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I want women and girls of African descent and of color to be able to not have to keep searching for stories about themselves.
I couldn't find any monologues and stories and plays that I really felt I could take and work with.
And I find much connection in Shaw and Ibsen and Chekhov.
But if you are constantly only dealing with stories that are not of the people that you are from, not from where you're from, not from your heritage, that can function as a disadvantage.
I went to grad school because I wanted to learn the rules so I would know how to break them.
Breaking of the rules is saying, "I'm breaking in, OK?
"I'm breaking in your very comfortable little house over here, and I'm gonna take a room."
♪ Welcome to "Beyond the Canvas" from the "PBS NewsHour."
I'm Amna Nawaz.
On this season, we'll be featuring a range of artists and creators whose work inspires us every day.
First up, we're focusing on writers.
You just heard from Danai Gurira, whom you might recognize from her starring role in the hit television series "The Walking Dead" and the blockbuster film "Black Panther."
As a playwright and performer, Gurira wants to make sure that women of color don't search in vain for stories they can relate to.
Tonight, you'll also hear from novelist Margaret Atwood, biographer Robert Caro, songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, and playwright Tarell McCraney.
All of them share a common desire to interrogate and to reimagine the world we live in through their writing.
Most of the people you're about to meet were first featured on the "PBS NewsHour" before the pandemic.
Our hope is that you'll meet them here on a new canvas and experience them and their work through a different lens.
The "PBS NewsHour" is proud to present our second season of "Beyond the Canvas."
Now back to our brief but spectacular take from Danai Gurira.
I grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe.
And I had a pretty idyllic childhood.
I felt that I was kind of this outspoken girl, I was considered.
I was a girl who talked a lot and didn't think my voice had any less value than anyone around me.
Apparently, that was strange.
Moving here really did strike in me the desire to tell the African story on American soil.
The stories about Africans always somehow miraculously had a Western protagonist.
And I was, like, "Wow!
Do we not merit our own ability to tell our own stories?"
So, I started to write plays that literally was like, If you come into this theater, you are going to sit down and you're going to spend two hours or so with an African woman, and you're going to get to know her.
You are going to see a full person, just like you see when you go watch all them other things.
I often feel like a nutty professor, like I'm going to try this experiment and see if it works.
My hypothesis is, people in the West can absorb African women's stories without any shaken or stirred mixer.
It can come directly from the source.
I create, so that you can see women like this shine and get to do their thang!
My name is Danai Gurira.
And this is my "Brief but Spectacular" take on creating complex stories for unheard voices.
Creating complex stories is a goal of many writers, including Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood.
Among her most recognizable works is "The Handmaid's Tale," 2017's most read novel and now a popular series streaming on Hulu.
Atwood's storytelling is timeless and relevant, reminding us of the old adage, history doesn't repeat itself, it rhymes.
In 2019, "NewsHour's" Jeffrey Brown, chief correspondent for arts, culture, and society, spoke with Atwood about how the current American political moment affected her decision to write a sequel more than 30 years after "Handmaid's" debut.
Woman: Whose fault was it?
I don't know.
Brown: It was Atwood who started all this back in 1984, when she wrote her classic novel of a near future takeover of the U.S. by religious zealots, who force fertile women into sexual servitude as child bearers.
Woman: You will bear children for them.
Brown, voice-over: The new nation is called Gilead.
Brown: What did you think you were doing then at that time?
Margaret Atwood: I thought I was getting in trouble.
Jeffrey Brown: You thought it was going to get you in trouble because of the story?
Well, it answered the question, if the United States were to become a totalitarianism, what kind of totalitarianism would it become?
Brown: We talked in her Toronto neighborhood.
You've got to be amazed by what "The Handmaid's Tale" has grown into as a phenomenon.
It's out of control.
Out of control?
Well, I can't do anything about it.
Brown: Not a chance.
The story has been made into a 1990 film, an opera and ballet, a graphic novel, and, reaching millions more... May Day, isn't it?
Brown: an Emmy Award-winning hit Hulu series.
Now Atwood has written her own sequel, "The Testaments," in part a response to her readers' continued interest.
It was a lot of unanswered questions that either they kept asking or they kept making up answers to.
There's a lot of things left hanging at the end of "The Handmaid's Tale."
So you decided to address that?
Brown: The new book, set some 15 years after the previous ending, is told through three testimonies, two young women and an older one, Aunt Lydia, familiar to viewers of the series as the most powerful woman in Gilead.
Played by Ann Dowd, she's gone along with evil, and, for the young handmaids, become their principal enforcer, but Atwood had her own questions.
Is she really evil?
Is she totally evil?
The question is, how do people end up in those positions?
And, remember, when I was born, which was 1939, I was a war child.
So I have always been pretty interested in those totalitarianisms, how people bought into them, how people rose in them, you know, how they became members of the hierarchy.
So you're always looking to these historical analogies, huh?
The series, as well as the book, and as well as "The Testaments," follow one axiom, and that is, you can't put anything in that doesn't have a precedent in human history.
So, yes, I'm always looking.
Brown: It has to have happened somehow at some time?
Atwood: Well, in these books, yes, because I didn't want anybody saying, "You're just weird."
Somebody asked me on Twitter recently, "How do you come up with this [bleep]?"
The answer is, it's not me who comes up with it.
It's the human race over the past 4,000 years.
Brown: And that leads to the other reason for the sequel, the times we're living in today, where Atwood and others again see women's rights under threat.
Atwood: If I had thought, "Let's write a sequel to 'The Handmaid's Tale' of this kind in 1999," I would have said, Why bother?
We're not going there.
Surely, people are moving away from that.
But in the moment in which we now exist, that's not true anymore.
So, in 1999, you would have said, "Why bother?"
But in 2016-17?
I'm going to bother.
I'm going to bother.
It's time to bother.
You can't ignore the fact that there are a number of regimes that have come into power that have these kinds of ideas in mind.
The thing they have in common is, they all want to roll back women's rights.
Gilead is a theocracy.
We are probably pretty close to it in some states.
You wrote that readers bombarded you over the years with questions, right?
Is it a feminist novel?
Is it a warning?
You're going to be asked the same thing of this new-- of this sequel.
In what sense would you say it is a feminist novel?
It makes women front and center, and it puts reproductive rights front and center, but it does not say all women are angelic beings who would never, ever do anything wrong, because, as we know from having been in grade four, that's not true.
And in what sense is it a warning?
Don't go there.
Don't make those choices.
Don't go there.
Brown: You are in rare air for a novelist, for a writer.
Atwood: I'm in rare air for an old bitty writer.
[Chuckling] It's true.
Well, you are.
I mean, it's sort of international celebrity air.
And good thing that I'm old, because if this happened to younger people, it would probably ruin their life.
You know, where do you go from here, except down?
Are you enjoying it?
Of course I'm enjoying it.
I would be lying to say otherwise.
You saw the pictures of me with hair extensions.
Who wouldn't enjoy that?
[Brown laughing] Of course she's enjoying it!
And, you know, Atwood isn't alone when it comes to finding joy in the writing life.
American singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter is a 5-time Grammy winner.
She's sold 15 million records, and she was scheduled to spend last summer touring and releasing a new album, but, like many musicians, Carpenter was forced to change the way she worked during the pandemic.
That doesn't mean that she's been stagnant.
Episodes of her virtual concert series called "Songs from Home" have been viewed more than 10 million times, and over 7,000 people bought tickets for her virtual concert in November.
I caught up with her to find out what's fueling her creativity, even while she remains isolated, and how her music is keeping her connected.
Welcome back to "Songs From Home."
I'm here with you know who... Nawaz: It's this kind of casual interaction that's attracted a legion of fans, old and new, to Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Songs From Home" series, her online mini-performances, which began early on during the pandemic.
Carpenter: ♪ Don't need much to be happy ♪ ♪ Four walls and a roof ♪ overhead... ♪ Nawaz: Carpenter lives on this farm, deep in the Virginia countryside, and has traded concert venues packed with thousands of cheering fans for the quiet, intimate small stage of her kitchen, where Angus the dog and White Kitty often act as the audience.
She shared with us the title track from her 16th album titled "The Dirt and the Stars."
♪ Wild, wild horses ♪ ♪ Everywhere ♪ we'd ever go... ♪ What's that been like for you to introduce new music into the world when we're all kind of changing or living in a world that's changed?
I wanted to be able to just do something to be a positive force.
And we need music no matter what.
So why not put the record out?
I definitely still am scribbling songs, working on things.
Ideas still come to me.
Of course, I've got a lot of time on my hands to think and to try to follow the muse.
Nawaz: The recipe for the "Songs From Home" social media series is simple.
It's just Carpenter, her acoustic guitar, and a moment of music to reflect.
♪ Scarcer than ♪ they've ever been... ♪ Nawaz: Some of the music is an escape, but you've never shied away from the tough stuff.
That includes on the new album.
There's some political stuff in there.
As a songwriter, as an artist, as a creator, do you feel that that is a responsibility, to weigh in on those kinds of things?
I've never understood why people say, you know, "Shut up and sing," or you shouldn't put your own feelings towards the world and you shouldn't use your position as a soapbox.
And I've never thought of it as that.
I always see it as, I'm simply speaking to my own feelings.
And I always have, and I always will.
Nawaz: To that end, Carpenter spoke directly to the unrest and ongoing Black Lives Matter marches around the country.
In these incredibly difficult weeks, words fail me.
So I'll sing instead.
♪ If I listen ♪ and I cannot hear the music ♪ ♪ If I try to swim the ocean ♪ ♪ And cannot reach the shore ♪ ♪ If the world is offered love ♪ ♪ But doesn't use it... ♪ Hi.
It's really good to talk to you again.
Nawaz, voice-over: I checked back in with Carpenter this winter and asked how she's holding up.
So you remain on your farm, right, in rural Virginia.
You're alone there still?
Is that correct?
Yes, except for Angus and W.K.
And White Kitty.
You have good company.
I shouldn't say "alone."
Do you find that difficult, that kind of solitude and isolation?
Is it harder, or does it feed you in some way?
I think it's pretty obvious when it's a choice, it can absolutely feed you.
When it's enforced, it can really be a challenge.
And I'm just like everybody else.
I've had days where I just sink, and I just feel--like, the first thing I think of when I wake up is, "How am I gonna get through this day?"
And then there are other days--I don't know why-- I can spring out of bed and I have unlimited amounts of energy and I get a lot done.
I feel like writing, I feel like just walking for miles.
One of the hashtags that I use on my social media posts when I post "Songs from Home" is #PatienceIsMySuperpower.
That's a mantra to me, so that's how I get through the harder days.
♪ Farther along and further in ♪ ♪ I've never gone, ♪ I've never been... ♪ Next we hear from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Robert Caro, one of the country's preeminent biographers.
Caro is known for his meticulous research and really taking his time with the subject.
He actually began his massive series, "The Years of Lyndon Johnson," in 1977 and is today still working on the fifth and final volume of that masterwork.
Jeffrey Brown sat down with Caro to talk about his process and what drives him to want to illuminate the lives of such towering figures in modern American history.
Brown: Caro began his working life in the 1950s and '60s as a reporter, including for "Newsday."
Along the way, he's won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards... Robert Caro: So, I type them up every night... Brown: and gained a reputation for dogged research, brilliant analysis, and, more than 40 years into the Johnson project, giving his works all the time they need.
You know, when I was a newspaper man, I remember I hated having to write an article while there were still questions I wanted to ask.
When I started to do books, I just sort of say, "I don't want to start writing until I've got all my questions answered," and it takes a long time.
Brown: But do you ever have all your questions answered?
This says, "John Connally at his Floresville ranch..." Brown: Now, at 83, Caro is out with something different, a book of new essays and earlier pieces that take us behind the scenes of his work.
It's called "Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing."
One insight: the man considered a leading biographer doesn't think he's writing biographies at all.
I never had any interest in telling the life of a great man.
And I think of them as studies in political power.
And what does power mean to you?
It's got such an influence on our lives that people don't think about, you know, from Social Security and Medicare to where is a bridge located or a highway located, what happened to the neighborhoods that had to be destroyed?
It's what government can do for people, both for good and for ill. Brown: In the LBJ Library in Austin, Caro did as much as humanly possible what an earlier editor had told him: turn every page.
That is, look at every document, even if it seems irrelevant.
Only years later does the writing begin.
And then I go to the typewriter, and I write a lot of drafts on the typewriter.
An old Smith Corona.
An old--they stopped making that Smith Corona 25 years ago.
Brown: On the walls of his office, pages of the latest chapter he's working on for the fifth and final volume on Johnson.
Caro: Right now, he's appointing Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.
So, I'm right up to writing a line where I say: "Thurgood Marshall said it right: "'You didn't wait for the times, Mr. President.
You made the times.'"
Brown: In an adjacent room, just some of the hundreds of files of interviews, clippings, and notes gathered over the years, and more insight into how Caro works.
Caro: I take the interviews in a stenographer's notebook.
And my rule is that I type it up every night before I go to bed, no matter how tired I am, because I want to remember the expressions on the face.
Brown: Altogether, a kind of master class in interviewing, researching, writing, and, perhaps most relevant to today, how to think about facts and truth.
There is no truth.
It's just ridiculous.
But there are--let's say you wanted to find out how Lyndon Johnson ran the Senate as majority leader.
The more facts about that, the more you find out what did he do with the unanimous consent agreements, who did he put on committees, how did he change the seniority system, and 1,000 facts.
The more of those facts you get, if you just describe the facts, the closer you're coming to whatever truth there is.
Brown: So are you concerned today watching what's happening with facts being contested everywhere you go?
I don't think there's anything more serious for a democracy than what's happening right now, where, for many reasons... we're losing belief in facts and truth.
Well, if you have no confidence that anything is true or correct, what does a democracy base its actions on?
Jeffrey Brown: Robert Caro's book "Working" is out now.
As to volume five of his epic LBJ biography, well, we saw the final pages, but only at a distance.
Caro told us, we, too, will have to wait.
For playwright Tarell McCraney, truthful storytelling is about bringing important and sometimes overlooked voices to the stage.
His play "Choir Boy" explores themes not often addressed publicly within black communities or outside them.
Jeffrey Brown sat down with McCraney to discuss his work and why he hopes it will leave audiences with more questions than answers.
Lower your voice, boy... Brown: "Choir Boy" is set in a mostly Black, all-male boarding school.
Actor: Oh, I don't know about your mother, but your mama, boy, whew!
Yes... Get your lanky self down, just all these limbs.
Jeffrey Brown: Young boys yearning and learning to become men.
They and the play itself use music to express joy and sorrow, anger and pain.
Actors: ♪ Way down yonder by myself ♪ ♪ And I... ♪ All: ♪ Couldn't hear nobody pray... ♪ Tarell McCraney: It's a play with music, but it's not a musical.
I think folks don't even recognize that the young men singing on stage, they have very little help.
There's no orchestra.
It's just them singing with each other and making those harmonies.
And so that in itself is sort of astonishing.
But the nakedness of it, the sort of bareness of that, is what's always been thrilling about what Negro spirituals are.
Brown: The 38-year-old McCraney, author of eight previous plays and winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant, burst onto the national stage as the Oscar-winning co-writer of "Moonlight," a film based on his own life growing up gay in Liberty City, Miami, an outsider in his own community and the wider world.
In "Choir Boy," he gives us Pharus, an astonishingly talented, curious and seemingly confident 16 year old, who happens to be gay.
Jeremy Pope plays Pharus in a sensational Broadway debut.
Thank Drew for letting me live alongside these good other strapping mean-behind boys, who don't have no problem displaying all kinds of bad behavior and ill will towards me.
But if I remove one of them from my presence so that I can think long enough without someone drawing attention to my swish or my wrist, I need to be put down?
Brown: Pharus is a scholarship student with little support from home, hoping for a chance at bigger things through this prestigious school.
But this is a place where his sexuality is not acknowledged.
McCraney: What is vital to the story, and personal, is that Pharus is chosen to do his talent, but to only bring your talent and to not bring the rest of you.
And that--I feel like that has been something that has happened to me my whole life.
If it's not my Blackness, if it's not my queerness, it's like, "Just bring the talented part of you.
"Come do the thing we ask you for and leave the rest at home."
♪ ...waters ♪ ♪ I couldn't hear ♪ nobody pray ♪ ♪ In the Jordan ♪ ♪ I couldn't hear ♪ nobody pray ♪ ♪ Hallelujah... ♪ McCraney: Oftentimes, the folk who lead us in singing those songs in churches are young queer men.
And it's something we don't talk about.
It's something we don't mention in public.
And, sometimes, we admonish those same queer bodies who are often very gifted at singing and preserving that legacy.
If you're from where people like Pharus and myself are from, the options that are coming before you are limited in terms of what you can be in life, or what you see that you can be, what you're told that you can be, what infrastructures are there that you can actually achieve.
And you have to make those decisions pretty early, because the other options are, here is this drug game that you can get a part of.
That's a hard place to be, especially if you're 12 or 14 or...
Many young people grow up in that environment even now.
It's important for me to keep shining a light on that.
Do you see a connective thread in your work?
McCraney: Oh, yeah.
[Chuckles] For sure.
And how do you define that?
I know that I'm, you know, consistently working in a place of love and community, consistently working about, you know, Black people.
By only bringing your true idiosyncratic self, the weird parts of you-- I had a professor who'd say, bring yourself, warts and all, to the table-- do you get the most out of your art.
What is it that you want people to walk out of the theater with?
When you walk into "Choir Boy," I hope you walk in hungry for some questions, and then I hope you walk out full of questions, especially about how much room we make for each other.
At its root, that's the main question about "Choir Boy": How much space can we make for each other in our community, in our legacy, in our futures?
Do we make enough space for the people who are different than us?
Actor: ♪ I hear rockin' in the land ♪ Actors: ♪ Rockin' in the land ♪ ♪ And ringin' ♪ them bells ♪ ♪ I know, ♪ oh, my Lord... ♪ There's no doubt that McCraney's work will continue to create new space and break new ground.
And like McCraney, all the writers featured here have pushed themselves to create work and to tell stories that are undeniably authentic.
You can join our conversation online at PBS.org/Newshour/Canvas and find more "Canvas" arts stories on the "PBS Newshour."
I'm Amna Nawaz.
For all of us at the "PBS NewsHour," thanks for joining me here on "Beyond the Canvas."
We'll see you soon.
Nawaz: Coming up on the next "Beyond the Canvas," Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel... We live a very pragmatical world, where, you know, you have to produce.
But where is the space to contemplation, to work as a team, you know, to create beauty?
Nawaz: joined by other men and women recognized for the excellence of their work.
Mary Chapin Carpenter: ♪ He was a small-town Southern boy ♪ ♪ Born and bred ♪ ♪ A credit to his ♪ hard-working mother and dad ♪ ♪ Clutch of diplomas ♪ and a uniform ♪ ♪ Served his country, ♪ then he shipped back home ♪ ♪ Hung out his shingle, ♪ but it didn't take ♪ ♪ He had real big dreams ♪ that he could not shake ♪ ♪ Left that town ♪ with his hand on his heart ♪ Announcer: This program was made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.