Q&A: Playwright Daniel John Kelley Explores Handball In Coney Island

Source: National Library Archives via Flickr

Playwright Daniel John Kelley is not a native of Southern Brooklyn. Instead, he spent most of his life in Cobble Hill. Yet, when it came to writing his next play, Wall, Ball, Summer and Fall (A Coney Island Adventure), it was Coney Island he drew the story from. Specifically, the fast-paced, local pasttime of handball. He set his play on the famous Seaside handball courts off of the boardwalk and let the diverse athletes that are drawn to a sport played with nothing but a wall and a rubber blue ball be his inspiration.

Daniel John Kelley will host a reading of his play on May 19 at 7 p.m. at Hunter College’s Frederick Loewe Theater, at 68th Street between Park Avenue and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. He hopes to have a reading somewhere closer to the setting of his play as well, but has yet to find the right venue.

Sheepshead Bites: What other work (writing or otherwise) have you done?

Daniel John Kelley: I’ve been writing plays since I was in high school. I’ve had my plays produced in New York, in the NY Fringe, and by other small companies, as well as abroad in Dublin, Melbourne and Nepal. My children’s play series, Monster Literature ran for a year at the Brooklyn Lyceum in Park Slope a few years back, thanks to the good folks at Mainspring Collective. I’m currently getting my MFA in playwriting at Hunter College, studying with Tina Howe.

SB: Why base a play around handball and escape to Coney Island?

DJK: I wanted to write a mythic play about Brooklyn – a sort of ode to its beauty and imperfection – so I started reading various writer’s writing on Brooklyn, of which there is more than a metric ton.

SB: Why is Coney Island the escapist fantasy for you and your character, Jeremy Stevens?

DJK: I think Coney Island is an iconic escapist location – the boardwalk by the sea, the Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone, hot dogs and ice cream and summer time – as well as a history of circus and escapist entertainment. I think that’s what is generally in the mind of people who think “Coney Island,” but perhaps have never been there or only been there once or what have you.  So that’s the legacy I’m drawing on.

For Jeremy Stevens, who starts the play as a sheltered kid from Brooklyn Heights who wants to run away from everything he knows, it’s the farthest place he can think to go. I was interested in exploring the idea of Brooklyn as a world unto itself, because for many people, it is.

“It’s about how this dream of being good at handball both inspires and ruins the boys of Coney Island.”

SB: Where did the inspiration for the title characters come from?

DJK: The central figure of Moses Dirko is based on the real Coney Island handball legend, Joe Durso, who is still alive and playing today, and was actually inducted in the Handball Hall of Fame this year.

I came across this excellent article from Sports Illustrated in the 1990s called “Painter On A Blind Planet“, which was about Joe Durso, and it really struck me. The article was about how good Durso was, like Muhammad Ali/Michael Jordan-level good. That said, outside of a niche of handball lovers, there isn’t a mass national following that really cares about handball or the abilities of athletes like Durso the way they do about basketball or football or what have you. So it’s about this man, who is really as an artist of handball – on par with people like Lawrence Olivier and Da Vinci, so he says – and how he lives in a world that can’t or won’t reward his abilities. It’s not about this handballer as a “tortured, misunderstood artist” or what have you, but rather the idea that everyone understands exactly how good he is at handball, and no one cares. It’s about how this dream of being good at handball is transmitted to the boys of Coney Island by this master of handball, how they strive for that dream, and how it both inspires and ruins them.

SB: Did you spend any time sitting on the boardwalk, watching the handball players to get a feel for the sport?

DJK: Not really. The play isn’t really journalistic, it’s an adventure story, a fable. The handball of the play, I think, is more the idea of handball as seen by people like Joe Durso. When I, Daniel, look at a regular game of handball, I don’t see what Durso does when he talks about “painting the wall” or creating a form within the game that is like the work of great masters of art and philosophy. I want to see that, but I really don’t. I think it’s a rare gift to be able to see something, anything that way. So I wanted to be able to put onto the stage the image of handball that Durso described so that people could see the game that he and people like him saw. I wanted people to see the dream of handball, so I wrote that.

SB: Do you think handball is an underrated sport, and if so why?

DJK: On the one hand, no. There are many people who rate the sport very highly, who love it and are passionate about it, and dedicate their lives to it. There are always people playing handball on the courts around New York. So in the sense that people are playing the game, and people are loving the game, no, it’s not underrated.

On the other hand, yes. There are people who are masters of handball, who play all the time to perfect their game, people who see it, like Joe Durso, as an art that is worthy of veneration. These people deserve to be paid like other professional athletes, and be on orange juice and cereal boxes, and have the New York Post makes puns on their names. But because we as a culture decided, for whatever reason, to recognize one sport and not another, handballers labor in obscurity, when the best of them are certainly a match for the best at other sports.

SB: What do you hope your audiences walk away with after seeing this play?

DJK: The necessity of kindness, I think. Not just being “nice”, but real human kindness and consideration of others before yourself. I would like it if my play made people more kind to one another.

SB: Why do you think Brooklyn has been such a catalyst for so much great writing, storytelling and art?

DJK: Smarter people than me have asked and answered this question, but I’ll give it a shot, and fall on my face. I think it has something to do with the ferocious sense of community that I associate with Brooklyn, and how those communities are all pulling together while pushing up against one another. This happens in all the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, to greater and lesser degrees, I think, and who these communities are is constantly shifting. Therein lays conflict, contrast, heroes and monsters as created by the people of these communities, the stuff of great storytelling and great art. As Brooklyn grows more homogenous, I fear, much of that will be lost.


Sign in or become a Bklyner member to join the conversation.