In April 2017, Monticello High School student Joshua St. Hill began writing a play. He had been bitten by the theater bug during the school’s production of In the Heights, and his drama teacher, Madeline Michel, asked if he’d like to write something for the stage.
He did. Black men who have died as a result of police violence had been on his mind, and St. Hill wrote a script about James King, a fictional Charlottesville teenager who, while reaching into his pocket for his phone, is shot and killed by a police officer.
St. Hill is quick to note that the 30-minute, one-act play, A King’s Story, wasn’t a solo effort—he had input from Michel and classmates, especially the show’s director, Amaya Wallace.
The play takes place after King’s death and focuses on King’s best friend, Elijah, played by St. Hill, and how his reactions compare to those of others. Many have applauded the play’s content and message while some have criticized it as being too violent and anti-police (St. Hill suspects those folks haven’t taken the time to watch the play). St. Hill discusses some of the themes and issues explored in A King’s Story.
C-VILLE: Why did you write A King’s Story?
Joshua St. Hill: It needed to be told. When we started the early drafts, people questioned me, “Why are you guys always telling stories about race? What’s so big about it?” And the [answer] is, because it’s still relevant, it’s still happening; it’s still a problem that needs to be addressed. People like to say it’s not happening in our town; it’s not happening around here. It was a horrible coincidence that July 8 and August 12 [the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi/white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville] happened [while I was writing this]. I think that opened up a lot of people’s eyes to what happens. The less you talk about it, the more willing people are to still do you wrong. If you’re not making any noise, people are going to still do what they’re doing without any change. A closed mouth does not get fed.
In A King’s Story, you play Elijah, a high school student who’s just lost his best friend to police violence. How much of Elijah is you?
Fifty percent of Elijah is me and 50 percent is a character. The part that’s me is the intelligent kid with historic knowledge, with a little bit of fire. The part that’s not me, the part that is the character, is the way he went about it. The thing about Elijah is, he has the best heart, and he has his head in the right place at the wrong time. But he has to understand that one person can’t tackle the world, or the whole town, by himself. James King being killed by a police officer wasn’t just one incident; it’s not as simple a problem as “it was wrong that the officer shot him.” It’s a complex problem that’s been going on for longer than Elijah’s even been alive. And he gets that, but he doesn’t get that.
In the last line of the play, your character, Elijah, says: “James, rest in power. I’ll forever tell your story.” What is the power of storytelling?
The power of storytelling is legacy. Even if the story that you’re telling is tragic, even if the story that you’re telling is [that] of somebody who isn’t with us, you can always keep them alive in that. History resonates a lot in this play, and the thing about history is, if you misconceive it and teach it the wrong way, it can do a lot of damage.
How much of the play is based on things that have happened in your own life—the conversations with parents about wearing hoodies at night, teachers saying “passing” instead of “murder,” heated conversations with classmates about racism and police violence?
Never the classroom scene to me, personally, but it’s happened to other people, but definitely the hoodie discussion….and the sugarcoating! Oh my gosh, too much of the sugarcoating. Sometimes, adults think that children don’t fully understand what they’re talking about, or they try to overprotect children without realizing that we can notice that. We’re underestimated. That overprotection, sometimes it’s put in the wrong place. For instance, the question isn’t whether or not you should be wearing the hoodie at night, but, why are you judged for wearing the hoodie at night?
What are the things that you wish adults knew that you could handle?
Situations such as racism, situations such as somebody passing away. Sometimes we actually want to know, What is your thought process on this? We want to know what we can do to make this better. Ignorance is not bliss. We are not able to fight a situation we don’t know about.
What’s behind Elijah’s line, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired?”
Most of the minorities in America who suffer from oppression, we don’t just find out about this oppression when we’re the right age…we always know about this oppression, it can be the subtlest thing as walking into a gas station and feeling the cashier eyeing you every single aisle you walk down. Or, you can see that your teacher automatically assumes you don’t understand most of the curriculum and talks to you softly in the corner about it. Since before 1776, oppression—racism—has been going on; it’s one of the pillars [of American society], sadly, which is why it’s so hard for me when people try to say racism doesn’t exist anymore.
What can art do to address these issues?
Art is so important, because it’s the safest way to do this. With art, people open up a new thought process to creativity, to how the art is being depicted. I can’t change a person’s mind for them; that comes down to the person himself. But if [my art] can do something to help that person alter, or make themselves want to alter, that’s the beauty of art. That’s the beauty in arguments, talking, lessons—to spark somebody’s thought process. And I think that’s what this play did.
What’s next for you?
[The play has] gotten bigger than I expected, and of course there’s that nervousness of, How do you follow that up? But when you’re thinking, “How do I follow this up?,” it really alters your creativity from just making a piece of art to, making, you know, a best-seller. The thing about A King’s Story is, when I made it, I was trying to address a problem. There are millions of problems to address, so it’s just about what problem do I want to address next, and how do I want to address it?