Roger Q. Mason has a way with words: erudite but down-to-earth. The playwright of Lavender Men and numerous others is an LA native steeped in stories of their family, city and the world beyond. We spoke to them about their successful theater and burgeoning film career, an upcoming reading of a new work, Hide and Hide, on October 20—and their connection to Larchmont Village.
What originally drew you to theater?
I grew up in a multigenerational household where theater and performance were at the forefront of our social mores. My grandmother was a member of the Gilpin Players at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college in Texas. She recalls fondly when Langston Hughes did his tour of the south in the ‘30s and watched her do a crying scene in a play the Gilpin Players were performing. The impact of his affirmation stuck with her to the end of her life.
The ability to impact an audience and have the response carry you through a lifetime was really the beginning of my affinity for the power of theater.
My grandmother was interested in the art of interlocution. We used to have recitation time every week. I would recite a poem from the Black poetic canon: Langston Hughes, Mary McLeod Bethune, Maya Angelou. So I’ve always been performing. The power of language that was instilled in me from an early age.
One of the other components is my interdisciplinary approach: I have a background in performance art, dance and music. Before I started writing for the theater, I was classically trained as a pianist and studied ballet and modern dance in middle and high school. Those other disciplines play an important role in my storytelling, through movement sequences and nonverbal dramatic action. The body tells truth that language oftentimes negates. Now I structure my works with reference to structures of classical and jazz composition. One of my plays, The Duat, about the black power movement, is written in the structure of an astral jazz composition.
Do you think of yourself primarily as a writer, a performer, or something else—or do those labels blur together?
When I was first forming my voice as an artist, I was inspired by Emily Mann and George C. Wolfe, both interdisciplinary artists who think holistically about their theater work. When they were writing, it was for directors to interpret the work in three dimensions. When they were directing, they thought about a work’s shape from page to stage. They ask themselves, “How do I create teams that take this blueprint and explode its possibility through the alchemic structure of production?”
I’ve always seen this craft of ours as magical and holistic. I don’t believe in hierarchy and compartmentalization, although I have great respect for those who specialize. But I think about the whole experience; that has become more popular in the last several years, with multi-hyphenates coming to the forefront of our business. It wasn’t always so possible. “They” wanted writers to be quiet and pass notes or not show up to rehearsals at all. There’s been more recognition of playwrights’ contributions through their presence.
So yes, I’m a performer, playwright, director, and producer. I’ll continue to work in all of those arenas because I can’t help but think about the whole as well as the parts. That’s made me a better playwright.
You describe the theater as “a holy ‘seeing place’ wherein we can envision worlds different and more inclusive than our own.” I love your notion that “If we can dream it in the theatre, we can build it in the world.” In your play Lavender Men last year, you create what you call a “fantasia” to create a world that’s both real and a utopia. Is that one of the ways you manifest that dream of building a different world?
I think civic imagination is the beginning of change. We have to imagine the social transformation that we want to see in the world. The theater becomes a great playground in which we can envision new worlds and new ways of interacting with one another that we can then manifest in the real world.
There are biases, social structures, and financial strictures that prevent people sometimes from being as equitable as they could be. But they’re not impossible to attain, as theater proves they exist in our minds.
What are the civic shifts we can make, through visibility culture, to actually bring about those changes? Virtue signaling is an easy way out. When a movement is at the forefront, folks can post about it, send a few dollars to a cause and pat themselves on the back. What is the more sustained relationship to change we can have? Change is a road that must be constantly traveled, a lifelong commitment to accountability, fairness and mutual concern for your fellow human beings.
I believe that the theater, with its immediacy, liveness, and its direct connection with an audience, possesses the power to change hearts by humanizing the experiences and stories of people who are sometimes cast aside. I put those “forgotten moments in remembered time” at the forefront of my work.
You’ve added screenwriting to your resume, correct?
Lavender Men was adapted for a short film, Taffeta, that toured the globe and has been adapted into a full-length feature film directed by Lovell Holder. The film is completed and awaiting sale. Taffeta is so eager to connect with her fans that she might be compelling me as the writer to do some TV.
You describe yourself as “a Black, Filipinx, plus-sized, gender non-conforming, queer artist of color.” How does your identity impact your writing?
My identity becomes my rally cry. In all of the worlds I inhabit, our society has tried to render me silenced and invisible, and I’m not one to take the beating in silence. I raise hell where others tell me I should sit down and shut up. My life’s mission is to tell the truth that some find difficult and to bring dignity and hope to people who feel they are not valued in our society.
How would you describe your path from writing your first play to being asked to write commissioned works? What is the commissioning process like?
My very first play was a short piece called Vile. It was an intentional misspelling of vial, a vessel for a specimen. It was about a queer son being forced into artificial insemination by his father who was worried he wouldn’t give him any offspring. I wrote this when I was 19, so I’ve been navigating the hard questions about the human condition for the whole of my career.
My work took a turn about seven years ago when I started performing in my plays; they became much less cerebral and more character-based, more earnest, immediate, and vulnerable. That honesty and vulnerability are what attracted folks who commission works.
Since the pandemic, I’ve had more commissioned work because more people know about me. The pandemic was terrible for theater artists because theaters closed. Digital theater allowed those of us who owned the power of the pivot to turn eyes that were otherwise engaged on lives that we could render on our phones. There was a large audience base and I credit that time with the opportunities I’m experiencing now. I was able to make some fabulous lemonade out of a very sour era in human existence.
Tell us about your upcoming reading, Hide and Hide, on October 20th.
Hide and Hide is a Homeric critique of the power and danger of the American Dream. It imagines a Texan rent boy [male prostitute] on the run as a Filipinx undocumented immigrant who enters a sham marriage to escape culpability and pursue some aspect of American promise.
The play was inspired by the year my mother moved to the United States, 1980, just like the girl in the play, Constanza. My mother moved here because of the view that was exported to her. As I’ve watched her navigate through American life, she, like many, has been by turns exhilarated and disheartened by what it takes to live and thrive in this country. I wanted to capture that journey.
The piece is also loosely based on a court case involving an attorney who facilitated many sham marriages for green cards in California. We pay tribute to the dreams of the people who went through such brave lengths to get what was promised to them by cultural exportation.
Hide and Hide features the songs my mother was listening to when she was contemplating her move from the Philippines to America, those flights of fancy, excess and deviousness. Those songs had a great impact on developing the world’s sensibilities about the West.
We have a great responsibility to export equity to the world. People come here with a romanticized view of American life and are disillusioned. This play follows two people’s such devolution in the American Dream.
What do you like and dislike about the process of making theater?
Theater is a truly collaborative art form, where so many people pool the richness of their lived experience to create an expression that they’re sharing in real time and space with an audience. I believe there’s no single author of a play. A playwright is responding to the world around them and every aspect of that world is fair game.
Playwrights are also in a deep dialogue with designers, director and actors they’re working with. These are some of the greatest curators and editors a playwright has in their arsenal, if they’re just listened to. I stand with humility, gratitude and openness to everyone who touches a play. In my own production history, I pay tribute to all of the people and all of the ways my work is enriched by collaborations.
You must find people who understand your sensibilities. It’s why film directors have unofficial companies of actors. They understand that the particularities of their voice are emboldened when they have people who understand them in the room.
I understand you have a connection to Larchmont, beloved home of the Larchmont Buzz.
Larchmont is my stomping ground. I was born in Santa Monica and grew up in the Koreatown area. Just a stone’s throw away from Larchmont. Started attending classes at Center for Yoga, now in excellent hands in a cooperative of members from the old guard who wanted to preserve the business and the building after the pandemic. So I’ve been going there since I was 16 years old. That means I remember all the Landis stores, the stationery store, the Petit Greek has been there a long time, Chevaliers. And then there was that fascinating Italian restaurant across the street from Yoga with a nautical theme and sails. Every week they made a mushroom soup that I would walk the two miles to get. This is how far back I go in that particular area. Larchmont holds a very special place in my heart because it was a place where I could be a part of a yoga community, wellness, self-awareness and empathy. It was also a neighborhood to develop myself as a foodie, a buyer of curiosities and a literary person.