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The Virtuosity of Black Storytelling with Tarell Alvin McCraney

by California Digital News

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Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminists exploring the legacies, present, and futures of Black theatre. We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley—

Jordan Ealey: And Jordan Ealey. On this podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, we discuss Black theatre history; conduct interviews with local and national Black theatre artists, scholars, and practitioners; and discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing.

Leticia: Tarell Alvin McCraney is a playwright, screenwriter, and former chair and professor in the practice of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama. He is also a member of Teo Castellanos D-Projects theatre company in Miami, a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble, and co-wrote the 2016 film Moonlight based on his own work In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue, for which he received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Jordan: McCraney’s numerous awards include the Whiting Award, Steinberg Playwright Award, Doris Duke Artist Award, Windham Campbell Prize, the London Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright, the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award, the Paula Vogel Award, and a 2013 MacArthur Genius Fellowship. Currently, McCraney is the artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, California. In today’s episode, we are delighted to share our conversation with Terrell about his journey as an artist and on the future of the American theatre industry for Black theatremakers.

Thank you so much for tuning in to another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. We are so honored to be joined today by a very, very special guest, and that is Terrell Alvin McCraney. Terrell, thank you so much for joining us.

Tarell Alvin McCraney: Thank you. Thank you. It’s been a very honor to be here. To be even honored to be speaking in this space is really dope, and I’m so excited to have a conversation.

Leticia: Yeah. I think this is so dope. I feel like we got [the] equivalent of LeBron James on the podcast today in the Black theatre world. You’re shaking your head, but I would say that at least for me, as a lover of Black theatre, I am just so honored to be in your presence and just echoing what Jordan said. Thank you for joining us today.

Tarell: Oh, no worries. No worries at all. And again, I just think the space that you all are continuing to make in honoring of Lorraine’s name or Ms. Hansberry’s name, particularly for some respect or her name, it’s always been important to me, and the legacy, and to be a part of that legacy, and to be a beneficiary of that legacy and have ways to give grace back I think is important. So I do know that I have done some things in the theatre, and I feel very proud of that, but the humility you see is that we’re talking about an artist who has shaped the American theatre, not just the silos in which her work is often placed as queer, as Black, as feminine, but a person whose play is done almost every single year by a major theatre in this country and has since it premiered on Broadway.

So that legacy is only shared by a very handful of folks, and some of those folks are being called the sort of fathers of American theatre when in truth we know that if there is a parent of the American theatre and the modern theatre that we celebrate now, we know it’s Lorraine Hansberry, and I know a lot of what Jordan has brought to light has been recognizing that every element that is a part of contemporary American life is in A Raisin in the Sun, and that even now when we do those plays, the subject matters, political, spiritual, and personal are all still so relevant even though they are set in a time that has now passed.

So I mean I could go on speaking about that, but I don’t take that lightly. That’s something that both it is a great tragedy that the world has not moved on past the one that Lorraine was trying to aspire better to and that her enduring legacy is a direct conversation with our world.

Jordan: Absolutely. And that is something that we wholeheartedly believe as well here and so thank you for also being a steward of her legacy in many, many, many ways.

Leticia: So to jump off our questions, we just want to ask about your journey to theatre. How did you get into it? What was the first play you’ve seen, and why did you gravitate to the theatre as a form of storytelling?

Tarell: I mean what’s interesting is that I don’t know that I saw a formalized theatre production until I was a late teen, although I had been in plays probably all my life and the cultural awakening that was happening for Black folks and Black nationalism in the late eighties allowed me to have a great education in the arts and a free education in the arts.

I don’t remember paying for an art class until I went to college, and then I paid a lot of money for art class. But prior to that I don’t remember finance or money being a barrier of entry to all the incredible programs that I had. And again, I attributed particularly to this place called the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, which was started in the seventies, again, based off the Black nationalist movement to create a center for cultural learning and exploration in the heart of Liberty City where I grew up.

Some of Moonlight we actually filmed in that very center. And so, for all the good and bad, the magnet programs were introduced and were really strong. And so, I was in middle school for drama immediately. And I had after school programs, again, that were free. And then my mother was in rehab at this place called the Village South. And they started improv troop for the children of some of the people who were in rehab at the time, and I was one of those kids.

And so I had this really robust, varied education in the arts and read more plays than I saw, because again, and even now, Miami has more plays now than it’s ever had at the time, but there was one place to see a play, and I wasn’t really going to see it or being invited to see it. I saw a lot of dance. I saw a lot of live performance. The Alvin Ailey second company had come through. There were a lot of folks who were in my dance classes who were going off to be in Alvin Ailey company or Dance Theatre of Harlem.

So I experienced a lot of live performance that had a lot of music and dance to it before I experienced theatre. But the kind of theatre that I knew was the kind of theatre that was pageant plays and church plays, and of course, we read Raisin in the Sun and August Wilson, but most of that was in school and in school projects. And what felt right to me was that I was always being asked to use theatre as a mechanism towards something larger.

It was never like, “Hey, just do theatre because you like it.” It’s like, yeah, that too. But even when I was in Santa Goes to Oz, which was this play written by a professor who ran this company called the M Ensemble in Miami, who was a graduate of Howard and also taught there. He started this theatre company in Miami called the M Ensemble, which was about representation and making sure that Black culture had representation.

And so even doing that play and playing left guard number two at twelve years old, I knew the ethos behind it. Every time I was in something, it was about something. So when I did dance performances at school, it was about looking at Black masculinity, and everything had a purpose always. And when we did peer education through the rehab center, the Village Improv Troupe, it was about doing peer to peer education about drugs prevention, rehabilitation, awareness around drugs and HIV and AIDS. And it was… we had to have a whole training about that and marry it to our theatre education.

So by the time I got to college, I didn’t know what it meant to do theatre for fun, just for fun. Right? It was fun. It was exciting and thrilling, but everything always had to have a purpose to it. So a direct engagement with the audience in some way that was about educating and forming, scaring, shocking, bringing joy, bringing healing. There was another group—there’s so many groups I was a part of—but this other group called Voices United started by Katie Christie in the late eighties after she had gone on a trip to Russia. It was one of the first exchange of students to Russia at the time, breaking some old war.

And she, being of mixed race heritage, she came back and was like, “Look, the only way we’re going to get world peace is that if people feel like they can work together on something.” So every May from 1989 on and still, she would take a group of students. I think it started off with fifty and it’s grew to two hundread, all kinds of all backs, all walks of life. They would come together and make a play, and they would perform it in May, and it would be on issues that they thought were important.

And so it was a multicultural, multi-art form theatre practice that allowed young people to have a voice about the issues that were important to them. So I knew you could do theatre for just for fun, but it didn’t make any sense to me. It all needed to be embedded in the purpose of connecting to community and that we were vessels being used or being channeled through to do that.

Jordan Ealey: That’s absolutely incredible. And so even when thinking about theatre broadly, how do you kind of think about your craft as a playwright? What is the kind of way you think about the structure once you write and why you choose the forms that you… I think I recently taught The Brothers Size in my contemporary Black theatre class, and we placed in conversation with things like the choreopoem. And so I’m curious about the way you think about form.

We look at the ways in which the story was told to us, was handed down in the oral tradition and the embodying, even the embodying of the narrative who you know—that is the person down the way who stays in the village community with you.

Tarell: Yeah. Again, the background I come from is a kind of choreopoem in Ntozake Shange world of thinking. And again, the artists that were my mentors were of that seventies, eighties Black arts movement where they did everything. They sang, they danced, the Melville Morris of the world, the people who did everything, who were connected to a deeper tradition too. They were connected to that early Chitlin’ Circuit/Moms Mabley who would get on stage, and, like there was a song part, there was a comedy part, and it all hinged on a kind of connectivity with the audience.

And so in all of my plays, regardless of their structure—Brothers Size, Head of Passes, Wig Out!, Ms. Blakk—there is a kind of connectivity the audience that, or outward connectivity, that is necessary for them to work, right? They don’t really work unless they acknowledge the fact that somebody out there is listening and I’m talking with or directly to them. And that’s just born out of that tradition of those artists who were very close to me and very close to my upbringing.

And even when I was an actor, I never thought of myself as just an actor because again, the way I was trained was, well, you’re going to do this monologue, but you need to write the transition that goes into that monologue, or you’re going to do this dance step, but what song is that and how does that get… Like everything from the way you introduce yourself in the slate to the way you bow at the end is connected to the purpose of being in front of people.

I mean I remember once one of my students said, “Black people are always on stage.” And so, if we’re intentionally and purposefully getting in front of people, we need to… The curation of that and the choreography of that is almost ten times more important, right? Because we’re always performing. Right now I’m performing. And when I get in front of white people to perform… The pitch of my voice changes exponentially, right?

And I think there’s very little study about why… Well, there’s lots of study from us about why, but there’s very little study about like the actual restraint and I don’t know if the word is quieting that one needs, because there’s a point where I have to go, okay, I’m actually not trying to perform when I create this thing. I’m actually trying to do what Beyoncé does, which is like create something on the stage that is actually more vulnerable and more raw in real life by giving it more precision. Right?

I’m giving it more precision and more guardrails, more boundaries, right? bell hooks teaches us boundaries are actually love, right? They actually give us the container to which we can pour a kind of boundless free love in, right? And so how do I craft a freedom that I can get in and go, right? How do I craft something that I can put my whole self in and not have the societal pressures and worries that I do when I’m performing in my everyday life?

And so it almost starts to become a practice of reverse engineering. What do I need to put in this space that makes me more intimate and more in touch with what I know I am spiritually? I keep saying myself because I know if I can do it for me, I’m doing it for the actor. I’m doing it for the audience.

So for example, in a play called Head of Passes, it was really important to me that we watch the destruction of respectability politics put in front of us. Owning a home and how much we pass on to our kids and the secrets of our lives that we keep away, the dangerous things about our family’s history that we keep. All of that needed to just be out and open in order for this unbraided conversation with God to happen.

And one can say that there’s success in that or not, but I knew that the only way that I would get to a place where I was vulnerable enough on stage to really cry out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Is if I had taken a character through all of those things and that as an audience member, a Black audience member, particularly, I had to put us in that point.

So I wasn’t trying to trauma trigger anybody, but I wanted to bring us to a point where I went, “Do you understand why now this is probably an actual raw call for God and it’s happening in front of you right now?” And the success I felt by were there were a bunch of mothers, particularly, who would be like, “I’m still thinking of the words to figure out how to express to you that journey that I’ve been through, and I had not seen it in space until you just put that there.”

And I was like, “That’s the recognition. That’s the affirmation I needed, right?” When we talk about form, it more often than not is informed by this idea of “how do I get to that thing that is most open and true for me and for the audience while also recognizing that we’re always performing?”

Leticia: I love that. This idea of catharsis and the ability for theatre to do that, specifically for the Black audience member, who I think is often de-centered in a lot of American theatre—

Tarell: Oh, yeah.

Leticia: Even when there might be a Black play on stage. So I love that. And I have to ask you, since I have you on the podcast, specifically, I’ve seen In the Red and Brown Water when I was an undergrad at UCSD, they did it. And at that time, I was taking a playwriting course, and my instructor at the time had a list of plays, and I was like, “There’s no Black playwrights on here, can you give me a list of Black playwrights?”

And she gave me a list of Black playwrights, which you were on, but they were also doing your production at UCSD. And I remember going to the theatre, and the reading of the stage directions was never an experience I ever had in the theatre. And it took me a process of unlearning of the expectations that had been set up with me of what Black theatre could look like, because I was ushered in to the usual suspects of what theatre was, right?

And I remember I seen that play nine times when I was at UCSD, because I was just so moved by the percussion of the drums. Drums at the beginning. And I felt seen in a way that I hadn’t felt in the theatre for a long time since my original play, which was Two Trains Running by August Wilson. So can you just talk a bit about where did the idea of speaking the stage direction come in, and specifically in The Brother/Sister Plays, how are you thinking about that in connection to the audience, and in conversation with the piece itself?

I don’t know that other species tell each other stories, but we do. And we learn from them. 

Tarell: Yeah. I mean you disadvantaged me, because you just answered the question, which is that the power… The audience is not fooled, right? And particularly the audience around the time that those actors are coming out. Black people have seen plays. They know what plays look like. They’ve gone to August Wilson plays. In fact, I remember writing at least two of them while I was August Wilson’s assistant, right?

So they had a legacy. They knew how to operate at a play, and some of the truth that I wanted to get at was that, like, “No. We know you are actually not this character.” You know what I mean? We know you Phylicia Rashad, you know that. But what is exciting, some of the reason why we’re here is because we also know that you have the power to be both who you are right now and transform who you are right in front of us.

So the moment you say, “I enter.” And I walk in the way that that character does, we just did magic together. Not I didn’t hide it, I didn’t put it behind some backdrop. I did it in front of you. In the way that, again, the old vaudeville, Chitlin’ and Biscuit Circuits used to do. I’m not going to hide the trick I’m going to do, I’m going to do it right in front of you. I’m going to tell you this story in front of you, I’m going to embody it like your uncles and aunties did when they told you, “Let me tell you a story about it.”

So she came in, and the minute you do that, everybody gets excited because you’re like, “Oh, she tells the best stories and her characterizations are so great.” And that again, it just distills us right down to what is… or about and wholesome and necessary and juicy, nutritious about the storytelling tradition. It takes away… And so even though that we’re speaking English and we’re saying lines like “So-and-so enters,” and when it’s done right—because again, there’s a way to do shit wrong. We do shit wrong—but when it’s done right, the actor is fully recognized and like, “Look, I know I’m here doing this thing. And after I say this to you, my job is to connect to you directly and say this thing.”

But the thing you’re here to see is how fast I can say this thing and be in that thing at the same time. That’s what you’re here to see. Just like watching Redd Foxx jump into a character or Richard Pryor telling the story and automatically he becomes that thing, or your pastor telling you the story of Lazarus and that he’s laying prone on the ground, right?

You are here for the virtuosity of Black storytelling in that way. And the quicker people can get into it and out of it… And there are other traditions that do that. I mean you think of John Leguizamo, you think of Robin Williams, but again, the virtuosity of that, that is a part of the American ethos of storytelling and mostly because of the way in which we have always told stories, right? That’s what we’ve done. And we look at the ways in which the story was told to us, was handed down in the oral tradition and the embodying, even the embodying of the narrative who you know—that is the person down the way who stays in the village community with you. And that community member has put on the dress, and it’s thick, and you can’t look under it because you know that nobody’s pretending that’s not a person, right?

It also allows the actor to figure out ways in which on this night, in this moment, I’m going to engage you in the best way that I know how and for this time. So say the audience is just rowdy who is acting up. Best way to get them to calm down is to go, I have to sigh. Right? Because there’s contracts… Giving them full autonomy to tell this story and given the way in which… Again, I grew up in the theatre or the theatre practices that I grew up in, I know if they were going to have money for lights or not. I know if they were going to… And I don’t want them to have to worry about that. I want them to worry about a capable performer being in front of people and being able to tell this very ancient story. And they evolve. Again, in most of my plays, there’s some way that the audience is being addressed, and even in Head of Passes, she doesn’t say stage directions, but when she’s talking to God, she’s looking at you. So she’s talking to the God in you, right?

And I didn’t make that up. Those are traditions that have been passed down to us from every side of the American performance landscape, from England, from Germany, from West Africa, from the Caribbean, from our Indigenous brothers and sisters, right? Like it’s in how we storytell in this country. And it’s always so funny because people are like, “That’s so unique. It feels so European.” And I was like, “I don’t know. Have you’ve ever heard Caribbean people tell a story? Have you’ve ever heard…”

I mean even now when we listen to some of the music that has come over from Afrobeats, the way in which there is an acknowledgement of, and a naming of in the break of the song. I mean you talk about the drums—when I was in African dance class, all West African dance class all the time, particularly works from Senegal and classes from Nigeria. There’s a break in the music. There’s a (singing). That break is them going “Your turn.” Right?

And if it’s in the music, which is so scientifically sound in terms of art, music is so together. Somebody is communicating to you, “Hey, hey, hey, there’s space in here for you to get in here. Right? We’re not pretending like you’re not there. We’re not going to keep playing this way. There is a moment and a break in this… You were learning the sort of when can you get in? Where’s the space for that connectivity?

There’s a call and response, right? And all of that was identifiable by me because I’d grown up in it. And so when I saw it in Shakespeare, I was like, “Oh, they’re just doing the same thing.” When I saw it in story theatre with Paul Sills in Chicago, I was like, “Oh, yeah. This is the same thing we do like this.”

The need to tell stories and engaged storytelling that unique need that humans have, I don’t know that other species tell each other stories, but we do. And we learn from them. Again, we’ve mourn with them, we joy with them. And I want to give the tools to get to that truth.

Leticia: I love what you said about there being multiple performance landscapes because one of my biggest pet peeves as a scholar of theatre and performance is specifically when white scholars will study a Black artist’s work and often attribute it only to certain theatrical figures such as Brecht, for example. Like, “Well, this Black playwright is using these Brechtian techniques.” Which is not to say that those are not influences, but that there is a plethora of places that they’re pulling from. And what work are we doing when we uplift certain performance landscapes as the primary one in which they’re working from and what that emission does to these other places that their work is being influenced by? So I just want to say that.

Go ahead, Jordan. Sorry.

Jordan: I was just going to comment. I loved your comment of virtuosity of… Oh, my goodness. Our listeners can’t see, but it’s like the balloons, it’s so funny. But the virtuosity of Black storytelling is so interesting that I love that phrase because something I often joke about, and I’ve joked by this with Leticia as well is like, I do… It’s actually not a joke where I love Black storytelling in the sense that we know how to do transitions.

For example, it’s like, “Now, mind you…” Or it’s, “Whole time dah-dah-dah.” Like Black storytelling is unmatched.

Tarell: Yeah. The way in which we predicate things… Now I’m going to tell you this, right? And it’s this idea that, like, “Wait, as if you would just told me it wouldn’t be equally as important, right?”

Jordan: Right.

Tarell: But it would have been, right? There is a world—

Jordan: Exactly.

Tarell: Where it wouldn’t have been that equally as important if I didn’t go, “So look, so boom.” You know what I mean? And again, it goes back to the fact that what you’re bringing up is that there is something specifically American also about the way in which we have braided that into the world we live in, right? Because some of it is filmic, right? It’s irising in. It’s allowing us to, like, “You caught that?” Right?

And that I never want to over-sophisticate any of the language that we use in storytelling because it all comes from the same… Similar to the same needs in storytelling. I mean, again, as we start to expand how storytelling is happening, there are definitely retentions from Asian American storytelling, how that storytelling happening. And again, we haven’t even begun to uncover the way in which Indigenous storytelling has shaped the Southwest in this country, right?

That being said, we can all link them to, like, “Well, why did people… Oh, because we all love an anti-hero every now and then. We all love a good disrupter every now and then.” And there’s one in every cosmology in every form of storytelling. And again, keep going back to those things that are so specific and/or while also acknowledging that they exist elsewhere is really important, so important. But that’s what white supremacy does, which is flattens even whiteness to one thing, right? Whiteness is all one thing.

When it’s like, “Well, there are white Latin people who tell stories in a certain way. There are white Italians who tell stories different than white Scandinavians, right?” But again, if you allow it to, the need to categorize and capitalize on the categorization that happens in commercialization of art, particularly, is like, “I need to track this directly to the most popular thing so I can say something about it and then move forward.”

And that doesn’t really work to keep the work exploratory. It doesn’t work to keep the work messy. It’s like, we should be able to pick up a whole bunch of things from the lab and go put a little bit of this and see if that does the thing. We’re all after something similar. How about we keep putting all of those in there so we can figure it out?

And then who cares where it came from as long as it’s effective, right? But I shouldn’t say who cares. I do care where it comes from, I just don’t know if it needs to just be totally attributed to one place, as you’re saying. It is messy, and it should be.

Jordan: Yeah. And so much of the Black diasporic experience is working in these fragmented ways, right? Because of like you said, that flattening of white supremacy, its erasure, its marginalization, its discrimination. And it’s like, we have learned how to quilt these stories as you do as a playwright, right? It’s… we’re quilting a lot of these experiences together to create something totally new. Because sometimes we don’t even know where the origin is.

Switching gears just a little bit: working as an artist and having your own works in TV and film and in theatre and then also working as an artistic leader, right? Chairing the department at Yale and now also in your new position, which congratulations [on] the Geffen, leading that theatre space. And we’re curious about the similarities, differences in working in a space as a leader and bringing that sort of artistic ethos into these spaces. And I don’t know, what are your hopes for this position and the direction maybe you might want to take this theatre?

Tarell: Yeah. I mean I think I want to do what I have always done, which provides space for early career artists to thrive and to lead us into the next phase of what we’re doing. I mean it’s just that simple. I want to work with artists who are excited about a laboratory and give them space to do it. And I also want to invite, engage, inform, give insight to our next generation of audience members, because they have to come up together.

The problem is that we keep thinking like, “Audience members over here. Artists over here.” I’m like, “No. No.” The way it works is the audience goes, “I love that artist.” And then they, they engage each other at an early state so that they grow up in the art together, right? They tell each other what they need, how they need it. And we often forget how shaped by audience some of our artists are, right?

Can you imagine if Richard Pryor’s audiences kept being like, “Richard, sing every time.” Right? This man started out as… He did. He started out as a balladeer. You could go online right now and look up Richard Pryor’s early performances. And he came out there singing these sad ass songs, and his voice was beautiful. He grew up in a brothel, so he knew what it meant to do those kind of vaudeville, juke joint shows.

And so one night started with some jokes, and that audience leaned in; and the jokes started being about his own life, and the audience leaned further. And then they fell out, and then they started… So the songs got less, and so even if you watch his television series, which came later in his career, it’s full of that leaning into the live audience to find out what it… How am I going to make you scream with laughter? Or how am I going to make you actually be in this space and be present?

And so we have to remember how my vision—I have to remember, not gonna talk about anyone else—I got to remember how it is important to keep artists with their peers in the audience, and so that they have a back and forth that is healthy and not just on opening night, before that, when they’re doing a reading of a thing. How do I get folks to go, “Hey, this artist is going to read. I’m really excited about it. Why don’t you come on in and see it? They want to hear want to hear it with you around.”

Now not everybody, but enough for you to get a sense. And that process of allowing an artist to take in what his peers are telling him and work on the page or sometimes work on the stage in the middle of it is so important. And we’ve truncated that for commercialization.

We truncated that for like, “Yeah. Two and a half weeks, three weeks in a room rehearsing. It’ll be better be perfect. If not, you’re going to open it in seven performances. Good luck.” And when it isn’t like the best thing ever or the playwright is trying to take like, “What is happening? I don’t get it. They’re not engaged here. What…” Or the actor’s like, “Well, I’m trying this thing, but I need more time.” We’re like, “No. Too late.”

It either needs to be a smash hit and critically acclaimed or not. And I had the good fortune of just flying under the radar for a long time with a lot of things. And then, of course, the story is that Brothers Size came out one night. And I was like, “I wrote Brothers Size in 2003.” We didn’t do a premiere of that play until 2008. We was definitely working on it in between.

I wrote Moonlight in 2003. It didn’t get filmed until 2015. They are tricking you. They are lying to you, telling you that it happens overnight. It does not. Things need time. They do need audience feedback. You do need to curate how you are engaging with your peers. Your peers need to say, “I don’t know what that means, bro. That seems weird to me, right?” You need it so that you can go, “Okay.” And without a cultural embarrassment that then allows, that makes you have to go, like, lose all confidence. Right?

Because every early dancer at the family cookout has gotten sat down by the auntie who was like, “Let me show you how this really…”

Jordan: Right.

Tarell: Right? And every kid has started to try to tell like, “Oh, I heard Uncle so-and-so tell this story. I’m going to get up and tell it like them.” And everybody’s like, “Oh, that’s nice, baby.” And you, you realize, “You know what? Next time I need to shut the fuck up or I need to figure out another way to tell this story.” Right?

And that it builds character. You know what I mean? It builds your expertise. So, my hope is to give that experience without sort of obliterating the faith and confidence that a person who has been called to do this has. So those are the things I’m thinking about. Now I’m having a great time now. I don’t know how long that’ll last. I also know that the not-for-profit is not sustainable for folks. And so I’m going to stick with it as long as I can, but you can tell I’ve never tried to get into a position of leadership in the for profit space for a reason. Right? Because I may have a work ethic, I think I have a pretty good work ethic. I don’t have a love ethic for some of the industry, and that is commercial and not-for-profit.

And in those instances, I try to really honor that I do have a love ethic for it. Again, as described by bell hooks. I do have a space where I can extend myself for the nourishment of my community and others and the energy is bound. I get energy from doing it. I get energy from thinking. I get energy from extending myself for that. Now for profit and commercial work feels like it asks you to sacrifice yourself. And that doesn’t feel good. And it doesn’t replenish, and it doesn’t feel sustainable. But in these other environments where I know money is not the object, and I know it is the actual community and the growth of other, I can use my love ethic. I can use my love for what this thing is and what it does to, to move through it.

So that’s what I’m hoping to instill, hoping to put that center and model that.

Leticia: I love that. We recently just did an episode on Black Theatre: The Making of the Movement, the documentary created by Woodie King, Jr. And in that documentary, Benett Carroll talks about creating a space for Black artists to fail and where they can actually have an opportunity to do in community and to do safely. Like you said, that’s not trying to put down their confidence or usher them into a different field, right? I think that’s so important, and those spaces don’t exist in the capitalistic system in which we are all embedded within.

Tarell: Yeah. And again, it gets harder because again, I think for the past TWENTY years or so, we in the non-for-profit theatre making section have been gearing ourselves towards a model that is more corporate than not. And we’re facing the fact that that actually doesn’t work to do what we want, which is really lean into the relationships and the love we have of this thing. It’s not sustainable because all it does is make us chase the money. And we’re never going to make enough money. We’re never going to make enough.

It’s in the name. It’s a not-for-profit. It doesn’t make any sense. Again, if we were in a commercial theatre, totally understand the need to be chasing the profit, the bottom line. But the commodification of art—and again, this ain’t my business, so I’m not going to try not to bind it—but in film and television, the commodification of art making is not doing them any favors either.

So I don’t know why we thought it would be great over here, considering the fact I was like, “Bam, we can make commodity all we want and put it up for sale.” We’re not supposed to be making money. We’re supposed to be literally figuring out a way to sustain ourselves. Yes. But the congratulations mode, the the goal, the success model has to be based on we launched the thing that is now in the world.

Now sometimes that means that we launched a thing or two or four or how many into the world, and now the sort of run of that is exhausted itself. And that’s okay. We find other ways to put that energy back into the ground and it grows up again. But we all sort of have been told we’ve got to institutionalize. And the only way the Americans know how to institutionalize is through business.

We literally are closing libraries. You’re trying to tell me that we don’t… We don’t know any other institutional model, except business, because those are the ones that brought us here and those are the ones that are lasting today. Those are the ones that have blood on the dollars that are still in existence and still work from the founding of this country till today.

And even public schools, libraries, any institution that are free, museums, all of that has been suffering for the past hundred years because we don’t know any other model but to corporatize it. And then when we do that, it’s like, “Well, is it really a free library then or is it a bookstore?” Right? And then when the competition moves in and makes that obsolete, then we don’t have an investment of like, “Oh, but that helps us, nourishes us in our spiritual practices.”

No. It’s a bookstore. So some of us go, “Oh, man. That bookstore went out of business.” Other people go, “No. Amazon gets my books here faster.” And it becomes about transaction rather than the connectivity of the place and what it does for the quality of life of the people around you. So I hope to help us divorce ourselves from that, but we might be too far gone. It’ll be fun to try.

Jordan: Yeah. I love that. And I think the thing about theatre is so much of it is predicated on the imagination, right? Because we don’t have all the bells and whistles sometimes that a camera can do. Right? It’s what we have in that shared simultaneous space for a period of time and that’s what makes it such powerful…

The sustainability has to be a part of it, because if the people get exhausted trying to reach, then what do we do?

Tarell: Well, yeah, it’s faith and action, right? And there are only a few places that we enact faith, right? We know faith to be the belief in something unseen, right? And so when you get into a theatre like we had in the earlier part of this conversation, we know that when you went to see Two Trains Running, you were not in Pittsburgh, right? You know what I mean? You weren’t there, but the power was that these folks in front of you were going to go, “Hey, we’re in Pittsburgh. Here are the circumstances. Here are the pressures. Here’s how the Hill District looked. Here’s how it feels. Can you imagine it?”

And as they’re asking you to do that, you are saying, “Yes.” And that acceptance puts us in an act of faith together. Right? I’m asking and you are agreeing to, you are enthusiastically agreeing to engage in this way. And that doesn’t happen everywhere. I talk about Beyoncé often because I think she had—even with the bells and whistles of what happens on stage—what she has the ability to do is to say to you, “Hey, I’m going to sing a song about a woman who’s been scorned. You want to hear it?” And you go, “Yeah.” Right?

And then she opens up that channel in her and does it. And then you start crying because you may not even be a woman scorned, Tarell, and yet somehow you fully feel and understand the necessity of this song, right? And somehow the lyric and you… So that agreement that is happening is what’s necessary. And I thought for a second that like, maybe, “Oh, I’d only been to four concerts in my life and three of them were Beyoncé.” So I was like, “Yeah. That’s all I really know.” Right?

So that makes sense that she has all the lights and sounds and that’s what’s doing it, and they do help. But then the other concert I went to, it was a Solange concert, and it was in a museum and there was nothing on stage except her and like some backup singers and like a band. And it was in the Pamm Museum’s lecture room. So there weren’t like lights and sound.

And Solange was singing to me about my life in those moments, right? And again, that act of connectivity from a performer in the live space to you, doesn’t mean I have to be anywhere. I don’t need to be an actual crane in the sky, but her making the illusion to it made me go there, right? Made me know that it was important. And I walked away feeling full of that imaginative part of my brain had opened up.

I had aspirations for the exploration of things good and bad, right? Well and unwell. And that is what happens in the theatre. And so my hope is that we keep curating and getting audiences and folks who not just new, but older folks who have been to the theatre to remember like, “Hey, what we’re actually doing here is providing you a space to practice that. That we’re creating an institution here for you to come in and be able to do that.”

Like a public pool. You come in here, get your laps in, you get stronger at the breaststroke and the backstroke. Well, get stronger at the imagining a world without racism. Get stronger at imagining a world where you are in the center of a terrible choice and you have to make it, right? And you have to figure out if you leave your whole family behind and do this other thing. We get practice in doing inhumaning, right? Where you can’t. You can’t act out these things on the bus just for fun.

I mean you could try. I think there will be some repercussions that we wouldn’t want, right? But like here is the space that we could help you get out some of that exercise and that you want to do. And if we invest in that as a quality of life, right? As a healthy means of finding, locating things and anger and parts of ourselves, then we invest in that in a way that we do a cultural institution that we need, not necessarily a business that we want to patronize.

Leticia: Yeah. I just think that you are absolutely right. And I think your ambition of creating this world via theatre is so important and crucial to, one, just Black life and living. And not just only for Black folks, but all of our brothers and sisters.

Tarell: Oh, for Black folks, but for Black folks, yeah. Well, I think we got to start singularly. And I think the Geffen is not a Black institution. I want to make sure there is space for Black folks in that theatre and the community of Westwood. And so this is not a corrective. This is a me going, “I don’t know that I can do it for the world. I do know that I can do it for the four blocks in which is the radius around the Geffen.” And that’s life’s work, right? Even that takes a lot.

And hopefully there will be others who find that important enough to do it further. But if I can do it for that block, my God, you know what I mean? Like if I can do it for the people on that block… Again, that’s why I say, there’s this idea, “manifest destiny,” we should have spread everywhere and everywhere. And I’m like, “Cool. I hope to God that is true.” My barometer of success has to be, you walk around this corner, you go, “Hey, right there. That’s a place where I go in and I change some stuff around when I went in there one time.” You know what I mean?

And if I can make sure that the folks in the vicinity feel that way or can resonate in that way, we’ve done the job. But the moment we started going, “We got to get them in Australia.” It’s like, “Well, that takes resources, and it pushes us to start, again, not thinking sustainably.” And one of the things I’ve said to my poor staff, I know they get tired of me saying it, but I’m like, “Whenever we’re deciding to do anything, anything, mop the floors, can we do it well? Can we do it that it brings in and opens our doors and invites our immediate communities?” Right?

And when I mean immediate, I mean the people down the street who may not have access to pay for it, or the people we have to step around to get into this. Like, does it help bring in those folks? Because we have a serious problem here in LA, right? And can we do it sustainably? Right? So that we do it the one time, but then we don’t go, “Whew. Shit, I’m tired. That took everything out of me. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do the next production. I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to work here next year. In fact, I’m going to have to go do something else that’s a little less taxing and a little more pay.”

You know what I mean? The sustainability has to be a part of it, because if the people get exhausted trying to reach, then what do we do? Right? My poor staff, they’re like, “Tarell, you say that every day.” I’m like, “Look, I’m reminding you too, I’m reminding myself too.” You know what I mean? Because, again, none of us are being paid. You know what I mean? None of us are being paid to be like, “Okay. I can do this one year and then I can take a year off and then I can come back.” None of us are being paid enough to do that. Right?

And if we know this is soul work, we’re going to get soul tired. And so how do we make sure there’s enough planning in that to go, “Cool. All right. Cool. I know I got at least three weeks before I have to get back in there and let me read, let me eat some snacks, let me get my nails done.” Whatever it is that you need done.

Jordan: Right. And that’s so important, and it just reminds us, right? Like Lorraine Hansberry and the weight of the world on her shoulders. And James Baldwin even saying things like, “I think that the weight is part of what contributed to the fact that she is no longer with us and so early on in her life, in her career.” And so just those questions are so important and they’re so crucial, even if they keep saying it over and over again. It’s just like, this is the affirmation, it’s the affirmation.

Tarell: Until they say it to me first, I’m going to keep saying it to them. That’s my job to be like, “I’m going to keep reminding you.” So that you’ll be like, “Hey, Tarell, we actually can do that sustainably.” And I’ll be like, “Oh, good catch. Good catch. Thank you.” It’s a good catch… Well, I believe it was Lorraine in her journal or her listing about never be afraid to sit a while and think. And it’s so scary how we don’t… I was like, “We need to put that in the plan.” It needs to be like, “We do this, we do this, we do that, we do that, great.”

And now we sit around. We sit and think. That’s what we do. We got a week to do that so that we come back and we have metabolized some things, and especially for, again, I’ve said, I’ve been fortunate enough to have many a Black woman writer in my cohorts and the amount of like, “Come on. We got to… You get out of here, it’s this, this and this and your work is going to be here. You need to apply for this and be a…”

And I was like, “Oh, yeah. Yeah. Hey, you get a chunk of change? Sit down somewhere.” You’re going to get so much more out of the ability to just check out for a second.

Leticia: I will say that if there’s any way that Daughters of Lorraine can be a steward to the work that you’re doing at the Geffen, please let us know.

Tarell: Well, you already are, you already are. Keep providing. Keep having these conversations. Keep providing access to this legacy, keep allowing your academic study, which is… Again, I told Jordan, I was like, “You’re doing the work. You really are doing the work. You’re providing a scholarly academic look in a very visceral way about the legacy of women writers, particularly Black women writers in this country, and they have been holding us.” I mean look at that Essence spread, that bizarre spread that was up the other day.

I was like, “This is important.” I mean there were names there, I was like, “Everybody’s here.” And there’s a couple of others I think I need to throw up there. And there’s some dramaturgs that have been out here on the field. So many of those women have been mentors and are mentors to me even now. I mean they say they’re not, but I’m like, “No, Dominique, you are. You absolutely…” Before I took this job, I was like, “Let me have a conversation with Dominique Morisseau.” And if she would have been like, “You shouldn’t take that job.” I’m like, “No.”

I talked to Lynn Nottage almost every day of my first days of becoming Chair of Playwriting. She was my teacher at one point. I was constantly… Jackie Sibblies [Drury] was on staff. And I was like, “Jackie, please don’t… You can’t go anywhere. We need you here. We need you a part of the process.” Katori Hall was another person, and Patricia McGregor. These are folks who just pour into this work, a vision of true generosity that I’m sometimes distracted by, by not Black women peers, right?

They like, “We got to get this paper. We got…” And I’m like, “Yo.” They are showing us the way. And so anyway, I don’t mean to go on, but I really find it important. I found it so important that conversation we had back at Howard about this legacy.

Jordan: Yeah. It’s part of our work. And so we’re so grateful that we had a chance to have you on the podcast to talk to us about like just hearing more about your ethic, your ethos, your craft and going to have this conversation. We’re so happy and it’s great to talk to you again and hear about it. And good luck with the next step here, the Geffen. And we are so looking forward to continuing to follow your work in all of its facets.

Leticia: All right. Thank you all for listening.

Tarell: Thank you all for listening.

Leticia: This has been another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. We’re your hosts, Leticia Ridley.

Jordan: And Jordan Ealey. Thank you so much for joining us for our fourth season. We are so glad that you all tuned in for such an exciting collection of episodes and interviews. In the meantime, if you’re looking to connect with us, please follow us on Twitter @dolorrainepod, P-O-D. You can also email us at daughtersoflorraineatgmail.com for further contact. Our theme music is composed by Inza Bamba. The Daughters of Lorraine podcast is supported by HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide. It’s available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and howlround.com. If you’re looking for the podcast on iTunes, Google Play or Spotify, you’ll want to search and subscribe to “Daughters of Lorraine podcast.”

Leticia: If you loved this podcast, post a rating or write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find this transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content, on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay or TV event that the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the comments.

Jordan: We’ll be taking a short break, but we cannot wait to come back and give you more Black feminist theatre content.

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