UIC’s Lydia Diamond wins Horton Foote Playwriting Award

Playwright and professor Lydia Diamond
Lydia Diamond, playwright and UIC clinical associate professor of theatre.

The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Lydia Diamond grew up moving frequently as her single mother’s musical and academic teaching career took her from one university to another. During this time, her mother also earned advanced degrees and taught future artists.

Diamond came from a family of musicians and educators, so she had been required to take violin lessons from the time she was 6. In high school, she managed to convince her mother to let her put down the violin in favor of letting the theatre be her mode of artistic expression.

After earning an undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and spending a decade performing professionally, she realized that her true calling was as a playwright.

Diamond, UIC clinical associate professor of theatre in the School of Theatre and Music within the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts, was recently named the recipient of the 2020 Horton Foote Playwriting Award. The award comes with a $25,000 prize that will be awarded in July. She has nine published plays including her latest work, “Toni Stone,” which was critically acclaimed, and named Critic’s Pick by the New York Times.  In addition to “Toni Stone,” her plays include “Smart People,” “Stick Fly,” “Harriet Jacobs,” “Voyeurs de Venus,” “The Gift Horse,” “The Inside,” and her adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel, “The Bluest Eye.” She also has written for television.

She recently spoke about her life and career and how UIC helps inform her writing.

Tell us how you feel about winning the Horton Foote award?

It’s so exciting, I don’t win a lot of awards so when I saw, “Congratulations” on the subject line of an email I thought, “Oh right, it’ll be something like, ‘Congratulations you have won an opportunity to buy a book,’ or some such. Then I opened it and it was real… and I kept reading, the news got better and better. I was teaching a class in about five minutes, and so after my mom and my boyfriend, the first people who knew were my UIC students. I lived in Texas when I was in high school, so I have an affection for Horton Foote in general and am a great admirer of his work. To receive an award in his name is a great honor.

How did you get into playwriting and how many plays have you written?

I’ve written about 12 plays, nine of them have been published and are produced regularly. I started playwriting in college. I went to Northwestern and was one of only two theatre majors of color at the time. There just weren’t many roles available to me, so I started writing my own material, writing one-woman shows and plays. At that time in Chicago (I think it’s not so different now), you could find a space in which to produce a show, call yourself a theatre company, send out a press release, and reviewers would actually come and review the work.  I worked in this place, Café Voltaire, where I was a cook, a waitress, a hostess and the manager of this little theater space in the basement.  That’s where I produced my first shows. Ironically that’s where, over two decades ago, I first met Yasen Peyankov, head of UIC’s Theater Department. He was directing a production of “Macbeth” there.

Roundabout Theatre Company’s “Toni Stone.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)

What are the themes that you go back to and why?

Most of my work deals with themes of class, race and gender. I think it’s because I have always written about the things that are hard for us to talk about; things that confound and/or disgust or continue to shock me. I’m an African American woman, and I move through a world that has a relationship with African American people that is deeply problematic. I’m always amazed at how hard it is for all of us — people of all races — to talk about these things. I work out my questions and I work out trying to figure it out in my plays. It doesn’t mean that I’m writing political plays that are didactic and only about that. I’m writing plays that are about families and I’m writing plays about interesting historical figures and I’m writing plays about contemporary people of various ethnicities, sexual orientations, and classes. People who look like the folks I interact with daily. If you are a person of color, this is the world you are navigating. So, those themes are always going to come up in my work. 

Which is the latest play that is being produced and how does it fit into your overall anthology?

It is “Toni Stone.” It took four years to write and is the true story about the first woman of any race to play in a professional baseball game when she played with the Indianapolis Clowns of the professional Negro Leagues. It started at the Roundabout Theater in New York. The American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco just put up its second production, also directed by Pam MacKinnon. Sadly, because of COVID-19, it closed the day after its opening. What’s great is that they’ve taped it and are making tickets for patrons to purchase and view online. It’s slated to be done at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., if we’re back to business as usual by July. I’ve just heard that there are about 10 productions of it around the country for the following season.

The New York production of ‘Toni Stone’ garnered very good reviews. How does that make you feel?

Throughout my career, my New York reviews were often not as flattering as the ones from other cities around the country. This is my first experience with critical raves in New York. It’s so very exciting, but I was also astounded and concerned because I didn’t realize how much of an impact it would have on the success of the play in every way. The industry needs to look at the ecology of the American theatre, which puts so much emphasis on the opinions of one or two reviewers in New York, to be the arbiters of what happens to the future of that play. They have the power to affect the number of future productions that a play might have, and its financial viability in general. So, yes, it felt wonderful to get raves across the board, AND, yes, it is all very arbitrary and a bit like winning the lottery when it happens.

April Mathis as Toni Stone.
April Mathis in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of “Toni Stone.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Since you were a theater major as an undergrad, are you still an actor?

Good God no! No, no, no. I’m not. It just took me a long time to realize that. I majored in acting and you spend a lot of time convincing your family that you’ll be OK. I learned now, as I’ve gotten older, I have ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and my brain doesn’t want to hold on to lines. I seriously struggled my whole acting career to just learn my lines, which means I never really got to act because I couldn’t fully immerse myself in the character; so much of my attention went to trying to remember my lines. Though I was working steadily, I was miserable and expecting to be fired. It was awful. My then-husband was like, “It doesn’t seem like you like acting.” And I thought, ‘Oh, wow, that’s true. I don’t have to do this.’ By that time, my playwriting career had taken off. It was just a matter of saying to myself and then to people, ‘I’m a playwright.’ As opposed to saying, ‘I’m an actor, and I write plays.’ It was very liberating.

What do you teach at UIC and what words of advice can you give students about writing for theater?

I teach Playwriting, Script Analysis, a class called Contemporary Performance Techniques, in which people create their own work and we put on a show at the end of the semester. I tell my students to just write. Write as much as they can, all the time without judging themselves and their writing. I think it’s important that you don’t turn to other people for affirmation about what you do and how you do it (another issue I have with the reality of reviews). You write because you have stories to tell that are interesting but we have a tendency to think, ‘I’m not really a playwright unless I have a show at the Goodman Theatre, or I’m not really a playwright unless I have a show on Broadway.’ It took me 22 years of a successful playwriting career before I had a show on Broadway. If you think you’re writing so you can have certain kinds of accolades, you’ll lose your mind. There are too few opportunities and too many people who are good artists, for us to let the opinions of others dictate our artistic viability. Sure, you send a play out to theatres in hopes that it will be produced one day, but in the meantime, you must make a way for yourself. You write the play, then you find a church, or the basement of a vegetarian restaurant, or the back of a bar, recruit some of your friends, invite people to see it, and that’s being successful in the theater.

How has UIC helped you achieve your goals and your dreams?

Our students inspire me daily. I love them! They have incredible work ethics and a great deal of talent. Refreshingly, our students are lacking in something that I have seen at universities that cater to more economically privileged students. Our students tend not to indulge in ‘Am I talented enough?’ neurosis. They’re like, ‘I’m here to learn, and I’m working very hard to be here. Teach me.’ The prevailing attitude is: ‘Let’s go, let’s do this,’ and that is inspiring to me. Also, UIC is the first place I’ve ever worked where the students are wonderfully diverse, especially racially. I think that’s such a gift to the students and bodes well for our institution. They will leave UIC with a certain cultural fluency, a privilege that a lot of people just don’t have.

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