Playwright W. David Hancock ’84 immerses audiences in interactive worlds

You enter a gallery filled with unusual artworks by a forgotten African-American artist called Uncle Jimmy, who spent his life obsessed with a radical reimagining of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. As you examine the works, the late artist’s estranged son stands up to make halting remarks about his father’s art. The artist’s estranged wife, who is white, is here too, and as the tension grows between them, a complicated picture of race, regret, art and grief emerges.

A fortuitous circumstance or a play by W. David Hancock ’84? Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell. “I like creating the feeling that you stumbled across this magical world that nobody else knows about,” says Hancock, who has spent two decades creating scenarios that blur reality and fiction. His play, Master, was named a best theatre performance of 2017 by The New York Times. In some works, the audience determines the performance, as in 1998’s The Race of the Ark Tattoo, set in a flea market, where the story unfolds according to which objects audience members touch.

Hancock’s unusual perspective on drama stems from his days at Bucknell, where he started an animal behavior major before switching to theatre. “I look at my plays as live experiments,” says Hancock, who researched baboon kinship behavior. “Watching how an audience can change an event really fascinates me.” For Master, he collaborated with an African-American artist to create Uncle Jimmy’s oeuvre, and worked with a diverse cast to explore the racially charged themes evoked by Twain’s book. “It’s important to interrogate yourself and your privilege and not be afraid to go deep,” he says.

He’ll restage the play next year in London, working with a new artist to examine England’s legacy of colonialism. Starting later this year, he will also tour Europe with a new work, Cathexis, which he describes as a “participative judicial-theatrical event” set in “an interactive tribunal of the future.”