I Couldn’t Tell You Why: Interview with Playwright Harrison David Rivers

I Couldn’t Tell You Why
“I Couldn’t Tell You Why” is a new play running at the Refracted Theatre Company that is part of NYC's Open Culture program on May 22 - 30.

“I Couldn’t Tell You Why” is a new play running at the Refracted Theatre Company that will run as part of NYC’s Open Culture program on May 22 – 30. An audio immersive theatrical experience, the piece was written by award-winning playwright Harrison David Rivers. The plot centers on the experience of a young gay Black man struggling to free himself from wounds left by his fatherpainting a portrait of a young man torn between past and future.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your talent for writing and what was it about plays that most interested you?

Harrison David Rivers (HDR): God, I hope I have a modicum of talent – ha! I was honestly always more of a reader than I was a writer. Fiction. Poetry. I was in high school when I discovered the drama section at the public library. August Wilson. Lorraine Hansberry. Tony Kushner. It wasn’t until after college that I started writing seriously. And it wasn’t until after grad school that I realized that I loved it—that there was nothing else I’d rather be doing. I love dialogue. I love reading it. I love writing it. And I love listening to it.

MM: How did you initially get interested in theater and how did you break into the industry?

HDR: I was a musician before I was a theater-maker. I played the piano and the violin for years. And I sang. I fell in love with musicals first. Then plays. Performing. Then writing. After grad school, I had the good fortune of receiving fellowships with New Dramatists, New York Theatre Workshop and the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. I was in writer’s groups at P73 and the Public. Those relationships led to more relationships and those relationships led to more opportunities. I’ve found that so much of “breaking in” is about persistence and patience. I just kept hanging around.

MM: What inspired “I Couldn’t Tell You Why” and how personal is the story?

HDR: When Graham and Tova from Refracted Theatre Company reached out about this project, I’d just finished working on a mother son play. It only seemed fair to tell a father son story next. For a number of years, my dad and I had a tenuous relationship. We were so different. Our beliefs. Our interests. And my sexuality was a stumbling block. We both did and said things that we didn’t mean—and/or—we did and said things, the long-term ramifications of which, we didn’t anticipate. “I Couldn’t Tell You Why” is inspired a bit by that. Every play I write is personal. Not every play I write is autobiographical. This one is personal, but not autobiographical.

Harrison David Rivers
Harrison David Rivers

MM: What’s your favorite part of the play and why?

HDR: I love a twist and this play has one. I probably shouldn’t say more. I wouldn’t want to ruin it for audiences.

MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes might you like to explore in future works?

HDR: I’m working on a number of projects: A pandemic-set romantic comedy for TheatreWorks Hartford, a play exploring health outcomes for mothers of color for Penumbra Theatre Company, a musical about the creation of the musical Show Boat for Theatre Latte Da, a play with music inspired by the life of photographer Gordon Parks for History Theater, a monologue project with TigerBear Productions and M. Graham Smith, a musical set during the Draft Riots of 1863 in New York City with Doug Lyons, Ethan Pakchar and Andy Blankenbueler among others. Thematically, I’m interested in brown and queer stories. I’m interested in stories that sing and dance. I’m interested in stories of resilience and joy.

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

HDR: I’m thrilled to be making my living telling stories. It’s been a dream of mine for years and now I’m living it. I am incredibly grateful.


Tickets are $20 – $40 at www.refractedco.com.