Rising Playwright, Marcus Scott is a true Renaissance Man. Storyteller. Musical Theater Writer. Librettist. Teaching Artist. Journalist. These are all titles that define him.
A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts’ Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, his accomplishments far exceed his titles.
One of his latest plays “Sibling Rivalries” is a political drama. The piece follows a young group of African-American men set against each other during their college years as they compete against each other for a prestigious fellowship.
Set in an Ivy League setting in the years following Obama’s presidency, the men question their loyalties as they deal with many issues that black men face today. Scott’s talents as a writer are evident in this latest work and there’s no surprise as to why Scott receives the well-deserved recognition.
He has an extensive body of work and is the definition of a playwright with endless creativity. He is always working on his next new project-by the time this is published he will be workshopping his next piece.
Marcus spoke to us about his journey, changes he would like to see and what keeps him inspired during his creative process.
So, are there specific themes or topics that interest you that usually incorporate into your work and perhaps make a statement?
Yeah, so in my work as a playwright, as a musical theater writer is that I’m looking for these connections. I feel that a lot of writers, especially today, especially a lot of black writers like to say black people are not a monolith.
Those who are BIPOC, or queer, or name a category, women that X is not a monolith, but so many writers are writing to the monolith and so, if it’s black, usually its black people struggling. It’s usually some kind of thing. Usually, there’s some kind of murky gray area where these people are on welfare, or they’re addicted to drugs.
Yes, a lot of stereotypes?
You know what I’m saying? And yet I don’t see that, and even though I did grow up in a lower middle-class area with a middle-class background, grew up in trap houses and so forth and so on. I really felt it was important to look at all of the nuances.
I would like to…I have friends who grew up really like the Cosbys and they don’t get to see themselves. I have friends who if they don’t come from money, they know what it’s like to have two parents in the household, that might not have been my experience, but I wanted to write to every experience.
So much of the work I do is about the kind of things that you don’t see. I’m trying to write for people who are on the fringes of different storytelling narratives who often live in the shadows, and who are systematically fighting different stereotypes every day.
What did I say in my work? I’m trying to remember my artistic statement… My story is about black people in white, predominantly white spaces, and them trying to get out of that gaze, get out of those boxes, those definitions. I like to say that I write about assimilation, about acceptance, about discrimination, and about the journey to that.
We live in this kind of broken system, and so much of that is spent looking at how we have to deliver ourselves. So much of the work I feel that I write about is.
I’ve written a play about fraternity boys on a predominantly white campus fighting but also honoring black excellence. What is black excellence? Well, black excellence is not one thing, and because we live in an era where black excellence is kind of like everywhere; You have an Oprah, you have a Beyonce and Jay Z, and you have the Obamas, and it’s almost like they’re these gods on this pantheon and it puts us in a place where that is the thing that is the bar.
It’s like how other black people police you and how stifling that, can be to yourself.
I’ve written a piece about black punk rockers in the South and looking at what it means to be a culture vulture. Well, black people created rock and roll and punk rock, but yet the system that we’re around will tell you that it’s a bunch of white guys with guitars partying in their garage, but while also erasing the queer black women that created the genre while pushing out.
Muddy Waters… Yeah, they kind of just switched history:
You have to really dig.
And so I’m looking at that, but also, they’re pushing out Muddy Waters. They’re pushing out Tina Turner. They’re pushing out Solomon Burke and James Brown and all these prolific figures, and yet, even though we’re honoring black music, we’re told we’re not black enough if we listen to rock and roll because rock and roll is white.
Right I think at time, not that it doesn’t still go on, but there were narratives that were pushed. We have more choices now but, in a way, you can get boxed into a stereotype.
And meanwhile, there are black kids rocking out to Nirvana, and there are white kids rocking out to Snoop Dogg and Tupac, but they weren’t embraced, and you had to feel like you had to be a stereotype.
The horror play that I wrote, it’s about black conservative Republicans and the stance that I take on it. Yeah. I’m not a black conservative Republican, and I think that they voted against their own interest, but is wanting to watch them die and suffer at the hands of somebody making me complicit? And not reaching across the aisle as well and bringing them into the conversation because you’re ostracizing them too, and now you’re not creating a thing.
I write about black nerds who are trying to make black people safe, but what does that mean by making black people safe? It typically means being a danger to everyone else.
So, a lot of my stories are just about these people who are just, like I mentioned before, black conservatives, black nerds, black punk rockers. Not all my characters are black, but to use those as my parameter, my barometer, if you will. I write about people who are not necessarily seen.
I’m currently working on a wrestling show with women of color who are fighting these racist and sexist stereotypes because so much of wrestling is that it’s literally a piece about identity, but I’m looking at different women. You have girls who are mean girls. You have the women who are maybe a little bit older, and they’re told that you “be a wife and mother or not”.
I’m working on these pieces of people who have so many other identities other than just the black best friend or the black maid or the Latina, the sassy Latina, the Asian perfect minority. I’m not writing about that. I’m trying to work on stuff that I feel that people like they’re talking about maybe on social media, but no one’s writing about.
It’s like they’re always kind of pushing these narratives, and I think it’s starting to change a little bit because people finally said, “look, we’re sick of the same old content.” Slavery Movies, Mafia Films. People want to see cultures portrayed differently and touch on more layers a culture has to them.
I mean, I’m about that life. I guess who I’m writing for is the teenage version of me, the version that got me into theater that was a little bit more radical, a little epicenter, but also entertaining. Why do I have to watch a person?
There’s almost, especially in theater for this fetishism American plays, kitchen sink plays, and I would say arguably in Hollywood this, it’s always been in this way, but if you’re a person of color, it’s usually about the otherness of you. It is like you have to be “othered” or you can’t have anything fun. It’s always that. It’s always something. It’s like Hollywood is addicted to struggle, especially when it comes to darker scanned melanated people.
Listen, I like a little bit of struggle in my stories. My characters are not perfect. A story without struggle is boring, but “Precious” …It’s like, my God, she’s got aids. She’s a victim of rape and molestation, she lives in section eight housing. Her mother beats her…
It’s like, Jesus, can we tell a story without it being poverty porn?
That’s the things I’m interested in. And also, just like I want to bring a new generation of people into the theatre, and if people are not writing to the times and if people are not writing to stories, I feel like everyone likes to say this thing about joy too, but writing stories about black joy, I don’t want to write that. That’s boring too. Writing stories where people are happy all the time, that’s boring,
Right? There’s no character arc.
I see what you’re saying. Yeah, there’s no problem to solve, so I guess unless it’s a comedy, right?
Well, yeah, but also your version of Black Joy or just your version of joy is different than my version of Joy. My version of joy is going to a festival being with my friends and dressing sexy up.
We’re vibing out, we’re having some good food, and we’re kicking it by a pool. You know what I’m saying? Maybe there’s a movie on what I’m saying, the wine is flowing. That’s a version of joy for me but your version of joy might be doing taxes. We don’t have the same versions of joy.
Yeah. It could be very subjective.
Well, that’s why with sibling rivalries, that’s about black excellence. That’s about black joy. But all of these people, one character is a nerd. One person is an athlete, one person is a politician. One person comes from money. One person is a military rap, one person is a legacy kid. Everybody has a different, one person is a preacher’s kid.
Everyone has a different version of excellence. Everyone has a different version and different experience, and so to say that we should all adhere to the same version of black excellence and black joy is a bit reductive.
And so that’s what I’m working on. I’m working on stories that to me, get butts in seats that are fun, that will make you laugh, that’ll make you cry a little bit, but create community. And the community is seeing someone over there that you definitely didn’t think you could mess with beforehand, but you’re coming out and you’re cracking up afterward.
Everyone likes to throw around rituals as a word for theatrical expression. I don’t do that. I think that’s corny. I think that my stories are like a cipher. I want you to come in and feel like you could add something to the cipher just by being there, a snap when you’re watching. Some claps, some laughter. When I get the audience talking back at the stage, that’s what I know I’m doing my job, and yeah, and that’s what my shows are about. That was a really long way of answering that.
Can you remind us of the plot for “Sibling Rivalries”?
“Sibling Rivalries” is about a group of boys, all of the members of an elite black fraternity called Lambda Kappa Gamma, and they are on a predominantly white Ivy League campus called “Chamberlain University”, which is not a real Ivy League college, but I did not want to get sued or anything like that by any of the Ivy League colleges, so I created a fictional one, and these boys get the opportunity of a lifetime when a fellowship grants the money against them, mentorship at a college of their choice. And so yeah, it’s part “animal house”, its part “school days”, it’s part of soldiers play.
Awesome, that sounds like a really cool hybrid, are there any up-and-coming actors in the cast or do you have your eye on any good talent that you work with?
Every reading that we’ve had has had up-and-coming talent, this particular reading, because some of the people that were, who originated in the very first readings, they’re all doing different shows. One actor, his name is Brandon Gill, he originated the role of Dorian Lewis. He’s currently in “Hamlet” at the Public theatre, so he can’t do it.
But we do have Ronaldo Pinella, who was a part of Trouble in Mind, which is an Alice Childers’s play that was at On Broadway last year, as well as Thoughts of a Coloured Man on Broadway. Same season last year, an up-and-coming actor and playwright who is phenomenal, really good, really talented, really good luck is going to be around forever.
I have Philip Gregory Burke in the cast. Philip Gregory Burke is another actor-playwright who has been in I think a Walmart commercial and a Crest commercial, but is also like has developed, has been in developing for a lot of local pieces.
There’s also Anthony Goss. Anthony Goss was last seen in a short play of mine called “Wookies in the Wilderness”, which debuted at the Fire This Time Festival last year.
Anthony Goss is one of those actors that I feel will be around, will be around as well, but I feel that needs a really good writer to just bring out that thing. He just has that X factor.
There’s Savannah Calder. Savannah Calder has been a long-time collaborator. She was just seeing Scene in “Seven Deadly Sins” downtown and is a fantastic actress. She did the very first reading of this show and has also been developing my horror play “There Goes The Neighbourhood”.
And there is Cole Taylor. Cole Taylor is currently playing the show’s lead, and he’s just been somebody I’ve wanted to collaborate with for a while, I’m just so glad that he can join us. And then finally, I think I got everybody, I think, I don’t know.
Wow, It sounds like a big cast.
Yes. Well, yes. We have nine or ten. It’s seven men, I believe, and two women, and it’s very much, written to be kind of like a counter to “Tumbleweed”, which is the play I wrote before this, and that was six women, three men.
That play was a female-driven play, about women’s hair and the politics of hair, and “Sibling Rivalries” is a male-driven story about black masculinity, but also black excellence and toxic masculinity. So I wanted to explore that, and I’m kind of doing that in a really weird way with the two other players I’m working on.
“Joy Comes in the Morning” which is the name of the wrestling show that I’m working on is female-driven, and it’s quite similar.
It’s seven women, two men, and then the true crime story that I’m working on, is a historical fiction story. I think that is five or six men and two women, and that’s both a memory play and historical fiction play, but it’s about the death of young black boys in America
So I’m exploring gender, but I’m also exploring the dualities of what it means to grow up black in America but from the two vantage points, what does it mean to be a black boy? What does it mean to be a black girl? And when I feel like I have more experience and more of a grasp on what I would like to say… Let’s write a story for a little black theys and thems as well.
I like how you always try to incorporate different perspectives from all the characters regardless of where they grew up. Your thesis, “Cherry Bomb”, there was a reading for that, right? At Tisch?
Yeah. Yeah. “Cherry Bomb” was my thesis show. It was the very first musical I wrote by myself and book music and lyrics. And I wrote that really It was a tough, NYU was a tough time. It was not the easiest experience.
That’s what I hear. One of the top programs to learn though right?
Yeah. It was one of the best places, but it was really tough going there. But I wanted to write a story. I never saw a show, a high school show, especially a high school musical about life with a black protagonist.
I want to write that. And so I decided to write a high school show about what was happening in my hometown and all over the United States, but I definitely saw it in my hometown. My hometown is Albany, New York, and that’s a college town. There’s a ridiculous amount of colleges in Albany, New York.
I’ve been in my day, so it’s a good time.
It’s great at times, but it’s one of those things where there were cutting left and both on the college level and then on the high school level art programs, and I was like, what is actually going on? What the hell is going on? Because everyone was kind of prioritizing STEM and business. And I said, okay, that’s great, but you still need TV writers. You still want to be entertained.
And so much of this country relies on art to shape the narrative of where the country is going to go next. And so much of the world is that way. And so I felt it was really important to write about the arts. And so “Cherry Bomb” is about a boy named Franklin McQueen.
It was originally inspired by the “Peanuts” cartoon, and I wanted to originally write a story about the Black “Peanut” character. I was advised against it but it’s still very much inspired by his story.
So, I went more what if Franklin and the “Peanuts” were in high school?
And so it’s a musical about that, not about Franklin Armstrong, the Peanuts character but about this character named Franklin McQueen, and he wants to be a future president of the United States, but when they cut the arts programs from the school, he feels a personal slight has been against him and so he forms a rebellion to bring the arts back at his school.
He waged a war against the school and the PTA with the help of fellow students. It’s a mashup of Motown, punk rock, electric clash, and EDM music. And I really wanted to show what the kids were listening to, but do it in a contemporary way with contemporary lyrics that didn’t feel like, name a Broadway musical. I wanted it to feel like what was playing on the radio.
Like “Hairspray” but kids.
You wanted to feel more authentic?
I want to feel more authentic to the kids growing up today whose stones are glued to their hands, and whose identities are being shaped by social media. We developed it in a couple of places. I developed it at, oh my God, New York Theatre Barn also.
I won an award from Drama League, and it had a bit of a career, but I shelved it because there was a musical that came out shortly thereafter called Dear Evan Hansen, and there are some things thematically that it shares. And then when I thought I was going to come back and work on it, there’s a TV show called Euphoria, and a lot of euphoria happened in my musical.
Oh, really? Wow. Yeah. That’s a great show.
Yeah, great show. But people were telling me that no one would want to put that up. Then Euphoria came out and I just shelved my show. Cause I was like, what is, wow.
I think you should still do it.
Well, thank you. Well, you know what? I will consider it.
I mean, once it’s one on TV if one’s on, I think it’s on HBO, right?
Yeah, no, it’s got all the things that musical. It has kids having sex and premarital sex. It has drug abuse, it has alcohol, it has acts of violence. It was a very, I tried to just do something. I wanted to see that.
I thought it would be cool. But what I’m really grateful for about “Cherry Bomb” is that it, before I even knew what I was working towards or what I was writing towards, it was one of the shows that kind of led me on the path of the kind of things I want to explore as an artist, even if I only recently kind of stumbled on what I write and what I do and why it’s different than everyone else.
And that took a pandemic and a quarantine to be by myself to figure out who am I as an artist.
But I have to say that even though I like to explore the different groups based on whatever, global majority or whatever, minorities or whatever you want to use, whatever, I double minorities, triple minorities. I am above all else. I’m a black nerd, a black geek, and so much of my work is about nerdy shit.
I’m working on a sci-fi show, which I’m almost finished, which is about “Star Trek”, the last wookies in the wilderness. The name Wookies is, the show is not about “Star Wars”, but it brings up, Chewbacca, brings up what it means to be a black nerd in many ways. So yeah, I am a black nerd. That’s what I do.
When you say black nerd, I think a lot of this stuff is hard-hitting too. It’s not just so lighthearted, but since you mentioned Covid, do you think that was a good time to reflect besides “Sibling Rivalries”, that was delayed? Is there anything different in your creative process post covid? When you reflected and maybe you came out of it. Perhaps even changes that you see in the industry?
Oh God, that’s loaded. Okay, I’ll do the first one, and the second one changes for me.
Got you. For me, what I’ll say is that what I learned, for me artistically, is that I have a word now for what I do, because I would try to say, well, I’m exploring, and I would think of every black writer because I had to pigeonhole myself in some way, right?
Because you can’t just say you’re a writer, because everyone is about labels now. So everyone is like, I’m a this, this, this. And then before you get to the actual, what they’ve done as writers or as artists, they’re telling you their life story by all these categories. And so I didn’t want to categorize myself, but I wanted to say, this is what I’m exploring, and this is what I’m doing. This is why.
What I learned is that am not, I’m afraid I had to staff myself. Basically. I write for black nerds, but I write for black nerds who have anxiety attacks, and who are actually nerdy, not hot nerds like Donald Glover and Issa Ray- Love them both, but that’s not what I’m writing towards.
I’m working on stories about not just kids in the hood, even though I come from a hood, I’m writing for the kids in suburbia who have interests and have things that just skew a little left-center. I’m writing stories for me that I wanted to see more of myself in.
So the true crime story that I told you about, well, that’s kind of like “Goonies” inspired, because that’s kind of the close, people say it’s like “Stranger Things”, right? Well, “Stranger Things” only has that one black kid surrounded by and his sister surrounded by a bunch of white kids.
I was like, well, what if the story’s focused on him? Why is that such a cognitive shift? Why can’t he have the “Avenger”? Why can’t he be the focus of the story?
The wrestling show, I grew up watching WWE and WCW. Why can’t I be in the center of that story?
Right… Because a lot of these shows and wrestling, it would only be maybe one black character or two. I guess things are changing a little bit as time moves on.
Not really for the same thing for Sibling Rivalries. I said I grew up watching, I love Animal House, I love porkies, even though it’s a little problematic, I love porkies, but guess what? There are no black people on that and if they are, it’s like they’re there for, they’re doing Louis Louie, and then they go away.
I want to show, what if these are, we do the same things y’all do, maybe not as toxic, but we do the same thing as y’all. We like to have a good time. We like to take shots. We like to party, and we like to shake our asses, and we have to study the next day. And why can’t we have that duality too? Why is it that we have to be…it’s like Tina Fey says in “Mean Girls”, the unlikeable, the unfriendly black hotties.
Oh yeah. Classic scene, they’re all sitting down when she’s describing everybody in the cafeteria.
And that’s what I think, we’re relegated to that table, but we don’t get to be the focus of the story. And so that’s what I’m about. I’m about focusing.
It’s a great Quote.
Oh yeah. Thank you. And for the second part, I mean, the industry as a whole has changed in that there’s the name for it, but I don’t think right now, I think it’s not really doing anything. I feel like we see White American theatre and everyone’s shaming other people, but the system is still rigged and owned by white gatekeepers.
So they’re just going to take their money and go elsewhere because, and they’re going to give it to, or you’re going to see what the people are doing. Right now they’re pulling out en mass from theatres and different Hollywood studios because they’re like, oh, okay, you’re going to shame me instead of taking the critique.
They’re just going to move on. You’re not really seeing, and really, a lot of these people, a lot of these gatekeepers, a lot of these theatres, they like to do everything symbolically. It’s great to have land acknowledgments. It’s great to acknowledge that we’re on Lenape land, that we’re on Sioux Nation land, that we’re on Cherokee land, but are you giving money to Native Americans and indigenous people?
Are you giving money to trans theatres to tell their stories? Or are you giving money to Black Latina and Asian theatres to tell their stories? Are you giving them space to tell their stories? It’s great to give people a label or category, a leadership position. But are you giving them the tools to succeed?
No, you are not. What you’re doing is that you’re giving them a name and you’re making yourself look good, but you are not doing the thing. They’re active. You’re not giving them, you’re not setting them up for success. It’s a rock and a hard place. That’s what you’re giving them.
It’s a setup. And so I’m in the place mentally, emotionally, where I’m watching people pivot. And I think I might have to pivot too, because as much as I love theater if people are not being given the tools, you’re going to watch people leave theater.
But it will take a long time, and right now it’s a really hard time. Yes, there’s not a lot of money and a lot of theaters, but there are also theaters doing really terrible, making terrible decisions. They’re giving, there are some theaters giving millions of dollars, (millions to celebrities) but they’re giving nothing to emerging talent. Who do you think is keeping your theater alive? The emerging talent,
We need to look at the subscribers because they’re dying and the wealth gap is shifting, we’re not seeing everyone. The middle class is narrowing and we’re really having the haves and the have-nots. To rely on these people and their money to keep the theater alive you need a different system, if you’re going to subscriber base it; you need to Netflix it you know, everybody at $10 a month.
Make it possible, doing a Broadway show or whatever makes it possible to let people stream it, nobody wants to pay $100 for a seat to sit in a theater to see their favorite stars live. But if you can pay $10 to see this performance, that’s guaranteed seat.
People go watch it from everywhere, you know, and it’s crazy, even some of the off-off Broadway and off-Broadway that they’re getting, kind of up there than where they used to be.
Yeah, I mean, they’re getting more and more packed because like, you know, people are into theater, but like, but now, you know, you’re getting more play from all these famous stars. I mean, like David Oyelowo did “Hamlet”, like right before the pandemic, right, like it was one of the shows that they had recently, and like it sold out. You had James Bond; you have David Oyelowo doing “Hamlet”. Of course, people want to come.
You can’t lose it though.
You know, and so like, if you, but if you, if you do that and, you know, and this is a small theater. And if you get like, you know, if you can, you get performances, whatever and say, if you want to keep the Mystique of the show, but you do like three streams like a week.
That’s 100 people guaranteed almost. To watch your show. Right, and said, you’re keeping the lights on because New York City real estate in theaters is ridiculous, right?
Yeah, I think theatre is getting expensive to produce everywhere these days, but NYC is the epicenter.
And then what you, and then you, what you are doing ss, you’re making it so light, like the people who are watching it and person that there is a clear, like, there’s a connection and with between them and, and, and whatever. You’re making money, you’re making profits and your theater stays open.
People just think they like and I get it like, you know, that’s probably more money than people have but like that’s what we would be talking about, you know, get some writers.
Yeah, you know, pay some writers, you know because you know, this is being streamed, make sure your writers are being paid because they wrote the content. you know, so maybe instead of $10, maybe it’s $15 a ticket to watch it online, you know, your writers make, you know, makes $3 for every person from the 15. Now you have a writer who can, who can, who’s making a living.
Right. That’s a great idea. There should be more innovation and changes to Theatre.
And then, you know, with your actors, they’ve already got the, you know, they’re probably the highest-paid people there. Especially if you know David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig, aka, you know, James Bond.
And now you have guaranteed money. Like, it’s just, it’s the system. Like, you know, they could say, oh, there’s not a lot of money. It could happen with money. It can’t be going to the person who owns the theater. You know?
Own the theater. Like we’re bringing the art to the theater. Because people, what’s the, you know, what’s really stopping people to go, you know, because people were doing it. Of going to the park and making art there.