Being a playwright is notoriously difficult, what with skimpy pay, no guarantees and a low regard on the totem pole of power. Even big-name scribe Tony Kushner complains that he can’t quite make a living doing just what he loves.
And yet, compelled by voices in their heads and a need to reveal untold stories, playwrights carry on — hoping for a year like the one Christina Ham is having now.
A journeywoman with two decades’ experience, Ham has had four plays staged in the Twin Cities area this year and just won a $197,000 Mellon Foundation residency for the next three years that will enable her to scale back on her other activities and write, write, write.
“Ruby! The Story of Ruby Bridges” sold out its run at St. Paul’s SteppingStone in February, a feat matched a month later by “Nina Simone: Four Women,” which set box office records at Park Square and will return in February. Her 2009 play “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963” was reprised by Stages Theatre in Hopkins in March. And on Friday, “Scapegoat,” which deals with historic racial violence and a contemporary reckoning with that past, premieres at Pillsbury House in Minneapolis.
“I would use the word ‘toil’ to talk about my journey,” Ham said Monday, as she scooted between a workshop of a friend’s new play and a fundraiser at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, where she is a “core writer” and has worked as a fellowship coordinator for 10 years. “I don’t think I could do anything else.”
Colleagues describe Ham as a persnickety perfectionist who is not afraid to rewrite a line, a scene, a whole play.
“At some point, you have to put your foot down and say, ‘Christina, that’s enough,’ ” said Faye Price, who directed “Nina Simone” at Park Square in St. Paul and who is co-leader of Pillsbury House Theatre, laughing. “She doesn’t believe that her work is ever done. She thinks that it can always be better, and I love that about her.”
Ham’s passion is why we’ll be hearing a lot about her, said “Scapegoat” director Marion McClinton, who has helmed three of Ham’s plays.
“Christina is the real deal, as a playwright, a thinker, a craftsman and as a humanitarian,” he said. “She writes well in all kinds of styles and does it with authority. But what defines all of it, to me, is this great insight she has into the human soul.”
In person, Ham comes across as gentle, scholarly and prim. She talks in the hushed tones of someone who has spent a lot of time in libraries. But her quietude is fraught. She writes wild, combustible characters in a supernatural thriller such as “The Hollow,” about recovering addicts in a haunted house in New Orleans, and in an apocalyptic drama such as “Hour of Lead,” set in a new Ice Age.
“People always want to know who’s this person who writes these crazy characters onstage, and you can sometimes see their disappointment when they meet her,” said Hayley Finn, her longtime friend and collaborator, who is associate artistic director of the Playwrights’ Center. “She’s sweet, funny and has the biggest heart.”
Lately, Ham, 46, has been digging into history. “Scapegoat” is set in contemporary Arkansas and at a plantation and church there in 1919, when hundreds of black sharecroppers who were trying to unionize were killed by a white mob in what became known as the Elaine Massacre. Crusading reporter Ida B. Wells wrote about the carnage, an account that Ham stumbled upon while teaching drama at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
“I went digging to find out more about one of the worst massacres of African-Americans in history,” she said. “That’s the case that strengthened the due process clause” of the U.S. Constitution, which means that governments can’t arbitrarily take people’s lives, liberty or property.
A chronicler of times
Ham sees herself as a chronicler of history. In fact, this only child of Los Angeles postal workers initially majored in journalism at the University of Southern California.
After realizing “it wasn’t gonna be all Woodward and Bernstein,” she ended up with a double major in English and political science.
Ham recognized that her flair for writing dialogue was best suited for playwriting, although her first jobs between college and grad school were in public relations. After her father got cancer in 2000, Ham and her mother cared for him until he died in 2003.
She applied for, and won, a Jerome Fellowship, which meant that she would have to move to Minneapolis for a year. She moved to the Twin Cities on July 1, 2005. Then she decided to stay. “What can I say? This is one of the best places to work and live.”
Finn credits her with having enriched the community, noting her mentoring of young playwrights. One of those, Josh Wilder, is now a grad student at the Yale School of Drama. “My relationship with her has grown from mentee to colleague and collaborator,” he said. “She has a crazy work ethic, is available to talk about anything and is really a role model.”
When Ham writes about the past, it’s to find answers, or clues, to the way we are today.
“History, literally and figuratively, haunts us with things that we’ve done or crimes committed,” said Ham. “Places and events have memories that continue to impact us.”