By Face Off Theatre Company
KALAMAZOO, Mich. – Shawntai Brown, a Detroit-born African-American playwright and Western Michigan University grad, writes comedy with a fresh voice. She’s at once edgy, hilarious yet wistful as she tackles her favorite but often not openly discussed subject — the world of queer women of color like herself.
She does it in a relatable way, crafting plot lines along universal topics such as competition for love, love lost, loneliness, and the loss of community.
All these themes are explored in her play eLLe opening 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14 at the Jolliffe Theatre in the Epic Center, 359 S. Kalamazoo Mall, downtown Kalamazoo. It repeats at the same time on Friday, Nov. 15 and Saturday, Nov. 16, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Nov. 17. Tickets are $8-$20.
The show is jointly staged by the Black Arts & Cultural Center's Face Off Theatre Company and Queer Theatre Kalamazoo. It is the 10th installment in an episodic stage series. This episode is titledThis Lane Open.
Check out our Q&A with this talented writer!
1. Give us a glimpse of your journey in writing. What’s been your favorite genre? Any others you want to try?
I have been writing since elementary school, publishing in the school literary journal or making my own little books for my parents' coffee table. I always knew I loved playing with words, and had an affinity for writing stories, poems and songs. I remember listening to a fiction series of vignettes my older sister wrote about a group of teenagers. I would listen as she read them to me from the upper bunk bed. After that, I decided to write my own set of vignettes, centering each one on a song from the (R&B group) SWV album "Release Some Tension." I would type it on my old Mac, print it, tear off perforated edges, and staple a few copies together to give to a few cousins and friends. They would pass the stories from locker to locker. That was the beginning of my journey into episodic storytelling, which lends itself to eLLe Kalamazoo.
2. What made you explore playwriting?
I also have been doing page and performance poetry since 9th grade, which encouraged me to pursue creative writing in undergrad. While an undergrad at Western Michigan University, I studied mostly journalism, fiction and poetry. It wasn't until I had Steve Feffer my senior year that I really realized the magic of writing my own plays. I had done theater in high school (I was in a Readers Theater group under Marilyn McCormick and participated in a few play productions while at Cass Tech), but participating in The New Play Project at WMU really solidified my appreciation of playwriting. Handing my writing over to a group of directors and performers, and letting them add their magic and ideas and talents to my words really illuminated the power of community for me. It felt powerful to be able to write into media and theater those stories and characters I thought were missing from the mirror art was supposed to create for me.
3. Are you working on a play now? If so, what’s it about and when will you be done? Does it have a theatrical home yet?
I am always working on something. The next eLLe Kalamazoo production, of course, is at the top of my list. My hope is to pen a spinoff series that takes place in Detroit, where I am currently based. I also am working on a group play with Extra Mile Playwrights Theatre in Detroit about Aretha Franklin and our beliefs as humans and Detroiters on royalty and death. A movie script is in its beginning stages as well; a sci-fi drama about family and music. I am always hoping to find time to work on stories from Idlewild, MI, which is pretty big in my family history. And finally, I am working on a script loosely based on Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with MOSAIC Youth Theatre of Detroit.
4. What themes/experiences do you most enjoy illuminating on the stage?
I love putting black queer women at the center of stories. Perhaps it is because I longed for those examples of women growing up. I still long to see more women that reflect the possibilities of my own experiences. I wonder how I might have come into myself sooner if I had those possibility models Janet Mock (writer/director/transgender advocate) spoke of. I didn't need to see an exact version of myself; just what was possible. I want to expand the view of black and queer experiences. It doesn't all have to be hardship and coming out, and being torn down by society. It can be the normality of life and those universal truths we must all face, but through the lived experience of someone who is queer and is black and is a woman, and does have a specific history and lens attached to that intersectionality. I also love thinking about faith, belief, the power of community, and the culture that family creates which we must all wrestle with as we try to live and love with others. And, I prefer to laugh in the beginning, middle and end of all of it.
5. What do you think the role of the playwright is? How do you see yourself in that?
I don't know that there is a specific role, except to make the audience want to have a conversation afterward. That's what I hope my work does. I hope it stirs an idea, a question, a prompt. Within playwriting and with my literacy work in general, I hope to empower people to empower themselves and drive their own growth. That's why I love the communal aspect of language that is fostered at a play. I want the audience to feel something together, wrestle with why they might feel differently, or at the very least, want to tell someone about what they experienced. My ultimate hope is my writing inspires others to write. I hope they watch and think, "She didn't quite get that right. I better get to typing and show her the real story from my perspective." Any good story should make fertile ground for another story.
6. Which playwrights breathe on you?
Dominique Morisseau is, of course, giving me life right now. Her dialogue, the setting of Detroit onstage, the stories of industrial people, the presence of varied romantic combinations all leave me feeling loved. And, of course, I love the greats: Wilson, Hansberry, Susan Lori Parks, etc., Tectonic Theatre Project. But I also get inspiration from television, music, and, of course, poetry. I started in the poetry world, and am far more versed in the magic of Pamela Sneed, Danez Smith, Maya Angelou, Sandra Cisneros, and many more. Above all of that, the voices of my dad, grandparents, extended family, teachers, neighbors, store clerks, servers, strangers, all are what most breathe on me. The pallet of voices drives me to write and find myself within familiar and foreign tongues.
7. Let’s talk about eLLe. What inspired you to pen this play?
I was salty after The L Word ended. I had just happened upon it in its last season. And, when it ended, this knot was lodged in my throat. It was the first time I had seen queer women of various backgrounds, not just white women, uplifted, living, working, loving, playing, experiencing something other than just societal abuse. The show was fun, and it made me feel safe to have fun being myself rather than feel ashamed or alone. I also hated the ending episode, so I wrote a follow-up to the finale, mostly to entertain myself. My roommate at the time read it, and handed it off to Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative (in Kalamazoo).. They wanted to stage it, to my surprise. And they really invested in helping to find the actors and support the rehearsal process. It turned from being my salty response to being this community of people I desperately needed as a newly-out lesbian. It was that communal experience of writers, actors, directors or just women who wanted to hang out and run lights that drove me to write each new play in the series.
8. Is it autobiographical? Are any of your characters based on people you know? Is there a character in this latest installment that you most relate to and why?
It's all autobiographical, which I'm not sure what that says about my sanity! Am I dynamic or do I need to get a grip. Probably both. Each character has a piece of my own experience in it. I think many actors over the years have found their reflection in many of the characters or stories, and part of that is these are the stories I see around me, and the other part is these are pieces of my own life and experiences that I wrestle with. I would say, I am most like Izabel at the moment in that I am always reaching to reveal new parts of myself that previously I thought had no place in society. Izabel is coming upon this bravery and these desires that upend her romantic relationship and offset her goal for marriage and the security of family. In being willing to demolish those plans, she may make them more viable for herself in the long run. At least that's my hope for myself; that authenticity and dedication to one's truest self will eventually be seen by others as indispensable.
9. You have chosen to give voice on the stage to queer women in your eLLe episodic stage series, and in particular to several women of color in this latest installment. How well has the theater community done in telling such stories in the past? In that landscape, where do you see your work fitting in?
I won't say that the theater community was doing a bad job. I think those stories just felt inaccessible to me in so much as I didn't see them, or hear about them, or read those stories of queer women of color. Because I didn't see them on stage, and I rarely saw them on the screen, and I rarely read them in print, it felt like my existence - the existence of those like me - wasn't valued. Much has changed since I penned the first eLLe. The entertainment and literary world has really opened the circle to include more characters of color, more queer characters, more variety of experiences. I still think being a black lesbian is an oft-ignored experience. I think it's important to have stories where black LGBTQ folk aren't included, but are centered. I think as a black woman, people who share that identity have long been viewed as the star when times are bad and the best friend when times are good. I want my work to star the holistic and varied experiences of blackness, of woman-ness, of queerness and age and place and belief. In that sense, I hope my work fits everywhere. For as many white, straight characters I know, you all should know my people, too.
10. What do you MOST hope audiences, regardless of sexual orientation and identity, will get out of this play?
Everyone needs community. It shapes us. It gives us permission to be. It gives us perspective. It gives us empathy and security. Losing community or the threat of losing community is something most people can understand. That's essentially what this installment of eLLe Kalamazoo is about: What happens when we belong as oppose to when we don't belong? How do you create space and permission to be oneself? No matter who you are, you need a place where perhaps multiple parts of your being can live undisturbed. And for those who have all the community they need, I hope they get a kick out of some of the antics of the characters.
11. This is the first time a black theater company is staging an eLLe episode. Face Off Theatre Company and Queer Theatre Kalamazoo are jointly producing the project in their first-ever collaboration, which is expanding the reach of your work to more people of color. Are you excited?
I am so excited! Knowing two important venues of theater and identity would be working together drove the creation of the play. I often have felt isolated in queer community by my blackness and isolated in black community by my queerness. So, to have to pillars of what I consider the new face of theater working together is making my heart thump so hard I might fall out my seat during the production. I have so much respect for both Face Off and QTK, it feels like two of my dream women have reached compersion and decided to take me out simultaneously.
12. This is the 10th installment in your eLLe stage series, subtitled This Lane Open. What made you choose to do an episodic series? Any joys or challenges the format has presented for you?
I sort of answered this earlier. It's the community that drives the writing of each installment. I also think so much comes from following characters as they grow, and as I grow, and as the community grows. Over the years, language has changed, the depth of identity has really deepened, and society has swung to the left and right. It's interesting to explore these changes with a constant: the characters. There is a reason people binge read/listen/watch a series or a trilogy or a spinoff. When you get to know a character, they become a part of you. Stories don't truly end, we just decide not to tell them anymore. I'm interested in telling, learning, discovering more through characters I think I have come to know. I don't want to let these friends go sometimes. The episodic nature really makes that possible. Admittedly, sometimes I hate these friends (characters). They are a lot to keep up with. Some of what happened in previous installments, I cringe over; much like real life. Why did I have that character do that? Why did they say that? What the hell were they/I thinking? This complicates the story I think I want to tell now. But that's life as well. The past can't be revised. I have comfort and quarrel with that. I think the comfort of familiarity and the surprise of possibility make people want to stick with a story.
13. How many more episodes are in you? Do you envision it ever ending? Are you still as fired up about writing a new episode as you were about writing the first one?
I have so many stories I want to write outside of eLLe, but I am not quite done yet. I think a change in scenery for some of the characters I feel more attached to will open the series more for me. Location is its own character, and I am more based in Detroit than Kalamazoo, and my city tells a very different story of love and sexuality than Kalamazoo does. I don't know how many years I have left with this project or what it may transform into. With The L Word returning, I may feel that fire I first felt back in 2008/9. I'm more fired up about writing than ever, so my pen and keyboard won't be resting anytime soon.
14. Your scripts are very witty, and the dialogue quite spicy! Where do you get your ideas for the next plot and for the dialogue?
I love listening to strangers. I love the musicality of familiar voices. I love the rhythms of language I have learned from authentic dialogue. I remember watching my grandparents’ tennis ball quips at one another in this tumultuously loving sport of words. I could see their difference and affection and comfort for one another. So my dialogue comes from that enjoyment of watching people build the picture of affection and conflict with language. As far as plot, I keep living and watching other live, and what seems to always be true is there is a distance between who we want to be and who we are. I think that drives story for me. There are things we all envision for ourselves, and then there is what is. It's fun to explore all the possibilities of how we reconcile that distance.
15. What should we know about you personally that informs your work?
I identify as a black, queer, ambiamorous, agnostic, lesbian, literacy advocate. I believe there is a story in everything. Loss and death and loneliness have defined me as much as success, and love, and grace. I'm not sure what else to include, as it seems it would give a false sense of the importance of what I exclude from explaining myself. I hope I can have a better answer in years to come.
16. While the play focuses on queer women, is it intentional that this latest installment in your eLLe episode stage series touches on universal themes like competition for love, love lost, loneliness and loss of community? If so, why? Is it a way to draw people in? Or, are saying that, at the end of day, humanity shares common experiences? Or, during the writing process, you simply found that the characters were writing themselves so to speak—in short, having a life of their own?
To an extent, they always write themselves, but I had a bone to pick with the world. So many lesbian bars, businesses, and spaces have been erased. So many of us feel crunched in and forgotten shared space. I wanted to use the eLLe world to talk about that. Also, I recently had a big transition in my romantic life, domestic life, friend life, work life and writing life; and like most writers, I danced within those experiences with hope that my characters could help me make sense of this new version of my world. I think, as an ambiamorous person (which some may think of as occasional polyamory or non-monogamy) the competitiveness of love and romance help me think more deeply about what it takes to maintain relationship, to make the people I love feel loved in a recognizable way to them. I also think the competitiveness of love is ridiculous in a sense, and it makes for great comedy because it's a stupid competition so many of us (myself included) can't help but constantly throw ourselves into. It's when we lose that competition of love that we realize so many other things (family, livelihood, satisfaction with self, contribution to the rest of the world) actually could have put that fight for love into perspective. It could have showed us it's less about winning and more about balance. Mostly, I had fun writing this installment. It was a challenge, but it was an enjoyable one. I hope the audience will sense that amusement as well.
NOTE: Shawntai Brown is scheduled to attend the Nov. 16th performance! We'll be doing a live, onstage interview with her immediately afterwards!
ABOUT SHAWNTAI BROWN
Shawntai Brown is a Detroit writer, literacy coordinator and teaching artist with a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing from Western Michigan University and a Master of Arts in literacy learning education from Marygrove College. She serves as a resident playwright adviser for Queer Theatre Kalamazoo. Her poetry and plays have been performed and published in various venues and publications. (Source: Michigan Council of the Arts and Cultural Affairs)
eLLe will be staged 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 14-16; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17 at the Judy K. Jolliffe Theatre, Epic Center, 359 S. Kalamazoo Mall, downtown Kalamazoo.
For tickets: Click here!
The lives of queer Kalamazoo women intertwine even more when Izabel and Naya, sworn enemies competing for Lane's attention, begin working at the same Kalamazoo grocery store. Their competition turns outward when their friends start carting their issues of loneliness through the aisles. Devon and Mia are searching for intimate connections while Carrie and Lane are determined to remain solitary.
Each performance is preceded by “A Ligature for Black Bodies," a short play about police brutality by Kalamazoo playwright Denise Miller. The powerful piece debuted at Face Off Theatre Company's New Play Series this past July.