My name is Nakasha Norwood. I’m the company manager at Company of Angels (CoA), as well as one of the producers for the production of Rise, currently running at CoA in Boyle Heights. Rise follows the journey of Emmeline, an African American woman born and bred in Boyle Heights. As the neighborhood evolves throughout the decades, we explore the ties that bind her to it and unravel the tragic mystery behind her unrelenting resolve to never leave.
I’ve had the pleasure of being part of this project from the very beginning. It all started over two years ago when CoA did a collaboration with Impro Theatre to perform an improv show that looked at Boyle Heights in the past, present and future. During the development phase of this show, we had a town hall with advisors from the Boyle Heights who were able to share with us what it was like living in Boyle Heights from the Black, Jewish, Asian and Latino perspectives. After the show, an idea was pitched to create a play that talks about the community of Black people that lived in Boyle Heights, since not many people knew of its existence. I fell in love with the idea of exploring this story, so I wrote a proposal and presented it to my CoA artistic directors. They were completely on board. Thus began the journey of Rise.
When we considered playwrights to commission for this, Kimba Henderson was someone we all thought would be a great match for the project. Kimba first wrote a short play with CoA for our online festival “What’s Goin’ On” in 2020. She then joined our company’s Playwrights Group and spent several months developing her play Red Harlem, which is based on true historical events. Her engrossing writing style, love of history and the passion that comes through her characters were exactly why we wanted her for this project. When we talked with her about the possibility of writing a play based on this little-known community in Boyle Heights, the glow on her face said it all.
It’s been a two-year development process of research, story circles, a Zoom reading, an in-person reading, talk backs, and re-writes, but we finally made it to the production run. I’m happy to have a chance to chat with Kimba about the success of the play and her process behind it.
Nakasha Norwood: First off, what a journey this has been! How does it feel to not only see your play come to life, but to hear all of the amazing praise and wonderful reviews it’s getting?
Kimba Henderson: I love theatre because it is such a collaborative artform. Putting a compelling story on the page is just the beginning. Once it is in the hands of a director and actors and the rest of the creative team is when you really start to see what you have. It takes a village to make a good play, and that last step, of course, is to see how an audience responds. I have heard laughter, seen tears, and one of my favorite things to see as a playwright is when an engaged audience leans forward, physically, to make sure they are not missing a thing.
Some of the most encouraging praise has come from past and longtime residents of Boyle Heights who say the play has taken them back in time and sparked many great memories for them. I would say the biggest surprise when it comes to audience response is 20-something and grown ass men rolling up on me and excitedly telling me how much they enjoyed the love story at the heart of Rise. They are completely unashamed and that just makes me giggle and smile inside.
Nakasha: Putting this play together took a lot of research. What was your personal process like for researching Boyle Heights and the Black community from there?
Kimba: I am a nerd with a history degree, so I loved the research process. For this project, I was so fortunate to have had a wealth of documentaries and written material to draw from. Touring Evergreen Cemetery, The Japanese American Museum, and just spending time in Boyle Heights were also extremely helpful. Most vital was having past African-American Boyle Heights residents share their life experiences during the story circles. These intimate gatherings breathed so much life into the play. So many personal stories allowed me – as a writer who has never lived in Boyle Heights – to not just connect to the neighborhood intellectually but emotionally, as well.
Nakasha: Is there a moment during the play that has hit you differently now that you’ve seen what you’ve written performed on stage?
Kimba: I can’t say there is a moment that has struck me differently, but I can definitely say that seeing this play up on its feet has struck me more deeply. I have found myself emotionally moved and often shedding tears during many of the scenes. I didn’t cry when I was writing the play. It isn’t as if I am caught off guard or I don’t know what is going to happen. My intense emotional response is a testament to the brilliant work of all the actors and Lui Sanchez’s direction.
Nakasha: The character of Emmeline is at the center of your play. What made you decide to tell the story of her life in reverse?
Kimba: That choice is a whole long story in and of itself and was inspired by one of the lines in the play, “With progress there is always backlash.” When I first started writing Rise, I was angry about the intense pushback on reparations and affirmative action. People want to pretend that everything is fair and equal now and that the catastrophic legacy of slavery has somehow magically righted itself. There is a constant push by America’s dominant society to keep the status quo, and I wanted to show that by tracking something like housing discrimination. Within an early draft of the play, we learned that Proposition 14 on California’s 1964 ballot would allow people to refuse to rent, sell or lease to others based on race. It passed with 70% of the vote. Yet, as we go back in time, we’d see the 1963 Fair Housing Act, a 1948 landmark Supreme Court case won by Thurgood Marshall, and several other legal actions should have stopped something like Proposition 14 from ever having been on a ballot. Eventually I realized I was more focused on making a point than telling a great story.
As I moved forward, I still held on to the reverse structure. I knew it was a great way to uncover the mystery of Emmeline’s resolve to remain in Boyle Heights, as the key to it lies in the past.
With Emmeline’s journey, scenes highlighting her later years are at the beginning of the play, and we learn about significant life events that have taken place by then. In later scenes, we get to experience and dig deeper into how those events happened and the decisions that led to them. The reverse structure is conducive to intimate and transformative character moments for Emmeline and many of the play’s other characters, and the unfolding mystery surrounding her provides the propulsive momentum vital to compelling storytelling.
Nakasha: You mentioned in a previous interview that this play is your love letter to Boyle Heights. What is the main thing you’re hoping the audience, especially those that are area residents, are taking away from it?
Kimba: The characters in Rise are quite diverse in regards to race and age. I hope that audiences see themselves, at least pieces of themselves represented and also that they are invested in the stories of those characters that are not like them. For current and past residents, I hope they feel a particular pride in and are encouraged by the beauty they had a hand in creating within this unique neighborhood.
Overall, I pray that even in these divided times, audiences will be inspired to create communities where diverse peoples can support and celebrate one another and thrive together.
“Rise” runs through November 5th at Company of Angels on Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm. For tickets and information, visit companyofangels.com