WHY: Black Woman In Deep Waterwas a breath of fresh air. As Makena floated onto the stage I was immediately transported to another time when choices came hard, in harsh conditions, for Black bodies. Makena brings us the powerful and heartbreaking story of Margaret Garner, a woman forced to make a horrific choice between a life of slavery or death.
It was the way Makena took what could be a tragic story but instead made space for love that became a lesson for the heart. It was the way music came from Makena’s voice that turned pain into poetry. It was the way she made room for silence while allowing us to take her in. It was the way she bridged the gap from Africa to America as she began to speak in the mother tongue that stirred old emotions and the everlasting old questions many Black Americans hold in the back of their mind and hearts: Where do I come from? What part of Africa am I birthed from? Ghana? Nigeria? Sudan?
Yet as I watched Makena onstage, the feeling of being lost began to fade. In her performance I found a connection to the past and it was not a reminder, but a memory of my ancestors’ perseverance and the whisper of Dr. Maya Angelou’s words: “I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise. I rise. I rise.”
We know that when there is cultural and racial equality in theatre, it makes room for artists from all walks of life to contribute to the history of theatre. This past year has reinforced what we have been doing at LAFPI – putting women of all kinds first! It is vital that we make space and open doors wider for women from all cultural backgrounds if we are to have a bold, forward thinking American Theatre that reflects America.
It was a delicious discovery to the spirit to have scrolled upon Makena’s show Black Woman In Deep Water. This solo show is inspired by the incredible true story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave, who escaped with her husband, in-laws, and four small children while pregnant with a fifth, only to be recaptured. Faced with a harrowing decision, she takes the life of one of her children rather than allow the child to return to the ills of slavery.
Constance: How long have you been sitting with this work? Why Fringe? Why this year?
Makena: It’s a project that I was assigned last year as a student of Stella Adler’s Art of Acting studio. We were to write a 15 minute solo show about a real person. After performing it, and things not going quite to plan, I decided I hadn’t done the story justice and began to expand on it knowing I had to tell the story again if given the chance. A colleague of mine who saw my show at the studio said she loved it and thought I should enter it in the Fringe so I looked into it and…here we are!
Constance: What are you enjoying most as you create your show? What has been the most surprising discovery?
Makena: This is my first time producing, writing, and acting in something all in the same go. It’s also my first Fringe. Additionally, I’m pretty new to LA. So let’s just say it hasn’t been a cakewalk. But I’ve enjoyed realizing that contrary to my initial feeling of being somewhat alone in this city, I do have a community of actors/artists that have stepped up to the plate, many without solicitation, to support me and to help me bring forth my vision. I’m generally a person who takes on everything and says “I got it”. But I had to let that nasty habit go because it became overwhelming trying to juggle everything. So I’ve reached out for help and the outpouring of love and support has been tremendous. One day I just sat and cried with gratitude for all the love and support I’ve received with this project. It’s been really good for my heart.
Constance: What’s been your biggest challenge in terms of your development/creation process?
Makena: I wanted to leave audiences with a sense of hope and empowerment. But with such a tragic story, I found that very difficult to do. I wanted to be authentic and honest in the telling of her story, not watering anything down. So it was like, how do I tell such a tragic story and still pass on a message of healing and hope, which is what I believe Margaret would want?
Constance: What do you hope audience members take away after experiencing your show?
Makena: I wanted to share a piece of widely unknown history, which I thought, beyond its brutal tragedy, was a powerful story about love. This play is inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner which, like many slave stories, is often examined from a standpoint of tragedy and victimization. And while those elements exist, I wanted to go further than that story to show that she was a woman with cares and worries and deep love and passion. She was a woman trying to reclaim her autonomy as a woman and as a mother. I think to humanize her beyond her tragedy is to make her relatable to every human. I think when we see how much more alike we are than different, we realize we can understand each other more and possibly heal the deep hurt of the past.
Constance: The work will be given away soon – how does that feel?
Makena: There is a certain level of anxiety that comes along with giving it away. It is a passion project which I’ve been developing for over a year now. It’s my baby! I’m excited to tell Margaret’s story because I think it’s powerful. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a certain level of trepidation. But more than anything else, joy, excitement, and gratitude to have the medium to share something so deeply personal with the world.
Constance: Anything else? PLEASE Share with us!
Makena: This project is deeply personal to me. Not only because I wrote it, but because I’ve added elements of West African culture and heritage that have been passed on to me from my Ghanaian family. I want to share that heritage which I’m extremely proud of and show how it is connected to the American story. The human story. At first I felt intimidated by the tragedy of her story and wanted to forget about the project altogether. But as I began to research her, there were coincidences that kept poking out at me which made me feel almost as if I was meant to tell this story. For example, Margaret and her husband’s names are the same names of my own parents. When they were arrested they ended up being thrown into Hammond Street jail which is my last name. They even had a daughter that was born on the exact same day as my sister! While they may seem benign coincidences to some, I took them as a signal from the universe to be brave; to explore the possible connections between her story and my own. And I’m glad that I did.