By Face Off Theatre Company
KALAMAZOO, Mich. – Here’s a little trivia about the two directors leading the charge for eLLe, a play set in Kalamazoo about relationship struggles, belonging and loneliness facing a group of queer women that opens Thursday, Nov. 14 at the Jolliffe Theatre in the Epic Center.
Did you know co-directors Sarah E. MacLean and Marissa Harrington, each experienced actresses and directors, already knew each other and have both performed in multiple past productions of this episodic stage series now in its 10th installment?
MacLean is resident company director of Queer Theatre Kalamazoo. Harrington is artistic director and a co-founder of the Black Arts & Cultural Center’s Face Off Theatre Company.
The show is being produced through an historic, first-ever collaboration between both theater companies.
They say they decided to partner because African-American playwright Shawntai Brown was touching on more racial elements in her eLLe episodes, and Queer Theatre Kalamazoo, which had lovingly staged the series for years, wanted to do justice to the material. Brown’s latest installment intentionally includes more voices of queer women of color.
“I love putting black queer women at the center of stories,” says Brown, who describes herself as a “black, queer” literacy advocate. “Perhaps it is because I longed for those examples of women growing up.”
The play will be presented 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14 through Saturday, Nov. 16; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17. Tickets are $8-$20.
Check out our Q&A with the co-directors!
Tell us about the eLLe series of which this play is a part. Why was it created? And how this 10th installment differs from the others? Is there a central character(s) that return? Need you have seen the earlier plays to follow/appreciate this one?
Sarah: Kalamazoo eLLe is an episodic stage series loosely based on Showtime's series The L Word. This is the 10th installment to this thought-provoking, edgy and sexy series. The first episode was adapted for the stage from a short film script. The character of the detective at the end of the HBO series got fired and sent back to her hometown Kalamazoo. At that point, local characters, some resembling the original series characters, were created developing relationships and histories of their own. There is no specific character intended to be the central character. There is no need to have seen the other episodes to understand this episode. But those who have been following will catch all the innuendos.
Marissa: There are no "stars" of the show per se. There are recurring characters that we have all come to know and love: Lane, Devon, Naya, Izabel, Mia. Over the years, other characters have been introduced to enhance the story line and add to the richness of the play. You don't need to have seen previous episodes to enjoy the current play. In fact, each eLLe series has a "previously on eLLe" section where we recap what happened in the last episode to catch the audience up to speed.
What's the full name of this play? What are its main themes?
Sarah: Kalamazoo eLLe episode 10: This Lane Open by Shawntai Brown. This episode put sa lot of focus on the demise of the characters local beloved queer coffee shop. This issue inspires actors to share their stories of relationships failing and losing the queer community. It also motivates characters to share their coming out stories and how they might create a new queer community.
Marissa: Main themes include embracing identity, a sense of and belonging/community.
What would say is the tone(s) of this play?
Sarah: In classic Shawntai fashion, this play covers all emotions. I would probably call it a drama with cleverly written moments of humor and sexy satire.
Marissa: My opinion is that it's a dream. Equal parts funny and dramatic. It is heartwarming and heart-wrenching. Very human.
Pick three adjectives that best describe this play.
Sarah: Provoking, soul searching, community.
Marissa: Relatable, authentic, thought-provoking.
Why did Face Off Theatre Company and Queer Theatre Kalamazoo choose to partner on this play?
Sarah: eLLe has been supported in stage by Queer Theatre Kalamazoo for (six of its) 10 years. The playwright has begun including more characters of color and more important issues about race, biases, and queerness in the Black community. We are grateful for the collaboration with Face Off to support and portray these messages successfully.
Marissa: The play involves a lot of intersectional themes including race and sexuality. Both theaters wanted to make sure that the playwright's work was fully fleshed out in every area possible. With collaboration, you get the benefit of multiple voices and multiple life experiences.
What motivated Shawntai Brown to do a play about queer women of color? What does she wish society to know?
Marissa: I think Shawntai loves to put a voice and story to ideas and themes that may not always be talked about on a grand scale. ESPECIALLY in theater. Unfortunately, talking about LGBTIQA+ issues in the black community is STILL taboo. We (as a community) have a long way to go in regards to progress, education and acceptance around this topic. Shawntai does a beautiful job of discussing what's important in the lives of specifically queer women of color in a relatable way.
What significant messages are contained in this work? What do both theater companies hope audiences will get out of the play? Who do you hope will attend?
Sarah: Some important messages that we hope will reach our audiences is the idea of community and bringing the awareness of queer owned and queer safe spaces here in Kalamazoo. I hope everyone will attend. People of color and queer community are important, and, even more importantly, I hope allies and those who could use some more awareness will hear of this play and be curious.
Marissa: I hope everyone will attend. We hope that audiences will see a little bit of themselves in each character and each story line. We hope that this play will spark conversation surrounding safe spaces in the Kalamazoo community not only for queer individuals, but everyone.
Any interesting points you wish to make about the cast that the audience can look forward to?
Sarah: I don't think there's any specific points about the cast I wish to share for the audience other than the idea that many of these issues, some being race-based or gender-based, relationship struggles; or that need to feel accepted in community are around us everywhere. Even in the lane at the grocery store.
Marissa: It's a great, diverse cast.
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.
(Photo credit: Marissa Harrington's headshot, Tanisha Pyron Photography)