by Travis Sharp, Playwright
For me, writing a play isn’t that hard. The hard part is figuring out what to write about, which is probably why I’ve written, and co-written, plays about some pretty stupid things. Zombies. Hormonal teenage werewolves. Singing Ewoks. A woman who hates musicals whose life becomes a musical.
The first play I ever wrote is Lawrenceburg. It was inspired by my realization that the cast of the original Star Wars movie is analogous to the cast of the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. Stick with me here. Luke is Bo. Han is Luke. Leia is Daisy. Obi Wan is Uncle Jesse. Chewbacca is Cooter. Darth Vader is Rosco P. Coltrane. Deep cut: Boss Hogg is Grand Moff Tarkin.
Lawrenceburg tells the story of a rag-tag group of rebels who are trying to stop a big box retailer (that’s our Death Star) from moving in and destroying their titular little town (which happens to be the real Tennessee town my dad grew up in). It’s like Star Wars in the deep South.
We premiered Lawrenceburg at Dad’s Garage in 2006. It was a big success—selling-out houses and winning awards. And then we moved on.
Fast forward to 2017. I had just finished writing a musical about racism and sexism in Star Wars called Wicket (I swear it’s funnier than it sounds). It made me think back to Lawrenceburg. And then it made me think even further back to my childhood. As a kid, I never questioned why the core cast of Star Wars was six white men and one white woman. I never questioned why the core cast of The Dukes of Hazzard was six white men and one white woman. I’m embarrassed to admit that when we cast the original Lawrenceburg back in 2006, we cast six white men and one white woman. It was so natural—so engrained—we didn’t think twice about it.
In 2017, I hoped to rectify that. I pitched to Dad’s Garage a remount of Lawrenceburg. Only this time, the “Han Solo” of the cast is a black woman. “Princess Leia” is a black man. “Luke” and “Vader” are both white women. And “Obi Wan” is a black man. The company said “yes,” and a remount was born.
I immediately delved back into Lawrenceburg’s dusty script and started changing pronouns. But I very quickly realized how institutional our gender and racial stereotypes are. It never struck me as strange that Luke’s reaction at seeing Leia for the first time was to comment on how attractive she was. (“She’s beautiful!”) I never questioned why, of all the comely Duke cousins, only Daisy bared so much skin. So when our Princess Leia-slash-Daisy-analogue is suddenly a black man, everything felt so different. It made me uncomfortable, which let me know I needed to lean into that discomfort. Comedy isn’t about being comfortable; quite the opposite.
A white male sheriff arresting a white female protester was unremarkable. A white female sheriff arresting a black male protester was immediately charged with meaning.
So my pronoun changes grew into some much more meaningful rewrites. Commentary grew out of comedy. Then comedy from the commentary. It’s been a cycle of recreation.
At the end of the day, our remount of Lawrenceburg will be another silly Dad’s Garage comedy play. But the process of bringing diversity to a homogenous property has taught me something, and it’s been a bitter pill to swallow: I grew up in a society where casual racism and sexism is built in. I’m racist. I’m sexist. I think we all are. For me, the way forward isn’t to deny it, or avoid it, but to acknowledge it. To realize that it is a problem. And to be willing to proactively address it. To question my assumptions. To be open to criticism. And to accept that I will never truly comprehend the realities that people unlike me face, but to do my best to empathize with them regardless.
Some moments in Lawrenceburg might make audience members feel uncomfortable. Good. I think we can learn through laughter. I know I have.