I first encountered Philip Dawkins in 2007 at The Paper Machete, Christopher Piatt's "Live News Magazine." It was a back-to-school show, and Dawkins - who had then been teaching playwriting in the Chicago Public Schools for 10 years - opened his monologue with comments his students had written on a class feedback survey form. An example: "How many plays have you seen in the past year?" Answer: "0. And proud I don't watch gay sh*t like that." Another example: "I'm interested in learning more about theatre and theatre arts." Answer: "Not really. Sorry, I don't take it up the a**." It was heartbreaking and oddly hilarious. But what stuck with me more than those sophomoric expressions of hostility and homophobia was Dawkins' tone of wry and bemused empathy.
Four years later, Dawkins' play, The Homosexuals, was nominated for a Jeff Award. Since then he has become a regular at the Jeffs, with four nominations and two wins. His 2016 hit, Charm, featured a 60-something black transgender teaching etiquette to a bruised and rambunctious gaggle of queer teens. His other 2016 hit, Le Switch, was a romantic comedy about marriage equality. Both played to sold-out houses in mainstream theatres.
Dawkins' most recent outing was an autobiographical one-man show, The Happiest Place on Earth, which put him back on stage as an actor for the first time in decades. It was a week after that show closed that I interviewed him in an Uptown cafe over a full-fat latte and blueberry muffin (me) and a cup of clear tea and apple (him).
Here is some of what I learned.
When Dawkins turned 10-years-old, his mother threw a big birthday party for him. A beautiful cake, decorations, lots of food. No one came.
Dawkins tells me this story when we're talking about his one-man show, The Happiest Place on Earth. Though he had been a child actor and continued to act professionally in college, this was the first time he'd appeared on stage in 15 years. He was taken aback by how much stamina the experience required. "It's like I've been skipping the gym and then I show up and the class is nothing but legs. I could do it, but my legs have been jello." On top of which The Happiest Place on Earth was in performance during the Cubs' World Series run, and there were nights when only 5 or 10 people showed up. "That was another set of muscles I haven't built up. You get out there, and your brain says, "Look at these warm people who showed up to see my show during the Cubs playoffs. Do it for these people. They made the effort to be here to see this thing that you made.' And that's the right approach. But my emotions are going, 'Where is everyone? Why is no one here?' I'll always be that 10-year-old who had a birthday party and no one showed up."
Dawkins and I didn't talk about his coming out, but he has related the story in a deep and engaging interview with Matt Baume.
In a nutshell: At the age of 17, Dawkins left his Southern Baptist family back in Phoenix, Arizona, came to Loyola University, and "exploded" out of the closet.
I ask Dawkins if he sees any kind of arc in the development of his writing.
He has to think for a minute. Then, "My work has gotten sadder. I used to write zany comedies and while I think my work is still funny, it's certainly gotten sadder. And that's because I've grown up. I didn't have access to my sadness when I was younger because everything was covered up by anger. Once you lift up the anger and say, 'you're upstaging everything else,' then you find the joy and the pain and the empathy."
A metaphor that Dawkins uses in conversation is "tupperware", as in "I had a very compartmentalized tupperware life"; or "Chicago audiences don't have trouble with characters who are laughing through death, crying at the happiest moment, saying the nastiest thing to the people they love the most -- we don't seem to need to tupperware that out." Dawkins, it seems, no longer "tupperwares out" his anger and his sadness.
He is also now 36 and his metabolism has steadied. "Plays happened to me when I was younger. I had no choice but to write them I'd write for two weeks straight and exist on coffee and red hots. That was a blessing. But I also think it's fine that that's not how I do things any more. I see my students writing that way. They say, 'I was up all night writing!' And I say, 'Great. Go get a massage, eat some broccoli, and then we'll talk about it.' Less and less now my plays happen to me, more and more they are assignments. It doesn't mean that I care about them less. In many ways I care more about those I wrote on assignment."
So the "arc in his development as writer" that I asked Dawkins about seems to go from red hots and anger to broccoli and sadness.
The In-Crowd and the Outsider
Dawkins plays have been widely-produced -- not just in Chicago, but all over the country. When did he start to feel like he's part of the "in crowd"?, I ask. "No one ever feels like they're in the in crowd," he answers. "It's nice to be appreciated, but it doesn't come with a pay check. It's hard to feel that what you're doing is valued when you are struggling so hard financially to do it."
But then he softens. "One of the lovely things about being a playwright is that I don't have to go far to find a community, because my story is not finished until a ton of people willingly decide to help me tell it. And that is very gratifying. I feel like I'm in the in-crowd when I'm working on one of my productions. All of these people have decided that what they are going to do with this chunk of their life is help to tell this story that I started. I have all these co-conspirators. That feels very popular, very 'in crowd'. But once that's over, I go back to feeling like the lonely outsider."
Inviting Them In
Dawkins has always been a teacher. "I love to teach, I love to work and be around people who nobody's listening to, people who are yelling at the top of their lungs but no one is listening. You hear that phrase, 'giving someone a voice.' But that's not it. The problem is not with the speech. The problem is that people are closing their ears."
So for Dawkins, it's "pretty great" when season subscribers tell him they weren't looking forward to seeing a play about transsexuals and figured they'd leave at intermission -- and then stalk him on Facebook to let him know how much they loved it. "I like taking characters or stories or titles that are very specific, that leave little wiggle room for universality, and then daring people to come and find out that we're all the same, despite our vast differences. Like calling my play The Homosexuals. I'm saying, 'I dare you to come see this show and then walk out and tell me if you aren't the same.'"
This, I believe, is the core project that drives Dawkins' work: to figure out "how we open up pockets or doorways to empathy; how we provide an opportunity for people to empathize tonight and then take that with us outside the walls of the theatre."
Anne Nicholson Weber