All posts by Leelee Jackson

Books I Loved in 2023 

by Leelee Jackson

Happy New Year! 

As I look back on 2023, I want to share a list of books that inspired and got me through the year. They aren’t in any particular order. 

  1. The Art and Practice of Spiritual Herbalism by Karen Rose 

I ended 2022 and started 2023 with Karen Rose The Art and Practice of Spiritual Herbalism: Transform, Heal, and Remember with the Power of Plants and Ancestral Medicine. I often refer to this book as one that saved my life. At the time, I felt really lost and uninspired. Heavy with grief, I committed to reading a page a day. It was easy to commit to one page because of all the illustrations. The way the book is written feels like my aunty or OG who cares about me is talking to me, sharing something really important. After reading this book from cover to cover, I was able to walk away with a generous amount of tools that have helped me balance my emotions and process my deep feelings throughout the year. 

  1. Fat Ham by James Ijames 

Although this play is a reimagining of Hamlet, it’s so much better to me! I was skeptical at first because of my personal disdain of Shakespere, however, I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy every bit of Fat Ham. It reminded me of a Tyler Perry play versus Shakespere. I say that with a high regard of respect and admiration. I grew up on Perry’s plays in my home. However, I have no memories of my family gathering to watch Taming of the Shrew live on PBS; but we went out of our way to find Madea’s “Family Reunion” from the bootleg man. The comedy in Fat Ham was so strong, I would burst out laughing as I was reading it. By the time I got to the end, my jaw was on the floor. No spoilers but gurl…

  1. Sing a Black Girl’s Song edited by Imani Perry 

My friend told me one time “Leelee,  yo life change every week!” But for real, both Imani Perry and Ntozake Shange are women who have changed my life. This anthology of the unpublished collected writings of Shange has allowed for me to feel so seen/heard/felt in my mental health. I’m taken back by Shange’s audacity. The hyper awareness of her own mental state was profound. She’d write so clearly about matters such as anxiety, grief, trauma and depression in a way that was poetic but not romantic. Perry was able to carefully gather parts of Shange and piece them together with a lot of love and the utmost respect. I have a more well-rounded understanding of who She was as a person/artist/performer/Black woman/scholar/author because of this book. I’m grateful.  

  1. Parable of the Sower Graphic Novel written by Octavia Butler Illustrations by John Jenniggs 

Although I’ve already read the non-illustrated novel many years ago, reading the graphic novel gave me a visual and unique reading experience that I didn’t get the first time. The graphic novel offers a picture that allows for the already beautiful text to have movement and texture. I was met with a lot of fear and anxiety however. Sower takes place in a fictional Southern California city called Robledo that is somewhere Inland of the non-fictional, Los Angeles. The portrayal of familiar buildings, bridges and freeways ruined and on fire woke me up in a way I didn’t have to with the original text. My biggest takeaway was not only that “god is change” but also how essential community is to ensure real survival. 

  1. Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury 

This play has been a part of my archive for many years. And the first time I started reading it, I couldn’t get through the first few pages. At the time, I was so over the whole “let’s have a party and talk about race” plot. I was bored with the conflict that presented itself in the first few pages. Uninterested in the characters. But I picked it up again and gave it a fair-read and discovered that the first act was supposed to make me feel that way. The second act turns the  audience viewpoint backstage and we drop in on a conversation with the other half of the cast (white) who are having a conversation on what race they’d prefer to be if they weren’t  white. The play turns in on itself in this fascinating and unique way that made me interested and invested in the narrative. By the time I was near the end, I couldn’t guess what was going to happen rather than accept it. 

  1. The Delicacy of Embracing Spirals by Mimi Tempestt

This was the most exhilarating book of poetry I’ve ever read. As it takes on beautiful pros that center the personal life of the writer, it also incorporates pleasure, play and spiritualism that makes each piece feel different from the last. The second act is a play on poems (or the poetry of play) and incorporates monologues and scenes. I call it a punk rock poetry experience that doesn’t fail to speak to the personal as loudly as it does the universal. Tempestt is a master at talking shit and backing it up; calling out the university, publishing companies as well as other poets and how they pander to the white gaze. I’m a bolder writer because of my engagement with this work of art. 

Have you read any of these books? What books are on your reading list for 2024? 

Notes on Reading

by Leelee Jackson

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. 

Notes on Creative Writing 

by Leelee Jackson

I love writing! 

I specifically love playwriting. 

I’ve tried to write pilots and short/feature length films but other than the fact that I suck at it, I always find myself going back to the stage. I love writing plays because the boundaries of the stage allow for my imagination to run wild.

If I say a chair is a car, the audience just believes it’s a car. You don’t even need a steering wheel. You don’t even need a chair. You can have the actor sitting on a box and saying something along the lines of  “This uber stinks!”And now the audience knows we are in a stanky uber. It’s so simple. I love it. Even the rules can be broken. I love everything about theatre. 

A few weeks ago I started posting these one acts about online dating. I took a break from writing my full length play to have fun and write about something that didn’t need a lot of structure or explaining. I loved how people responded to them on social media and so I just wanted to share them with you all. I hope these pieces make you laugh.

cultivating BLAC

by Leelee Jackson

Hi Readers! 

As we approach the new year, the nonprofit I’m a part of (Black Light Arts Collective- BLAC) is excited to kick programming into full gear.  For the past two and a half years, we’ve been passionately cultivating BLAC and we’re pushing to raise $75,000 to take programming to the next level. One way we are doing that is by selling merchandise which is available on our website. Your support will sustain a generous amount of opportunities for Black artists to succeed both in California and Internationally. For more information on giving, please visit https://www.blacklightartscollective.com/shop

These art pieces were created by the phenomenal Leila Victorin, Haitian-American, Michigan-based painter who uses art as a way to understand her place in the world and to talk about representation and connection in light of her own Black experience. It’s a well known fact that 

This piece was designed to showcase the community built between playwright Lorraine Hansberry, writer James Baldwin and singer Nina Simone. The three of them were good friends and debated theory and politics together over drinks and smokes. Nina Simone wrote a song honoring Lorraine Hansberry (To Be Young, Gifted and Black). Lorraine Hansberry once said “Jimmy Baldwin is arguably the greatest writer of our time.” Baldwin would sometimes share his work with Hansberry in it’s early stages to see what she thought. The love and opinions shared between these three is noteworthy and manifested in the quality of their craft.

For more on the three of them, check out Looking for Lorraine; The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry.

Notes on Converting an Unbeliever

by Leelee Jackson

This past March, I celebrated my 33rd birthday. After losing my mother in early January I thought a lot about mortality. How we live our lives and who we live them with became more urgent and precious to me. I wanted to do something I love with the people I love.

When I meet other Black people within my general age range I’m always asked what I studied in school and when I tell them I got my degree in playwriting, the conversion almost always goes as follow – 

Them: Ohhh so you be doing plays like Tyler Perry?

Me: Yeah, just like Tyler Perry minus the budget. Do you like going to see plays?

Them: Not really. I mean I haven’t really seen any plays like that. I know this don’t count but, one time I was in a play at my church. But that don’t count. It was just at church thing that’s not really theater. 

Me: That DO count!!! It IS theater! 

Rather it’s a church, school or if they randomly saw a flash mob, I get all excited talking to someone about their live theater history. But I also get really annoyed right after. The association with theater being reserved and defined by Broadway musicals is deeply concerning. I spend a lot of time talking with homies and helping  reshape/redefine what theater is by thinking broadly about who it’s for, where it’s located and how it’s presented. I’m grateful for Tyler Perry Madea plays because it serves as a solid foundation to build on. More often than not, we participate in a shared lived experience centering his theatrical work where they remember watching the bootleg Madea DVD’s at they cousin’s house just like I did with my cousins back then. And sitting with the whole family laughing, crying and saying who in the room be acting like each character in the play, just like we did. And then reciting it to each other the next day at school during lunch period. I explain to them that that’s the exact kind of impact theater has on people when it’s written with intention, centering marginalized people groups as the core audience. 

Theater defined by what’s on Broadway limits the possibilities of art and culture. Because who really has access to that? It’s not cheap and it’s often not advertised in cities with larger populations of Black and brown folks. But Madea never made it to Broadway nor is the franchise ever considered theater in performing art spaces (during my 8 years studying theater in accademia, only once was his name ever brought up. It was in grad school. I brought it up) but his contribution to theater serves as a gateway to Black culture is prize winning in my opinion. But this isn’t about him. It’s about creating access to theater for everyone and what’s gained from the experience that is offered by the art form. 

After getting a postcard in the mail to Shotgun Theater’s 2022/23 season, I just about fainted when I saw one of my favorite musicals would be featured, Passing Strange by Stew. The original live recording film was directed by Spike Lee and starred the playwright as the narrator (which is the one I saw that made me fall in love with the play). At first I thought I’d just invite two of my friends who really liked musicals. But that low key felt like gatekeeping. I don’t know if my friends would like a musical or not but the only way to find out was to extend an invitation. For most of my close friends their most current live theater experience has been one of my productions. And they come as a supportive friend and I love that. But my work also can’t single handedly define theater either. It’s a shared love. So my Aries ass jotted down the names of 22 people who I wanted to spend time with. I personally invited them to celebrate turning 33 with a live musical production. I wasn’t even scared or sad if everyone said no because I would have enjoyed it even if I went alone (something I do often). But people came out. It was lit. 

And it does not have to be a big group. Inda Craig-Galván’s play A Hit Dog Will Holler had a run at Playwrights Arena. I purchased two tickets for the Black out night, not knowing at all who I’d invite. But I knew I wouldn’t be going alone. I reached out to my homegirl Sydney and she was so excited to go. She hadn’t been to any in person show since the pandemic erupted and that was hard for her as a performer. She also works diligently in policy change for LGBTQ people. This play is about an activist who has a chronic fear of leaving her home. Syd was the perfect person to see this show with, for she can fully understand the strain political work can have on a person’s mental health, especially when you are of the demographic you are advocating human rights for. 

We had hella fun too. After the show was over we grabbed dinner and sat and talked in length about how relatable the play was and what we loved most about it. The conversation seamlessly transitioned into one about us and our own mental health. I’m always grateful to Inda’s work. It tends to have that effect on Black womxn. Her work and the work of others that write in a way where it clearly concerns Black people offers visibility to the full self and revelation. That’s the good theater is made of and everyone is entitled to that feeling. Not just those who have participated in Broadway.

I hope that you can all consider how to fold in (dare I say convert) people in your lives who may not know there’s a theater space for them to enjoy and be centered. 

My Mother; My Muse

I lost my dad on May 12, 2017, right before I graduated from undergrad which he was hella proud of. My mother transitioned January 1st, 2022, yeah, a few weeks ago. That shit was like being hit with two deaths at once since my mother was helping me grieve my father’s death. I don’t think I’ll ever have the words to explain how different my life is now or how sad I am. But before my parents passed away, they both got to see my plays. They were actually my biggest supporters. They’d drive from anywhere during any weather to see my work. My mom was always my muse. Like if you read all my plays, you’d see different versions of her that represent different stages of her life. I don’t often write about men, but when I do there is always a character that has strong Rickey Jackson traits. Normally a gentle man. My mom got to see the play I wrote about them in 2019. It was so special. She went up to a cast member and was like “You was playin’ me!” all happy and smiling from ear to ear. Eyes glossy from the tears she was holding back. I miss my mama. She was truly a remarkable woman. I’m so grateful I got to have her as my mother and my muse. 

Here is a picture of her and my brother. Watching a play I wrote about her. Archived.

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.