Where Does Your Food Come From? An interview with Playwright Andrew Marikis
By Carlos Murillo, Mellon Resident Playwright at Adventure Stage
Recently I caught up with Andrew Marikis, playwright of Fast Food Chain, the next world premiere play at Adventure Stage. The piece was commissioned by Adventure Stage and developed though our Discovery Sessions process, a unique community engagement tool that links our playwrights with the communities they are writing for.
Over the last two years, Andrew visited schools and community farms to engage with young people about food insecurity in Chicago, using Yoruba folktales as a touchstone for conversation. Those Discovery Sessions evolved into this new play that we’re proud to premiere as the final installment of Adventure Stage’s “Hunger” season.
I talked to Andrew about the piece, the process of making it and what messages he hopes the play will convey to our audience.
Carlos: You’ve had a long history with Adventure Stage. Can you talk about some of the work you’ve done with the company in the past, and what does it mean to you to debut your play here?
Andrew: I’ve been working with ASC for about six years now. I started as a mentor with the Trailblazers, which is a combination mentorship program and mixed-age ensemble who have made ten or so plays on the ASC stage built out of the stories and lives of the young people who are the heart of the program. It was amazing to help create those productions with the Trailblazers, but I was really surprised when I asked if I could try writing a play by myself for ASC and was told I could! I have seen so many powerful performances on this stage. It is overwhelming, and I am so honored to premiere my first full-length play here at ASC.
Carlos: How would you describe Fast Food Chain to a teacher thinking about bringing their class to ASC to see the piece? Why do they need to see it?
Andrew: Fast Food Chain is about two young Chicagoans living with food insecurity who learn to take control of their lives and face down difficult ethical dilemmas through cleverness, grit, talent, community, and a dash of literal storytelling magic, drawing on the rich soil of West African folktales – the stories of the Igbo and the Yoruba people. It celebrates and brings out the excitement behind the traditional African cannon, which is often tragically overlooked, since these are some of the best stories ever told. It encourages students to ask questions about their food such as where does it come from? Who makes it? What happens to food that we waste? Why are some people hungry? It teaches empathy and undermines the stigma of poverty and food insecurity. And it has a message about civic responsibility and morality, asking its protagonists difficult questions about when to look out for yourself and when to look out for your community, and visa versa. It asks of the audience: how do you want to change your community, and how would you do that?
Carlos: Tell us about what inspired you to write the piece. I’m particularly curious about the connection between the African folklore that is a source of the play and how it intersects with the lives of young people in contemporary Chicago.
Andrew: This piece started with me wanting to write about food. I did some research and was surprised to learn that only about half of all the food grown in the United States is eaten (the rest goes to waste) and that food deserts are so common in Chicago - hitting communities of color the hardest. I knew I wanted some powerful stories to anchor the piece and I started looking around in the South American, Mesoamerican, and African cannons. The Igbo and Yoruba folktales jumped out at me immediately. Not only are they enrapturing, beautiful, intense stories, but they are almost always about food: how to get it, where it comes from, the fact that no one has any, or that only the very powerful get to eat. I know a lot of young folks in Chicago are in the position of Rudy and Akari in Fast Food Chain – they don’t know where their next meal might be coming from, and they’re facing a lot of other very adult situations that they feel they need to deal with even as young people. What I like about these folktales is they don’t sugarcoat things. They don’t talk down to their audience. They deal with adult situations. But, because it’s Hare and Tortoise and Rat and Lion, they can tell a dark story in a way that doesn’t scare or overwhelm us. When Lion eats Rat, we may sympathize with Rat, even fear for her, but we can still laugh, because it’s a lion eating a rat. That metaphorical distance makes these stories so powerful and beautiful. I think young folks will connect to these stories because they talk about serious stuff in a fun, easy way.
Carlos: How did the ASC Discovery Sessions process influence your writing?
Andrew: I loved seeing the reactions of everyone who heard the Igbo stories of Hare, Tortoise, Rat, and Lion: from the students from Sabin Dual Language Magnet School and Johnnie Colemon Academy, to the urban farmers at Growing Home. Everyone, no matter the age, were really excited by these stories. They sparked debate, they inspired creativity, they made people laugh. Many of these reactions found their way into character choices, settings, and dialogue in Fast Food Chain. For example, Mbe talks about Rudy using the metaphor of a plant that needs to be replanted for its own health – that came directly from our friends at Growing Home.
Carlos: ASC is devoting this season to the theme of "Hunger." How does Fast Food Chain fit into this theme?
Andrew: I was really interested in exploring actual hunger – hunger for food – partly because I LOVE food and I spend a lot of time thinking about where food comes from, who makes it, and what that means, and partly because not being able to eat enough healthy food is a big problem for a lot of people in Chicago. When you’re hungry, it touches every other part of your life – you might not do as well at school or at work, you might feel embarrassed around other people, you might act out because you are frustrated or distracted by your hunger. And I think that being hungry for food makes it difficult for people to dream bigger and think about what else they might hunger for. It’s a powerful thing.
Carlos: What conversations do you hope to start with this play vis a vis the largely middle school audience that sees shows at ASC?
Andrew: I know a lot of the kids seeing this are taking on adult roles in their homes – roles of breadwinners, interpreters, babysitters, hopes for the future – it’s a lot of pressure. I hope this play makes it a little easier to talk with each other and their families about that pressure. There is also a lot of stigma around being food insecure or impoverished. A lot of kids who see this show will have families who use food pantries or get other aide to help pay the bills, and a lot of them probably feel frightened or ashamed to talk about it with their peers. I hope this show gets young people to talk more openly about their situations without fear of being made fun of or bullied. Also, the kids in this story are problem-solvers. I hope young people talk about ways they can help themselves and their communities – use the power they have for good. Now’s a time when we have some extraordinary young people taking stands, making headlines, making change – like the March for our Lives students. I hope this inspires conversation about how young folks can organize and change things for the better, because young people are powerful!
Carlos: When you were in middle school, what books and stories inspired you?
Andrew: I was a sucker for scary stories. I loved the Goosebumps books, and after that, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Those pictures were horrifying – I still get chills when I look at that cover! I also loved science fiction thrillers. I read Jurassic Park a few months before the original movie came out. The first half of that book was a lot of work, but it was totally worth it when the velociraptors attacked!
Carlos: I imagine there might be some young writers in our audience who will see your show - what advice would you give to them?
Andrew: I’ve quoted a writer, Frank Norris, a lot while making this play – “Don’t like to write, but like having written.” Which means writing is REALLY hard, but TOTALLY worth it. When you start, keep a journal and write a little every day, even if it isn’t important or good – just get in the habit! (Plus, you really never know – maybe what you’re writing is important and good!) Have some trusted friends around who will give you good advice on your writing or just be there to listen to you. Mostly, follow your heart – you know what you want to say – just practice until you can say it right.