed to deliberately overlooking them out of a sense of shame. If I hope the audience takes anything away (besides a desire to return and see something else), I hope it’s the capacity to recognize and speak to these paradoxes.

How does your approach shift as a performer when acting as an interpreter of others’ work versus a creator of original material? What is constant for you in either role?

I don’t think it should be different, but I’m afraid it tends to be. Things one makes oneself come from inside and bubble out. There’s a way everything articulated in such work is germane to who I am—performance or not—so there’s a natural flow and confidence in the material. When I’m interpreting the work of someone else, there’s a necessary separation that I fear compromises the work. In those cases, I work harder as a performer to conquer my own ego in order to support the piece the lead artist wants to make.

What single ethical consideration most impacts the decisions you make as an artist?

If I were to be perfectly honest, can what I’m doing at all change things? If not, how might it?

What was the first work of art that really mattered to you? Did it influence your approach to your work?

“Purple Rain,” both the album and the movie. My cousin and I rocked out to and sang that album at full volume whenever we could. I remember begging my parents to let me see the film as I felt a real affinity, a real kinship to Prince. I finally got to see an edited version and it was worth the fight. I think the style, the attitude, and the music had quite an impact on me—one that’s not exactly identifiable, but I nevertheless feel it spiritually.

What music are you listening to and/or which books are on your bedside table?

I’m deep in research for a piece right now, so I’m reading Ned Sublette’s “The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square” and “The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry.” Besides Sublette, there’s Eugene D. Genovese’s “Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made,” “Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy [Joy James, editor],” Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” and Sven Beckert’s “Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development.” A new album I’m about to listen to is Frank Ocean’s “Blond(e).”

If you could collaborate with anyone alive today, who would it be?

A partial list in alphabetical order: Andre 3000, Aziz Ansari, Angela Davis, Viola Davis, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Jim Jarmusch, Kendrick Lamar, Young Jean Lee, Kate McKinnon, Steve McQueen, Janelle Monáe, Fred Moten, Michelle Obama, RuPaul, Hank Willis Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Jesse Williams, and Serena Williams.