Micah Watson & the Kennedy Center
It was a typical Friday night on the Corner, with worries of deadlines melting away and the weekend festivities already in full swing – or at least it was for most students. At a table in 1515, Micah Watson (College ‘18) was laser focused, pausing her typing only long enough to glance at the time. She was minutes away from a major deadline and putting the finishing touches on her play Canaan before sending it off to The Kennedy Center for the National Undergraduates Playwriting Competition. She hit send with four minutes to spare. A month later, Watson was sitting in a Drama class and staring at her phone, when her professor asked if everything was OK. Everything was more than OK; she had just learned she was the co-recipient of the Kennedy Center National Undergraduate Playwriting Award. She celebrated her good news with the whole class.
Watson’s play looks at a bustling neighborhood in Southeast D.C., prior to gentrification, imagining what the streets would have been like when Black life dominated the city. The idea came to her when she was doing an internship in the city and staying with a cousin there. “It is known as a ‘nice’ neighborhood now, but I couldn’t stop thinking about its past. I would walk past those houses every day on my way to the Metro and just imagined what it must have been like in the 60’s and 70’s.” Canaan is set in 1968, on a front porch that becomes a front seat to one of the most volatile and important times in the city’s, and the country’s, history. It’s a coming-of-age story that looks at the emergence of a young man trying to find out where he fits in in terms of his romantic relationships, his spirituality, his family, and politics in the midst of rapidly changing times in the Civil Rights Movement, which would be rocked to its core on April 4thwith the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Watson had her own sort of transformation in writing the play, which began as a peaceful, nostalgic look back at the period. She would soon see parallels to things taking place in the world today and gained perspective from African American studies classes. “It started to open my eyes to the life of an activist and helped me understand the lives of people who might be on the fence about joining a movement like this, or like Black Lives Matter. The process really helped me get a better look at the people around me, or even older family members, and I am talking about black people primarily. I came to understand a lot about why we have the dissonance we do, how we are not a monolithic people and don’t want to necessarily approach things in the same way.” The play, which was selected from a call put out by Associate Professor Doug Grissom for the New Works Festival, really came to life when Watson challenged herself to write outside her comfort zone. “I had put the project aside for a long time and when I came back to it I asked myself, ‘What is the very last thing these characters would do?’ Then I made them do it. It really made the characters speak to me in a new way and helped remind me that they are complex people.” The Kennedy Center award came with a week-long residency at the O’Neill Theatre Center in New London, CT, where she had the opportunity to apprentice at the annual playwrights’ conference there, where she attended readings, workshopped her own work and networked extensively.