On March 12, 2020, I flew from Los Angeles to Ft. Lauderdale to watch my 14-year-old niece, Shelby, act in her first play. The year prior we’d spent months, at her request, preparing for her audition for Dillard Performance Arts High School. Days before her audition, she desperately asked, “Auntie, do you think I have a chance?” As any loving aunt would, I replied, “Are you kidding? They’d be crazy not to accept you!”
Truth is, I was worried. Not about whether she’d get in or not—I had no doubt she would. I was actually worried about what would follow when she did get in. What would happen if she fell in love with theatre, just as I did at that age? What if it became her passion, her profession, her vocation, her life? I wanted to protect her from a life of rejection, of disappointment, of cutthroat competition, of financial instability, of heartbreak. I know, right? Project much?
Needless to say, Shelby’s school show did not go on. Like theatres all over the country, the school shut down that week and stayed closed for the remainder of 2020. What this last year without live theatre has taught me is that all the things I love and miss about theatre far outweigh the fears and anxieties I projected on to my niece. I was so focused on the ways the industry can hurt and disappoint. But 2020 reminded me of the ways the art of theatre loves. Theatre heals. Theatre connects. Theatre teaches. Theatre activates change and even revolution.
And probably most evident in this past year, no matter what, theatre survives. I am in awe of the ways my community has demonstrated this truth, and am immensely grateful for the opportunities I have had to create, connect, heal, and teach through my own work. In July 2020, I was one of four female-identifying playwrights, representing the African Diaspora, commissioned to write plays in response to the prompt “Conversations with the Ancestors.” A production of Project Y Theatre, All Hands on Deck streamed throughout the summer.
From April through December, I hosted “Saturday Matinees” with the Fountain Theatre, a virtual salon that featured theatre artists from all over the country, including Kit Yan, Antonio Lyons, Lisa Strum, Dennis A. Allen, Vanessa Garcia, and more. The weekly series celebrated BIPOC artists, while providing audiences time and space to connect with each another during a time when many of us endured incredible isolation. In November, I led a four-week workshop hosted by Global Voices Theatre in London. Participants joined from all over the world—Hong Kong, Philippines, India, the U.S.—to develop new plays aimed at correcting revisionist history.
In January of this year, my play Tigress of San Domingue streamed as part of Atlantic Theatre Company’s African Caribbean Mixfest, and last month I was among six playwrights featured in Long Distance Affair. Produced by Juggerknot Theatre and Popup Theatrics, LDA brought together playwrights and actors from six cities around the world—Los Angeles, Portland, Beirut, Lagos, Mexico City, and Mumbai—to create immersive theatre. With over 60 live performances, LDA is the closest thing to in-person theatre I experienced all year. Audience members interacted with one another in intimate Zoom rooms, and with the characters whose lives they interrupted, often at odd times depending on the city (2 a.m. in Lagos).
I had the pleasure of collaborating with L.A.-based actor Wendy Elizabeth Abraham, who bravely invited us into her home in Sherman Oaks, and into her emotional journey through grief and motherhood. I attended about six of the 60-plus performances, and no two were ever the same.
Finally, I launched Fountain Voices, a new arts education initiative I developed in my role as community engagement coordinator for the Fountain. The program promotes empathy and community building, teaching students how to write original plays based on interviews with members of their own community. The successful pilot run of Fountain Voices at Hollywood High culminated in January, with a powerful presentation of work that explored homophobia, depression, and homelessness among teenagers. This month, Fountain Voices begins a partnership with Compton Unified School District, where we will serve over 100 students, longing to be seen and heard.
My time spent with these students reaffirmed what the last year taught me. And when my niece is ready to return to school and inevitably enjoys her first moment onstage, rather than prepare her for the darkness, I will encourage her to embrace all the light and love theatre shines on us.
Laura Maria Censabella’s achievements are too many to even begin to name here. But if you are not familiar with her work, look her up. Now. And be sure to join us this Saturday for our final Saturday Matinee of the year, followed by Fountain Theatre’s Holiday Party. Censabella will be our featured guest as we present her play Interviewing Miss Davis, based on her actual interview with Bette Davis many years ago.
What was it really like meeting Bette Davis? What do you remember from that day?
I remember it was boiling hot and I was sweating, and my curly hair had morphed into a ball of straw, so I was incredibly self-conscious. Also, I was intimidated by Miss Davis’s poised and beautiful assistant. When Miss Davis came in—and she did make an entrance–I was shocked by how diminished she was physically. She had to kind of throw her hip as she walked, and her shriveled face made her look like a sharp-eyed bird—but I immediately realized that none of her spirit was diminished. I had been told not to tell her I was a writer since her daughter was coming out with a tell-all book but at a certain point I couldn’t help it. I kept asking her what my hours might be and she wouldn’t tell me because I think basically they were meant to be 24/7. At that time I would get up at 5:30 a.m. to write before office temp jobs. That hour and a half–or two hours–a day I had to write was sacred and all I wanted to know was would I be able to still have that. And yet…I was so broke. I’d had a few short stories published in tiny literary magazines. I felt so small, and so scared that I would never be able to make my dreams happen. I think Miss Davis could smell that.
How do you imagine your life turning out if you did take that job?
I don’t think I would have lasted a day.
As someone who’s been teaching and facilitating writing groups for many years, what is the most important piece of advice you have for young writers?
There are an infinite number of ways to be a very good or great writer. There are only a finite number of ways of being bad and you can learn what those things are and avoid them.
Do you believe the industry has changed for women since you first started writing professionally? How so? In what ways is the industry still behind in gender equality? What needs to happen?
When I was in my 20’s I was selected for the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. At that time I was one of only three women playwrights out of sixteen total playwrights. The next year I was one of five women playwrights. The last time I was selected for the O’Neill the majority of playwrights were women; however, most of us could not get our work produced. Since then we can be thankful for the 2008 Town Hall called by Julia Jordan, Marsha Norman and Sarah Schulman out of which The Count was eventually born to document the number of women+ and BIPOC plays produced. There is also the Kilroys List. Because of these big initiatives and many smaller ones we’ve seen an uptick in the statistics of women being produced although at this rate it will take another hundred years to achieve parity, most especially for older women writers who may have been ignored when they were young and now face discrimination due to age which is why the action and advocacy group Honor Roll! was born.
What have you been working on? Anything coming up you’re excited about?
A play based on my severely disabled aunt. About the day late in life that she decided to stop being infantilized by her family and assert her own will and the price she paid for that–and the joy she experienced as well. I’m also beginning to workshop my play Beyond Words, which is essentially a 30-year love story between a scientist who studies animal cognition (Dr. Irene Pepperberg) and her extraordinary research subject, the African Grey parrot Alex. Together they opened a window into the animal mind. The parrot is embodied by a human actor on stage.
What’s been keeping you sane?
I’ve had some very big personal challenges this year. But knowing that we all are suffering in some way, that we’re united by this pandemic, that we’ve all lost dreams, livelihoods, family, loved ones to Covid, unites us as a world community and can, if we let it, increase our compassion for one another.
What gives you hope?
That Biden and Harris were elected. Our very democracy has been at stake. The lust for power has outweighed the very values this democracy stands for. We’ve got to slowly rebuild faith in democratic institutions. We have a very steep climb but at least we’re moving in the right direction.
Interviewing Miss Davis, Saturday, December 19 @ 5pm PST
FLB: I love the title of your book. Do you really avoid books with “journey” in the title?
STREETER: I do kinda side-eye them. It’s become such a cliché word that doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to mean. I know that it’s meaningful to a lot of people, but I wanted readers to know that my book wasn’t offering some candy-colored look at grief that was some standard they were supposed to live up to. There is no template.
FLB: Who is this book for?
STREETER: Everyone who ever lost someone or loves someone who did and wants to know how to talk to them. Also humans who like words J And Shelia E. references.
FLB: Are you working on a follow up book?
STREETER: Yes! One chapter down. So many to go.
FLB: What are you most looking forward to in the coming year?
STREETER: Turning 50 and starting the next part of my life in the city I love (Baltimore). Also the vaccine. So I can go sit on an island somewhere safely and dream. Also? A less-sucky world.
FLB: What has been keeping you sane?
STREETER: Yoga. My faith. My funny kid and family. Walking past beautiful old buildings and wondering who lived there. Fried tofu.
FLB: What gives you hope?
STREETER: That humanity can learn. We have to. We can do hard stuff.
A review of Holli Harms’ play Shouting Down A Quiet Life stated, “It is only a matter of time before this play premieres on Broadway”. Set in South Carolina, 1968, the play sheds light on the Orangeburg Massacre, in which highway patrolmen opened fire on 200 unarmed black students at a peaceful Civil Rights demonstration. This Saturday, Harms will share excerpts from the play and other works, and share her hopes for theatre and the country. Here, she discusses how she reconciled her conflicted feelings about writing the play, what it means to be a writer from the South, and the trials and triumphs of raising her teenager daughter.
Your critically acclaimed play Shouting Down A Quiet Life is so brilliantly crafted and authentic that many are surprised to discover it was written by a white woman. Did you ever feel conflicted/hesitant about writing the play? How did you overcome those feelings? What inspired you to tell that particular story?
I absolutely felt conflicted and that I had no right to this story. But it wouldn’t let me go. And actually, I remember speaking with you about another play of mine dealing with slaves in South Carolina that I felt I should not write, but you told me, “If it’s the story that you want to, need to, write – write it.” That is a question I constantly think about, authorship and ownership.
The story of three black men killed on a college campus in 1968, about a 50-minute drive from where I grew up, I discovered, of all places, when I was watching a documentary that I got at the library about the McGovern campaign and why he lost in 68’. In the film, Dick Gregory, comedian and activist, talked about the Orangeburg Massacre and what a disgrace that no knew about these killings, but only two years later Kent State happened and everyone knew about that, why? Because white kids were killed at Kent. I kept thinking does he mean Orangeburg SC? I started to research it and ended up connecting with the NAACP who invited me to a screening of a documentary about the Orangeburg Massacre at NYU, and at the end of the screening, a gentleman stood up and said, “I was there. I was shot. And I never told anyone.” I knew instantly that was the story I wanted to tell. The story of silence. The state silenced the story and the country didn’t hear it, but this man had done the same in his own life. What does that do to a person?
Do you identify as a southern playwright? What does that mean to you?
I think of myself as a writer first, and then a writer from the South. I do think that growing up in a place where language and storytelling are so important had an influence on me. There are rich marvelous characters in the South both in its history and living around me when I was growing up, many quite controversial. Being from the South means that I get to use that richness in my writing, and I think that’s what propelled me on in writing Quiet Life.
As a winner of the Terrance G. Hall Fellowship, you were awarded a week-long residency in Dublin, Ireland. What was that experience like? What did you learn? What did you work on?
Oh, first the Irish have a gift of the gab that is delicious. We had a flat right by the Liffey and within walking distance of everything in Dublin. The Dublin Theatre Festival was going on when we were there so I got to see some excellent theatre. I was there to learn more about the Irish miners for a play that I’m still working on. I spent a lot of time at the National Library reading books on the Irish coal miner. The library is a non-lending library and so the only way to read many of their works is in person. I also spent time at the National Archive building going over old photo albums. Many families gift their family albums to the Archives. Here is something that I started to notice looking at the pictures that eventually went into my play COAL, in picture after picture of families all together I only noticed girls. No boys. Little girls in dresses, but not one boy. These are photos from the late 19th century to the 20th century. I asked the curator about it and he said, “Oh, yeah. Fairies take the boys. Look again at the pictures. See the boys with long hair in dresses.” Sure enough, a second look revealed that the boys were in disguise to fool the fairies. I was and am still working on that play about the life of coal miners, specifically about those in the Pennsylvania region. I would like to get back to Ireland and see more of the country. We were mostly in Dublin for my research and to see shows. I say we, as my husband and daughter who was seven at the time, came along.
I’ve always been fascinated by your background as a South Carolina native of German descent. Has your background informed your work? How so?
Oh, yes, so much of both of my backgrounds have colored my writing, especially the history of the two places. Small things like the rituals of hunters in Germany have found their way into my plays. Being the kid, whose family spoke German at home made us somewhat unusual in Columbia. We were also a military family and Fort Jackson, SC was the last place my dad was stationed. We arrived there from Germany when I was not yet four. We moved off Fort soon after our arrival in the states and lived not far from it. So every day of my childhood I would hear the revelry bugle call. My mother was a war bride as were many of the moms from the Fort. My mother often forgot English words, and sometimes the German equivalent as well, so she would make words up that she felt worked just fine. That has been a big part of my writing. She was a foreigner and embraced it. She didn’t’t really try to assimilate. Why bother when she was so much more interesting exactly the way she was.
Your short film Icarus Stops for Breakfast has won over 20 awards and been featured in 34 Festivals. What was the genesis of that project and how has the experience changed you?
I read the short story, Eating, by Rick Bass and instantly knew it was something I wanted to turn into a film. I took the short story to my director and had her read it and she agreed. It was not an easy script as we had to have an owl, donkey, and pig along with the actors to make it work. That process has opened me to a greater understanding of how story works on film, and how patience in the film world is a must. It was five years from the time we shot the film to the time it was ready for the festivals. We had CGI hold-ups, the music wasn’t working and the editing went through numerous renditions. We just weren’t getting it right until we got it right.
What have you been working on during the pandemic?
My problem is that I have too many ideas and projects swimming around in my noggin. I am working on a book, or I believe it is a book. It was a short story I woke up with in my head and poured it out on the page. It was a finalist with Fish Publishing. I read it over several times and thought, I want to expand on this one particular character in the story and the people around her. I have also just finished a Sci-Fi feature film script, and I am back at school, online getting my Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. That is taking up most of my time and energy, and has been a lot of work, but also been so wonderful as I have learned things that I can immediately apply to my writing.
What have been the challenges/rewards of raising a teenage daughter in the middle of a pandemic?
Having her home all day every day is a challenge and a reward. I get to listen in on her school work and recently I got to hear her give a talk about the LBGTQ community and the difficulties an individual faces when coming out to family and friends for the first time. It was a Social Studies discussion her 7th grade class had on Coming Out Day. I was so proud of her thoughtful, thought-provoking answer. I would not have been privy to that had she been in school that day. Mainly the time has been spent trying to get her off electronics and to go outside. She looks at me like, “What is this outside you speak of?”
What has been keeping you sane this year?
My family. My running. I started running 80 to 100 miles a month and that keeps me grounded. Kayaking all summer with my neighbor Nancy. All summer we had friends over every Saturday night for dinner. The same group, our bubble. We kept social distancing with outside dining and stayed safe. Having those get-togethers, sharing food and stories was so important to my sanity. Music. Music. Music. Putting on my Guardians of the Galaxy DVD and dancing my heart out or my Sammy Davis Jr. album – yup real album, and dancing to his joyful sound just lifts me. I have at my house a record player and tons of albums and so I can go from Sammy and Kate Smith, to Blood Sweat and Tears, to Tom Waits, to Bach and Mendelsohn. And of course, Arlo Guthrie whom our dog is named after.
What gives you hope?
That we just elected a woman who will be the first woman Vice President and she is a woman of color and intelligence and femininity and not afraid to be all that in one package. She has an inner strength that radiates out of her a glow of hope. That so many young women ran for positions in government on both sides of the aisle. That so many want to take away that aisle and make it truly a “United” states.
The resilience of people. Zoom arrived just in time and we all just started using it and creating on it and never looked back. The creativity of humans gives me hope. Seeing friend’s faces on Zoom, and seeing them laugh gives me hope for the day when I can again smash my face against theirs.
No trick or treating this year? The Fountain’s got you covered. Please be sure to bring your kids and grandkids to this week’s show, where our guest – Lynne Streeter Childress – will perform work from her show for young people.
I met Lynne Streeter Childress many moons ago in Miami, FL when I booked my first professional acting gig. We were part of a company that toured plays for young audiences about issues like domestic violence and homelessness. While the subjects are grim, the plays were full of hope and the creative process was full of light. The latter, largely due to Lynne’s exuberance and delightful sense of humor. Decades later, Lynne has her own company, producing plays for young audiences that address issues like tolerance and empathy. I spoke to Lynne about the origins of her company (Building Better People Productions), and what it’s like to balance her creative life with motherhood in the time of Covid.
What was the genesis of Building Better People Productions? I had always wanted to do my own stuff, and I knew that it would be for young audiences, and I knew that it was going to be something about building people up. Over the years I would start, and then put things on a shelf because I was working for other people, which actually was great, because I was gaining not only a paycheck, but support, and the chance to grow. In 2015, lots of things started to come together, good and bad, that kinda pushed me forward. I lost my brother in law, which was the 4th in a series of family losses. I had also started writing a piece about empathy that I planned to produce on my own somehow, and when the opportunity to perform part of it for a festival didn’t work out, that seemed like an open door to just do the thing for real. I was in the place to just move forward.
How will future productions address the moment we are in as a Nation? How do you tackle such complicated conversations? It’s made me want to continue to not run away from addressing hurt. Most of the shows that we have done have hard moments, where people are bullied, and lose family members, and have anxiety, and are treated bad because of differences. There is always a moment in rehearsal where I think “Is this too much?” And no, it’s not. Kids are smart. And I think that we insult them when we DON’T tackle things they are going through or that are going on around them. There has to be something between hitting them over the head and completely ignoring where we are with the isolation of COVID, and the sadness of where we are racially. I owe it to my kid, and all kids, to figure out how to do that respectfully. One more thing: we have always had a pretty diverse group of people that we work with, but I am committed to truly seeking out more people. I also want to do a show that is about a little black girl loving life. I needed to see more of that when I was a little kid, and now I want to do that. For little black girls and for everyone, to normalize that little black girls can just have joy.
You say that the adaptation of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” you performed in is your most favorite show you’ve ever done. Why? What made it so special? It was my first Equity show (although I am not a part of the union now currently), and I participated in a development reading of it, I was part of the original cast of the show, and in the first tour. I am on the cover of the script as a koala! It is the show that made me feel like I was really doing this, and I got to be at the Kennedy Center every day, which is the most beautiful space. I got to see something come off of the page, see it worked in the room with the playwright and composer in rehearsals. And it took me around the country, getting paid to perform and travel. It helped make me. Also, I think that I may have named my son after that show. It was years later, and the name Alexander came to me as a front runner, and I didn’t know why. It just felt right. When my son was a baby I was at a party for a friend, who had directed that first production of “Alexander”, and Judith Viorst,the writer of the show, was there, and I had not seen her in a while. She asked what my son’s name was; when I said “Alexander”, everyone started laughing. And I said, “WAIT! Did I name him for the show?” And maybe I did. It was in there somewhere.
You have a twin sister who also writes? Did you grow up writing together? Will you or have you ever collaborated? My sister is amazing. AMAZING. She has been a journalist for 27 years, and has won awards, and wrote a memoir that came out earlier this year called “Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like ‘Journey’ in the Title”, about losing her husband. We used to make up stories as little kids, and actually blogged together about our experiences in our 40s for a while. I produced and perform in a holiday play that she wrote, The Gift of the Mad Guy, about generosity, that Building Better People has performed yearly since 2016. I love saying her words, and I love sending her royalty checks.
Did becoming a Mom change you as an artist? If so, how? Yep. It’s made me want to make a world that he sees as lovely and that sees him as lovely. The third part of “We Got It” was inspired by the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, and I was pregnant when Trayvon was murdered, and I felt the weight of how some people did not value the lives of young black men, and did not see their deaths as tragedies. That wrecked me for their parents, and I was about to BE a parent of a young black man, and me yelling on Facebook, while cathartic, wasn’t going to be enough. What I knew how to do was create. So, I wrote. My son has also inspired shows that I have written or that we have performed, that are things I want him to hear, like about keeping his imagination, and knowing his worth.
How will you make Halloween special for an 8-year-old in the middle of a Pandemic? Our plan is to have my sister and nephew and mom over (they are in our Covid circle), and we will wear costumes and eat candy. That’s a good plan. Family and sugar.
What’s been keeping you sane? God, and the idea that if we are in this place, then there has to be a way to work in it. If we are still here, when other people aren’t, there is something to do in it, even if that’s just to be grateful for being here. I have also learned a lot of grace for others because we are all struggling.
What gives you hope? That people are still creating and finding ways to be light for themselves, and then for other people. Seeing creative output gives me LIFE.
Lisa Strum, a Philadelphia native living and working in the New York area is a director, an educator, actress, playwright, producer, casting director, singer and a certified wedding officiant! I’d add to that list truth teller, world traveler, and cherished friend. Her soulful voice and infectious laugh make her a powerful presence on stage and off, and her sharp wit, insightful observations, and wicked sense of humor are what makes her work so compelling. An award-winning actor, she’s starred in some of American theatre’s most celebrated plays, including Wilson’s Fences, Morriseau’s Pipleline, and Nottage’s Sweat. But lately, it is her work as a director that is getting everyone’s attention. I am lucky enough to have had her direct two of my own plays – Fall at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, and Nanã for the All Hands on Deck Virtual play Festival. She also directed a Kennedy Center Award winning production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enough, and is currently directing Flyin West at Five Towns College. On this week’s installment of “Saturday Matinees”, Strum will perform from her original works She Gon Learn, An Actor Prepares, and Poetic Tirades. I sat down with her to discuss her journey from actor to director, and the beauty of acceptance.
F.L.B. What led you to directing?
L.S. I dabbled in directing while I was in undergrad; directing one acts and short scenes. But it wasn’t until I was hired by Carl Johnson to act as the Theatre Specialist for the Abrons Arts Center Summer Program at Henry Street Settlement that my directing skills really began to take shape. I discovered that I had a strong visual eye to tell stories on the stage and to get great performances out of the actors I was working with – regardless of their experience or their age. There was always a mainstage show at the end of the 5 weeks of the summer program of an original devised theatre piece created by the students. The show also included dance, singing and a set, so there was constant collaboration between the voice, dance and visual arts instructors throughout the summer and year after year we generated some incredible work together. It was exciting being the conductor of all of this collaborative work. I became hooked. And I just liked telling people what to do! LOL!
F.L.B. – What has been keeping you sane?
Staying connected with friends and family. Preparing and cooking home cooked meals. Laughter. Lots of laughter! Movies from my teenage years. And simply accepting the reality of the situation we are living in right now. Adaption and going with the flow are key. Many people realized during the quarantine how much they needed a break from the constant hustle and rat race. I didn’t realize how much I needed to be still. With all the constraints we’ve been under because of COVID-19, I’ve found peace within the boundaries. It’s been an amazing way to stay focused and to stay in the moment.
FLB. – What gives you hope?
L.S. The will of the human spirit and the ability to adapt and find joy regardless of the circumstances.
France-Luce Benson is a playwright and the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Fountain Theatre.
Josh Wilder might be the most down to earth wunderkind I’ve ever met. Barely in his 30s, he is the winner of numerous awards including the Jerome Many Voices Fellowship, the Lorraine Hansberry Award, and Holland New Voices – among others. But the Philly native truly represents “brotherly love” – spending his time guiding and nurturing young writers, and developing his green thumb. Wilder is currently based here in Los Angeles, and graciously agreed to appear on this week’s Saturday Matinee. In this interview I learned that although he is an Angeleno at the moment, his Philly roots are firmly intact.
FLB: Philadelphia is a recurring character in many of your plays. What about the city inspires you?
Everything! The murals; the culture; the accent; you can walk anywhere and find a story. Philly is a city of rowhomes with thin walls, so ear-hustling was the everyday. THE LOVE. We really are “The City of Brotherly Love”. Most importantly, it’s the attitude. Philly is an attitude, and everybody you know from Philly got one! PHILLY ALL DAY, BABY!
FLB: I understand you’re based in Los Angeles now. How long have you been here and what has the transition from east to west coast been like for you?
I’ve been here since April. The transition has been very smooth. I love that I can escape to the beach and just think. There’s something about the ocean…
FLB: What do you miss most about Philly?
The food. I want a mushroom cheesesteak with friend onions from Max’s so bad…. Water ice and soft pretzels; the Reading Terminal; block parties in the summertime. Sitting on the porch with my brother.
FLB: I read that you started as an actor? Does that inform your writing process? Do you have any desire to return to acting?
Yes, my favorite playwrights are actors. My writing process is actor focused—being in the room with actors is the ultimate experience. Better than the actual run of the show. There’s so much magic in the room that I never want to leave my side of the table. I don’t have a strong desire to return to acting— I really love being in my lane.
FLB: What was the very first play you ever wrote?
My very first play I wrote and produced was called Michael’s Testimony. I was in my senior year at the Creative and Performing Arts High School. I’ll never forget how the audience left the theater that night.
FLB: In addition to the Pandemic, we (Black and Brown folx) are in the midst of an uprising while simultaneously continuing to see our people suffer at the hands of police brutality. How have you been processing all of this? Do you feel that it has fueled/informed/or radicalized your work in any way?
ALL I CAN SAY IS THAT I LOVE BEING BLACK. I WAS BORN BLACK, I’MA DIE BLACK, AND I’MA CONTINUE BEING BLACK NO MATTER HOW HARD THESE EVIL-ASS PEOPLE TRY AND THAT’S ON THAT. MY GOD AND MY ANCESTORS GOT ME. MY PRESIDENT WILL ALWAYS BE BARACK OBAMA.
FLB: Lol! Agreed!!
FLB: What’s been keeping you sane?
My teaching. As soon as COVID-19 shut the country down—everything changed for me. I was let go from a teaching position in Atlanta just as I was getting the hang of Zoom. Once that happened, I packed up my apartment, got in my car, drove to LA and I set up shop by starting a Playwrights Workshop in April. So far I’ve connected with over 40+ playwrights around the country and the world! I’ve never worked with so many Black and POC playwrights in my whole teaching career—90% women. These women keep me sane– they’re gonna be the ones to watch when the theater reopens. I also became a Plant Daddy J
FLB: What gives you hope? Knowing that the sun is shining, and the sky is blue.
This Saturday on Saturday Matinees, we’ll be joined by award winning playwright and poet Kit Yan, whose musical Interstate won “Best Lyrics” at the 2018 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Born in Enping, China, Yan’s family immigrated to Hawaii where they were raised. Yan describes their work as “a dream space where I witness, remember, and reflect on my queer and trans herstories.” I met Yan at the Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis where they were beginning their residency as a 2020 fellow. I was charmed by their warmth, and flattered by their generous support of my work. Since then, I’ve remained intrigued by their uniquely vibrant work – a combination of ancestral reverence, queer pride, and lots of pop culture fun. In this interview, we talk about inspirations, cultural traditions, and our shared love of aerobics.
France-Luce Benson – What were some of your favorite musicals growing up?
Kit Yan. – I love Disney lol.
Was there one in particular that left an imprint on you?
I love In the Heights. I have always felt inspired by family, community, neighborhoods, and relationships.
You say “writing is a spaceship into the borderless ancestral past…” I love that because I feel a strong connection to my ancestors whenever I’m creating. Is this true for you as well?
Absolutely. I carry with me all who have come before and all who are coming ahead in all my work. Writing is a dream space for me, to reimagine, retell, remember, and rewrite time and time again. I am only who I am because of the stories, and work of the ancestors. I never take for granted that I stand on shoulders and that gratefulness holds me accountable to telling stories that matter to me.
In another life I was a step aerobics instructor. I still love Step. So naturally, I’m intrigued by your musical MISS STEP. What was the inspiration?
WTF this is amazing about you! I was taking a step aerobics class in Long Island and getting really into it. It helped me feel free in my body as a trans person. Then Melissa (Yan’s collaborator) and I went down a rabbit hole of watching competitive aerobics for 8 hours straight one night while working on Interstate and just fell in love with it! When we dove deeper, we actually found the world of competitive aerobics to have some problems. There were misogynistic rules and expectations embedded in the rules in this sport that is supposed to be a ground for self- expression and frankly is pretty amazingly gay. So we set out to tell a story about trans people challenging these rules in order to feel free in their bodies and connect to something within themselves.
In your short film TO DO, there is a beautiful shot of the protagonist making an offering of flowers and cookies to the ocean? What is the significance? Is it based on any Asian tradition?
Yes! this is a food offering to the person who has moved onto their next life. I’m a buddhist and grew up with kind of a mish mash of buddhist, doaist, and feng shui practices. When we visit our ancestors’ graves we always bring food to nourish their spirits.
During these last 6 months, what has been keeping you sane?
I have been spending more time outside and in nature than ever before. It has been grounding to witness animals returning to their homes, plants growing in places they did not grow before, and people in relationship to the land in respectful and harmonious ways.
What is bringing you hope?
The above is bringing me hope and all this silence is bringing me hope. People helping other people. Collective work towards safety and wellness.
I first met Dennis A. Allen II back in 2016 when we met to talk about our experiences as Playwrights in Residence at Djerassi’s Resident Artist program. Although I was familiar with his work long before then, particularly his contribution to HANDS UP, a collection of monologues by seven black playwrights in response to the police shootings of Mike Brown, John Crawford the III, among others. His work is raw, gorgeously poetic, and brutally honest. In the past five months, Dennis and I have participated in a weekly virtual gathering of other like minded Black theatre artists, and I have gotten to know the depth of his sensitivity, and the expanse of his enlightenment. He is a truly special artist and man, and I am so thrilled hell be joining us for the return of Saturday Matinees, this Saturday – Aug 22 5pm PST.
Earlier this week, I chatted with Dennis about the work he plans to share with us, his process, and how he’s been processing the events of the last few months:
FLB: What will you be presenting on Saturday?
D.A.A.: I’d like to present three monologues from three different plays of mine. Manhood, The Wretched Begin to Rise and When We Wake Up Dead. Manhood explores the perils or toxic masculinity, The Wretched Begin to Rise is a play set in 1834 Five Points New York and interrogates identity and race relations, and When We Wake Up Dead examines mental health and the effects of untreated trauma within an African American family.
FLB: I believe you started as an actor, right? How did you find way to writing and directing?
D.A.A.: Writing was actually the first passion. My mother has shared that I wrote a short story about a leprechaun when I was four years old. I don’t remember writing it but I’m sure it was inspired by the Disney movie Darby O’Gill and the Little People, a VHS that was in heavy rotation on my television at the time. Anyway, I always loved writing, I used to perform poetry at open mic nights my undergrad days at Hampton University and for a while had dreams of being a hip hop artist. I won’t bore you with reading my journey to acting and theatre but once I did get into acting I knew that eventually I’d want to write plays. My thinking was I’d be better at creating characters for the stage if I was intimate with the actor’s process. I took a directing class in undergrad and really enjoyed it. My preference is writing, I think because it’s the craft I’ve dedicated the most hours to, so it’s the one I’m most confident executing. For me. acting, writing and directing are just three different styles of storytelling and I love being able to create a good story.
FLB: How has the last 3 months changed your creative process? (or has it)
D.A.A.: The last three months has not changed my creative process but it has provided me time to ruminate on what stories I think are imperative for me to create. Capitalism is a helluva drug and there have been times where I’ve focused more on the strategy of making money at the craft than the craft itself. And it’s been those times that I’ve had the least amount of joy ( if any) in my creative process. This “pause” has allowed me to tap back into why I do this; why I love this.
FLB: What has been keeping you sane?
D.A.A.: Exercise; I’ve been reading specifically Black female sci-fi and fantasy writers this summer (Octavia Butler, Justina Ireland, Tomi Adeyemi, Nnedi Okorafor); and every Friday night for the last five months I’ve participated in a Zoom meet up with friends I consider my creative family- which has provided us all with a catharsis- we laugh, cry, pontificate, talk shit, love on each other and laugh some more.
FLB: What has been giving you hope?
D.A.A.: With everything going on I am hyper conscious of how privileged I am. My wife is loving and supportive, both of my parents are alive and currently healthy, I have a roof over my head and am blessed to have classes to teach as an adjunct professor; so it’s easy for me to have hope because of my privilege. As bad as it is out in these streets my immediate life ain’t too bad. That said, being able to teach and work with the younger generation has been a constant source of hope because these kids have an emotional intelligence, are politically informed and active, and have an unapologetic exploration around identity that is light years ahead of anything my generation had access to.
France-Luce Benson is a playwright and the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre.
Playwright France-Luce Benson is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre, and host of the online gathering, “Saturday Matinees.”
by France-Luce Benson
A few days ago, a friend and I were discussing the concept of Liminal space, moments in life where you experience the pain and discomfort of being on the threshold of change. We are all feeling it right now; in our communities, in our cities, as a country, and in the world. As we navigate this liminal space collectively, some of us, myself included, are also feeling our way through the challenges of personal transition. Uncomfortable, yes. But ripe with the promise of inspiration, enlightenment, and growth.
After three and a half months quarantining in Florida with my Mom, I’m relieved to be back in L.A. I hesitate to say back home, because I’ve been in a kind of holding space. I moved out of my old apartment, and have been house sitting in Arcadia while waiting to move into my new West Hollywood apartment. Not to mention, nothing in Los Angeles is as I left it. Most everything remains shut down – from beaches to bars, movie theatres, museums, and worst of all for us, theatres. Closed. Indefinitely. Meanwhile, uprisings, small and large, fill the space in between. Artistic directors, producers, playwrights, actors and directors are having difficult conversations about the future of theatre. No one really has the answers. But I believe whatever the future is, already exists in this space in between.
I’ve spent much of these last few weeks listening to the neighbors’ children play in imaginary worlds, absorbing every last bit of their summer, unburdened by financial pressures, political anxieties, and this unrelenting fear Covid-19. While I envy the freedom of innocence and ignorance, the urgency that accompanies our collective awakening is oddly comforting. I am reminded that as artists, our voices are powerful and as a black, female artist – my voice is necessary. Now more than ever.
During my hiatus from Saturday Matinees, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this power, and the many ways I have felt powerless in a country, and industry, tainted by white supremacy. I have been asked by many of my colleagues, on the front lines of demanding radical change in the theatre, to recollect and testify about the many ways I have been oppressed in the theatre. The University professors who were unable or unwilling to expose me to artists representative of my identity, the artistic directors who implied that the cultural specificity of my work lessened its value, the directors and producers who failed to honor my vision simply out of laziness and ego. I thought about how powerless I felt at the time. But in this liminal space, I am reminded of how powerful my voice actually is, and how choosing to tell stories that challenge stereotypes and amplify marginalized voices is a powerful act of rebellion. And I’ve been thinking about the ways I might wield this power, peacefully, creatively, urgently. One of those ways is as curator, co-producer, and host of “Saturday Matinees” with The Fountain Theatre.
Saturday Matinees began with a simple premise: A virtual community gathering with live performances. It was an opportunity to break the isolation of quarantine, and to satisfy our hunger for creative expression and live entertainment. It was such a joy getting to know The Fountain audience, and allowing myself to be seen and heard through my own work, and on an intimate level that was completely unexpected. But the greatest gift, by far, was introducing theatrical artists I love and admire to our Fountain family. Once the uprisings began, it occurred to me how powerful this platform could be.
So when Saturday Matinees returns on August 22, I intend to joyfully honor the many voices representative of this powerful liminal space. I hope you will join me in my celebration of resistance, equality, global and social justice, and positive change. Our first guest on August 22 will be Dennis A. Allen II, writer, actor, director, activist. Allen will share from his work and discuss what the current uprisings means to black artists who have been vocal about these issues for decades.
Many of us have desperately attempted to ease the discomfort of this liminal space with catch phrases like “reset” or “pivoting”. But the hard truth is that liminality is defined by the ambiguity, disorientation, and uncertainty one experiences in the middle stage of a rite of passage. However, when the rite of passage is complete, we emerge with greater clarity and strength. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Progress is impossible without change.”
France-Luce Benson is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre, and the host of the online gathering, Saturday Matinees.