Harrison David Rivers ’04 is an award-winning playwright, librettist and screenwriter based in St. Paul, Minnesota. His recent play, “we are continuous,” was commissioned by the Williamstown Theatre Festival and had its world premier in Williamstown this summer, Aug. 2-14. “we are continuous” is a three-character play: SON, MOTHER and HUSBAND. The story unfolds in a series of monologues which are delivered directly to the audience. “As a writer, I’m very interested in the rhythms of things. In the words we use. The things we say and the things we don’t say,” Rivers explained. “I’m interested in how we tell stories, how we get from point A to point B. How it’s rarely a direct line. How we meander on our way to truth … to clarity.”

"we are continuous" Excerpt

Rivers' comments are in italics.

SON: When I was a kid, I loved to perform. It started with church plays. And then summer theater. Babes in Arms. Bye Bye Birdie. Cinderella. Singing in the Rain. And my mom made all my costumes. She swore she couldn’t sew, but every time I was cast, she’d make that Singer hum, and my shit always looked tight.

I, like so many others, got my start in theater onstage. Funny enough, I developed near debilitating stage fright while rehearsing my senior thesis play at Kenyon. 

I remember she made me this plaid outfit when I played Ali Hakim in Oklahoma. Orange and red pants with a lime green vest. I stepped out on stage and I got a standing ovation. Or, well, my costume got a standing ovation. Literally, every person in the audience got to their feet and clapped, hooting and hollering for those pants. For that lime green vest.

I straightened my hair for “Oklahoma”. I told my mom that I wanted a finger wave and she said “okay” even though she had to have known that it was a bad idea. I remember I sat in a chair in the kitchen leaned back against the sink while she applied the chemicals to my head and made sure that they didn’t burn my scalp. My hair was STILL straight six months later. Just long enough to RUIN my senior pictures. 

My mom was the best kind of stage mom because she wasn’t a stage mom at all. She made it clear that she was fine with me doing the “theater thing,” that she would support me one hundred percent, but that it was on me to do the work. She was hands-off, but she always had my back.

My first year of high school I auditioned for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And I knew that there was little to no chance of my being cast — freshmen almost never were — but it was experience, a chance to be seen, to lay the groundwork for the future. Now there were only two Black roles in the play. Jim, of course, and some other guy who was only in one scene and who basically entered, called himself the n-word, then exited. That was it. I read for Jim. Was called back for Jim. Gave the audition of my life for Jim. And got cast as the other guy. The n-word guy. And I remember I told my mom that I was the only freshman to be cast. And I told her which part. And she was like, “nope, I don’t think so. No child of mine.”

My mom had a similar reaction when I was cast as Tom, Phyllis and Leslie in the play “Sylvia” my freshman year at Kenyon. I remember she said, “Phyllis? Isn’t that a girl’s name?” I accepted the role despite her reservations. 

My senior year, I was cast as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus fucking Finch. And people lost their goddamn minds. Bumping me in the halls. Saying nasty things like, “you’re gonna ruin the book” and “who the hell do you think you are”? There was an Op Ed in the local paper, “The Desecration of a Classic Text.”

Given the confessional nature of much of my work, people often try to guess which parts of my plays are true and which are not. They almost never guess correctly. My mother DID make my costumes in high school. I WAS cast as Atticus Finch, for reasons I still do not understand, but there was no Op Ed… at least, I don’t think there was. 

I told my mom that this was happening, that people were angry with me, at me – though, clearly, I hadn’t cast myself — and she was like, “fuck ’em.” I mean, she didn’t say “fuck ’em.” My mom doesn’t say “fuck,” but essentially, that’s what she said. And she went to the school and gave the principal an ear full. And she went to the school board and gave them an ear full. And she wrote to the local newspaper and gave them an ear full. And folks shut up. Because my mom is fucking scary. And because she was right. And I was really good as Atticus. Like really, really, good. Like standing ovation good. And not for my costume either.

I tend to write what I know. Or at least, that’s how I most often begin a new play. I start with autobiography and fictionalize later. “we are continuous,” which is maybe the most personal of my plays, was written in the spring of 2019 soon after I was diagnosed with HIV. Though my diagnosis was a large part of the impetus for the play, the play is not really about HIV. It figures in, of course, but only insofar as it is part of the story of my ever-evolving relationship with my parents, specifically my mother, around the subject of my  homosexuality. 

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