Artist Spotlight: ‘Sons of the Prophet’ playwright Stephen Karam

Playwright Stephen Karam


TheatreSquared debuts its version of Stephen Karam’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play “Sons of the Prophet” this weekend in Fayetteville.

The new show, which T2 artistic director Robert Ford called “one of the smartest, funniest and deeply felt new works that has been written in this decade,” runs Friday, Feb. 15 through March 3 at Nadine Baum Studios.

Todd Taylor, a third-year University of Arkansas MFA playwright, recently caught up with Karam for this interview.

Playwrights are often cautioned about the perils of defying practical considerations like cast size, but you felt you needed eight actors in this piece. What was it about this story which demanded that?
Well, my stories often take me along with them…with SONS I simply found myself interested in and writing about a larger group of people. It became clear the play centered around Joseph but was also a kaleidoscopic view of the pain of the many people in his life–his boss, his uncle, his brother, his lover. My guess is subconsciously I knew I was striving to write a “big” play, and maybe wrestling with so many lives helped me get closer to gleaning something universal in such a specific group of people.

The lead character in this story is gay, but you’ve said his sexual orientation was incidental to the play–that is the play is not “about” being gay. But obviously there will be audience members who are drawn to and excited by the prospect of a protagonist who shares their orientation. Is it possible (or would you even wish) to entirely avoid the notion that part of what this play is doing is commenting on the gay experience?

I think you’re right; it’s probably impossible to avoid what it’s doing–I guess I’m just glad I don’t have to analyze it myself. Because even I’m not sure. What I know is that the lead character and his brother are gay, and this isn’t a story about them coming out. That said, I think any play–gay or straight protagonists–is going to deal with its characters’ sexuality in some important way. I mean, it’s such a big puzzle piece to who we are…how we think, who we love…That’s why I’m not interested in labels. Is it a “gay play”? Not sure it matters. I’m happy to say it is and it isn’t: It is because there are three gay characters in it; it isn’t simply in that it’s not dealing with gay rights or coming out…And no one worries about calling Death of a Salesman a heterosexual play, so…I guess what I’m saying is a good play can work for pretty much everyone. You identify or empathize with the protagonist of good stories not (simply) because of his/her sexuality.

Similarly, successful plays can end up “historicizing” a time and place. This play is set in Nazareth, PA sometime after the 2003 closure of neighboring Bethlehem Steel. Is the setting, too, incidental, or are you actively trying to capture the essence of a specific region at a particular moment?

Well, it was important for me to set it right after the July War [in 2006] when Beirut’s airport was bombed. But I grew up in Scranton where the coal had long left the city. I’ve always been interested in fading industry, in towns built by industries that are no longer operative, so I definitely used that.

This play wrestles with some large questions and themes about the nature of suffering and the different ways in which people cope with it. Why was theatre, for you, the natural arena in which to address these large questions? What is unique about theatre’s capacity to deal with them?

Because you’re literally sitting next to a community of people watching other humans living and breathing and telling you a story. A story that will hopefully reflect back some of your own struggles. It’s kind of like going to church. You could watch a church service on TV, but it’s so lame! Not the same effect at all.

Finally, you spent a weekend here in town to observe rehearsal at Theatre2 and conduct a playwriting workshop at the Fayetteville Public Library. You told me this was your first visit to the state. How did you find your experience in northwest Arkansas?

I’m from a semi-rural part of Pennsylvania, so interestingly enough–Fayetteville reminds me a lot of Pennsylvania! Which is to say, I loved it. I hope to be back. I was surprised at how vibrant the arts scene is and underestimated how university towns are almost always magical to me. So much going on, so many wonderful people interested in so many different things. I learned Southern Hospitality is a very real thing. As a writer and book nerd–any town that has good coffee shops, a good used (and a good new) book store, a good museum nearby, an amazing public library…It’s a place I could call home. That’s the best compliment there is, I suppose.