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Artist Profile: Dawn M. Simmons on the Imagination and Joy in ‘K-I-S-S-I-N-G’

Dawn M. Simmons, Co-Producing Artistic Director of Front Porch Arts Collective and Director of "K-I-S-S-I-N-G" at the Huntington Theatre
Dawn M. Simmons, Co-Producing Artistic Director of Front Porch Arts Collective and Director of "K-I-S-S-I-N-G" at the Huntington Theatre By Courtesy of Nile Scott Studios
By Vivienne N. Germain, Crimson Staff Writer

Dawn M. Simmons, Co-Producing Artistic Director of Front Porch Arts Collective, sat down in an interview with The Harvard Crimson to discuss her passionate and poetic approach to her work, particularly regarding “K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” the coming-of-age play she directs, currently running at The Huntington's Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA (527 Tremont St.) until April 2.

“I am a director, playwright, movement enthusiast,” she said. “I am a world builder, a creator, and a dreamer.”

Through theater, Simmons aims to create joy and wonder, highlight Black stories and artists, and bring imagination to communities. As director of the coming-of-age play “K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” she succeeds in all three of those endeavors.

“K-I-S-S-I-N-G” tells the story of Lala, a teenage girl who grows into her identity, discovering herself as an artist while navigating love and lust for the first time.

“It’s romantic, it’s warm, it’s funny,” Simmons said. “You will laugh. Everybody deserves a break; everybody deserves to laugh. There’s joy in coming to see this.”

The play is a joint effort between Front Porch Arts Collective, a Black theater company in Boston, and The Huntington, Boston’s leading professional theater company founded in 1982.

Simmons co-founded Front Porch Arts Collective because she set a goal to form a “thriving Black theater company in Boston” that would continue for decades beyond her involvement. She wanted to create more employment opportunities for Black artists in Boston, a city she loves, and while also creating a space to tell more Black stories without “waiting for Black History Month.”

“We wanted to create another space where Black stories could be told, where artists of the diaspora could have work, work that paid well, where we could be the decision-makers,” she said.

When playwright Lenelle Moïse was in residence at The Huntington, the company sought the right partner to co-produce “K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” Front Porch Arts Collective was clearly a suitable option. Upon reading the play, Simmons loved its fun language and its humor. She found the play “beautiful, lyrical, poetic, imaginative, queer,” and she knew immediately that she wanted — needed — to bring it to life.

The play suits her broader objectives as a theatermaker. Through her work, Simmons seeks to reach audiences’ emotions and imaginations by harmonizing the fanciful with the quotidian, the grandiose with the simple.

“How do I create joy, how do I create wonder, how do I bring excitement into the world; how do I make people think about the mundane, the everyday?” She asked. “But also how do I make that epic? Even in its smallness.”

While Directing “K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” Simmons strives to highlight Black joy, and to highlight the story of a young Black woman discovering herself and her own wants and needs.

In pursuit of these goals, she drew inspiration from “everywhere,” including every person involved in creating the show, ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s teenage romantic comedies, fine art, and music.

“Music played every day at the beginning of our process,” she said. “We would have a song of the day. A quote from a poet, a movie, or a writer — somebody that we would call our ‘patron saint.’”

It is apparent that visual art and music influenced the production. Captivating audiovisual elements (including stunning artistic projections and carefully-selected contemporary music) enhance the show’s creativity and vibrancy, immersing audiences in “K-I-S-S-I-N-G”’s youthful and playful world.

According to Simmons, it was challenging to bring all of the technical elements together. She wanted to create an effect, in Moïse’s words, that the audience is “seeing [Lala’s] artistry grow before you.” Simmons described the process as “really hard and really exciting,” and she acknowledged the outstanding work of the production team that made it possible.

The opening scene presented another challenge, as it is starkly different from the rest of the play. Handling difficult themes, particularly postpartum depression, Simmons remained cognizant of the ways the scene may have impacted the actors and the serious conversations necessary to create an appropriate rehearsal process.

“How do you embody [postpartum depression] and let that emotion go?” she said. “That’s been one of the harder challenges in a play that is so joyful.”

According to Simmons, she and the cast used their important, off-stage conversations “to fuel the story.” Their mindfulness and care in approaching the heavy topic resulted in a poignant, powerfully heartbreaking first scene, which framed the lighthearted play with deeper context.

This side of Simmons’s process in developing “K-I-S-S-I-N-G” lends itself to the complexity in her approach to theater-making. Simmons embraces imagination and joy, but even further, she embraces emotional healing. To Simmons, art is essential to human well-being; it is “as necessary as oxygen.”

“I don’t know if we [as a nation] see how cathartic art can be. I don’t know if we understand its healing property,” she said. “It helps us process. It helps with our emotional health. Our well-being keeps our imagination going.”

Simmons brings that healing quality to the stage in “K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” through both gleeful and sensitive moments. The play is delightful and fresh. Most importantly, it encapsulates all of the ideals Simmons aims to include in her world-building.

You can see The Huntington’s and Front Porch Art Collective’s production of “K-I-S-S-I-N-G” at The Huntington's Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA (527 Tremont St.) through April 2.

—Staff writer Vivienne N. Germain can be reached at vivienne.germain@thecrimson.com.

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