Alumni Spotlight: Roger Quincy Mason '08
Photo By: Paige Craig
Roger Q. Mason ’08 was an English major with certificates in African American Studies and Theatre. While at Princeton University, he was the Artistic Director of Black Arts Company: Drama. He culminated his Princeton career by writing and presenting Orange Woman, A Ballad for a Moor, a creative senior thesis about Lucy Negro, an African dancer purported by some to be the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Mason has spent the last five years in Los Angeles writing plays, developing new work for the theatre, and collaborating with various theatre companies around town. I spoke with him about his time at Princeton, his writing, and the experience of graduating from Princeton during the height of the Recession
What drew you to Princeton originally?
When fielding colleges, I wanted to attend a school where I could meld my love of language, passion for the theatre, and cultural complexity as a person of mixed race. During my pre-frosh weekend, Princeton was abuzz with talk of a creative senior thesis, Playing in the Dark, written by Khalil Sullivan ‘04. The play was a neo-minstrel show about an interracial gay couple. Witnessing the production showed me that Princeton would foster a daring young scribe like me. I signed my acceptance form that afternoon!
What activities were you involved with while at Princeton?
From the start, I was magnetically attracted to Black Arts Company: Drama (BAC: Drama). The black arts community was vibrant, but not necessarily well-known campus wide. When I assumed artistic directorship of BAC: Drama, I knew that, to infiltrate the system, we had to do three things: ally ourselves with well-established companies on campus to architect artistic presence; cultivate audiences within the township of Princeton so our work wasn’t insular and self-serving; and align ourselves with academic departments in the spirit of cultural ambassadorship.
In 2006, BAC Drama co-produced August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning Fences with Theatre Intime just months after the playwright’s demise. When I first proposed the production to Intime in 2005, I was met with some skepticism and cultural ignorance. A few people didn’t know who August Wilson was, and others weren’t sure Princeton had black actors and audiences to support the production. With the help of Josh Williams ’07 and a few other Intime allies, I turned that notion around. People came to Fences in droves. And to this day, that show stands as one of the highest grossing student productions at Princeton.
What professors within CAAS impacted you?
Since the beginning of my Princeton career, CAAS was my guiding light: it influenced my aesthetic and cultural sensibilities, as well as my artistic mission.
Professor Cornel West was a great ally and staunch supporter of my work. I took his class in my freshman year. At the end of each session, he always left time for “questions, queries, and comments.” I fondly remember having intellectual jam sessions with him in front of our 200-plus class as if we were the only two people in the room. He is a man as musical as he is profound.
I was greatly influenced by Professor Daphne Brooks, whose classes on Black satire and theatre helped me appreciate the prescience and profundity of Black artistic expression. Finally, I owe a debt of gratitude to Professor Noliwe Rooks and Dean Valerie Smith, who fostered my artistic endeavors within and outside of the classroom.
What have you been doing in LA since graduation?
I’ve been writing and producing new work for the theatre. I’ve collaborated with such companies as Ensemble Studio Theater/LA, Theatre of NOTE, Edgemar Center for the Arts, and Padua Playwrights – all dedicated to developing new plays. I worked for a year in film development and furthered my writing skills with UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
My play, Onion Creek, about black and Irish relations in Reconstruction-era Texas, was presented by the award-winning Son of Semele Theatre in 2011. And I have a new piece, The Duat, about a former COINTELPRO agent’s spiritual reckoning in the Egyptian afterlife. I just had a reading of that play at UC–Berkeley in March.
You graduated in 2008. What was it like graduating at the height of the Recession?
The Great Recession taught Princetonians everywhere that we must be theoretically fortified and practically equipped to survive in today’s economy. When I was in school, students were encouraged to enjoy their “college experience”, and then worry about “life” and “that job thing” later. With more young people unemployed or returning home after graduation, this new generation of Princetonians is asking for something more. They want to be prepared for life beyond FitzRandolph Gate — not just intellectually, but also empirically. “Help us write resumes, balance checkbooks, nail interviews.” That’s what these kids want, and they are right on the money. In addition to having brilliant minds, they want to be well-prepared survivalists, and I applaud them for it.
What projects do you have in the works at the moment?
While at college, I became interested in “forgotten moments in remembered times”: hidden moments in history that tradition has silenced or cast aside. One such tale is that of Elizabeth Keckley, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s black seamstress and confidante. Keckley has recently received a lot of attention, partially because of Spielberg’s Lincoln. But, I started my journey with Elizabeth Keckley in 2005 — in Firestone Library, to be exact. And now I’m taking the short play I wrote then, and developing it into a full-length work.
I am also a member of The Dramatists Guild, our nation’s professional organization for playwrights, composers, and lyricists. I have a piece coming out in the July/August issue of The Dramatist, our bimonthly journal, about what excites me theatrically.
Finally, I’m writing a triptych based on my family’s history called The Dynasty Suite. The first part is Onion Creek. The second is about my family’s move from Texas to LA in the late 1940s, a booming period for upwardly mobile blacks in our country. The third part, well, I’m still living that. It’s about my generation, how my immediate family has struggled to hold onto our forefathers’ legacy in a “post-Recession” world. It’s some juicy stuff, and the plot is still thickening. So, stay tuned!
Roger Quincy Mason and other alumni members and current members of BAC: Drama will participate in a panel discussion entitled "Black Theatre at Princeton: A State of the Union Forum" on Friday, May 31 at 11:00 a.m. in McCormick Hall, Room 106. This discussion is free and open to the public and all are invited to attend.