Within moments of the beginning of Boo Killebrew’s Lettie, one sister is saying “soon” and another, “Let’s give it a minute.” The interchange reminds us of the role time and timing plays in the lives of families, on stage and off. When we say to a child, “How did you grow up so fast?” we usually do so with a smile of astonishment, but beneath the smile often lies a well of sadness. “Where did the time go? How could I let you grow up so fast and not pay any more attention than I did? Not realize what I was missing?”
Boo’s play takes up questions like these (and many more besides) as it invites us into a complex world of love, loss, despair, and hope. With this in mind, we asked the playwright about her work as a writer and Lettie in particular.
Geoff Proehl (Production Dramaturg): Looking back over your life, what were some of the seeds or signs that you would become a writer?
Boo: I have been making “plays” since I was four. Whether it was with dolls, pets, parents or friends. I would create a setting, establish relationships, and set up the conflict. Then, I would play it out – either by arranging dolls/anything I could find in tableaus, or by instructing people on what to say and where to stand – scene by scene. When I was 10, I got an old video camera and started recording these little plays. I also would do live performances from my front porch. I was always creating new characters, with wigs, costumes, accents and dilemmas. My family would often ask, “Who are you today?” And I would give the whole backstory. I spent way more time in those imagined worlds than the real one. Also, I’m from Mississippi, and storytelling is a way of life down there. So, tall tales, quirky rumors, and vibrant personalities were always in the air.
Geoff: In novels, plays, and our culture in general the tradition has been for prodigal men, who have, in one way or another, been absent from the family to be welcomed home and forgiven, as in the parable of the prodigal son, while prodigal women are rebuffed and condemned, as in The Scarlet Letter. Without giving away too much of the plot, how would you describe Lettie in relationship to this dynamic?
Boo: With Lettie, my goal was to get past the glaze and right down to the factory paint. I wanted to dig into someone who has a problematic personality and had to push myself to show all of it, without sanitizing or apologizing for it. To do that with a female character, who is a mother – was the challenge on top of the challenge. Numerous narratives feature women enduring trauma, yet seldom do we see stories that depict women reacting to their distress in ways that disrupt and negatively impact others.
We often don’t afford female characters the space or authorization to disagreeable behavior. But, there are countless narratives that revolve around male figures – encompassing the enigmatic and sinister anti-hero who, despite his flaws, manages to capture our affection. I wanted to portray an authentic representation of this woman, complete with her imperfections, and examine whether we could extend the same level of understanding (and even fondness) typically reserved for our male characters. In short, I don’t think stories - traditionally - allow the same type of forgiveness for women as they do for men.
Geoff: Could you talk about what or who inspired the fascinating range of characters in Lettie? To what extent did you rely on research? To what extent personal experience?
Boo: It’s an inspiration salad! I talked to a lot of women in Chicago who had been incarcerated and navigating re-entry, women who were in programs similar to the welding program Lettie and Minny are in, women who were residing in a transitional living center. The essence of the play lies in their unwavering resolve, tenacity, and fortitude. I also drew from personal experience and relationships. One of the lessons that I learn over and over again is the peculiar and surprising forms in which love manifests. My hope is that this is reflected in Lettie – in all the characters, who I believe are doing the best that they possibly can.