The introspection of 'Into the Side of a Hill' by playwright James Anthony Tyler

FLINT, Michigan — “I’m a writer that tends to lead with characters. I need to know who the characters are before I can put them in a space to be in conflict with each other,” explains James Anthony Tyler, a multi-award-winning playwright and recipient of the 3rd Annual Horton Foote Playwriting Award, on the creation of his new hit play, Into the Side of a Hill, now showing by the FIM and FIM Flint Repertory Theatre. 

The play is a tale of six Black fraternity brothers at a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in 2004, engaging in experiences and conversations about mental illness and toxic masculinity and testing the bonds of brotherhood. Directed and choreographed by Ken-Matt Martin and co-choreographed by Victor Musoni, the play also features an intense step-show performance. 

“I have to be the audience, be entertained, and feel like it’s something that I would want to see,” Tyler explains, detailing the method behind his craft. “It’s complicated because you’re not always having a good time. Sometimes, you get stuck, and the self-doubt sets in like, ‘Why am I writing this?’ But then I have to go back to the characters, what I want to explore, and what I want audiences to be discussing after they see the play.”

With an extensive rap sheet of awards, residencies, degrees, and plays, it’s easy to forget that no matter the success, “questioning ourselves and our validity as writers” comes as part of the process. And just like the characters in Into the Side of a Hill, the surprises that come with life, following dreams, and dealing with internal conflicts like imposter syndrome, sometimes find Tyler in shock “when you get that email from an artistic director saying, ‘Oh, we want your play. We love your play,’ 

Flintside met with James Anthony Tyler on Zoom to talk about writing, Into the Side of a Hill, and how writing is a marathon.

Promotional photo for James Anthony Tyler's new play, Into the Side of a Hill.
Flintside: The timeframe of Into the Side of a Hill is set in the early 2000s at an HBCU, with an all-Black male cast. Why this particular storyline?

James Anthony Tyler: “You know, you take from your life. In 2004, I was at an HBCU and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated. Putting together a step show, I felt it wasn’t something that I have seen on stage. I thought it would be interesting to see the varying ideologies between these young Black men during that time. Since we started this rehearsal process, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels in 2004 with 2024.”
Flintside: There’s this brotherhood between these young men on stage and off. Can you talk about working with these men?

J. Tyler: “They have formed such a strong bond, and I’m telling you, they are some of the most talented actors in America. I would not be surprised if we look up in a year and they’re winning Emmys and all the other stuff. This is an amazing team, and they poured their hearts into digging into the story and trying to figure out all the complexity and the nuance [of the] story and their characters.”

Flintside: One of the critical themes in Into the Side of a Hill is mental health. It’s a national conversation compared to when the play takes place. Getting into the minds of these young brothers, there’s also another layer of mental health awareness in African American communities. For these young brothers, how does that play into this?

J. Tyler: “It’s 2004, and being truthful, the language wasn’t there. If anybody went to the Student Health Center to talk to somebody, ‘Oh, that person’s crazy,’ and that’s represented in the play. There is a character having some mental health struggles, and the brothers don’t have the tools or are in denial with how to help. They don’t have the language. One is more evolved than the others, and he’s pushing for something, but there’s pushback from authority. The whole ethos is as one would hear in 2004: be strong. They are all undergrads; one’s a recent graduate, so put that on top of not having the language, tools, and shame. All of that is explored.”

Cast members Freddie Fulton, David Guster, Brandon Micheal Hall, Victor Musoni, Brian Sullivan Taylor, and Antonio Michael Woodard have "formed such a strong bond" on and off stage. (Photo credit: Mike Naddeo)
Flintside: This leads to the other theme of toxic masculinity. That conversation, too, has evolved over the years. What made this theme one you wanted to incorporate in this tale of these six young men?

J. Anthony Tyler: “A lot of times, you can’t show up as your authentic self. When you have hurt feelings, you should be able to express it. The expectations on how you should behave according to gender, skin color, and age can have damaging effects, and I wanted to explore that. They’re young, and this ideology isn’t something the six of them have come up with. This has been imposed on them or all of us in the world. Putting it on stage is going to, hopefully, inspire more conversation.”

Flintside: What made you emphasize the year 2004?

J. Tyler: “It was thinking about myself and how I evolved. Obviously, as a writer, there’s some selfishness to the work that we do. Audiences are so sophisticated. If there’s one hint of a lie, it will take you out of the play. [With] Black audiences, we’re bombarded with the perceptions of who we are in media from people outside of who we are. We’re going to have a thirst to see the authenticity of who we are. It’s truthful exploration.”

“I simply want audiences to come and see the play and want to talk about themes after they’ve seen it," says James Anthony Tyler. (Photo credit: Mike Naddeo)
Flintside: You’ve done some incredible things with writing, but I’m curious to know if the magic of when you first started is still present. Do you still get excited seeing what you wrote manifest itself?

J. Tyler: “Definitely. I’m still excited to continue doing this. I love the first and all the days of the rehearsal process. When I was in film school at Howard, a good friend told me, ‘Listen, this is going to be a marathon, and you just got to stay in the race. You got to stay, and you got to continue writing, submitting, and meeting people.’ Nothing’s going to happen overnight, so I always keep that in mind. I do not write the same that I was writing five years ago. We should continue to grow in our craft.”

Flintside: You’ve written so many plays, but when it comes to Into the Side of a Hill, what do you want audiences to take away, and what have you taken away from this play?

J. Tyler: “I simply want audiences to come and see the play and want to talk about themes after they’ve seen it. What have I taken away? I think I've taken away a new confidence about my role in the rehearsal process. There were a lot of rewrites [and] writers involved because you’re also learning things in the writer’s room. I’m proud of the discoveries that were made and that I was able to put on the page that made the play stronger. I’m looking forward to the next production.”

'Into the Side of a Hill' by James Anthony Tyler is now showing by the FIM and the FIM Flint Repertory Theatre. Tickets are on sale now.
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