Clock Face: An Interview with Daaimah Mubashshir

July 15, 2023
"As a writer of the African diaspora, as I do my research on my heritage and I connect with the parts of me that I don't know yet, I leave myself open to be used by spirits or ancestors. Mostly that's a private practice for me, and I just allow the work to show whatever they need to; the themes I prefer to keep in the background. But I believe that when we choose to allow the voices, we help all of the stories that are missed—ignored, erased, untold—be heard, and spoken, and transcribed."

Award-winning playwright Daaimah Mubashshir’s Clock Face, which received a five-day workshop at PlayCo last June, follows Minnie, an event planner suffering from Lupus, and her mother, Caroline, a prominent community activist, as Minnie readies the house for what she has decided will be her final party. As the two women grapple over Minnie’s decision, their shared history of resentment, grief, and love comes bubbling up to the surface. Mubashshir joined us for an interview from Cassis, France, where she’s currently a resident at the Camargo Foundation. This interview has been edited for clarity.

PlayCo: How did you get started as a playwright, and what drew you to theater over other mediums of writing?

DM: I started off as an experimental filmmaker. At that time, I was not able to find a real footing to be able to work on a grand scale, and I kind of got lost. Then I took a playwriting class at Chicago Dramatists, and my professor MEH Lewis described [playwriting] as: you can include all art forms in this, and pour them into live bodies that interact on stage. For some reason that clicked with me—my light went off. I wanted to do that, in a more focused, intentional way. So I wrote a play and ended up moving to New York to study playwriting at Columbia.

PlayCo: Did you know you wanted to be a writer when you were like a child or did it come later?

DM: I must have been 12 to 15 when I started writing poetry. I wrote for and edited our high school literary magazine. That was so cute. I look back on those times, and I'm like, “That is adorable.” They were dark and goth and very miserable, very, very sad, but very darling, too, and sort of edgy, and funny.

PlayCo: The stage [directions] in Clock Face read to me, on the page, kind of like poetry, and the dialogue is very musical in that it includes rests for the characters—silence is also incorporated in it. Is there other art that you think has a particular influence on the style or content of your writing?

DM: I think that it's a combination. I sustain myself looking at different works of visual art. Right now, I'm really into Wangechi Mutu, Chris Ofili, and Sarah Sze… Music is also a part of my daily rituals. At Columbia, we studied Shakespeare, and I related to how he worked right around actors’ expressions, bodies, and speech, because I hear breaths, I hear beats, I hear rhythms. When the actors are speaking the words, it's like, musically, you can hear what's right; where the beats are; what sounds good. I also am deeply influenced by Suzan-Lori Parks and debbie tucker green’s work. There's a lot of space, and breadth, and sharpness. The less words you put on the page, the more the actor gets to fill in with expression. Who else? Adrienne Kennedy. I absolutely love the way you need to see that work put on its feet. So those are the people that I am drawn to—oh, also Alice Childress.

PlayCo: What was the inception for Clock Face? Is there an image or an idea that you had to begin with, and then built out from, or…?

DM: Clock Face started as less of an image and more of a conversation that I wanted to have. It started with the conversation that I wanted to have with my sister, and so, in earlier versions, the play was based on two sisters. I was really curious about, like, if I were to say everything that I needed, or hash out all of the hurts…What I realized, from the earlier version to this PlayCo version, is that I feel like I'm getting closer to the core of the matter if the daughter is talking directly to the mother. Where it all came from is the mother. That's why I changed it: it's more effective to be more direct.

PlayCo: My next question was about the dynamic of the mother and daughter. They have such a particular intimacy from cohabitating for such a long time. You capture this kind of tenderness and frustration that comes from familiarity and constant proximity so well. How did you find the voices for your characters?

DM: As a writer of the African diaspora, as I do my research on my heritage and I connect with the parts of me that I don't know yet, I leave myself open to be used by spirits or ancestors. Mostly that's a private practice for me, and I just allow the work to show whatever they need to; the themes I prefer to keep in the background. But I believe that when we choose to allow the voices, we help all of the stories that are missed—ignored, erased, untold—be heard, and spoken, and transcribed. How I write out the voices or the personalities of Caroline and Minnie comes from the past, and maybe even the future, of spirits, ancestors, and everything that has been unspoken. It's possible that perhaps I can tell one or two stories through leaving myself open.

PlayCo: That's a really lovely way of framing it. Minnie, in particular, has a striking voice: her character presents a kind of radical ethics of survival through her commitment to stop surviving. In my questions, I brought up Christina Sharpe’s idea of wake work, which attends to the paradoxes of Black life in the wake of slavery. I see Clock Face, which has no easy resolution, as very much part of this conversation. How did you develop Minnie’s ideological stance?

DM: Reading Sharpe, I get knocked out, and so sad. But it captures what, psychically, we are going through and have been going through. Developing Minnie’s stance was a difficult undertaking, because I don't always know. Sometimes I have fears about what the collective is ready for, or what the collective will accept. There were times where I was like, “Okay, I'm not gonna go to the deep end, I'm gonna hold back on what I really want to say.” In the middle of the workshop, it was like a come-to-Jesus, self-reckoning moment: “I’m going to take a risk. And if it fails, that's just the way it has to be, and then I'll learn from that.” But it's hard. It is brutal on one's ego to do this. And sometimes I wonder, why am I putting myself through this? I could go get an accounting job. [laughter] Not really, I probably couldn't, but I came to this: that what I have access to, the gift of playwriting that I've been given—I need to trust in the gift. I think that's where most of the work is: in overcoming my fear of the collective, and in saying what I need to say anyway, hell or high water.

PlayCo: That's so echoed in Minnie’s arc: her wrestling with the collective versus what she knows that she needs to do.

DM: Right, right, right.

PlayCo: You can see how it's so unpalatable. But it's so important to her.

DM: Right. Thank you for making this connection of wake work. As I'm reading that [quote], …I think pushing the paradox to the front, and examining and allowing my work to traffic in the pain and the depression—perhaps it can bring solace to those who come after me, because so much work has been done that allows me to even be a playwright, to come to France and do all these things, when I don't know if seventy years ago that would have been possible for someone like me. So I guess it is my duty to write in the wake, and let my work embody what Christina Sharpe is talking about.

PlayCo: Because you’re dealing so rawly with this, facing it head on, I imagine that, especially with the intensive framework of the workshop, it can be really difficult. Do you have a way of separating or protecting yourself from it? Do you find that necessary?

DM: Absolutely. I have a really great therapist. [laughter] He is a doll. During the workshop, I did have a session. I allow myself to weep, and cry, for as long as I need to. So there's lots of release. I meditate a great deal. I have lots of support from playwright friends. And also I need to give a shout out to my partner—she helps me talk through things, and even though she doesn't understand everything, I think someone who can sit with me in the pain has been tremendous—I’m at a loss for words, for that kind of support. And now that I’m thinking about it—there’s something about Kate [Loewald] that is really comforting. It helps to have arts administrators like Kate and Annie. So shout out to PlayCo.

PlayCo: What is next for Clock Face, and where do you want to take it?

DM: I’m going to be in a series of residencies in the coming months. I really want to get another draft where I am able to really, really flesh out, and reshape, and delineate the house—what's on top, and what's underneath—and also delineate with more specificity the external community. I think those are my next steps. And hopefully I will have another good draft in the next couple months.

PlayCo: How did you end up, between the drafts, incorporating Minnie’s [real] father? How did you discover that?

DM: It was a question posed in the workshop by one of the actors, I think, or the director—someone asked, “Who is her father?” and all kinds of bells went off. That's what happens; you talk to the actors, and the director, and they ask questions, and the answers come, and I was able to write that out. I can't explain it exactly, but it popped up.

PlayCo: Where did you get the initial image of the clock?

DM: I grew up waking up to an analog clock that rang and I carried it with me for many years. It eventually broke, but there's something about hearing the ticking. There's time, and there's the image of time. When my father died, I still had the clock. I was in an indescribable amount of grief. Having something that was marking time like that, with little itty bitty increments, gave me something to hold on to when the pain was so great. And so I always remember the image of that clock face as something you can hold on to, that will sit with you and mark time.

PlayCo: I think you can really get that from Minnie’s franticness setting all the clocks. And there's something about demanding witness, too, from time…

DM: Right, exactly. Time…it forces you to remember the urgency of taking care of things, taking care of tasks—what are we doing with this time that we have? It's a reminder.

Referenced in this interview:

In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, by Christina Sharpe (Duke University Press, 2016)

Interview Conducted by

PlayCo Staff