“I’m getting better at writing when I’m happy” talking Fire This Time with Christine Jean Chambers
Christine Jean Chambers passed away this week, this interview is a tribute to her wise genius...
by Libby Emmons
I remember Christine Chambers vividly from the first day of classes at Columbia. We all sat around a group of tables brought together to the center of the room to form one. Now that I think about it, this memory may not be from the first day, because the first day I arrived about 45 minutes late, my clothes sodden and dripping from a freak rain storm that shut down every subway line between my apartment and school. It may not have been the first day, but it is the first impression of Christine that stuck in my memory.
It was toward the end of a writing exercise. The time was almost up, we’d all poured out heartfelt words all over our precious pages. I’d stopped my flow and looked around. Christine sat across the table from me. I thought: she’s young, determined, pretty, and has a killer fashion sense. All those things are still true. I had the privilege of reading her short play Half Brothers, which she’s extending to a full length with the Fire This Time’s writing group. Christine is not messing around with this play. I decided to read it at lunch and ended up teary at the food court. The emotion snuck up on me and I had to switch from salad to udon so I could eat some feelings before going back to work.
How do you take a short play and turn it into something longer? Is it story? Characters? Ideas that you’ve left unfinished or unexplored? Do the mothers enter the stage?
Usually when I want to transition a short play into long form it’s because there are ideas I want to explore more in depth – in this case inheritance. I originally wrote this play for “48 Hours in Harlem” and each of those plays are inspired by another play drawn at random – mine was Yellowman by Dael Olandersmith. So under the rubric of inheritance there are the things we inherit from our parents emotionally, spiritually, literally like a house, but also the idea of inheriting complexion – or really that there is someone on your family tree who is responsible for the complexion of your skin. The mothers weren’t in past iterations of this play but in this current draft they appear as their younger self’s in the past. I’m very excited about that.
That’s something I’ve never really thought about until I had a child. And my husband and I are both basically white, but Dave is darker than me, and our son looks just like Dave but is paler like me, and I thought how interesting it was to see Dave’s baby face with my skin. But there’s nothing emotional for me about skin, which is I think par for the course for white people in the northeast. In terms of emotional inheritance, it’s funny, or maybe more off-putting, to see qualities in my son that I have, knowing how hard those qualities have been for me– obstinance, or the force of will it takes to focus on a thing when you’d rather be doing something else– and know that he’s going to have to deal with all that stuff too, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Is there anything you’ve inherited from your parents that you’d like to give back?
It’s funny as we get older I think me and my sister and other women friends of mine all have this irrational fear of “becoming our mothers.” Where did that saying come from and why is it so universally adopted? Maybe it’s just a way of rejecting any kind of certain future. I hope and I strive to be as kind of a woman as my mother. We both have had very different lives – and for me dealing with chronic health issues gives you empathy, but it also necessitates a kind of self-preservation and sometimes selfishness and I always think of how kind of a person my mother is to balance me out.
Do you think we’ll get to see some of the traits of the mothers passed down to the children? Like those things where you’re so clearly able to say “he’s really his mother’s son.”
I think the characters in my play definitely feel the weight of inheriting their mother’s worlds’ and emotions. Even still they’d rather inherit and own everything they’ve inherited from their mother rather than their father.
I have two half brothers and three half sisters, and I know you have a complicated family make-up as well. It often feels to me that, with the exception of my two youngest sisters who have the same mom and dad, my father’s children have a completely different father. My mom was more consistent with her two, but I’m the only child of them both. They each had additional families after ours dissolved. It’s weird. Were you inspired by your own family experiences to write Half Brothers?
I think in the end even our whole siblings get raised differently by our parents. But I think it becomes more pronounced in our minds when it is a half sibling. Because we wonder if our treatment is somehow related to our different parent. Like you said we see our father or mother differently as a person in comparison to this other partner, or from how they treated this half sibling. I have a half sibling and I have made those comparisons.
We studied together under Eduardo Machado at Columbia. I was having lunch with a friend the other day who said she could always tell a former playwrighting student of Paula Vogel’s by the stage directions. What, if any, do you feel is Eduardo’s legacy in your work?
As for Edwardo’s legacy in my writing that was interesting question for me to answer. Because I’m not on the outside looking in on my writing. But I had a conversation recently with a Dramaturg and a Playwright from our program about this and we all agree that as writers Eduardo’s students all start with a raw emotional core – we begin there and move forward.
I know that his legacy as teacher is that he helped me to find my voice as a writer. You probably remember that one exercise we did when we were encouraged to free write a long monologue in class – it was in the very beginning of our program. I remember Eduardo looked over my entire monologue and found the one sentence that encapsulated the entire thing and he said
“That is what you are trying to say.”
The rest was just me meandering, and trying to find a way to say it. And he was right. I’m grateful to him for that.
That’s so similar to my first experience studying with Eduardo. I’d brought in ten pages and he crossed it all out, and was like “just this one line, rewrite from there.” And I was furious. But I did. And he was right. Which made me all the more annoyed. And then of course there’s the story he tells about studying with Fornes, and her comments on his draft that made him so crazy that he exploding all those red pens on his apartment walls and woke up thinking it was blood. I really felt that raw, emotional core in Half Brothers. Do you find it difficult to commit to that emotion? For me, recently, it’s been hard to commit to that. It’s like I have to mentally prepare myself before free diving into my heart.
I’m getting better at writing when I’m happy – or just not in that frame of mind. Sometimes it’s just being authentic with myself that is the most daunting part of the process that we inherited from Eduardo.
Christine Jean Chambers received her M.F.A in Playwriting from Columbia University where she studied under Eduardo Machado, Kelly Stuart, Christopher Shinn, and Theresa Rebeck. She is a published author and photographer. In New York City she’s had plays produced at The Flea, as a part of “The Stupid Plays” Horse Trade as a part of the “The Fire This Time” festival, Ensemble Studio Theatre as a part of the “The River Crosses Rivers II” festival, Harlem 9’s “48 Hours in…Harlem”,Theatre Movement Company, Rising Circle Theatre Collective, National Black Theatre, and 5D. In 2013 she was a playwriting fellow at The Field. She is currently a member of the Fire This Time Writer’s Workshop.
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