Being a Christian Playwright in a Secular Industry: Ayvaunn Penn Speaks

mariana6 (1 of 1)-LAward-winning playwright Ayvaunn Penn is turning heads as she climbs the ranks in the world of theatre and stirs a buzz with her latest play — The Taken — premiering this Friday, August 12, 2016 at Schapiro Theatre. It will run through August 14, and free admission seats are available. Click here for reservations. To get a sneak peek of the show watch the video above.

Elated to see that this artist is equally as passionate about Jesus as she is about her work, we are so glad she agreed to talk with us about what it is like to be a Christian playwright working in a largely secular entertainment industry.

ACN: Has anyone ever challenged you about or tried to discourage you from putting Bible narratives on stage?

Penn: Oh yeah. One of my most beloved mentors. To this day we still have a friendly working relationship with no hard feelings, but he seemed to always love challenging my Christian beliefs — himself having been brought up in the church but no longer practicing. When I was applying to MFA playwriting programs I of course asked him to take a look at my admission plays. He actually told me that if he were sitting on any of the admission review boards one of the reasons he wouldn’t admit me would be because it seemed all I could write about was faith oriented stories. Turns out it was those unashamedly Christian plays that got me not only admitted to Columbia University but as the Dean’s Fellowship recipient for the playwriting class of 2018. God always gets the last word.

ACN: What impact do you want your plays to have? What is your ultimate goal?

Penn: I want my plays to let people know everything is going to be ok. I want my Biblical adaptations to make people want to read the original scriptures. I want my plays to stand in the void where loved ones have failed to do so. I want my plays to let people know they are not alone. I want my plays to help build God’s kingdom. I want my plays to serve as a mirror held up to the face of society so that she may see and admire her beauty but be unable to hide from her imperfections. I want my plays to unite, build, and help make the world a better place. That may sound chessy, but it’s true, and I mean it with every bone in my body.

ACN: What made you decide to start writing for the stage?

Penn: I’ve been a writer all of my life, and I’ve always loved being on stage and performing as well, so I decided to combine my two passions. More importantly, as a Christian I want to use the performing arts as a way to reach people who would never step foot in a church but who love the thrill and excitement of a good show. I know God created me for the purpose of reaching those people. My heart is heavy at the number of plays I attend that send people home with the very specific message that God is non-existent or make-believe. God has positioned me to be one of His lights in the midst, and I am humbled and honored to serve as His vessel on this front.

ACN: How does your faith as a Christian reflect itself in your work?

Penn: In the case of my latest play, it is literally based on a Bible story — the lesser known one of King’s David’s children. In other instances, however, I infuse my work with the take-aways God gives me when I study His Word. So not a literal Bible story but reflective of or containing Christian morals and ideas. And also sometimes my work is simply a reflection of the world around me. A good ole slice of life. Just a great compelling story inspired by what I witness around me from the day to day.

ACN: Tell us about your latest play, “The Taken”

Penn: As I mentioned, this particular piece is inspired by the story of King David’s children which can be found in II Samuel chapter 13. And for some reason the story of Tamar has just always stuck out to me. So tragic. To be so allegedly loved by your brother that he desires to have you physically. To beg him not to rape you. To have him do it anyway, and then the Bible says he — Amnon — put her out and bolted the door behind her. I mean that’s just crazy. Then to be told by your other brother — Absolom — to keep it a secret only for him to errupt years later and kill Amnon.

ACN: Of all the stories in the Bible, why tell this one?

Penn: It’s such a tragic story but a really interesting one that often falls in the shadows of David sleeping with Bathsheba then killing her husband. I wanted to focus on how that tragic act then played itself out again in David’s home. I bet he never thought that would happen. Never thought the consequences of his actions would affect his kids. That his own sons would literally repeat his mistakes against each other and their sister — his daughter. When I bring this story to the stage, though, I set it in modern times with contemporary language. Because unfortunately, this sort of thing still happens today.


Penn most recently served as assistant director to Golden Globe winner Regina Taylor at the Tony Award winning Goodman Theatre. Click to follow Ayvaunn on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.