Thanks for checking out the LAFPI “tag team” blog, below, handed off each week from one interesting female playwright to another.
Who are they? Click Here
Thanks for checking out the LAFPI “tag team” blog, below, handed off each week from one interesting female playwright to another.
Who are they? Click Here
by Kitty Felde
If you’ve attended as many book marketing webinars as I have, you’ve heard the same advice: you need a newsletter.
The reason is simple: if the rest of social media goes the way of Twitter, er, X, you need a way to stay in touch with your theatre contacts, publishers, and fans in a format that you can control.
So as a veteran of writing hundreds of newsletters, here’s a few thoughts.
WHAT SHOULD I PUT IN A NEWSLETTER?
I’ve always thought of newsletters as a bit self-indulgent. Who would want to read anything about my life, my thoughts on climate change or politics, or pictures of my cat? And then I remembered that my husband and I have put out a Christmas newsletter for more than a decade that does just that. I apologize to my friends and family and tell them they can just toss it in the trash or ask me to take them off the mailing list. On the contrary, they say, they look forward to this annual missive. Go figure.
The truth is that we long for personal connections – even those that show up in a newsletter once and a while. Your contacts want to know more about YOU, the writer yourself. You don’t have to disclose utterly personal information. Instead, address the questions most people ask: Why do you write? How do you write? What are you working on? What does your desk look like? Who’s your favorite playwright? Why?
Readers and theatre goers and fans also like a peek behind the curtain. How do you cast a play? Do the actors hired for your work look like the ones you imagined when you were creating them? Who’s your favorite director? Why? What was the best (and worst) production of any of your work? (Leave out specific identification of the offending theatre…it’s a small town.) Write about an amazing production of someone else’s play or recount a memory of a play you saw years and years ago that still sticks with you. Ask your readers to tell you about their favorite production of any play and put that in a future newsletter. Ask them which play they wish someone would write. Put together a survey. In other words, get your fans to interact with you, otherwise known as that horrid word “engagement.”
Ask yourself what your newsletter subscribers NEED. A calendar of upcoming shows you think they’d enjoy? A monologue or scene that got cut from one of your plays? A really wonderful – or really awful – review of a previous production of one of your plays? Information about upcoming productions or publications or interviews?
Currently, I write two professional newsletters with a combined 4,000 subscribers. I began writing them in 2015.
For my Book Club for Kids podcast, I didn’t want the newsletter to be about ME. I wanted to give subscribers something that was useful. I knew that my audience of teachers, parents, and librarians needed help getting reluctant readers to pick up a book. So every month, I send a reading tip from a librarian or an education specialist. The newsletter also includes promotional material: information about the latest episode, an invitation to check out my other podcast The Fina Mendoza Mysteries, and an invitation to contact me if they want to bring the podcast to their school.
For my Fina Mendoza Mysteries civics series, I write a Facts Behind the Fiction newsletter where I expand on some Congressional fact mentioned in the books or podcast. The newsletter also includes links to research material, as well as links to the audio and to bookstores where the audience can buy the book.
Then I REPURPOSE the newsletter content in a blog on my website. And if I’m a good girl, I post links to it on social. That way, I get a three for one hit on my written material.
HOW OFTEN DO I SEND A NEWSLETTER?
It’s up to you. But once a month or every six months is plenty. Unless your audience asks for more.
HOW TO BUILD A MAILING LIST
Start with your friends, family, professional colleagues, and anyone else who might be interested in your work. Or in you. Include a signup link on your website. Include it in social posts from time to time. Do a “newsletter swap” – you write a post that a fellow playwright sends to her mailing list and she writes one for your newsletter. Include that signup link! Hopefully, her fans will sign up for your newsletter and become your fans as well. You’ll be surprised at how fast your audience grows.
MAILCHIMP, MAILERLITE, CONSTANT CONTACT, ETC.
Don’t send mass email blasts from your Gmail account. You will be punished. Instead, start with a free subscription from one of the usual suspects. I’ve used both Mailchimp and MailerLite and they’re easy, pretty much drag and drop. One warning: there’s a success tax. If your mailing list goes over a set threshold, you’ll have to pay for hosting.
Subscribe to a few OTHER writer’s mailing lists. You can always unsubscribe. See what they are writing about, how they are providing value to the reader.
Newsletters are purely optional for writers, but as a control freak myself, they are an important part of my professional presence in the world.
Kitty Felde is the author of numerous plays and the Fina Mendoza Mysteries series of books and podcasts, designed to introduce civics to elementary school readers. Her novella Losing is Democratic: How to Talk to Kids About January 6th will be released by Chesapeake Press this month.
In 2023, I wrote two full plays. Which, in theory, shouldn’t be HUGE for me. For about four years, 2014-2018, I wrote 2-3 full lengths a year. Some of them good (O’Neill finalists, etc.) some of them bad (let’s not talk about them). I never went to grad school for theatre, nor was it my undergrad focus. Like many of us, I just learned by MAKING SHIT. When I first moved to LA, I wrote monologues and one acts and did the weird, late-night bullshit in black box theatres, the kind where you cut your teeth to sharp points of theatrical nonsense, especially when you’re not tied to some fancy theatre school. While I wrote one full length a year in 2012 and 2013, I look at the massive uptick of WRITING from 2014-2018 as my real playwriting education.
But from 2019 to 2022, I couldn’t seem to write a play that made any sense. I truly thought I’d forgotten how to do this. I’d written my first one act as an 18 year old, my first full length in my senior year of college. And then suddenly, I just forget?
Maybe I never knew how to do this. Maybe I was a fraud.
Something happened to my brain in 2018 that fundamentally changed my playwriting process. I can’t pin point what, exactly. One big shift is that I was in grad school at the time for fiction writing – I’ve always been a multi-genre writer, and starting in 2016 I’d shifted some of my energy to developing that voice as well. I also shifted out of having a full time job – and haven’t gone back since.
I don’t know if those shifts had an affect. But suddenly I was approaching my plays from BIG IDEAS rather than from character or images, like my plays did during that four year education. From an adaptation of Frankenstein to a comedy about censorship to historical preservation through the lens of a dying mall – I felt like suddenly everything I’d taught myself didn’t apply anymore. These things were too big and massive – I couldn’t find my way through them to find the heart of the story. And the plays fell flat or remained confusingly chaotic or were left unfinished (I’ll blame the pandemic on that last one).
Something that felt like a huge part of my identity suddenly felt completely inaccessible.
But this year I wrote TWO plays. One I’m very proud of, one I’m very excited about because of its chaos. Whatever was rewiring in my brain between 2019 and now finally finished its work (until it has to rewire again – which, now that I know what it feels like, I’m sure will happen again). What was happening during that time, I think, is that I was synthesizing everything I’d learned from my MAKING SHIT education while combining it with my growing fiction skills and my arts leadership experiences that were putting many things into stark relief.
This was ANOTHER kind of education, I now realize. Having patience with myself. Having faith that “your process” is ever changing and growing and expanding, and that some plays you might need to WRITE in order to understand something, even if that play goes into a drawer or transforms into something else entirely. Two of my drawer plays will be transformed into novellas — the stage, I realize, is not the container they need. One play is transforming from a large immersive show into a two-person play. Another will be shedding it’s big ideas in favor of an entirely new subject that emerged from the writing and the characters.
It is hard to have patience with yourself, especially when it feels like everyone around you is shooting into the stratosphere, that they have their work figured out and have no doubts about their abilities or their rightful place in the industry. I spent most of the last two years convinced I no longer belonged, that theatre was lost to me.
I had deadlines and a strong need to prove something this year. But I had to also make patience a part of the practice. Maybe it was the thing missing all along.
Just two weeks ago, I visited the South Dakota State University Department of Theatre for their second new works festival. Me and two other professional playwrights had readings of our plays, performed by the (awesome) students and directed by their (amazing) faculty. My play, THE DEAD WOMAN, was first written in (oh god) 2012, with readings and workshops in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2018, and during three of the four I did significant rewrites. Going into this reading, I was trying to approach it with patience – patience for my past, younger self, and patience for myself right now, who wanted to fix the play to perfection, to prove that it has earned the right to a production someday (hopefully). I did rewrite the ending and have some other trimming things to do – but what was so lovely about approaching the process with PATIENCE is that I could see my heart in the words – the heart of my 20-something self wrestling with big ideas and big feelings – and hear the response of the 20-somethings in the audience and in the cast.
And by rediscovering my love of these characters through these students, I could also reach through time to love myself too. Something that evades me most days. The act of falling in love with yourself is not one of ego or self-obsession – but of grace and care and patience.
In 2024, I hope you will honor whatever part of the process you’re in. I hope you will give yourself patience. I hope you will fall in love with your own heart again.
Over the past week, I’ve had the privilege of reading the full-length play Mama Mama Can’t You See written by Stan Mayer and Cecilia Fairchild, speaking with Cecilia, and then seeing the rockin’, brave, and surreal production at Coin & Ghost directed by Zach Davidson on Veterans Day, which was opening weekend.
The promotional materials tell us that Mama Mama Can’t You See, “Isn’t a play about war. It is a play how to tell a war story.” For me, it’s about memory and how memory pushes and pulls within our being in a myriad of ways of complexity and authenticity.
The play is based on Stan Mayer’s life as a Marine during Operation Iraqi Freedom in the early 2000s. There are eight characters in the play: four Marines who live within the realities and memories of that war, and four young women who embody another aspect of war. Cecilia pondered for a long time what to call these four characters—women who provided sex for a living during the Civil War, and have direct encounters with the Marines of 2005 Iraq.
For Cecilia, modern terminology didn’t fit the female characters she envisioned, who would tell this evocative and complicated part of the story. She discovered through her research that the etymology of whore is unblemished and meant “dear, loved, and desire” in distant times. And so she ran with her instincts and called these four characters whores, women who use their bodies to satisfy the needs and desires of the battle-weary, and to buy food for their mothers and their baby sisters.
During our conversation about the Whores, I inquired about the characters’ origin and their meaning within the context of Stan’s story. Cecilia talked about “sacred listening” and how she was “being pushed this way to tell the story this way.” I loved when she connected this push and pull to the act of sacred listening and how this enabled the characters to appear and unfold before her.
I knew then that she understood something about war and love, death and loss, and survivor’s guilt that most of us don’t. Perhaps I understood as well because I was born in an Army hospital during war and raised in the military, and have been working with veterans, active duty, and their families since 2010 to empower them tell their stories through the written word. I have learned through experience that listening is one of the most important and crucial aspects of this kind of work, which enabled me to understand Cecilia’s world and process as a playwright. To truly listen is not an easy task, but it is vital for the playwright to still and to listen because that is when and where the magic happens.
Each of us has a process when we write. For Cecilia, she says it is like “reading your own tea leaves as you’re writing.” What amazing and evocative tea leaves live inside her creative imagination! To her, “the theater is a place where we can dream” and where “anything can happen.” Mama Mama Can’t You See embodies a dream—or nightmare might be a more appropriate word—where anything can happen.
Cecilia also drew upon personal experience to breathe deeper layers and aspects into the characters and the play. She attended the ten-year anniversary of the pivotal and deadly firefight Stan experienced during his first tour in Iraq—the firefight that is the inspiration for the play. At the reunion in San Antonio, Cecilia listened to the war stories of those who survived and those who died on the battlefield. And she has carried what she heard ever since. Even though she didn’t experience the battle firsthand, she lives with the stories of the dead and the survivors, feeling the loss of life and innocence and knowing, “war is a cavern of death and near death.” Then she took my breath away when she said: “They died inside of me anyway, the men who died at war.” This is what sacred listening looks like in our mundane reality. This is what carrying the wounds of war that others experience looks like. This is what carrying the memories of those who experience the realities of war looks like… And for all of that, I honor and respect her deeply.
Towards the end of our dialogue, I said to Cecilia, “You’re the Civil War Whore.” She gently agreed. And I could hear the depth of how my knowing this—how my speaking those words out loud—resonated within her. In a way, what I experienced at that moment is sacred listening—how I could hear her heart and memories, her love and loss, within my heart and my memories.
I also asked her what she wanted me to experience, to feel as I would sit in the audience and watch the play unfold inside the theater. She responded, “[I’d like] for your body to open and molecules be rearranged somehow.“ She wanted the experience to be “almost like a spell”… “a series of words [that] would play across your body” (love this one!!) and for me and audiences to have a “thrilling out of body experience.”
What a wish list for a playwright!
Even though Cecilia wasn’t involved in this current production at Coin & Ghost, her heart and her story are ever present and alive on the stage. As I sat in the darkened theater during the performance, I felt myself come alive as the actors moved with primal energy and danced seductively. The dialogue played across my body, casting a spell on me and taking me places I dared to go. The bluesy rendition of the military cadence “Mama Mama Can’t You See” sung by one of the Whores as she walked to the Marine laying on the battlefield, haunts me—I can’t get it out of my mind and heart. And to be honest, I don’t want to.
Coin & Ghost’s “Mama Mama Can’t You See” runs through December 10th at Studio/Stage on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm (dark November 23 through November 26.) For tickets and information, visit coinandghost.org.
by Cynthia Wands
Judi Dench as Titania in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, 1962
Judi Dench says that failure is important.
I think about this as I’m watching an interview with Judi Dench, as she and Brendan O’Hea talk about a new book that is being published in 2024: “Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent.” (Here’s the link to the book that they’re talking about:)
Watching this interview brings all kinds of reactions as I listen to the backstage history and anecdotes with these accomplished and articulate artists. (Although I admit to bursting out loud with laughter at the theatrics of creating a stage sneeze at the 19:50 mark.)
I love the esteem and recognition that this older actress has accrued – for me, personally as an artist of some advanced years, it’s gratifying to see her given her due.
A dear friend of mine graduated with her from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in 1957, and he didn’t recognize her talents at the time. He has since, in the last sixty years or so as he has worked as an actor and director, changed his mind about her artistry.
Some years ago, my brother-in-law acted with Judi Dench in a London production of “The Royal Family”, and I when I had the opportunity to go see them on stage together, I was wowed. I’d seen her in film and tv; but she is even better on stage. I can’t explain it – but she has a magic about her.
But to the point of “Failure is Important”: during this interview, Judi talks not only about the generosity of spirit in actors/theatre – and also how the rhythm of iambic pentameter is akin to the beating of your heart (I loved that), but especially she talked about failure. Mistakes. And how important they are to find the parts that work.
One another comment that resonated with me, was her counsel that actors are “servants to the story”. As a playwright, having been an actor, being a fan of women who write roles for all ages, I found her to be generous and wise in this interview.
So here it is. It’s 38 minutes long. It’s a chatty, illuminating, funny and intimate conversation. I hope you enjoy it.
A deep dive on making theatre with playwright Marlow Wyatt and director Andi Chapman
by Elana Luo
Across a cozy wood-colored kitchen set, Karen Malina White as Bernice Rose Johnson reckons with her on-stage daughter, named SHE Sojourner Freeman. “I’m sorry, I cannot protect you from the rain,” Bernice says. But it’s not Camille Ariana Spirlin, the actor playing SHE, who cries in response. Instead, it’s playwright Marlow Wyatt, sitting in the audience and wishing she brought tissues to her own show.
“It hit me different that night,” Marlow says. “I don’t know why. I don’t know if I thought about my mother, or my mother’s mother, but it got me.”
Bernice and SHE are characters in Marlow’s play, SHE, now having its world premiere at Antaeus Theatre Company. In Marlow’s own words, the story is a coming-of-age American experience. We watch teenage SHE come into her own over a summer as she chases the opportunity to enroll at an expensive boarding school.
On a Zoom call with Marlow and director Andi Chapman, it’s clear that they are collaborators who are also friends, with deep respect for one another. I ask Andi what drew her to direct this play. “I loved the notion of a girl named SHE Sojourner Freeman,” she replies after a moment. “SHE is relevant for today, for yesterday, and for tomorrow. Her dreams weren’t to be denied, but she was always so respectful.”
Marlow and Andi both began their theatre careers as actors. This has impressed a deep appreciation for and emphasis on character on Marlow. The characters in SHE are made up of traits and personalities of people that Marlow has observed growing up, or just in daily life. “I am very much a voyeur,” she says. “I love people. I take the bus, I take the public transportation. Not because I have to, but because I want to. I’ve seen so many characters.”
“Los Angeles is a place where people get in their cars with their tinted windows and they turn on their music, but I’m the opposite. The world is outside of this little box on four wheels. Look at him. Look at this person. Look at them having this communication at lunch. I don’t think they really love each other, or is this a first date? You can see their body language and energy, and I like that. That fuels me.”
This attention to character has translated onto the page, and the stage, from how the characters speak to what they love to do. SHE, for example, speaks in verse when she gets nervous, or when traumatic things happen to her. The verse is unintentional in those moments, but very much intentional in pursuit of her dreams of being a poet.
Why did Marlow decide that SHE wanted to be a poet?
“She has something to say. One of the things I realized about girls in this society is that nobody wants to hear what we have to say,” she says. “Poetry, art, are ways for somebody to speak, and have people listen, without them saying ‘Oh, she’s a girl. I’m not gonna listen to what she has to say, I’m gonna dismiss her.'”
Later in the play, though, Marlow turns this idiosyncrasy against her. An illusive scene between SHE and a city slicker named Othalee unfolds entirely in verse, so naturally that the audience often doesn’t catch that it’s written that way. Othalee devastatingly draws her in. “It brings down the barrier, because she found somebody who likes words,” Marlow says. He talks the way that she talks. So that makes her stay a little longer than she needs to.”
Andi, on the other hand, moved from acting to directing because she found that she’s someone who sees a larger vision of the script. This vision goes beyond the art of acting to other disciplines—painting, music, and animation. To make sure everything and everyone is in the same world, she creates and shares a “palette” for the rest of the creative team, actors, and designers to work from. For SHE, the palette was a colorful mixed media painting of a young girl by the artist Leroy Campbell. Andi discovered him on Pinterest. “I love Pinterest,” she says.
The other elements of the design are all dynamic. SHE is set in the 70s, which Andi says opened the door for her and sound designer Jeff Gardner to get together and come up with a mixtape of period songs to soundtrack the play. She pushed projections designer Nicholas Santiago to animate his projections. “I don’t like flat pictures,” she says. “They have to be alive, so the audience can feel that experience. I asked him every time he showed a picture—move it.”
This energy attracts. At two separate performances, a white cabbage butterfly has flown in and stayed for a scene or two. Andi theorizes that its presence has to do with the set’s real garden outside town matriarch Miss Jane’s home. It’s a testament to her prowess as a director that someone asked her if the butterfly was part of the show. “No, how do you wrangle a butterfly?” she says.
Marlow jumps in. “‘Butterfly wrangler,’ that’s a great skill,” she quips. “’I can wrangle butterflies. Where do you want him to go, what scene?'”
A moment later, Marlow’s reflective again. “I feel like that’s good energy. I don’t know what it is, but I’m like, if the butterfly’s supposed to be there, then let him be a part of it,” she muses. “You know, he’s not Equity, so you don’t have to pay him anything.”
Andi starts laughing.
I ask Marlow if there were any challenging moments in writing SHE. No, she says, only that she wanted to make sure that the character of Lonnie, Bernice’s unreliable boyfriend and later husband, is perceived as human. “Men do what he does. People don’t treat people the way they should be treated,” she says. “He exists. He is a man who wants a family, children, a wife. How he goes about getting it is all wrong. But he’s not a bad guy. He clearly loves Bernice, but he doesn’t know how…some people don’t know how to love.”
There is at least one certainty about Lonnie. Marlow’s first drafts of the play included a scene where Lonnie pushes Bernice. Marlow didn’t like it, because Lonnie is not a man who hits women. Moreover, she didn’t want any violence in the play. But she couldn’t figure out how to rewrite it. “The actors figured out a way to do it.” The staged version sees him catching himself before he touches Bernice at all, in a moment of self-discovery of his lowest point. They were able to preserve the integrity of the scene, and add some more depth to Lonnie’s character to boot.
How was the rehearsal process overall? Collaborative. “It was wonderful,” Andi says. “We had a fun, family atmosphere. I love to listen to music and dance during breaks, but then come back to work. And you know—just making sure that the actor feels seen, that the doors are open in terms of communication.”
Did she face any challenges? “No. I just really try to be prepared. I have a lot of run-throughs so the actors feel that the play is in them.”
Something Marlow emphasizes throughout our conversation is that SHE is the story of an American Experience, capital A capital E. The protagonist just happens to be Black. “It’s not having to do with a young African American girl. It has to do with all of our dreams as humans in the world,” Andi says.
Marlow calls SHE an “American play,” one that gets people to think of American theatre differently. She has a piece of advice for other playwrights of color.
“When you’re marketing your play, or whatever it is, if it’s truly an American play, set in America, don’t let them say ‘this is a Korean American play. This is an LGBTQ play.’ The world is divided enough as it is.”
In fact, Marlow specifically requested that the press for the show not include the words “Black” and “poverty.” She knew if people called it a “Black play,” non-Black people might think they wouldn’t relate to the play’s contents. “I think it does it a disservice. This play is to bring people together.”
At the end of the day, Marlow writes to entertain and inspire the audience regardless of their background. SHE was developed in The Robey Theatre Company’s Playwrights’ Lab before it came to Antaeus’ Playwrights’ Lab, and the play has had several readings and countless rewrites. Andi calls Marlow “generous,” changing and adjusting the text as she collaborates with her and the actors.
In other words, Marlow’s not trapped by ego, despite her culture-shifting ambitions. “It’s for the audience,” she says. “When you prepare a meal and have a dinner party, you want everybody to like it. You don’t want to say, ‘I don’t care if you don’t like this lamb. I like it.’ I’m not that person. I want you to leave with an experience.”
And members of the audience are indeed leaving with experiences. The subgroup Marlow is most happy about affecting—that is, making cry—is straight cisgender men. She tells me that she playfully ribbed a friend’s husband who came to see the show, asking if he cried. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I did. Davey [the character of SHE’s best friend] was in my childhood.'” Her voice turns serious. “I wasn’t expecting him to say that.”
Another audience member—an older gentleman—shared with Marlow that in his life, he had put his own dream to the side. He watched SHE, and told her afterwards, “‘I’m gonna pick it back up again and keep going.'”
“Come on,” Marlow says. “You can’t ask for more than that.”
“SHE” runs through November 20 at Antaeus Theatre Company on Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm and Mondays at 8pm, with additional performances Saturdays November 11 and 18 at 2pm. For tickets and information, visit antaeus.org.
You just aren’t feeling it. You haven’t been feeling it for a while. The desire to make something, to put words on a page, what used to have you springing out of bed in the morning and into the imaginary lives of people you’ve never met left a long time ago.
Or perhaps you still remain diligent, sitting down every day to try, but nothing comes out. You set yourself on deadlines, to page minimums, to word minimums, to morning pages, to If You Just Wrote Every Day For Ten Minutes to FIVE GOOD IDEAS and still: nothing.
The more I write, the more I realize that sometimes, and perhaps often, there is going to be nothing.
It’s foreign, at first, to not be working on something. When the bills were paid, and the day job was done, and the kitchen was cleaned, there was always the next moment of dialogue, the revision, the next thing until now.
What are you working on? And the answer is truthfully: nothing. Maybe you know the feeling that comes next: I Have Nothing Left Right Now! But nothing is still something. Nothing is an absence.
I think writers spend so much time tormenting ourselves about the writing that we forget that for many of us, it’s going to happen no matter what. Writing is cellular. Natural. If a dancer puts away their worn in ballet shoes and puts them back on again one day the body may be stiff, but the form is never forgotten.
If we were alive before written words existed we would have found a way to tell stories anyway, just like our ancients did. You would have been the one drawing in the sand or painting on the walls of the cave. Being a writer never had to do only with the output and for the love of god can we stop with the self-imposed word limits per day if they start to make us miserable?
This advice, I suppose, is to myself more than anyone on how to continue when you are in a state of absence: pick what you like from the world around you and repeat until the absence no longer exists. Do this for as long as it takes. Pick old Western movies and bestselling romance novels, pick wildflowers that spill over onto the sidewalks on the streets. Pick only what delights you until you find the way back to the words again. Even absence can be rich, and it is calling to you.
As the year is quickly coming to an end, I am celebrating actually completing a play. Yes, yes, I’ve written others, but this year felt more momentous and quite a learning experience. Both bad and good.
Good. I finished 2 plays, start to finish, and actually submitted them to places.
Bad, because I had to realize what it means to have a Native play out there in the world and what the possibilities of it are.
I became an actor because I wanted to see accurate depictions of Native people. As time went on, I realized that it was more than the physical depiction, but the actual stories being told and who was telling them. I had the opportunity to work on a studio project as a Native character with a 3 episode arc. For whatever reason, which I didn’t bother to ask, I was only given my pages from the episodes and not the complete episode. It wasn’t until I arrived on location that I got to see more, which made me question my role. Because the show was based on a book, I read the book. There was no mention of my character, or my family in the book, which isn’t abnormal to have, but I felt that Native people were being added to the story to add diversity and it did nothing to add to the overall storyline. What was interesting were the words and subject matter that were used to discuss Native people. I was fortunate enough to be able to meet with the director and discuss the episode and question words and phrases used and wonder what the payoff was for them. The director took my questions to the writers and further discussion was had. I appreciated the time that was taken and I feel I was heard. Did it change things? I don’t know, but I do hope that those writers and that director will remember that conversation if they participate in another project with similar themes.
I say this because after my play was written and the time came to cast it, I was so disheartened and wondered why I should even bother. Why bother to write the stories if they are so difficult to cast? How hard can it be?
Early this year there was another play with a Native character, written by a non-Native writer. Fine, no big deal. Again, I had the opportunity to talk with the playwright, who was also the casting director. I understood the play and the people because the playwright was from Canada and I knew where the story was from. I questioned the playwright on some of the lines as I tried to see (once again) the point of having a Native character. Yes, it’s great that there are Native characters out there to play, but these roles are usually the stereotypical native-loving conservationists because that’s what Native people are. Right? At the end of the day, they ended up NOT casting a Native person and kept the role as Native. I asked actor friends if they auditioned for it or if they heard about it, and all of them said no. Even though it was on Actor’s Access. Even though the casting director (who, remember, is the playwright) reached out to people, she obviously didn’t get the turnout she expected and made the choice to hire a Non-Native actor.
I wonder if we, as Native people, are so hell-bent on accurate representation that we don’t audition for the part? Which is a feasible response. But the project usually still gets made, with or without accurate representation.
In trying to cast my 5 person play, I understood for a brief moment why some things get cast as they do. I was on the verge of saying just put the best actor in there. That didn’t mean that Native actors were bad, it just meant that for my play to be read and workshopped, I needed someone to read the words, anyone. In the end, I reached out to friends so I could hear my show. But it didn’t leave me with a warm fuzzy feeling. What will happen when my play goes out into the world without me? How will it be cast? And how do you deal with that as the playwright?
I will leave you to ponder that and hopefully offer some advice.
I gotta go finish my next play. Happy writing!
My name is Nakasha Norwood. I’m the company manager at Company of Angels (CoA), as well as one of the producers for the production of Rise, currently running at CoA in Boyle Heights. Rise follows the journey of Emmeline, an African American woman born and bred in Boyle Heights. As the neighborhood evolves throughout the decades, we explore the ties that bind her to it and unravel the tragic mystery behind her unrelenting resolve to never leave.
I’ve had the pleasure of being part of this project from the very beginning. It all started over two years ago when CoA did a collaboration with Impro Theatre to perform an improv show that looked at Boyle Heights in the past, present and future. During the development phase of this show, we had a town hall with advisors from the Boyle Heights who were able to share with us what it was like living in Boyle Heights from the Black, Jewish, Asian and Latino perspectives. After the show, an idea was pitched to create a play that talks about the community of Black people that lived in Boyle Heights, since not many people knew of its existence. I fell in love with the idea of exploring this story, so I wrote a proposal and presented it to my CoA artistic directors. They were completely on board. Thus began the journey of Rise.
When we considered playwrights to commission for this, Kimba Henderson was someone we all thought would be a great match for the project. Kimba first wrote a short play with CoA for our online festival “What’s Goin’ On” in 2020. She then joined our company’s Playwrights Group and spent several months developing her play Red Harlem, which is based on true historical events. Her engrossing writing style, love of history and the passion that comes through her characters were exactly why we wanted her for this project. When we talked with her about the possibility of writing a play based on this little-known community in Boyle Heights, the glow on her face said it all.
It’s been a two-year development process of research, story circles, a Zoom reading, an in-person reading, talk backs, and re-writes, but we finally made it to the production run. I’m happy to have a chance to chat with Kimba about the success of the play and her process behind it.
Nakasha Norwood: First off, what a journey this has been! How does it feel to not only see your play come to life, but to hear all of the amazing praise and wonderful reviews it’s getting?
Kimba Henderson: I love theatre because it is such a collaborative artform. Putting a compelling story on the page is just the beginning. Once it is in the hands of a director and actors and the rest of the creative team is when you really start to see what you have. It takes a village to make a good play, and that last step, of course, is to see how an audience responds. I have heard laughter, seen tears, and one of my favorite things to see as a playwright is when an engaged audience leans forward, physically, to make sure they are not missing a thing.
Some of the most encouraging praise has come from past and longtime residents of Boyle Heights who say the play has taken them back in time and sparked many great memories for them. I would say the biggest surprise when it comes to audience response is 20-something and grown ass men rolling up on me and excitedly telling me how much they enjoyed the love story at the heart of Rise. They are completely unashamed and that just makes me giggle and smile inside.
Nakasha: Putting this play together took a lot of research. What was your personal process like for researching Boyle Heights and the Black community from there?
Kimba: I am a nerd with a history degree, so I loved the research process. For this project, I was so fortunate to have had a wealth of documentaries and written material to draw from. Touring Evergreen Cemetery, The Japanese American Museum, and just spending time in Boyle Heights were also extremely helpful. Most vital was having past African-American Boyle Heights residents share their life experiences during the story circles. These intimate gatherings breathed so much life into the play. So many personal stories allowed me – as a writer who has never lived in Boyle Heights – to not just connect to the neighborhood intellectually but emotionally, as well.
Nakasha: Is there a moment during the play that has hit you differently now that you’ve seen what you’ve written performed on stage?
Kimba: I can’t say there is a moment that has struck me differently, but I can definitely say that seeing this play up on its feet has struck me more deeply. I have found myself emotionally moved and often shedding tears during many of the scenes. I didn’t cry when I was writing the play. It isn’t as if I am caught off guard or I don’t know what is going to happen. My intense emotional response is a testament to the brilliant work of all the actors and Lui Sanchez’s direction.
Nakasha: The character of Emmeline is at the center of your play. What made you decide to tell the story of her life in reverse?
Kimba: That choice is a whole long story in and of itself and was inspired by one of the lines in the play, “With progress there is always backlash.” When I first started writing Rise, I was angry about the intense pushback on reparations and affirmative action. People want to pretend that everything is fair and equal now and that the catastrophic legacy of slavery has somehow magically righted itself. There is a constant push by America’s dominant society to keep the status quo, and I wanted to show that by tracking something like housing discrimination. Within an early draft of the play, we learned that Proposition 14 on California’s 1964 ballot would allow people to refuse to rent, sell or lease to others based on race. It passed with 70% of the vote. Yet, as we go back in time, we’d see the 1963 Fair Housing Act, a 1948 landmark Supreme Court case won by Thurgood Marshall, and several other legal actions should have stopped something like Proposition 14 from ever having been on a ballot. Eventually I realized I was more focused on making a point than telling a great story.
As I moved forward, I still held on to the reverse structure. I knew it was a great way to uncover the mystery of Emmeline’s resolve to remain in Boyle Heights, as the key to it lies in the past.
With Emmeline’s journey, scenes highlighting her later years are at the beginning of the play, and we learn about significant life events that have taken place by then. In later scenes, we get to experience and dig deeper into how those events happened and the decisions that led to them. The reverse structure is conducive to intimate and transformative character moments for Emmeline and many of the play’s other characters, and the unfolding mystery surrounding her provides the propulsive momentum vital to compelling storytelling.
Nakasha: You mentioned in a previous interview that this play is your love letter to Boyle Heights. What is the main thing you’re hoping the audience, especially those that are area residents, are taking away from it?
Kimba: The characters in Rise are quite diverse in regards to race and age. I hope that audiences see themselves, at least pieces of themselves represented and also that they are invested in the stories of those characters that are not like them. For current and past residents, I hope they feel a particular pride in and are encouraged by the beauty they had a hand in creating within this unique neighborhood.
Overall, I pray that even in these divided times, audiences will be inspired to create communities where diverse peoples can support and celebrate one another and thrive together.
“Rise” runs through November 5th at Company of Angels on Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm. For tickets and information, visit companyofangels.com
I just spent money I barely have on books I may never read.
I know I’m not alone in that. I, like many of my friends, have a wide range of books in my personal library. I take pride in my unique and extensive collection of Black plays! Y’all, it’s wild. Some of my anthologies, readers and books are first edition, out of print, and just good ass books. I’ve read a lot of them because of college. I still have almost every play I had to read in school. Because I had to read them and write about them, they all offered some critical perspective that I often find myself going back to. Sometimes I just read my written notes in them. That’s why I don’t do audiobooks like that; where do I put my lil notes at? Like I gotta keep my opinion to myself!? No. I read in conversation with the writer. And as a writer, when I write, I write to someone. I write in conversation. So I talk back in my books. I just love books so much. I’m that friend who will send you a book because you told me something kinda relevant 3 years ago in the bathroom at the club. A good book be having me so obsessed. Like when I read Assata by Assata Shakur. I for sure was at the DMV, beach, coffee shop, honestly anywhere I may have had to wait for more than 40 seconds, I was pulling that thang out, turning them pages rigorously. I just couldn’t get enough. I felt like I got to learn from Assta personally. Same with Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and The Delicacy of Embracing Spirals by MIMI tempest. These are books that had me reading cover to cover (which I do not do often).
But it wasn’t always that way for me. I’ve been reading Ntozake Shange’s Sing a Black Girl’s Song, a collection edited by Imani Perry (who also wrote the best autobiography about Lorraine Hansberry which is in my top 5) and she talks about how Shange grew up with books in her home. Her parents read and bought books for her to read too. Toni Morrison worked at the library when she was like 14. And got in trouble for reading more than she would work. Lorraine Hansberry was similar, very well read. August Wilson literally dropped out of middle school and educated himself at the library. He read everything. All my faves talk about all these good books they remember seeing on the shelves in their homes and engaging with at their local libraries. But not me. The only good book I remember in my home growing up was the good book. I remember my mom reading Fly Girl by Omar Tyree when that came out. She carried it with her everywhere she went and my sister got to read it after her. But not me. I was watching Moesha and Kenan and Kel. I swear the only thing I thought about in elementary school was how I was going to be on Nickelodeon. I wasn’t worried about no books. Mainly because, ya girl couldn’t read!
It’s wild, I know. I love books so much now but growing up, I had very low comprehension skills. Having ADHD is so distracting sometimes. And it made it hard for me to really understand written words. So during reading time, I just admired pictures. I always struggled in grade school. Teachers begged my mom to allow them to hold me back a grade, put me in special classes and send me to special schools (it was the 90’s so everything was special). But my mom wouldn’t let them. She’d be mad at me for not trying harder but she never let them hold me back.
It wasn’t until 7th grade in literature class when we were given the opportunity to have a pizza party if we all finished reading a book about a working poor family on the Southside of Chicago who wanted to move into a bigger home. At the time, my family was living with my paternal grandma and in total, there was about 13 of us in the 3 bedroom apartment (1.5 baths). And I never say no to pizza! So I read the first act and I remember loving it so much. How the words were laid out on the page made me feel smart. Every single time I turned the tiny page, I felt less… special. I remember no one in class taking it seriously but not me. I read every line. There were no pictures to look at, instead I saw a world I knew about.
I love reading now. And I wish I could say after that book in 7th grade I was one of those people who you always caught with a book in hand. But I didn’t. I got better. I did pick up Fly Girl, which felt like a rite of passage. And I did get heavily into the Bible in high school. But it was a very slow journey. But that journey eventually led me to a pen and paper. Allowing me to create worlds of my own.
I love that for me.
I’m on an airplane.
Time is shifting.
I close my eyes and I see the face of a woman I cannot name.
Here I am.
In an unfamiliar room.
I open my eyes and I remember my granny
Addie Mae Brown.
Now I’m sitting.
My breath — is all I hear in this dark theatre.
Fear has found me.
Quietly snuck upon my mind
reminding me that Black Women are often forgotten.
combusting in time // with time.
As I walk through crowded streets history begins to speak.
My bones remember names I cannot say aloud
My voice is unable to conjure stories left untold.
So I shadowbox old thoughts as I try to speak the names of women unknown—
yet who look like me. And still go unseen.
What happens to a Black Woman when she goes without care?
piecing together new memories // carrying old memories
as I seek a sustainable life.