A well-accomplished playwright, rapper, essayist, and CC professor shares insight into his life, inspirations, and creative processes.
The Catalyst: What was your favorite birthday party?
Idris Goodwin: When I turned 30, I went and saw The Roots perform at the House of Blues. This is when I lived in Chicago, was part of their hip hop honors tour. The Roots are known for doing really great covers of classic hip hop records which is pretty rare. But this concert was all covers, it was like 100 percent covers. And much of what they were covering was like all the songs of my youth. So it was very exciting for me because I knew all the word. And one of my favorite artists of all time is Big Daddy Kane, and Big Daddy Kane came out at this concert to do “Set It Off,” which is probably one of my favorite rap songs of all time and Big Daddy Kane performed it. And that was my birthday. And I went with my then girlfriend, who became my wife. But my then girlfriend came with me to this concert for my 30th birthday, and that’s when I knew I have to marry this person.
TC: What one song would you have played or performed at your funeral?
IG: I get one song . . . eeeeeh. This one is really, really, really tough.
1) Love Supreme (the first part) by John Coltrane
2) Lovely Day by Bill Withers
3) Unbelievable by Notorious BIG
TC: What was it like being on Sesame Street?
IG: It’s the thing in my bio that people are most impressed by, so it was great, it was a great experience. I didn’t get to meet the puppets, because I figured out the rule is that you have to be equally or more famous than the puppets to get to be on screen with the puppets. And so because I’m not as famous as Ernie or Big Bird, I didn’t get to meet them, I didn’t get to hang with them. Shooting the episode, like shooting my segment was pretty standard, it was like shooting anything else, it was pretty uncolorful actually. When it aired, that was exciting. Since it aired, that’s been the most exciting part. It was fun to do it and go to the sound stage and all that, but shooting stuff is pretty tedious. I’m proud that I can say that I did it, to be honest. You do one thing, and then two years later the person you worked with for that one thing is doing this other thing and they pull you in the vat…it was a total who-you-know thing that stemmed out of my time on HBO, doing spoken word on HBO. I got lucky. I got really lucky. No puppets…well that gives me goals, those are goals! So now I have to get equally or more famous than one of the puppets.
TC: Where do you tend to draw your inspiration from?
IG: I’m pretty in tune to the moment. My ideas come from things in the news or music is a big inspiration. My own life, my own experiences. As of late I’ve been doing a lot of adaptation though, so sometimes the motivation has just been financial, but you know I say that carefully. It’s like people give me a book and I have to try to find my own voice in that story. So I have a play that’s going to be at the Kennedy Center in March that’s my own interpretation of Frankenstein. That book is super old, its like 200 years old, and has been done a million times. I had to find my own personal investment in that, and I feel like I did. It turned into this piece around the voice and your responsibility with your own voice. That’s something I encounter all the time, teaching and public speaking and all that.
TC: If you could play any part in any play, what role would you choose?
IG: Oh that one’s easy. I have acted, I’m around actors a lot, I’ve directed plays. There are only two parts that I want to play before I die. One of them is Walter Younger from A Raisin in the Sun, and the other one is Troy Maxson from Fences. I’ve thought about this before.
TC: Do you believe certain mediums of art are more effective in enacting social change? If so, which ones?
IG: I’m going to give kind of a copout answer. I think all forms of art are constantly influencing one another and overlapping with one another. So like, musicians are inspired by visual art, visual artists are inspired by films, film-makers are inspired by music, as a playwright I’m inspired by all of that. We’re all sort of in this together, so to speak. Sometimes the ideas posited by a film are supported by a song that is supported by a poem or a play somebody goes to see. It’s all connected. I think art, period, is necessary and useful in helping bring about meaningful or equitable social change. We’re experiencing social change right now, it’s just not, I think, where most of the public wants to go. And so social change is always happening but I think what you’re talking about is a more progressive social change. I think the art is no different to any other aspect, the politics, the faith, and all that kind of stuff. It’s all connected.
TC: Top 3 favorite music artists?
IG: 1) Doom, formally known as MF Doom. He’s been a big inspiration, his creativity.
2) Nina Simone. I saw that documentary about her, maybe a year ago, and bought this box set and listened to it on a drive that I was on recently. Just a fascinating and powerful artist.
3) We often don’t think of producers as being artists or musicians. Number three is a tie between Berry Gordy, and Quincy Jones, just in terms of them being producers and architects of whole movements in music. They’ve touched or been responsible for, in some way, tons of great music that effects me.
TC: What do you think your role is as a professor of color teaching at this school, and what are the challenges/frustrations that go along with that?
IG: I think my job is to be my full self. Part of the reason why we want diverse faculty, diverse staff, a diverse world, is to get all the best ideas. Persons of color are not literally that. They’re not just people with darker skin or lighter skin or whatever; they’re from cultures, they’re from specific cultures which have their own norms, morays, idiosyncrasies, histories, cultures, etc. and so you want that in the room to bring in a myriad of perspectives. And that myriad of perspectives coalesce into something that we call an education. And so for me, my job is to be all the things that make me, me.
I would say the challenges for me are not necessarily specific to this particular institution. I think the challenges of being a person of color have to do with this whole country, and a college is merely a microcosm of the whole nation. So issues of culture bias, issues of conventional wisdom, and issues of conservativism, which I feel can limit the opportunity for real learning and for young people to be encouraged to be ground breaking, to be innovative. Sometimes when people hold things close to the chest it can slow innovation and progress down. When people get too beholden to tradition for the sake of tradition. We shouldn’t try and push innovation for the sake of innovation, we should be making things better because they need to get better. But I find sometimes tradition can get in the way of that, because that speaks more to stubbornness than it does to what is really truly best for the culture, the culture at large. That’s ultimately what this place is. We are not separate from Colorado Springs, Colorado, the United States of America, but we do foster a certain type of culture here. The thing that is unique about a college culture is it’s an amalgamation. It’s an amalgamation of all these sorts of agendas and things that show up. There is a dominant sort of culture that is pervasive and that doesn’t want to shake or shift. But it needs to, because this campus is so diverse, and I’m not just speaking in terms of race or religion, but I’m speaking in terms of ways of life, and where people come from, and what people are motivated by, and interested in. For me as a professor, I try to remain myself but remain flexible enough to allow everyone to be who they are for the betterment of the whole environment.
TC: What are your thoughts on the diversity of students who participate in spoken word groups on campus vs the poetry major–why do you think this is? What, do you believe, is your role in opening up these spaces for minority students?
IG: I’ve been teaching performance poetry since I started teaching here in 2012 and it’s been really gratifying to see the students embrace the form. I get students from all different departments. Because it is a folk form, people come for a million different reasons–politics, art, resistance, fame, etc., and some come for a love of poetry itself. I believe anybody serious about art should engage as widely as possible. And all the serious poets I know, even the ones who came up doing slam, read broadly–Keats to Dickinson to Gwendolyn Brooks to Kevin Coval. They break rules but know which ones they’re breaking and why. This is where the major comes in. And look, there are just certain canonical foundations upon which the academic study of poetry are built that ain’t gonna change. It can, however, expand, because performance poetry also has a history that goes back to the griots, poets of the Harlem Renaissance, poets of the black arts movement, and the beats. In the last 20 years hip hop’s approach to language has been a major influence, but also the web and online publication and Youtube and so on and so on. It’s really incumbent on the students to build those bridges and make those connections and eventually some will teach in English departments and create curricula. This thing will evolve. It’s not necessarily about the type of poet you’re training to be but what you bring to poetry as a form. Poetry is malleable that way. It’s the most humble and necessary form there is.
TC: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? What do you hope to achieve?
IG: I’m going to be teaching and writing plays. That’s all I’m going to be doing: Teaching and writing, and my son will be 14 or 15, so hopefully I’ll be getting more sleep, and having more dates with my wife.