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"How to Use a Knife" at the Phoenix examines immigration and cross-cultural spaces

An interview with playwright Will Snider on the experiences that led him to write "How to Use a Knife"


Will Snider
  • Will Snider

The characters in William Snider's newest play, How to Use a Knife, are the result of a one-way ticket to East Africa, an academic thesis and countless nights bussing tables in New York City. Each of them pulls from experiences that Snider had before setting out to write the play. While they weren't for the sake the script, they all made what is now a rolling world premiere with the National New Play Network.

Emily Taylor: Tell me about the narrative of How to Use a Knife.

William Snider:
Sure. So How to Use a Knife is set in a restaurant kitchen in New York. It was an ensemble piece but I guess sort of the primary narrative is a chef who is a recovering alcoholic hits rock bottom and is hired to expedite this kitchen, and it's his first job since hitting rock bottom. ... This is a decent Wall Street restaurant but it's nowhere near the kind of ambitious culinary environments he worked in before hitting rock bottom. He is trying to elevate it. And in the process he befriends a dishwasher who works at night, who everyone assumes is West African but turns out to have been born in Uganda in the 1970s. I don't want to give too much away but he played a role in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide, I guess not the narrative that we are used to in the actual conflict in April '94. ... It's about the friendship between these two characters and then also the overall question of, how do you move on in your life when you have done bad things to people? Like, when you have hurt others. How do you deal with guilt or second chances when it is impossible to move on from your past?


Emily: What made you decide to create that character arc of the dishwasher connected to the Rwandan Genocide? Is that something you have researched in the past?

Yeah, it was a combination of things. I was an African history major in college and wrote my thesis on the origins of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, it was a kind of Tutsi exile army in Uganda that ended up toppling the genocide regime in Rwanda. And I worked for three years in East Africa for an NGO. Separate from that but I had a lot of experience in Uganda, where this character is from. ... Then I quit those jobs and was working in New York in restaurants. ... I started off for a year and half as a runner and a bus boy, and was fascinated by the fact that this restaurant kitchen was one of the few places in my life in New York where there was real cross demographic interaction, and six identities from each of the stations. All of the line cooks were from Mexico, the dishwashers were from Mali in West Africa. So you had the entire restaurant line speaking Spanish, the dishwasher speaking French, a lot of busboys and runners speaking a mix of English and Spanish. It was this kind of amazing United Nations of interaction back there. ... This was during the time of the violence in Mali and I was talking about it with one of the dishwashers on the walk to the subway, and I was struck by how you feel this kind of intimacy with the people you are working with. ...

I thought the restaurant setting was a really fascinating place. A lot of my plays are concerned with cross-cultural interaction. I am always concerned with trying to find public spaces where that happens. And I thought of a restaurant kitchen as a place where that happens and a really fun place for that to happen.

Emily: Did you intend for this play to be seen as a political statement?

William: You know, I think it may be taken that way and I am open to that. I tend to think of my own writing as being a little bit more reflective than responsive, if that makes sense. I am interested in the kind of social realism that could be read as overtly political, but I think I first lead with character situation, location, conflict and then try to tell a really compelling story inside that box. ... There may be something inherently political about having people from different backgrounds and seeing them interact. I wouldn't say that my first impulse is to, well, I really respect it and think it's amazing when people use art for specific political ends, but I would say I am trying to tell the most compelling story with the characters as possible.


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