All posts by Leelee Jackson

Pessimistic Hope for the Future of Theatre

by Leelee Jackson

I’m really scared I won’t be able to do what I want to do in theatre. I know it sounds crazy but I have high expectations for the impact theatre has on people as well as the shape of the future. I grew up in a Black baptists church and that was my first real experience in theatre. Rev preaching, often going off book depending on the energy (or holy ghost) of the church. The choir serving as chorus, preparing the way for the Lord to lead. It was all so dramatic when it needed to be, gentle/ wise/ joyous/holy. Just like how I feel when I watch plays. Cathartic. I loved that shit. Watching sista Yolanda shout in short dresses and high heels was my favorite part. Sometimes her booty would show a little or her bra. I always wondered what she was going through to make her shout that way. I wondered if her man left her or if her daughter didn’t come home. Like, sis had character development down and it all was displayed from the pews. It was her role and my favorite character no doubt. Staged and organic.

I don’t feel like that when I watch plays that often. And I mean, I’d be foolish to believe every play should (or even could) offer me the Black baptist experience (like the broadway musical The Color Purple for reference of it being done in mainstream). What makes this sort of gospel theatre so special to me is the call and response, the audience playing a role in the play as well. Sometimes at theatre engagements, I’m the only one laughing and showing any form of human life in the audience. I’ve been asked to keep quiet in theatre spaces from being too loud and carrying on during musical numbers as if I was in church and not in a chair that’s way too small for my ass and cost me 35+ dollars to sit in. All to pretend I’m not even there. 

I write with the church in mind (and I’m not even religious). One of my favorite memories was during a performance of my one act play Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like a Slave) in LA a few years back, when my partner’s grandma walked right across the stage during the show to go to the restroom. Or during another show a few years before when the producer announced my play “by Leelee Jackson,” my brother shouted from the front row “YEEEE” (which is something we say where I’m from to show love and support or to say I see you). I love that shit. I like to call it the second show, the play that happens in the audience during/around the performance. 

I keep the second show in mind when I write. I remember being young and watching the Tyler Perry Madea plays on bootleg dvd’s when we didn’t have cable (which was often). The auditorium was full of Black people watching something that was written with them in mind. Spoke to them and held their attention. Stories that concerned them. That was so special to see at 13 years old. Not that I had a clue then that I would be a playwright but this familiarity of theatre that started from the church made it resonate. My aunty went to a Tyler Perry live play once and she said that during one of the songs, “The audience drowned out the actors.” She went on to say how the experience there was different from watching the dvd’s and before I had even been to a live musical theatre experience like that, I knew she was right. That kind of spirit/energy/engagement is so special. I feel it in my plays when I’m writing them. How to engage with the audience instead of pretending they aren’t there. I live for it. And I want to participate in theatrical practices that are concerned with the audience reflecting the characters portrayed on stage. Ugh, it gets me so upset that well funded theatre with a certain caliber of “excellence” is often withheld from the characters who are reflected in the play. One time my full-length play The Shit Show had a reading in LA that I couldn’t attend because I could not afford to go (they didn’t offer me a comp). That’s wild to me.

I’m really scared I won’t be able to see what I want to see in theatre arts. I keep seeing this vision of theatre outside the white gaze. Outside of white influence/imagination/expectation. Outside of what we have had to indulge in for the sake of “fine arts” even if it had nothing to do with our mothers and fathers. I picture alternative theatrical spaces that goes out to those whose lives are reflected in the play. I know of plenty of smaller community theatre spaces committed to uplifting theatre in marginalized spaces (some who have produced my work) so I know it exists and that kind of theatre makes me so full and feel so seen. I want a future where those spaces are created and paid attention to and well funded. Spaces who keep the audience in mind as well as the characters/people who are centered in the work.

I don’t know if I’ll get to see a future where this is the dominant theatrical narrative. I’m trying now and it’s hella hard. Getting funding/attention/community support is very hard when everyone wants you to write/be like Hamilton (which I’d NEVER do). I want my plays to live on in those spaces. I want to live where every play in my community reflect me and those in the community. Less attention to the big ass theaters who aren’t assessable or concerned with the working and working poor communities. It feels like an uphill battle and I have no idea if there’s anything on the other side or just me dreaming something that ain’t real.

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

Kitchen Sink Trauma

by Leelee Jackson

I’ve always  hated the  term Kitchen Sink Realism. Not that I  hate the plays that fall under the category but that’s not my reality. I keep coming  back to this hard truth. The reality that I am a person who has lost love over dirty dishes. It is the most embarrassing reality I’ve had to face in my adult life, and I’ve endured some major failures. But this by far towers over them all. 

So I want to write about it. 

I used to consider myself a pretty clean person. It was clearly subjective, because of course I think that, I’m supposed to think that. No one’s ever like, “i’m hella dirty, lol, wanna live together?” That would be stupid. But over the years I’ve learned that being clean (or not so clean) is not only subjective, it can also be a response to trauma. 

If you grew up in a working poor family and identify as a person of color, being home alone might feel  like a for real luxury, because growing up, rarely ever was the home empty. Cousin need a place to crash until they can get back on they feet and there’s a couch and shelf in a closet so there’s space. Uncle just got out of prison and grandma begged your parents to take him in because her house is full and the foster people don’t allow former convicts in the house with kids anyways. Brother got his  girlfriend pregnant and her parents kicked her out. And the babies sleep in the other room gon be there until we find where they mama or daddy is. 

I grew up  with at first two working parents, and then just 1. As my father’s physical health declined, he was forced to leave the workforce and remain on disability for a great portion of my life. From ages 11 until 23, I saw my  dad cook, clean everything (or yell at us for not cleaning everything) and watch grandbabies. I was fortunate  to get to see him in that way. See him all the time at home, watching tv. Even with  my dad being at home all the time,  we (whoever was living there) was expected to clean up after ourselves. Though, we did not. 

The year was 1998. I was was 9 and my sister was 11. My grandmother fostered a kid who was between the age of my sister and I and at the time, we lived in my maternal grandma’s house, with  a bunch of uncles and cousins. And of course, we were responsible for cleaning the kitchen. In my family, cleaning the kitchen is washing the dishes, every single one of them, cleaning the counters and stove top, sweeping and mopping the floor and taking out all the trash. Nothing should be left out. Nothing should be sticky. My paternal grandma, she didn’t play the whole dishes in the sink game. She didn’t play none that dirty shit. I honestly loved going over my grandma’s house in Oakland (paternal) partly because she let us eat whatever we wanted and I never had to clean the dishes. But my maternal grandmother cooked every meal and with so many people living in one house, the dishes quickly piled, spilling out the sink onto the countertop and floor like a neglected infection. From breakfast to lunch, it would look like a restaurant scene in a movie where the caught dine and dashers have to roll up their sleeves and bust some suds. And every evening, guess who had to clean it? The preteens. Not my brothers and older cousins who were in high school at the time, and not my little cousins who were too young to clean right. The big kids. Personally, as a 31 year old, I wouldn’t trust a 9 year old to clean dishes right. And I didnt! I would throw away dirty dishes to avoid cleaning them and not bother to even rinse off the stubborn fruity pebbles before I put the bowl in the dishwasher (yes I grew up with dishwashers) which doesn’t clean but santizes. I left all tupperware in the sink to “soak” and I’d always have to redo the dishes in the morning for doing such a bad job in the evening. And still, I was expected to do a good job. But this one time, my sister was washing, I was rincing, and Sean, (the fostered 10 year old boy) was supposed to be putting the dishes away and wiping down the counters, helping. But he was in the den with the bigger kids talking about some, “clean my dishes woman” and all them foo’s was laughing and carrying on. My sister was so mad. She said, “As soon as I finish this last dish, Ima just take off on him.” I was going much slower then she was and had already thrown away a few knives anyways so I didn’t care too much that he wasn’t helping. I knew my grandma was gonna give him a whoopin for showing out like that. I couldn’t wait to tell. But my sister was serious. After tossing the last fork in the murky rinse water,  with soap up to her elbows, she went in there and beat his ass. I remember her shadow from the  den,  bleeding  in the  kitchen like a Kara Walker art  piece that made you feel pain and pleasure.  And all the big kids laughing at Sean getting whopped by a girl. She beat that boy so bad, my grandma had to take him to the hospital. 

After moving out of my grandmas house (that time) we got a little two bedroom apartment. I have 7 brothers and sisters. At any given moment, with cousins, friends and girlfriends, we would have up to 13 people staying with us at one time. Again, a lot of dirty dishes. My parents tried to assign days and weeks but it didn’t  work. They’d come home to not one clean cup to drink water from. They would go off on one of my brother’s and he would go off on me. Toss me around. Force me in the kitchen and block the entry way until I cleaned every dish. I’d throw things at him and punch him as hard as I could but he wouldn’t budge and he wouldn’t let me out until I had to take out the trash (again, full of dirty dishes). And no matter how many times they told us not to at church, I knew then what hate felt like. I hated being in that kitchen, screaming and crying until I lost my voice. And I hated my brother for forcing me to stay there. 

My sister and I often reminisce about our first apartment together, “I hated living with you. You never cleaned the kitchen.”I argue with her and tell her that it’s not true. That I would clean the kitchen all the time and didn’t have a problem with cleaning it and she retorts “when you feel like it. NOT when it needs to get done.” which is true. I don’t like to be forced, (ya think?!) but I didn’t have the language then to explain  something as simple and real as my feelings. 

Later in life, my housemate at the time (and my favorite cousin on my dad side) would talk to me often about cleaning up after myself. She would never yell or anything but I’d get really anxious and start accidently breaking dishes and scrubbing them really fast and hard to the beat of my heart. 

In undergrad, I had a housemate  who brother lived with us on campus. She would clean up after him and sometimes we let the dishes get crazy (no dishwasher). I remember calling a house meeting to strategize what would work best and she just started cleaning everything all the time. I think she felt bad that her brother was kind of messy and he was living there rent free. So she went into overdrive and became really clean and particular about everything. He moved out after the first quarter and I felt like it was because of me, or she felt like it was because of me. But instead of talking about it, she just got upset when I left dishes in the sink or smoked on the balcony or had friends over. But it was all taken out on the dishes that I didn’t clean. 

For a long time, I thought I was just lazy. That’s all I had known lazy was, a person who didn’t clean up after themselves. I accepted but I didn’t feel like a lazy person. Maybe messy, but not lazy. I had issues with being told or forced to clean up after myself. When I lived in an international housing community for a few years, we also had days of the week where one person was responsible for cleaning the kitchen (though we all were responsible for taking care of our dishes and our guest dishes). It sometimes worked and sometimes it didn’t. Maybe I had finals and wouldn’t even think about doing my day, or a different housemate who was a teacher, would not even bring her dirty dishes from her car the first few weeks of the school year. So we didn’t expect her to clean the kitchen and because there were 6 to 7 people living there, we were pretty flexible. It often got dirty but never too dirty, restaurant dirty. Every Monday evening after dinner, we all cleaned the kitchen together. All of us. One washing, one drying, one collecting dirty dishes and one putting away the leftover food. We would all clean the kitchen and I never felt angry, or hate or forced. I honestly felt good. Whenever I go over a friend’s house, I always offer to clean the kitchen, like I want to do it. I love serving them in that way, especially after I ate all they food. I didn’t feel lazy then. But I felt lazy in my home. 

Lazy- feeling your heartbeat out your chest and being so exhausted with the thought of being in the kitchen that you need to sleep it off for a while. Work up some courage. 

I didn’t have the language then to know that I was responding to a traumatic experience over and over again. It wasn’t until my last housemate (and one of my best friends) moved out and though he didn’t tell me, I know it was partially because of how fucked up the kitchen would get and for how long it remained that way. I’d sometimes wake up in a panic, feeling  like I needed to clean the kitchen before he saw it, just to see that he cleaned it already. I hated that he cleaned the kitchen, I mean I was grateful he was doing something I didn’t (and sometimes couldn’t) do, but in a way I felt like that was a soapy fist to my jaw. I’d swear to myself it wouldn’t happen again, like a triflin man trying to get back with his girl after breaking what’s left of her heart, “baby please, I won’t do it no mo’!”…until I do. 

My housemates had nothing to do with my trauma, though I can see how they must have felt disrespected by my lack of action. Maybe even like I was trying to attack them personally when I was just trying to defend myself. I had no clue. I didn’t mean to. I  honestly just thought I was lazy. 

In a workshop I attended led by poet Morgan Parker, as a writing prompt, she asked us to write about the room we were in. It could be any room from any time and we  had to write a poem about it. What it looks like. How it smells. I was transported to the hall leading to the kitchen I was trapped in as a child. All the doors were shut and the black trash bags of dirty clothes enveloped me. It  smelled like mildew. The only  safety was the  kitchen. A tiny window on the wall for fresher air. I thought I’d rather be here, but I should have known. 

Trauma is the worst! My friends who I lived with, who I don’t talk to anymore and who I once called love, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for my trauma to get on you. I’ve always hated the term kitchen sink realism anyways. They say it  as if kitchen is a neutral location. A place where women gossip and men eat and ponder big  decisions. But what about the fights that broke out over  stained pots and pans? The punches thrown with no resolution? After the food’s gone and the audience has left, who’s  stuck with the mess? 

I have so many stories that flood my memory about  fights breaking out over in the kitchen  or  over some dirty dishes.  First fights  and screaming matches that on stage would feel like a  bad play  you wanna  get out of. I don’t have a healthy solution. Other than writing and  going to therapy, I often have to remind myself that if I do it wrong or later, I won’t be punished. I ask for help if I need it and try not to get upset. I put on music and dance, liberating my body’s inner child and soaking last night’s dinner plate, telling her, “see it aint so bad sometimes.”. Decolonizing the space and my body that has to be there.  

I Miss Going to the Theatre

I miss going to the theatre. 

I hella be reminding myself of the last performance I went to live. Little Shop of Horrors at Pasadena Playhouse with MJ Rodriguez (POSE) and Amber Riley (GLEE). That was October 2019. I can’t even account for missing Parable of the Sower and Talents at UCLA which happened right at the beginning of the pandemic lock in ( I couldn’t go because I couldn’t justify spending the money- parking, tickets, gas and so on was looking at about $150 for a date night with boo thang, but also excessive). Today, I regret not going. I heard it was amazing. I’m worried I won’t have another opportunity to see it again. Or any live performance for that matter. 

I miss going to the theatre. 

Buying themed drinks that never get me drunk. Leaving right before the talkback to have a real talk-back in the parking lot- in safe company of course. Inviting my friends to come with me whose only experience in theatre are liturgical plays. Seeing what they thought about the lights and the set and other things they wouldn’t have had an opportunity to think about had they not been invited fulfills me. Theatre offers community, perspective, and insight to future possibilities, especially shows like Parable of the Sower and Talents which is about surviving the future. And though I can produce and direct the shit out of a stage reading, as my sister Naynay tells me, “It’s just different with all the design elements.” I agree. Sometimes for me, it’s knowing that the cast and crew have worked their ass off on the show for months that were full of meetings, rehearsals, auditions, and the show! 4-12 week run, 3-4 shows a week and each performance different than the one before. AHHHHH I miss it so much. 

I miss going to the theatre. 

But I for sure don’t miss the casual racism I often experienced at the theatre. White people laughing at Ms. Celie being called ugly, or white women expecting me to cry (performatively) when slave owners kill their slaves, or being asked for my ticket 38 times before I reach my seat. I don’t miss watching shit that doesn’t care if me or people who look like me are reflected in the show because we aren’t the target audience. 

I don’t miss not being considered an expert in the field, even after being a published and an award winning playwright. I have my MFA in writing for the performing arts and interned at one of the largest LORT’s in Los Angeles (Center Theatre Group). I’ve had a feature reading of my one act play, the first one act I ever wrote with no revisions made, performed at the Kennedy Center, our country’s national theatre. I spend most of my spare time reading and refreshing my memory of important Black theatrical practices to sharpen my skills for sport. I’m an expert dammit! Though I miss seeing plays live, I do not miss the culture of the theatre scene who constantly reminds us that their love and respect for our work is conditional (with monetary value and bragging rights of course) and has nothing to do with Black people. UGH! I know I’m not alone here. 

I don’t miss theatre culture. 

I didn’t need for another Black person to die at the hands of state power to see that theatre companies don’t give a shit about us. It wasn’t their silence or lack of change in leadership that told me but one look at their staff and season lineup and it’s clear. It bothers me and it has been bothering me for some time now. It bothered me in community college when I asked the director of the department if we could do Ruined by Lynn Nottage and she claimed we didn’t have the people for it (without ever looking). It bothers me come February, when my story is all of a sudden “important” and need to be shared, just in time for Black History Month. As a playwright, it all messed with my head and made me feel like I’m not good enough or working hard enough on my craft. I would compare myself with young Black playwrights who are winning the game right now like Michael Jackson (2020 Pulitzer Prize winner of Drama for hit musical A Strange Loop), Jermey O. Harris (Slave Play) and Jocelyn Bioh (School Girls, Or the African Mean Girls Play). I’d be hella hatin’ on them like “It’s because they went through the white institutional canons of literature like Columbia and TISH.” followed by anger that my university did not get my shit on Broadway and then embarrassment, that I was salty in the first place of those whom work I cherish and value. Then I start blaming myself again… I’m no good. 

I started reading an anthology on the Black Arts Movement (BAM) some time last year and it really brought me out of this theatrical funk. Amari Baraka, founder of the movement, felt the same way back in the 60’s. Inspired by Malcom X and John Coltrane (the way I’m inspired by Dr. Sadiya Hartman and rapper Noname) BAM was born. Baraka was exhausted of the limited range of Black art that can only exist under the thumb of oppressors. He knew his work had value that was being overlooked because of it’s radical anti-state political messages that sought to make theatre goers uncomfortable (as racism made him feel). BAM is my shit though. It realigned my mission and really forced me to ask myself what I wanted as a playwright. Do I want to make a career out of being on Broadway/Off Broadway and becoming as big-time as I can be? Do I want to eradicate white supremacy from Black art? What can I do to ensure future survival using my power as a creative and my writing as a weapon, foundation and testimony? Today, a lot of people never even heard of BAM though will praise the art that emerged from it (Soul of a Nation art exhibit which is full of visual art that emerged from BAM or inspired by it, placed in museums that once considered such work intolerable with no mass appeal). Poets, playwrights, actors, painters and so many other fine artists gathered to seek refuge and peace with like minded company of their time and more than anything, that’s what I want: artistic community. 

Developing Black Light Arts Collective (BLAC) has been the most rewarding experience of my life. The goal is to put on plays that centers a Black audience. Host learning engagements that centers a Black audience. Read and engage with work that centers a Black audience. It’s so specific and doesn’t have to call for BIPOC participation because we are BIPOC, mostly B. I’m so proud of the collective and what we are doing and who we are becoming. We launched on June 19th (Juneteenth) 2020 with a rewritten virtual performance of my one act play Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like a Slave) directed by Chicago hotshot Kyra Jones, who later partnered with collective member and young Hollywood professional screenwriter Angelica Rowell for a Pilot Writing workshop where 30 Black folks participated to strengthen their craft. We hosted a phenomenal poetry workshop with published living icon Morgan Parker who offered wisdom and new work to the community (where they also received Parker’s book of poetry Magical Negro for attending the workshop for free). We are currently preparing for winter with workshops that centers sustaining mental healthiness during the holidays with a team of mental health professionals who are also artists. This january, we will host a free workshop led by the creative nonfiction mastermind, Hanif Abdurraqib (where we will also offer free resources). We are launching our first zine collection at the end of October where we gathered some of the most electrifying work by local Black artists to speak on the 5 human senses and honestly, it’s the bomb (like y’all need to be sure to get a copy when it’s out for real, for real). To keep my passion for theatre and all Black art ignited, I co-host a weekly radio show on Radio Tirado with my good friend and theatre expert Erika Alejanndra called New Black Math. Named after the famous essay by Suzan Lori Parks, each week we discuss Black theatre and the ways in which we fit in and want to stand out. It’s my favorite thing to do right now.   

I miss the theatre. 

But more importantly, I miss the possibilities of it’s creativity being fully unleashed and shared amongst marginalized people groups, saying “I see you, shit I am you,” offering itself as a sacrifice of love and reflections.

Art is powerful in that way.

I need that.

More Archival Notes on a Global Pandemic

by Leelee Jackson

Before mandated self quarantine, I was already a homebody, which can be alarming to most people because I come off very charismatic and social. I ask questions in panel discussions and volunteer for my work to be read first in workshops. I dance hard at nightclubs and sing loud at musicals. I take my food back when it’s not what I ordered and ask to speak to a manager when I’m not being treated well. After all, I am an Aries ram. A wall is nothing but a challenge, an obstacle I will run though headfirst (often with very little consideration). Energy is in me. And yet, that does not make me an extravert. I’m a hard core introvert. As I’ve gotten older, I realized that I prefer to preserve my energy alone. I went from throwing big gatherings (for no reason at all) to inviting two or three friends over to watch The Office and talk about books we’re reading. During undergrad and grad school, I’d be fully engaged in the lecture, only to rush home immediately after class to watch The Office. After wedding ceremonies, I leave right after the cake is cut, pretending as if I had some big project to complete but really, I’m just rushing home to watch The Office. I need time with great tv and solitude.

However, that is all I have been doing for the past five weeks. I want to see a play. I want to produce a play. I want to go on a hike and meditate on a rock bigger than my apartment with my good friend Alicia. I want to go dancing with my housemates and go out eating with my friends. Go on a date to a museum or the movies. But I can’t do those things no more. No one can. It wasn’t until week 4 that felt it – the longing for social inclusion. At first, I didn’t understand what I was feeling to be honest. I thought I missed someone or a sweetness I haven’t tasted in a while. But even the taste of nectar couldn’t satisfy this lull. I wanted all the things I could not have and did not cherish when I had them. Was the last time I had them even memorable? I don’t know.

In yin yoga, Alica (aforementioned friend and yoga instructor) has us do this thing sometimes where we work our bodies for a while. No big movements but subtle moves in our cobra or cat/cows that we hold a few minutes longer than the other poses, long enough for our bodies to feel it and sometimes even work up a lil sweat. However the sweat is not the goal but what happens after. When I work my body to the point where she feels as if she cannot move any further, when there is no other option for her but to fall, give up, it is then when Alicia says my favorite release, “Now you can go ahead and settle into savasana.” This is the part when we lie on our yoga mats for deep restoration. “Allow your body to take up space.” And I do. I spread my arms and legs off the mat as if my limbs were actually wings. I lie there on the hardwood floor, grounded with the earth who offers solace and refuge.

I decided I’d go for a walk the other day. I didn’t feel like it, but I didn’t want to do anything and that feeling made me nervous. I didn’t want to lie in bed or watch tv or write or dance in my room. So I decided I’d do the thing I wanted to do the least, which that day was walking. I put on my face mask only enough to cover my mouth, so the moment I stepped out of my apartment and was slapped in the face with a smell so sweet, I could have gotten a sugar rush had it lingered even a second longer. But it sped by me so fast as if the sweet smell was also excited to be out of the house, too. It was familiar but I couldn’t even remember what kind of sweet it was. Vanilla? Citrus? Cinnamon? What was that smell and where the hell was it going? I continued, wondering what else I’d get to experience. This is a technique my therapist has been getting me to do lately. Acknowledging my senses and surroundings in order to stay grounded in the present. I walked south which is the path that is less than desirable. Hills to and fro. Unlike walking north, which is flat. Or east which is only a hill walking there, but walking home, I have to stop my body from being pushed by gravity to run home. My favorite path is walking west. It’s challenging enough with the hills and merciful with flat pavement at the exact right moments. But my senses led me south, where I spotted the prettiest white lily hiding in a bush. I took in her smell and was greeted with a kiss right on my nose. Prior to the introduction we had only seen each other in passing, not acquaintances or even strangers, yet now we’re friends. The sun was going down and I wanted to go home before cops started looking for trouble. But water called me. It was such a tease considering the fence that separates us but still, I gave the little creek my attention until the sun left us both.

What did it feel like now? Looking down on that pond and feeling the sun disappear, setting west down my skin? To now have to lean on the universe more than ever before, beckoning for energy I couldn’t muster on my own? The sun, the water, the smells and bugs I once swatted away, all still there with total integrity and the best of intentions all met me with grace and released me with energy when I needed it most: savasana.

Happy New Year!

by Leelee Jackson

Celeste once told me, “Leelee, your life change every week.” 

She said this after our sociology class when we learned about the perpetual violence of the prison industrial system and I said, “The reading for today’s lecture changed my life.” And it did. However, I hadn’t realized I said it so often but my dear friend (who listens to me even when I don’t listen to myself) picked up on this pattern. And it’s true, I do change a lot. I think my life changes every day. And to be honest, I enjoy that flexibility. Change is valuable. Change is good. That sounds common, chiche, easy, but it is so true. However, change is very hard. Sometimes, I want to change and can’t and other times, I don’t care to change yet I am completely transformed. The most consistent force of change I’ve experienced in my life (other than death) has to be reading. When I read a good ass book, article, or essay I start to think different and talk different and to me, it feels so damn good. I’m offered language and gain insight from someone else’s discovery of new and old worlds. I also gain insight to myself, insight that I would not have access to without spending intentional time with words. And it’s hard to change someone. Most people will say it’s impossible.

“You can’t make someone change if they don’t want to change.” 

But that’s not true! I’ve approached books as skeptic, critic. Prepared to find error with all the skills I paid handsomely for in the university. I’m never trying to change, I just do. I didn’t read as a child. To be honest, I didn’t know how to read. I would remember books by heart. Books like The Stinky Cheeseman. I’d study every page intensely, grateful for illustrations (and it’s a paradoy picture book about how stupid fairytales are, even for kids). I remembered each story from times teachers or daycare staff read it out loud (after I demanded of course). But I don’t have strong memories of reading the words myself until I came across the book as an adult. I didn’t know how to read. Not really. I could read words but in 3rd grade, I read at a 1st grade level and my comprehension was shot. It was so bad my parents figured I better get checked out. They weren’t sure if I was just actin’ up in class or if this was serious. I was diagnosed with ADHD. That explained why it was so hard for me to hold information. Why I would struggle to read a sentence out loud and forget it as the words escaped my mouth. Gone, as if it were never there. 

And then it happened. 

13 years old, I met Lorraine. 

It was in Oakland California at Calvin Simons Middle school. Though the copy of A Raisin in the Sun had no photos, I remember deviating from my normal group of friends and retreated to a desk in the back. This class was like Sister Mary Clarence’s music class from Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit  but before she turned it around. It was wild. But I found something… someone. And she had changed me. I have no idea why I took to that book more seriously than the others our english teacher tried to get us to read. It would be another 9 years before I picked up a different  play (Doubt by John Patrick Shanley). I had no relationship to theatre at the time nor had I ever read a book on my own. But, Hansberry demands attention and I had no choice but to give it to her. 

ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder 

She achieved what I had been told was impossible. She held me and my deficiencies and showed me I’m wasn’t alone. I can be alright even when things ain’t… alright. At the time, me and my family were living with my grandmother and cousins. A bunch of us slept on the floor in the small three bedroom apartment. In total, there were 9 of us there and this book gave me the space I needed at that time. I read about a family who lived with family. No space, but the 5 of them still managed to have hope, dreams and love for one another. I remember reading some of the scenes faster than others because I wanted to get to the parts with Beneatha. I wanted to be Beneatha so damn bad. My hair, like hers was thick, course, nappy and there was something about her acts of resistance that drew me in and reminded me that it is okay to claim the nappy. Embrace the nappy. That nappy hair is okay. 

Even if you’re judged for it. 

Change is good. 

Most recently, I’ve been changed by Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and now I’m preparing myself for the revolution and apocalypse.  I’m currently being changed by both Gloria Anzaldùa’s book Borderlands La Frontera the New Mestiza and SOS- Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement reader. I take it personal that all of this work was not only created for me to enjoy, but also to grow, learn, and forever be changed. 

Establishing Boundaries

This relationship is difficult.  
The one between you and I. 

And I know I’m supposed to be used to it by now. I’m all over the internet. It would take so little effort for you to find a baby photo of me just by typing my name in a search engine. It’s unsettling that now I have a consistent platform to express thoughts and I suddenly can’t think of anything to write, which never happens. Something’s wrong. I must be suppressing myself or thinking too much or just uncomfortable but either way, there is something in me that feel the way I did as a child. Confronted by my mother or father and afraid to tell the truth with fear of getting my ass beat or worse, shamed… so I’d lie. 

That is the feeling you evoke in me because even though you may know me you don’t know me like that. 

No one does. 

Not even me. 

I’m not a child no more though. I don’t have to lie to get my way, I have words now. Words that I did not have access to when I could have used them way back when. But communication is a luxury I do not take for granted. That is why I said yes to the opportunity to write on this public form alongside a community of very talented writers who have deep thoughts and something to offer. I have to make an active choice to believe that I too have something to offer. That I deserve a seat at the table. 

But you must understand something, I’ve sat at a lot of tables that were unstable with chairs that can’t hold me. Opportunities that I worked hard to be invited to just to get there and realize that it’s not cracked up to what I thought it would be. I have to approach tables with apprehension and chairs with suspicion just because of who I am. 

Black. 

Fat. 

Queer. 

Anxious. 

Some of you can imagine the pressure I must be under all the time. A seat at the table has the capacity to sucks the life out of m when everyone wants a sip, a bite, a nugget of knowledge.Wanting me and not wanting me at the same damn time. But I don’t grow on trees.

I am the tree. 

And before we move on in our relationship it’s important to establish boundaries. I need you to know that to cut me down is a threat to the entire earth and humankind. And yes, the wood provides. The dining table, chairs and a crackling fire to keep you warm, but I’m not ready to be cut. 

So I ask that you are patient with me. I will be using this platform to share plays that I write, thoughts that I have, and most importantly, to wander. 

APPROACH WITH CAUTION!

by Leelee Jackson