Self Publishing

by Leelee Jackson

I self published my one act play, Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like a Slave) this year and I want to share some reasons behind that decision. 

I wrote COMB in undergrad in 2016. At the time, I had already considered myself to be a playwright. I had written skits for my church youth group in highschool and was told then that I had a gift. But up until writing COMB, I had only written skits and short films, never a full one act play. One of my professors asked me to send him some of my work and I had nothing to send him. Thats when he told me, “If you want to be a playwright, write.” and I did just that. 

After seeing the worst production of The Vagina Monologues, I felt like Black womxn in that play (and the ones who saw it) deserved that same amount of space to talk about something just as taboo (I’d argue even more taboo, since all womxn don’t actually have pussies): Black womxn’s hair. All Black people have some relationship to their hair. The subject as a plot iis relevant in so many Black plays (Raisin in the Sun, Colored Museum, Funnyhouse of a Negro and so many more). So I wanted to respond to what I had seen in my own life mixed with what I was learning in my African American study courses. A play that reflect the time and the people. 

I interviewed a few friends of mine who had their own experience regarding their hair journey. Most of the time it was pretty informal. I’d sit with them in their kitchens/bedrooms/BSU lounge to discuss the very topic that had become so taboo (even in those spaces). We talked about our stories together and reflected on what we once hated about our bodies that we now love. Stories of family members/men/ourselves enforcing loving and not so loving ideologies that stuck with us our entire lives. From that, COMB was birthed. 

Since then, COMB  has had 3 full productions, 10 readings, has been included on the syllabus of a drama course at a UC and has been featured in magazines across the country. The piece is often compared to Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls, which is quite accurate and special. Both pieces focus on Black womxn and the memories that shape her. Both very poetic and of it’s time. I like having COMB being compared to For Colored Girls because that’s how a canon is developed and strengthened. 

Though COMB has had a wild amount of success in a short amount of time, it has also had it’s woes. Dozens of rejection letters. Feedback from theatre spaces asking for more “black girl joy” and of course Black men asking why they can’t be a part of the show. COMB has also gotten ugly backlash from Black women who refuse to see it because of the triggering title. I’ve had men tell me “You let us off  wayyy too easy!!” (as if it’s a play about them) and agents/managers tell me they automatically pass on work with the word slave in the title/tagline/logline. It’s also a one act, running about 39 minutes live and about an hour virtually. Which means it will never gain commercial success. Some feedback on the piece has been that the characters all feel random, never arriving or returning anywhere, but just sort of existing in their vignettes. That’s intentional. I wanted COMB to move as if someone was watching vine/instagram/youtube. I wanted it to reflect the times of entertainment and to keep up with how it’s moving. But, the criticism/backlash/feedback is fair I’ve always felt. Fair enough to help shape the next pieces I’ve written but not enough to get me to change COMB. 

The final draft of COMB (the one published) is the very first draft. The first production took place in January of 2017. Since then, I have not revised the script at all. I’ve altered it for a virtual platform (again, reflecting the times) however, the original piece has never undergone any revisions outside of editing. And even then, there are a few typos here and there. When I decided to self publish, I wanted to offer representation, of course, but it was even deeper than that for me. I knew COMB would never get published as a stand alone piece through a publishing company, because they don’t think people would  buy it (which is not untrue. It’s hard enough to get people to go see a play, let alone buy one to read). However, I can’t rely on the opinion of institutions. To date, almost every production we’ve had in person has had a full house. More often than not, people sitting on the floor and standing room only. COMB welcomes and offers community and visibility on stage in a way that most theatre goers have never witnessed (according to a survey taken). There have been a few shows with more empty seats then taken, and even then the impact is powerful and big. I’ll never forget COMB’s and my first regional competition at the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival, where three white male judges and one white male moderator cried their eyes out at the end of our performance. Like, I’ve never witnessed a man cry so hard from something I wrote. The 7 of us on stage, not knowing how to respond to their emotions. The moderator caught a breath and said still sobbing “Can you introduce yourselves. I need a moment.” and went to clean himself up. I don’t know what was in the room that night but we tore it up. We won regionals. I brought my own cast and they were so good, they created a special award just for them (the Kennedy Center is this country’s national theatre and performing space. COMB went to nationals and had a reading on a stage there).  

Earlier this year, I published COMB as a physical book. I used the money saved from my stimulus check to get it done. I had anxiety about it because I knew I wouldn’t sell as many copies as I would have had I went with even a small publishing company, but again, one act plays are not published. Not often anyways. Maybe in an anthology but I had a vision. I saw illustrations (which is very unconventional for a play) and for it to feel more like a coffee table book. Something people might flip through real quick if they saw it is sitting somewhere. All the Black womxn taking up space and being visible. I wanted the book to exist the way the play does and under the rare occasion of actually getting published by a publishing company,  I didn’t want to argue my vision if I could just do it myself. I was a fan of Avy Jetter (the illustrator) work for some time now. My friends had purchased some of her work and I followed her on social media. When I produced a reading for COMB, I reached out to Avy to do a flyer for the show which later became the cover. My partner had been interested in learning InDesign and agreed to put it together. That was my team. Together the three of us was able to produce something I’m very proud of. 

It’s in the world now. Big girl all on her own. My favorite offering of COMB has to be what it offers Black womxn in visibility. Often times in rehearsals, we spend way more time talking about how relevant the pieces are to our everyday lives. When people see it, they write/text/tell me later “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” because it’s often the first time people have had to see/listen/pay attention to Black womxn. When we had our first virtual production, I ensured the cast and crew that this is the most amount of Black womxn most viewers would have had in their home at one time (or at all) speaking and having agency over their bodies. That makes everything worth. The opportunity to be seen through our very own invisibility. 

To purchase a copy of Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like a Slave) https://forms.gle/HmCL2G1wpqdR5ryE7

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