In the new work, beginning previews at the Public Theater Feb. 7, Leonard interweaves nine characters and nine New York stories "in a racially and sexually charged tale of rage, love, justice and betrayal." Leonard gravitates toward the unsung and unrecognized and unappreciated in the American social system, a leaning which led to his first LAByrinth play, Guinea Pig Solo, about a soldier recently returned from the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Leonard took a break from rehearsal to talk to Playbill.com about how he steers the spotlight into the country's unlit corners.
Playbill.com: Where did you get the inspiration for your new play, Unconditional?
Brett C. Leonard: It's sort of the collision of things and themes and characters and storylines that have been mixed up in my head for a long time. I usually carry characters and events in my head for a very long time before I actually sit down and put pen to paper. Ultimately, the catalysts [for the play] were these two particular things. I got this particular image in my head when I saw this blues singer-songwriter named Willie King sing this song called "Terrorized" at this party that was mostly all white people. This was down in the South. These images kept coming to my head of a black man lynching a white man, and I thought about the extent of oppression and racism that blacks have endured in this country for 400 years. We still seem to think "Oh, that's a Southern thing." But that's not the case. Things were happening up here every day.
Playbill.com: What was the other catalyst?
BL: I was thinking a lot about this other story about the elderly and Social Security, and about that group being disenfranchised and left in the lurch. I was on an airplane and I met this 21-year-old girl and she told me about her mother being laid off from her job after just short of 25 years and she was cut out of her entire pension. They're just sort of used and then dropped. I started putting these things together, combined with my own feelings that those individuals — no matter what race or orientation or age — are longing for love and connection and are trying to overcome the obstacles the society and the system have laid in front of them. At the same time, [there are] others [in the world] who create their own obstacles that don't allow them to have that connection, due to some inner self-loathing or feeling of unworthiness.
Playbill.com: And there are nine separate characters in the play?
BL: Yes, nine.
Playbill.com: And they each have their own storyline?
BL: Yeah. All are thematically connected, and they actually cross paths, too. Not to compare myself to it, but it's inspired by that [Robert] Altmanesque way [of plotting]. Playbill.com: The publicity on Unconditional indicates the play may be considered controversial. Do you see it that way?
BL: That's a great question. That kind of thing never crosses my mind. I almost exclusively write about people who I feel are disenfranchised and forgotten and voiceless. And I try to give them a voice and make them visible. I think I am just drawn to those people that other people just don't want to think about or talk about. Not just those people, but also those subjects, whether it's someone who's getting a 25-years-to-life sentence for some bogus "three strikes you're out" law or whether it's a soldier coming home from this current Iraq war fiasco or whether it's the alone, down-and-out, lost, dive-room alcoholic drinkers. The idea of this play being controversial, that idea seems to follow me.
Playbill.com: What is your background? Do you have any experience with feeling disenfranchised yourself?
BL: Not in a way that you can label. The way I grew up, I had all the opportunities. My parents were still together. As a straight, white male from southern California, you don't have too many of those obstacles. But I have my own self-imposed obstacles that I continually place in front of myself that keep me from achieving happiness and fulfillment. I think everybody suffers with loneliness and insecurity and feeling of being undeserving. I try to go inside those feelings and present them to an audience who then can see a bit of themselves in people who they generally ignore or forget or dismiss. If they can see a bit of themselves in those characters, then the gap is narrowed. That's a big factor for me in my writing. The great divides between people are, I think, nonsense. I think the gaps between people of different races, of different religions, of different genders, are actually very, very small. We're all the same, ultimately, and want the same things. We want to be understood. We want to be loved. We want to love and we want to understand.
Playbill.com: This is your second production with LAByrinth. How is LAByrinth to work with as a company?
BL: It's great. You're always a phone call away from getting people that will support and inspire you and help you develop a piece.
Playbill.com: LAByrinth writers, like Stephen Adly Giurgis, sometimes dabble in acting. Do you act?
BL: I used to. I think I will begin getting pulled back into that. I started out as an actor and then shifted to full-time writing. When I moved to New York, I decided I would buckle down and focus on writing, so everything took a back seat. Just trying to get things written and trying to get things up feels like a full-time commitment.