THEATER | In Lonnie Carter’s “Hawking,” the frisky playwright takes on theoretical (meta)physics


Here’s a description of playwright Lonnie Carter’s Hawking from the Playwrights’ Center’s Web site. “Hawking is the fictionalized account of the last day on earth of Stephen Hawking (he may be going to Mars), a.k.a. Prometheus Bound, as he is visited by artists, philosophers, politicians, and birds, some based on real folks, some mythological folks, some both, at the Royal Observatory in London. Each is disabled—blind, lame, mute, limbless, et cetera; each extraordinary. Each trying to prevent Hawking from revealing his answer to the universe, if in fact, he really has it.” 

English theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking had a weird enough field of work to begin with, contributing significantly to the disciplines of cosmology and quantum gravity, particularly in the context of black holes. Now, here comes Carter, a dyed-in-the-wool absurdist with a mile-wide irreverent streak to boot, lensing this historic figure through a kaleidoscopic, fun-house looking glass that singularly is a Lonnie Carter script. Hold on your hats, check all conventional expectations at the door, and get ready for a healthy helping of sheer genius, the quality of which—were it not for Carter having the excuse of being a writer—would have landed him in a loony bin ages ago instead of walking around free, a nationally renowned author with, among other distinctions, an Obie Award under his belt.

I’ve often said you’re the John Brown of playwriting. Care to comment?
I’ll pass.

Your rhythm is always straight. Freewheeling, tight at the same time. Hawking is downright sauve.
Thanks for the “suave” remark. Is that related to “Soave” as in vino veritas? This is taking a decidely imbibinous turn. Okay, all seriousness aside, the “rhythm”, which I have so much of, is something I never try to force. If the rhyme or the meter or the I.P. is there, I go with it. If not, I try not to succumb to the seductress of Snoop’s sagacity for I know I will fail and slip into Greasy’s long-way-to-slide.

Why’d you write this play?
Because I know absolutely nothing about physics, but ought to, giving lie to that old bugaboo you must write what you know! Yes, well, that’s [cool], if you know anything. I prefer to write about, what did I say, I ought to know?

You’re feeling in an especially frisky frame of mind. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get through this thing. Had any interesting playwriting students lately?
You mean, since you?

Thanks for the compliment. I think. Yeah, Carter, since the days when I studied with you at the Frederick Douglass Creative Center.
I dare not say. But, of course, I’ve had lots. The Theater is dead. Long Live the Theater.

Okay, this is going off the rails, even for you. Fred Hudson brought you in as an instructor. What did he say to you that made you take the gig?
Fred was great. Are you going to tell your readers who he was?

They can look it up.
He didn’t bring me in as such. It was the Right Reverend Doctor Leslie Lee. He had seen The Sovereign State of Boogedy Boogedy in 1986 at the New Federal Theater, Woodie (Would He?) King, Jr.’s [shop], and recommended me to Fred.

Why did you stay at the gig?
I loved [it].

You’re coming all the way out here for a reading. What do you expect the reading to tell you about your play that you couldn’t’ve been shown with a reading in your living room?
The chance to work, everyone again and sometimes many times over, with terrific actors and artistic team. My living room? You haven’t seen my living room. Most inviting, but not this much.

What’s next after this reading at the Playwrights’ Center?
Two Great Oceans at New York University, about Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the infamous not famous racist George Francis Train. Written with one of the best writers in America, Sherry Shephard-Massat. Later to be stage-read at the Schaumberg Center in spring 2010. And also, The Lost Boys of Sudan, first commissioned by the Childrens’ Theater Company, will be produced by Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago in March 2010. Oh, and also also, maybe Sovereign State comes back in the spring to the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center. Remember that juke joint? And maybe teach a workshop at the reconstituted Negro Ensemble Company, again courtesy of Reverend Lee. I wish [to plug] the Sloane Foundation. They are really trying, it seems to me, to being artists and scientists together. And, of course, to the Playwrights’ Center.

Lonnie Carter’s Hawking receives a public reading at the Playwrights’ Center on Friday, December 18, 7 p.m.