Playwright, Storyteller, and Critical Educator: An Interview with Rachel Maddox

In today’s post, senior editor J.T. Roane interviews, Rachel Maddox who is a Black, non-binary playwright, teaching artist, and critical educator based out of Providence, Rhode Island. A New Jersey native, Rachel received a Bachelor’s Degree in Theater with a Playwriting concentration and an Elementary Education Teaching Credential from Connecticut College in New London, CT. Rachel’s work had brought them across the country and back, and up the northeastern coast before landing in Providence to begin work with the Rhode Island Black Storytellers as production and festival manager. Rachel also works as a substitute teacher in the Pawtucket Public School System, and a theater teaching artist in the Providence and Boston areas. They are currently workshopping Destructive Behaviors, collaborating with Connecticut College professors on various projects, and preparing for the graduate school application process. You can visit their website, Instagram, or watch more about their work here.


How does your work as the production manager for the Rhode Island Black Storytellers bring together your work as both a playwright and a critical educator?

My work with the Rhode Island Black Storytellers (RIBS) is an essential piece of my work as a playwright and critical educator, first and foremost because it draws on the history and traditions of my identity as a Black person and storyteller. Additionally, it sheds light on the heritage of people affected by the Black diaspora. For descendants of African slaves, much of our history is oral because slaves were denied the opportunity to read or write. The work that RIBS does seeks to close that gap by bringing many of those traditions and stories to members of the Black community and beyond within Rhode Island itself. Storytelling and playwriting are two sides of the same coin, and so I consider myself a storyteller as well. I work as the production manager for RIBS and the festival manager for the annual Funda Festival: A Celebration of Black Storytelling. This allows me to apply my work as a producing playwright while also bringing the traditions and history of the African continent to youth in schools all across the state.

Describe for our readers your play Destructive Behaviors. What are its aims in staging the struggles of a Black student/student of color in predominantly white classrooms?

Destructive Behaviors seeks to bring to the forefront the narrative of being a student of color in predominantly white classrooms and with mostly white teachers. I have my Bachelor’s in Theater with a focus on Playwriting, and I also got my teaching credential in Elementary Education. Destructive Behaviors tells the story of Trapper, a teenaged Black womxn who hates school and struggles with extremely low self esteem. Through dialogues and flashbacks, the audience is shown various points in Trapper’s educational past — particularly negative encounters with teachers — that have contributed to her traumatic school experience and feelings of inadequacy.

I wanted to become a teacher so I could be the teacher I didn’t get to have. I became a teacher because students of color need teachers who look like them. In all the research I came across regarding students of color though, the discussion was almost exclusively around inner-city schools and the school-to-prison pipeline. And while that is a major part of the work I do and the structures I aim to disrupt, that was not my personal educational experience. I grew up with opportunities and supports that most people of color in this country don’t get. But that also meant being surrounded by the population who always get these opportunities — the white population. I grew up going to excellently ranked independent schools, but I also came out of that system feeling worthless, unintelligent, and insignificant. What I really want people to understand and see is that racism isn’t always loud. It isn’t always the N-word, but it can often be just as damaging. Small things that teachers say or don’t say, do or don’t do to and for their students of color can affect those students in the long term. I think this is an important play for all educators to see, if only to understand that what you say matters — even if you didn’t mean it or you don’t remember it. It matters, and your students will never forget it.

Who is the primary audience for your work? How does this shape your process as a playwright?

Ideally, I like to think that the primary audience for my work is any audience. As a theater artist, I am a firm believer that theater and theater education is for everyone and should be accessible to everyone. That being said, I can’t ignore my position of having had access to a high level of education that has given me concepts, ideologies, and vocabulary to further my work and my identities. This is a level of education many people are not afforded, so realistically, on a foundational level, my audience is people like me — people of color who have grown up having to code switch and assimilate to white standards and ideas in order to move forward as an intellectual. In the long term, I hope to make and create work that continues to shine a light on narratives that aren’t represented in a way that allows anyone and everyone to participate in the discourse.

Your current work is a play about power dynamics and the abuse of queer communities. Could you tell us more about your process in this production?

As I’ve mentioned, underrepresented narratives are a major part of my work and why I do it. They are a major part of my own story and storytelling. As a queer person of color, I have a unique and often unheard experience when it comes to intimate relationships. Studies have shown that intimate partner violence and abuse is higher in same sex relationships than it is in heterosexual relationships. This may seem surprising, but people make assumptions based on what they classify as abuse. I’m drawing on my own experience in romantic relationships and the ways that I have contributed to and suffered from psychological and emotional abuse. A lot of my work is uncovering and discussing the ugly things that we can’t always see. I seek to open up discussion around not only implicit bias and racism, but around emotional manipulation in relationships and the role that race plays in those power dynamics.

It isn’t easy! I’m currently in the process of workshopping Destructive Behaviors as I prepare to apply to graduate school for a Master of Fine Arts in Playwriting. My new project is in its infancy, so the process for that is a little more abstract. I do a lot of free writing and music just to hash out ideas or write from a specific place of vulnerability and consider how that might fit into a larger story or narrative. I certainly stay busy, but I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

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J. T. Roane

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of Africana Studies in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.

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