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First Person: Djanet Sears on writing for theatre
Notes Of A Coloured Girl
32 Short Reasons Why I Write For The Theatre
by Djanet Sears
1 For me, writing for the stage reflects the hybridity of my lineage. I am bi-cultural: African Canadian. My practice is both oral and literary. In the poem Talking Drums #1, African American author, Khephra, puts it this way :
Carved from that same tree
in another age
in the mother tongue
made drums talk
now in another tongue
make words to walk in rhythm
‘cross the printed page
carved from that same tree
in another age
Talking Drums #1 (Khephra 125)
2 I was having lunch with Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. We were mostly talking about a play of his that I'd directed called A Branch of the Blue Nile. Towards the end of the conversation I said to him, "Can I ask you a stupid question? His eyebrows crawled up to his hairline. But he didn’t say no. Not that I gave him much of a chance. I quickly kicked all hesitation out of my mind, and asked, "Why do you write? What compels you to put pen to paper; finger to key?" Derek Walcott retreated to the back of his seat, allowed his eyebrows to return to their original position, and looked at me. Silence. He seemed to be staring at me; almost looking right through me. Realizing that I'd probably insulted him, I quietly set about plotting my escape. Then all of a sudden a torrent of words spilled out of his mouth.
“I don’t know why I write.” That's what he told me.
He said that for him writing wasn’t a choice. From as far back as he could recall, he had written. He described it as a kind of organic desire. He didn’t know why he wrote, but when he experienced that urge, he felt compelled to act on it, whether he was on a plane, whether it was first thing in the morning, or last thing at night. He had to write.
I was eighteen and in New York City...
3 I don't believe in miracles. My life has taught me not to. But then I witnessed the birth of my sister’s first child. I’d seen birth films. I studied human reproduction as an undergraduate. Still, this child came out of my sister – already alive. I mean, not yet fully born, her head alone protruding from between her mother’s thighs, she wailed. Full of voice, she slipped out of the velvety darkness that was her mother’s womb, into the light. I was overcome. I watched as Qwyn, this tiny, golden-umber coloured soul, caught by a man in a white coat, was separated from the placenta and bundled into blanched cloth. I stood there for a moment and wondered how she would come to know herself, blinded by the glare of snow? What would this fair world tell her? And I was sad for her – or maybe it was for myself.
4 I desperately wanted there to be no question of her right to take up space on this planet.
5 I was eighteen and in New York City when I saw Ntozake Shange’s play For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. This was the first live stage production by a writer of African descent I had ever seen.
6 This will not be Qwyn’s fate. (Nor the fate of her younger sister Kyla, her cousins VaNessah, Djustice, Arianne, Justin, Donny, Sherie, Danielle and Alissa.) 7.They must have access to a chorus of African descended voices, chanting a multiplicity of our experiences. For one voice does not a choir make. And I cannot wait. 8.I harbour deep within me tales that I have never told. 9. I too must add my perspective, my lens, my stories, to the ever growing body of work by and about people of African descent.
10 Fifty three years ago, in the year of my birth, Lorraine Hansberry's first play A Raisin in the Sun, opened on Broadway to extraordinary critical and popular acclaim.
11 A Raisin in the Sun marked a turning point, for until this time no Black writer, Black actor, Black director, or technician had benefited financially from any of the plays about Black people that had been presented [in the commercial theatre]. (King vii)
12 An old West African proverb states, that as a people, we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors.
13 Lorraine Hansberry is my mother – in the theatre – and she accompanies me wherever I go. 14 I have been known to drop her a few lines, now and then. 15 And yes, she responds. 16 As a Black woman, and a writer for the stage, I stand on her shoulders. They have been a firm and formidable foundation on which to rest my large and awkward feet.
17 Acting is the craft that I have been called to by my nature. Writing is the craft that I have chosen to nurture. 18 As a young actor, I soon realized that a majority of the roles that I would be offered, did not portray me in the way I saw myself, my family, or my friends, in life. I found myself constantly auditioning for either the slave, the runaway slave, the prostitute, the drug addict, the drug addict's girlfriend. I became consumed by my own complaining. 19 Complaining, imploring, and protesting, only served to disperse my energy.
20 Protest takes an enormous toll. We can and should make noise. However, in many cases our screams fall upon deaf ears. (cont'd)
21 Don’t get me wrong here, without protest we’d never have had the likes of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Angela Davis or Nelson Mandela. But effective activism requires certain gifts. My craft is the practice of theatre, so that is the medium I must use.
That's why I am so in awe of artists like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Ed Bullins, Ben Caldwell, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and Nikki Giovanni, many of whom were involved in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. The fact is they used their work as a vehicle with which to express personal and political aspirations.
22 In early 1993, Christine Moynihan approached me, on behalf of the Toronto Theatre Alliance and Equity Showcase Productions, about coordinating the spring ‘Loon Café’ (a one-off evening of presentations involving a host of performers, directors, writers, production workers, designers and supporters). I agreed, on the condition that I could do anything. In the ensuing weeks I developed the blueprint for the evening which I titled: Negrophilia: An African American retrospective: 1959-1971. The three studio spaces of Equity Showcase were renamed: Obsidian, Onyx and Jet. And the events taking place, three in each room over the course of the evening, involved readings, performances and discussions around Black theatre in America. There were plays that I had loved and only read. One new piece, Jimmy and Lolo, was a collaboration, based on an idea that had been brewing inside of me for ages. Performed on the rooftop of an adjacent building, the play tells the story of the relationship between James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry. The entire event was inspirational; a rousing celebration of Blackness.
23 I have a dream. A dream that one day in the city where I live, at any given time of the year, I will be able to find at least one play, that is filled with people that look like me, telling stories about me, my family, my friends, or my community. For most people of European descent, this is a privilege they take for granted.
24 Like Derek Walcott, I too have no choice. I must write for the theatre. I must produce my own work, and the work of other playwrights of African descent. Then Qwyn, her sister and their cousins’ experience of this world, will almost certainly be different from my own.
25 But where do I start? How do I find the words? All I had were my objections, my grumblings, my accusations.
26 Then a close friend, Clarissa Chandler, an educator and motivational speaker, shared with me a process for using my nagging mind and my raging heart as a way to get back in touch with my innermost knowing and creative desires. She identified three steps of transformation that I could use like footprints leading me back home.
First: identify the place of complaint.
27 First: identify the place of complaint. (This can most easily be recognized in the complaining we do in secret, in conversations with friends, or in the privacy of our own minds.) Second: Say it out loud. Create a mantra out of the complaint. (Give it room in the world). Third: locate a creative point of expression for this mantra. 28 Paint it, dance it, sculpt it, sing or write about it. Do not limit yourself.
29 For instance, Shakespeare’s Othello had haunted me since I first saw Laurence Olivier strut across the screen in black-face. Othello is the first African protagonist in the annals of western dramatic literature. In an effort to exorcise this ghost, I wrote a play called Harlem Duet. Harlem Duet, a non-chronological prequel to Shakespeare's Othello. It's a rhapsodic blues tragedy which explores the effects of race and sex on the lives of people of African descent. It is a tale of love. It's a tale of loss. It's the story of Othello and his first wife Billie. Set at the corner of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Boulevards in New York City (125th St. and Lennox Ave.). Harlem Duet is Billie’s story.
The exorcism begins.
30 For the many like me, Black and female, it is imperative that our writing begin to recreate our histories and our myths, as well as integrate the most painful of experiences… (Philip 25). Writing for me has become a labour of love. The process is probably not unlike the experience of giving birth. But in this case I'm attempting to give birth to myself. Writing for the stage allows me a process to dream myself into existence.
31 In a recent clinical study at Duke University to determine why Black women died of heart attacks at a higher rate than White women, researchers discovered a direct connection between racist comments and an overworked heart. The constant internal stress consistently tore the linings of blood vessels in Black women's bodies. (Franklin, Lehrman & Mason 24)
It seems that I must write to save my own life.
32 There are a great many times when I forget. I forget why I’m doing this. Days when the blues move from a deep cerulean to icy cold pale. So I have the following words by Langston Hughes on my wall, just above my desk, for those times when I most need reminding. In the poem, Note on the Commercial Theatre, Hughes writes:
Stand up and talk about me
And write about me –
Black and beautiful
And sing about me,
And put on plays about me!
I reckon it’ll be
Yes, it’ll be me.
Note on Commercial Theatre (Hughes 190)
Franklin, Deborah, Lehrman, Sally and Mason, Michael. “Vital Signs: Racism Hurts the Heart Twice.” Health. Vol. 10, No. 4. (October, 1996)
Hughes, Langston. Excerpt from “Note on Commercial Theatre.” Selected Poems Langston Hughes. (New York: Random House, Inc., 1974)
Khephra. “Talking Drums #1”. Essence Magazine. Vol. 20, No. 11. (March, 1990)
King, Woodie & Ron Milner. “Evolution of a People’s Theatre”. Black Drama
Anthology. (New York: Signet, 1971).
Philip, Marlene. She Tries Her Tongue. (Charlottetown: Ragweed Press, 1989).
Harlem Duet is at the Segal Centre October 20-November 11
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