David Adjmi (Playwrights ’03) chose a familiar backdrop for his play Stunning, his professional New York theater debut which enjoyed an extended run at the Duke this summer. The play is set in the insular, conservative, Syrian-Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood, where the playwright grew up. But Adjmi, who questioned the laws of Judaism and who is now openly gay, did not exactly fit the mold. He dropped out of his high school yeshiva, broke away from the community, and went on to study philosophy and literary theater at Sarah Lawrence College.Stunning tells the story of a Syrian-Jewish couple, 16-year-old Lily and her much older husband, Ike, and their black housekeeper, Blanche. Part satire and part tragedy, the play deals with issues of race and identity. On October 26, Adjmi will be presented with a Steinberg Playwright Award for up-and-coming playwrights, an honor that comes with a $25,000 prize. In an interview with The Journal, Adjmi discussed the writing process and his work.
I’ve read that Stunning took five years to write. When you started writing it, did you have specific ideas in mind as to what you wanted to say? Were you surprised by how it turned out?
I don’t always write my plays with an idea of a play. I’ll just sit down at my desk and start to write and things will start to come out. But I was living with my mom at the time and I was a little bit broke and desperate, and I went back home [to Midwood] for the first time in many years. I thought I was as going to write a comedy because my last play was very serious … and I wanted to take a break from that, but of course, the play veered into a more somber mode.
You told The New York Times that writing this play helped dissolve some of the pain you’d carried with you since childhood. How did that process help you work through some of those issues?
I guess the play had a lot to do with self-invention and the price of constructing an identity for oneself, and how we fail in constructing that identity. When I wrote this play I was in a place where I thought that I had failed enormously in the things I that was striving the hardest for; in being an artist and being a writer, trying to be a certain kind of person. This play is really about failure. In a way, [it] was an act of cleansing and of exorcism and kind of an act of defiance.
The play incorporates satirical and tragic elements. How did you balance these two elements while writing characters in a way that wouldn’t be misinterpreted as ridiculing or demeaning the subjects?
Well, some people think I am ridiculing them, and I’m not. It’s organic for me to write this way, and I will often start with the outer cuticle of a character or a more broad view and then slowly start to penetrate and go really almost too deeply inside of it. That’s my nature as an artist, that’s what interests me—to look at a surface of something and then crack it … until you really start getting the raw oozing protoplasm of what this thing really, really is.
How did your experiences at Juilliard help shape you as a writer?
I think it was incredibly important for me to be at Juilliard because it was a kind of training for me to be a professional writer. I think Marsha [Norman] and Christopher [Durang] are very good with the … nitty gritty of being a professional writer. It’s really about how you craft a play, how you engage an audience, what is the business of being a writer, how you talk to journalists. The very mundane details of building a career and how to think of yourself as an artist was very important to me. It was tough for me, but that toughness was really important because it strengthened me as an artist.
Did you always know that you wanted to write plays?
No, I wanted to be a tap dancer. When I was a kid my mother used to take me to see … all these tap dancing plays. Of course they never got it together to take me to tap dancing lessons, which is probably an amazing thing for me because I’d be in a worse career now than being a playwright! I mean, this is hard enough!