Playwright Boo Killebrew and ‘Miller, Mississippi’

Killebrew blog picSet in volatile Civil Rights-era Mississippi, Boo Killebrew’s Miller, Mississippi is a Southern Gothic tale of one family’s heartfelt and devastating descent into ruin. As the country attempts to lurch towards a future of racial equality, the Miller family is poisoned by their own legacy.

LWT: Could you talk about the inspiration for Miller, Mississippi?

Killebrew: I began writing it on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer in Mississippi. I am from Mississippi, I was born in Jackson, and my family all lives in Mississippi. Being raised here you are very aware of the history of the state. I was really fascinated with it. I was down here and I was just learning more and more about that summer. As the Freedom Summer anniversary was happening I was cleaning out my grandparents’ house – they had passed away so I was helping my mom try to sell it – and we unearthed a lot of things from Mississippi’s past and my family’s past. Stories and things like that. It all came together.

I was also interested in the play spanning a long period of time just to see how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t come. There is this saying that we are in a post-racial America, and I think over the past couple of years, because we have access to video cameras and that kind of stuff, we are realizing that is not the case. We’ve definitely come a long way, but we still have a lot to do. So, I am really interested in race in this country as it becomes more and more exposed through modern technology. I am interested in how we actually make progress.

LWT: Why did you choose Southern Gothic as the mode for the story?

Killebrew: I feel that for us and audience members,  if something is Southern Gothic or a ghost story, we can really invest in it in a way that we feel we are not being preached to. You can get into the juiciness and the dark corners of a Southern Gothic tale. My hope is that it gets ripped away – ‘oh, this is not really a ghost story.’ But to invest in that, it can’t be preachy, it can’t be obtuse, it can’t be ‘this is a play about race in our society.’ You have to invest in a family that is really conflicted, to say the least and has these unapologetically complicated characters. If you have enough distance to really invest in the story, then by the time the end comes they are closer than you would like them to be.

LWT: What other writers or other subject matter inspires you?

Killebrew: I love Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Cormac McCarthy, Beth Henley, Lillian Hellman, Truman Capote. I really dig Southern writers, especially the ones that lean towards the grotesque. All that stuff that is really visceral. I feel that Southern writers are visceral, and they don’t make excuses for or apologize for their really bold characters. People who aren’t saints.

LWT: Do these writers reflect the South you know?

Killebrew: Yes. I think also the South I know is because of these writers.

LWT: Has the relationship with your NYC theatre company CollaborationTown, which seems to be a long and fruitful one, informed your writing?

Killebrew: We never take the easy road when we are creating plays. We have questions and we are always trying to explore those questions in a really creative experimental type of place. It feels like this engine of curiosity that keeps me really awake to new forms that are happening in theatre. It keeps me awake to collaboration. It keeps me awake to what a rehearsal room can look like for a particular process.

It really keeps me on my toes as far as playwriting is concerned. It keeps pushing me to take real risks, to ask new questions. Because we’ve worked together for so long we call each other out – ‘you are doing that thing you’ve always done. Keep digging.’

LWT: Does your acting inform your writing?

Killebrew: Oh yes, for me I mainly come from character, rather than an idea, or a structure, or a plot. I ask, who is this person? What are this person’s relationships? How does this person navigate this situation? That definitely comes from acting. Dialogue is one of the things that comes most naturally to me, and I think that’s 100 percent from being an actor. I think that not judging the characters comes from being an actor – no one is ever bad and no one is ever good. The lines are blurry. And that comes from being an actor too.

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