Darren Canady has been asking himself a question.
Trust me, we want to know what’s on his mind. An esteemed young playwright who is also a professor at the University of Kansas, Canady is the kind of artist one looks to for help interpreting the moment.
“I think a lot right now about: What is the future of my home?” Canady says.
He means Kansas.
The other day, Canady, 39, was on a meeting with some folks who aren’t from here. One of the people happened to know former Topekan Kevin Young, now director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and editor of the acclaimed anthology “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song.” The person also brought up Ben Lerner, whose “The Topeka School” was a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
“You’re from Topeka. You’re a playwright,” the person said. “What’s in the water in Topeka?”
That answer could go in a lot of directions. I’m tempted toward the sarcastic, given what lawmakers are doing at the Capitol. But Canady is more thoughtful.
“When I went off to school,” he says, “I went out of state because I assumed there was a high likelihood I would end up back here. So I thought, let me go somewhere else and see the world.”
At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, his friends nicknamed him “Tumbleweed.” He went on to earn an arts diploma at the Juilliard School in New York City and an MFA from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
“My Kansas identity was never far from me,” he says. “When I came back in 2010 to take the job at KU, it’s the Brownback era.”
Too much about that time feels like it’s happening all over again. State-destroying tax-cutting urges in the Legislature, for one.
“We know not just from speculation but looking at our own recent history — recent history — that spells nothing but an ill wind for the state,” he says. “We have proof. When we experimented before, not only did it not work but the people who paid most dearly were the most vulnerable among us.”
As a writer, he knows to avoid hyperbole. But he’s really worried.
“There’ve just been some amazingly talented, intelligent, dynamic and forceful people that I grew up around and got to meet,” he says, “and so many of them have taken their talents elsewhere. I don’t really think we can afford to be doing that.”
Is he thinking about leaving now, too?
“That is hard,” he says. “The short answer is yes. And there’s always a ‘but.’ ”
Full-time teaching positions for playwrights at significant universities are rare. He has a family here, a landscape and culture he cares about. But developments over the last month have “amplified the yes in a way I did not expect it to,” he says.
In January, Gov. Laura Kelly proposed a $27 million cut to state universities (after $35 million last summer). The Kansas Board of Regents approved of making it easier for universities to fire employees, including faculty members with tenure.
Canady was appalled by lawmakers’ comments a couple of weeks ago in the House Higher Education Committee and the Appropriations Committee, when it felt as if they had “such skepticism around the actual project of education.”
He acknowledges a long history of tension between right-leaning members of the Legislature and KU, which often earns its reputation as “the eggheads on the hill.”
But, he says, “I have not despaired quite so much as I have in these past couple of weeks.”
Canady tells a story. For years, he has started each class with a check-in, asking students: “How are you? Talk to me.” This turns out to be helpful during a prolonged national health crisis.
Conservative legislators aren’t known for appreciating the value of teaching college students how to write plays or create podcasts. But after last semester’s freshman honors seminar, one of the students wanted to hang back and talk.
This was not an English major. It was a bio-engineering student. She told Canady it had been a difficult semester, that she’d lost a close family member to COVID-19. This hit close to home for Canady, who’d lost four people in his own family over the course of six weeks. The student told him: “This class has helped so much because I actually feel like you’re someone who cares what happens to me.”
The point is not what a great teacher he is, Canady says. “It’s about the importance of inquiry and humanities work at a time like this.”
His fear for the future of his home, he says, comes from knowing a different Kansas.
“I actually do know of a time when compassion, humanity wasn’t attached to whatever political party you were affiliated with, or if you were affiliated with a party,” he says. “So I know that intellectual dynamism and curiosity is there. I would just love us to remember that those have value. That we don’t need to be suspicious of inquiry. Of discovery. Of exploration. We’ve done it before.”