The year 2019 was a big one for Charly Evon Simpson. The Hunter College MFA grad and NYC-based playwright saw her play Behind the Sheet extend three times at Ensemble Studio Theatre, she premiered two plays regionally, Jump and form of a girl unknown, as well as a new work at New Ohio’s Ice Factory. Over the summer, Simpson was invited to the O’Neill Playwrights Conference where she developed it’s not a trip it’s a journey, landed her first television writing gig in the fall, and was named the recipient of the prestigious Paula Vogel Playwriting Award. Did we mention this was all in the same year?
Simpson is only picking up speed. This month, she kicks off 2020 with the Off-Broadway premiere of Jump with the Astoria Performing Arts Center in Queens. Directed by Arpita Mukherjee, the intimate new play follows two sisters and their father as they grapple with loss. Meanwhile, on a nearby bridge, an unexpected friendship blooms.
We catch up with Simpson and chat about the play, her life, and her process.
What are some the themes and ideas Jump explores?
Charly Evon Simpson: Some of the things I was thinking about when I was writing were family, grief, and memory, as well as the question of how we connect with people. The play is very much about connection and the lack of connection. There’s also the question of: “Who do we worry about?” There are mental health memes that say “Check in on the friend that seems to have everything together”—there’s a little bit of that also.
The play deals with mental health and suicide. How did you approach writing about those issues?
Before I committed to being a playwright, I was studying for my Masters in social work. I did a weekend training on suicide and depression and it [reviewed] how—as a therapist and social worker—to look out for signs and how to talk with people. A lot of the teaching stuck with me and were in the back of my mind when writing this piece.
Another thing is, I think that we often see depictions of depression as someone underneath a layer of blankets staring at a wall, crying. That is part of it, but there are also people with depression who are still going to work and [seemingly fully functioning]. I wanted to show a variety of expressions. I was also thinking a lot about the folks in my life who are struggling, and have felt comfortable discussing their struggle. I was interested in showing both sides of that coin—what is the responsibility you feel, perhaps, when someone shares that with you.
When did you start writing Jump?
It started in two different ways. The first was that I read an article in the New Yorker called “Jumpers” by Tad Friend, which was about people who had attempted suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge. Something about it stuck with me. Meanwhile, I was working on a piece that had these two characters that I really liked, but they weren’t working in that play.
In 2016 I was a resident at SPACE on Ryder Farm while I was in my final year of grad school. I needed a thesis play. I remembered the “Jumpers” article and my two characters, and began writing Jump. I think I wrote the first 85 pages that week.
Woah! Is that your typical writing process?
I write in bursts, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad. In the case of Jump it was one of those instances where it felt like something else taking me through the play. Like I was being told a story and I was writing it down. When I’m able to get the time to do so, I like to get a first draft out in a burst. If I’m able to get into the world of the play and live there for a little bit, then it seems to come out in a different way. But there are times when a play hasn’t come out in a burst because I haven’t had the time. My play it’s not a trip it’s a journey was written in smaller [sections]. Often with plays, there’s an image that comes to me and I’m always trying to figure out what the story of that image is. Why are you haunting me?
Was there an image with Jump?
It’s the first scene of the play. A vape pen falling from the sky with a woman on a bridge.
There is a lot of non-verbal action in the play, which is something that strikes me about your writing in general. What is it about writing in that way that interests you?
Maybe I should write silent movies! I do feel like there’s so much that we can communicate with a look or a small action. I’m really interested in those moments. In my own life, there have been moments that were silent and small, but I knew in the pit of my stomach that something had changed.
You also provide rich material for actors to play with.
I always hope that there's something, for the entire cast and creative team, that feels nourishing [in my work]. In college, I was an actor and playwriting came out of a questioning, of why is it that I wouldn’t be cast as the lead in this play because I’m a Black woman? Well, I decided to write the play where I could be the lead. It could be that when I write, now, there's always a part of actor-Charly in my brain.
The two lead roles in Jump are specifically Black women.
I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression and grief. Part of [casting it that way] was that this is a family that looks like mine. Very simply, that’s who I was imagining and I know that if I don’t write that, unfortunately, the way casting usually goes, is that we wouldn’t necessarily see a Black family.
Also, mental health in the Black community has been discussed a lot. The adultification of Black young girls has been talked about a lot and I think it is important to show that this is something that also happens in Black families. We’re dealing with mental health concerns and grief and it’s not always linked to violence that has entered our lives because of our race. Obviously there’s a place for that, but it also felt important to represent a [different story].