Being a public driver has never been an easy way to make a living. But with the demise of the traditional taxi industry, the job has gotten even harder. Throw in systemic racism, classism, then top it off with COVID-19, and it’s a wonder there’s anyone left willing to risk driving strangers anywhere, anytime. Yet, this is precisely the setting of Reginald Edmund’s Ride Share, a solo play that grew out of Edmund’s own experiences driving. (Edmund originally began sharing his stories as a driver on his Facebook page.)
I drove a cab for 12 years and most of Edmund’s words and observations rang absolutely true. The driver’s seat is a unique vantage point to view the best and worst of humanity. Ride Share now joins a lineage that includes August Wilson’s Jitney and Will Kern’s Hellcab in the tradition of great staged public driver narratives.
Ahead of its world premiere as a digital coproduction of Writers Theatre and Black Lives, Black Words (directed by Edmund’s wife Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway and starring Kamal Angelo Bolden, who appeared in an earlier livestreaming version with BLBW in July 2020), Edmund was kind enough to answer some questions about the production and his ride-share experiences via e-mail.
Dmitry Samarov: Did you envision this as a theater piece when you wrote it? Or did you always hope it would be filmed?
REGINALD EDMUND: I had pictured it as a hybrid. Something that sat in between the world of theater and film. I had originally conceptualized it as something audiences would experience through Zoom. I wrote it right at the cusp of COVID, during the time of the pandemic when theaters had completely closed shop and were leaving a large number of artists, especially those that were POC, out of work, and wondering where their next check was coming from. So I decided that I was going to use this moment through my organization Black Lives, Black Words as a means to provide artists of color a way to create meaningful socially relevant work that audiences can easily access. We created The Plays for the People online season, which provided artists of color with artistic employment opportunities and a way to have a creative outlet. It was only at the coaxing of my wife and cofounder of Black Lives, Black Words that I decided to place my own writing into the season. Normally, I feel bad putting my own work out before anyone else’s. But I think I needed that moment to put this narrative out.
Front-seat passengers were a big no-no in taxi times. Seems like passengers sit wherever they want in rideshares. The line between personal and professional was fuzzy in taxis but seems to have disappeared with rideshare. Did you find it a challenge to keep the interactions with people who sat in your car businesslike?
I would often find myself playing therapist to drunk people who get out of the club late, breaking up disputes, and being a listening ear to people telling me all kinds of stories that I couldn’t even imagine. On the negative side, I would also have to deal with a lot of microaggression, racism, and classism.
Did you feel powerless at the whim of the apps?
Oh yeah, totally! You have very limited power. You are dependent on the ride-share app and GPS to go wherever the app sends you in fear of losing ratings or making enough income for the day. During the time that I was driving in Chicago, the pandemic had occurred and the industry was saturated with drivers, therefore the number of rides were extremely limited. The app would send me to the farthest corners of Illinois and sometimes beyond. Places that I never knew existed and sometimes places that would put me in very vulnerable situations.
You mentioned Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver in the play. He’s sort of the patron saint/sinner for any public driver, but were there other movies/books/plays that were a touchstone?
Yeah, I mean so many great minds, especially August Wilson’s Jitney, helped to stir the pot. I was inspired by works like Following by Christopher Nolan, and Safe by Todd Haynes. I wanted to capture that unnerving feeling that’s found in those isolationist kinds of films. But also writers like Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, and Tananarive Due also played a part in inspiring me and I hope people catch some of those influences and that adds to the thrill of the ride. Ultimately my goal is to tell a damn good story that blurs lines and doesn’t fit into what audiences expect.
Can you talk a little about the Dark Rider? Guardian angel, devil-on-the-shoulder, embodiment of collective memory, something else?
The Dark Rider is all of the above. It’s the complexity of the inner mind when we’re in a place of darkness, but also it’s the manifestation of pain and sorrow and struggles caused by oppression of being Black in America and bottled up and held in for 400 years. I remember reading about generational trauma in relation to the descendants of Holocaust survivors and recognizing the same experience within the Black community that can be dated back from 400-plus years. The overpopulated prisons, police brutality, Tulsa Race Riots, slavery, Jim Crow, etc. It was important for me to show a character who is living in contemporary America but also (like so many of us) haunted by the echoes of the past.
Did you regain your love of driving after quitting rideshare?
Right after I left doing the ride-share hustle, my wife and I went on a road trip from Illinois to Louisiana and then to my hometown in Texas. That was the first time I felt truly free driving in I don’t even know how long. Now my wife and I will go on road trips and explore the city, and outside of traffic, I have found the joy in driving that I used to have before I started doing ridesharing.
Looking back, would you say your experience driving was a net positive for your life?
The best way to answer this is like Beyoncé, I turned lemons into Lemonade. v