Author/playwright Roger Collins recently had his stage play “Humanoid Traffic Stop” published in the spring 2020 issue of Astral Waters Review. We spoke with him about relations between the African-American community and the police, Afrofuturism, and his 2020 goals.
Midwest BSFA: What’s the premise of your play?
Collins: “Humanoid Traffic Stop” – a ten-minute play that grew out of a one-minute play staged at Cincinnati’s 2019 One Minute Play Festival – is rooted in the world around us. A little research provided the particulars: there are nearly 50,000 traffic stops carried out in the United States every day, according to the Stanford Open Policing Project. Yet I also knew that despite this large number, these stops are anything but routine for many of those involved. They’ve seen/read/heard the news. They’ve viewed the reality shows. They’ve watched run-of-the-mill traffic stops spin tragically out of control. And even though the rate of “things go wrong” is low, the possibility persists as possibility in the minds of many. I asked myself “would the invention of a fair-minded, indestructible Robocop make traffic stops feel routine for every citizen involved in one?” And so a story was born.
Midwest BSFA: Hmmm, a timely topic, indeed. The publication of your play comes on the heels of the 19th anniversary of Timothy Thomas being shot and killed by then Cincinnati police officer Steve Roach, which led to the uprising in the week following his death. Were you in Cincinnati during that time? If so, what do you remember about it?
Collins: Oh, yes. I moved to Cincinnati from Boston in 1980. In Boston, during the late ’70s, I served as a consultant as that city attempted to implement court-ordered school desegregation. I required a police escort to and from the South Boston High School where I met with school personnel to facilitate that effort. I assume most black folk approach racism with their individual personal histories. I can’t imagine being black and approaching racism as a blank slate. So, yes, I recall the shooting and the senselessness of it. And the senselessness of subsequent shootings by the police of African-American victims around the country. I repeat what I tell potential victims and perpetrators alike: the struggle for justice continues. That struggle is rooted in America’s history and it’s predicted for a significant stretch of its future.
Midwest BFSA: Has the most recent spate of murders committed by police officers changed how you feel about “Humanoid” now?
Collins: I’m ambivalent these days about the play, due to the recent killings of black people at the hands of the police. Of course, the play arises from that history, but when the past resurfaces in the present, the dark, surreal humor I was going for feels less appropriate. Leading me to wonder if dark/surreal humor about state-sanctioned murder is ever appropriate. But it’s done, so I’ll have to claim it.
Midwest BSFA: Do you see relations between the African-American community and police as something that can be improved?
Collins: I believe progress is possible. How do you proceed without hope? Keeping the problem front and center is only the beginning. Realizing the problem is multifaceted is also only the beginning. Evaluating efforts as they unfold is also only the beginning. There’s no one magic solution.
Midwest BSFA: How does your former life as a professor at the University of Cincinnati inform your current work?
Collins: I received UC’s Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching and I consider writing to be very much “instructional.” I say “instructional” in the sense that an author introduces characters and setting and action to an audience in a way that’s easy to follow. That’s my goal, anyway. I don’t have patience with works of fiction that insist on confusing the reader or keeping the reader off balance. And I realize my preferences and aversions are personal! Content-wise, as a clinical psychologist and student of human behavior, I believe my discipline has given me much “grist for the mill.” Human behavior, both manifest and latent, is so complex. The possibilities seem endless.
Midwest BSFA: You’re a long-time member of the Cincinnati Playwrights Initiative? How did you get involved with that organization?
Collins: I’d published several short stories but began to feel that this writing, while enjoyable, was isolating. My communication with editors were limited to email exchanges. I saw from afar that the theater community appeared much more social, creative, and fun, but I couldn’t imagine telling a story strictly via dialog. After a few writers workshops, I was able to compose a two-act play that eventually was produced at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Its development included readings in Louisville’s Juneteenth Play Festival and the social engagement in the creative process was everything I’d hoped for. The Cincinnati Playwrights Initiative has continued to be a supportive, thought-provoking group of playwrights and theater professionals.
Midwest BSFA: What other speculative fiction works have you created?
Collins: I’ve written a novel entitled “Cities of Glass.” The “tagline” for the novel is: “In a future Golden Age of Transparency, an Afro-Caribbean astrophysicist discovers and then joins the battle against a hidden cause of anarchy that threatens her world.” The first two chapters of the novel were published in Embark Literary Journal, which publishes the opening chapters of promising unpublished novels.
Midwest BSFA: Who are some of your favorite black spec fiction creators and why?
Collins: Well, Octavia Butler introduced me to the genre. I would add Nalo Hopkinson and fellow Cincinnatian Nnedimma Okorafor. I consider Colson Whitehead’s “The Intuitionist” black speculative fiction. The “why?” is difficult to describe beyond the fact that I start reading their work, continue to “the end,” and feel fulfilled.
Midwest BSFA: What are your thoughts on Afrofuturism?
Collins: I’m a clinical psychologist by training and, as such, I’m leery of definitions. For me, definitions are more points of departure as opposed to points of arrival. So for me, Afrofuturism merges persons of African descent with imagined notions of the future. Persons of African descent are real enough; notions of the future seem restricted to “perhaps.”
Midwest BSFA: Do you think the genre is important?
Collins: First of all, it seems essential that humanity in general and persons of African descent in particular imagine themselves inhabiting the future despite the future being conditional. Imagining ourselves in the future is the basis for hope. A people can’t proceed without hope.
Midwest BSFA: What other projects do you have coming up in 2020?
Collins: I really, really want to get my novel published. I will begin searching for an agent with that Embark publication as my calling card. Yes, I could self-publish, but part of my adventure in creative writing – remember, creative writing is a relatively new venture for me – is to see if I can attract persons with resources to invest in my storytelling. That’s my major goal for 2020. But regardless of how that proceeds, I’ll keep writing.
For your copy of Astral Waters Review containing Collins’ stage play, visit www.astralwatersreview.com/current-issue.