Tuesday, January 27, 2015
After spending years imagining, writing, and revising a play while enduring the oft troubled (yet strangely beautiful) mental landscape that comes with such endeavors, most playwrights are hungry to share with a theater company, a director, a creative team, a cast and an audience. But finding the right home for a play is probably the most difficult aspect of being a playwright. In fact, I am close to certain that many playwrights don't find homes for their work at all.
In the beginning of my journey as a playwright, I produced my own work. I didn’t know any other way to get the play from the page to the stage. I had not gone to college for a degree in theater; I knew nothing about “The Industry.” I’d only performed in theatrical productions connected to my life as a student with Joyce Mosso’s Creative Dance Company and D.C. Park’s and Recreation’s Showmobile and Black Reflections programs during my youth. So, I emerged as a audacious producing playwright in 2005 by incorporating my own non-profit organization, Ocean Ana Rising, Inc. I was boldly creative and clueless, and my lack of knowledge regarding the difficult journey to production probably saved me some early heartache and insured my play would find its audience, despite the American Theater industry’s less than generous well of opportunity for Black women playwrights.
But producing is no easy romance. Though Ocean Ana Rising, Inc. has successfully played a role in developing three of my stage-plays, our company has never had the capacity to move beyond one workshop production a year. First of all, the company does not exist to produce my work. The mission is communal in its focus. We seek to produce work written for, about, and by women of color. I am only one woman. So, between developmental processes for my own work, Ocean Ana Rising has also co-produced a performance series dedicated to Black women in NYC. We have also facilitated arts outreach workshops for women and girls in need. Simultaneously, I have maintained a position as a faculty member at Medgar Evers College at The City University of New York over the past six years. And, I have two daughters I’ve been raising since I was 21 years old.
Without going through a detailed and emotionally heightened autobiography, I will simply state that finding a theater home for my work has become absolutely necessary in light of my choice to be all these versions of woman. I realized that I needed more consistent support shortly after OAR’s first (and only) workshop production of Gypsy & The Bully Door, if I was going to ever move past “emerging” status as a dramatist.
So, imagine how I danced and shouted when I got the news that the African Continuum Theatre Company would be producing Gypsy & The Bully Door. First, I have to credit my long-time friend and collaborator, Eric Ruffin, with getting the play to Thembi Duncan, the producing Artistic Director at ACTCO. Initially, Eric asked me to send Thembi my play Gutta Beautiful. This was the first play of mine that Eric directed. We both share a love for that play that goes beyond reason. And we are still searching for ways to achieve the production that it never had, despite its relatively long-life being produced by two companies beyond my own. I was hesitant about sending it, though. I wanted to send my most current work, and that was not Gutta Beautiful.
Thembi liked the voice she found while reading Gutta Beautiful, but she did not feel it was the right fit. As producing Artistic Director, Thembi wanted to be careful in choosing the first full production the company would under-take, after being on a short break in producing full stage plays. She felt that Gutta Beautiful, while a bold and relevant play, was likely better at another juncture in time. So, Eric asked that I send Gypsy & The Bully Door.
I can’t remember how long it took to get a response from Thembi or Eric. But I know that when I got the news that Thembi wanted to produce Gypsy & The Bully Door, I ran in circles; I pounded on the floor with my fists; I shouted; I cried. I wrote the first scene, which has since been cut, for that play in 2007, while Gutta Beautiful was preparing to go up on stage with New Federal Theatre Company. Then I didn’t touch it again until the end of 2010, because I’d been working on my choreopoem, Itagua Meji: A Road & A Prayer. I spent much of 2011-2013 developing Gypsy & The Bully Door, though, producing a workshop production of it in 2011 at the Fringe Festival in DC, and taking all of 2012 to revise and revise and revise. By 2013, I was able to take it through one private stage reading, and two public ones. The proof of all of that hard work seemed to manifest in its ability to forge a profound connection to Thembi and ACTCO.
The name of the company was not lost on me – The African Continuum Theatre Company. I have been developing my own theory and practice as a Black womanist ritual theatre practitioner over the past eleven years. Gypsy & The Bully Door is rooted in a creolized cosmology that incorporates Yoruba, Bantu, Vodoun, Hindi, and Gypsy/Fellow-Traveler cultural motifs and parables. It is deeply tied to HooDoo, Yoruba, and Bantu sacred rituals as they have merged due to the TransAtlantic slave trade and the birthing of a new people through the Middle Passage. I understand Gypsy & The Bully Door, and much of my writing for performance, as theatre that is illustrative of the “African Continuum” as it exists on this side of the Atlantic on the east coast of the United States. So, not only was Thembi’s selection of Gypsy & The Bully Door for ACTCO’s 2014-2015 season some of the best news I’d received as a playwright in a while, it was also an important choice that helps to further advance a professional alliance that can build a clear brand and home for kindred work.
Furthermore, the issues that the play addresses – Black women’s body politics, police brutality, gentrification, the culture of violence, and mental health – are urgently relevant to our community right now. The bold explorations that the play takes on provide a unique opportunity for conversation and transformation. We are living in times when such explorations are absolutely necessary.