fbpx Claiming Our Space with Hana Sharif | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Claiming Our Space with Hana Sharif

Daughters of Lorraine Podcast Season 2 Episode 6

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

Jordan Ealey: And Jordan Ealey. On this podcast, we will 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. So please stay tuned.

Daughters of Lorraine podcast logo of two smiling black women

Daughters of Lorraine Podcast logo by Clarissa Bittes.

Jordan: In an essay for HowlRound by Teresa Coleman Wash entitled The Ugly Truth about Art Institutions Led by Women of Color she found that a 2016 study on women leaders of theatrical institutions revealed that "hidden behind a gender and race-neutral job description is an expectation, grounded in a stereotype, of what a theatre leader needs to look like: white and male.” This all seemed to change in 2018 when it was announced that four women of color were now heading four large theatre institutions. Maria Goyanes at Washington D.C.'s Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company. Stephanie Ybarra at Baltimore, Maryland's Center Stage. Nataki Garrett at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Hana S. Sharif at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. This new cohort of women of color is ushering a new era for the American theatre industry that is still largely lacking in racial and gender diversity.

Hana Sharif's appointment as the artistic director was monumental. The first in the company's 54-year history. Alongside Garrett, Sharif joins a legacy of Black women leading art institutions from historical leaders such as Barbara Ann Teer of the National Black Theatre and Vinette Carroll of the Urban Arts Corps to contemporary leaders such as Kamilah Forbes at the Apollo Theatre. Sade Lythcott of the National Black Theatre and Teresa Coleman Wash of the Bishop Arts Center among many, many others. As the first Black woman to head a LORT theatre Sharif has also had a long and influential career as a theatre artist and administrator. We had a chance to sit down with her a while back which is the focus of today's episode.

Leticia: Hana S. Sharif is an award-winning director, playwright, and producer. She is currently artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and serves on the board of directors for the Theatre Communications Group and the Sprott Family Foundation. She has served as an associate artistic director at Baltimore Center Stage as well as associate artistic director, director of new play development, and artistic producer at Hartford Stage. Hana also served as co-founder and artistic director of Nasir Productions which brings theatre to under-served communities. She has spent the last two decades innovating producing processes, strengthening community engagement, and producing multiple world and regional premieres.

As a fierce champion of new American plays and playwrights, she has helped develop over 100 plays including Pulitzer, Tony, and OBIE award-winning masterworks. Her plays include All the Women I Used to Be, The Rise and Fall of Day, and the Sprott Cycle Trilogy. Today we share our conversations with Hana Sharif where we picked her brain about her role as an artistic director, theatremaker, and leader in shaping the future of the theatre industry.

hana sharif seated in a theatre

Hana S. Sharif at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo by Kevin A. Roberts.

Leticia: Hey everyone. Welcome back to Daughters of Lorraine. We are so excited to be here with Hana Sharif. Thank you so much for joining us today. Could you please self describe for our listeners to give them an idea of who you are and what you do?

Hana S. Sharif: Sure. Thank you guys so much for the invitation. I'm so excited to be here talking to you. I describe myself as a playwright, director, producer. A generative, interpretive, and curatorial artist. I currently am the artistic director of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and have spent most of my career with institutional jobs in artistic departments of major theatres across the country. But I really started my work in institutional theatre with my own grassroots scrappy Black theatre company and love and honor and cherish those days. That my entire career has been built off of the work that we did with Nasir Productions that started way, way, way back in the way back machine.

Leticia: We are so excited to have you. I'm just echoing what Jordan said and for our listeners, we've been trying to get this interview as soon as me and Jordan were like we're doing Daughters of Lorraine, we need to get Hana on the podcast because we met Hana, what was it two years ago?

Jordan: Oh probably now, yeah.

Hana: Yeah.

Leticia: Two years ago and let's just say it was a life-changing experience so we are so happy to bring her into wherever you're listening to. Your car, your home, your walk, where ever it is. So my first question for you Hana is what brought you to theatre? How did you get interested in theatre and performing arts at large?

Hana: Yeah you know I actually don't remember a time where I wasn't participating in some kind of art. If you ask my mother she'll tell you I was a very dramatic child. I don't know if that's actually true but I was writing plays when I was very young. Like elementary school and I would make my brothers in the backyard act in my plays and we have this family reunion and we have this thing called the snappy show which is a family show and the family reunion happens every three years and getting my piece together for the snappy show was my favorite thing leading up to the family reunion each year. So there was kind of this love for performing and that performance for me was always rooted in the creation of text first so I always wrote my own pieces and then would perform them. So the idea of artistic expression being a means of navigating the world is as early as I have memory for.

I wasn't sure that it was a career though. Like you grow up in a family and you're expected to go to college, go to grad school and stack those degrees and then do something with those degrees that looks like respectability. So I thought my other career track was going to be civil rights law and when I got to college, I went to Spelman for undergrad, woo, woo Spelman was one of the best decisions I made in my life. I loved my collegiate experience and one of the things that I think is very true about the way that I grew up but also what is part of the foundation for every Spelmanite is the concept of servant leadership. So I knew that whatever my career path was going to be it had to be something that was going to affect the world. That was going to bring about transformation. Change that was going to help elevate our humanity.

So I got to college and I was like, okay well I'm going to be pre-law but I also just am not going to stop doing theatre. I've done theatre all through middle school and high school and I directed my first real play, like 100% play when I was 17 and loved it. So I was like when I get to college I'm just going to keep taking theatre classes and I decided to double major in theatre and the reason we started the theatre company is that actually the head of our department left Spelman at the end of our freshman year and there was this transition that happens when you have the head of a department leave. So there were no professors my senior year of college that were there my freshman year of college. So if you can imagine as an arts major having no continuity in terms of people who are watching and helping you develop.

So sophomore year a bunch of us were at my apartment literally in the living room talking about taking control of our own artist journey while we were at school so we weren't the class lost in transition. And we set up this mission statement and this charter around pizza in the center of my living room and decided to launch a company and we started self-producing and I loved it. I was the artistic director of that company, but when you're working in a small scrappy company it's not like you get to do one thing. Everybody's wearing all the hats, right? You do whatever needs to be done. You might be lighting design and stage manager and marketing and somebody else is the director and the set design and the costume designer. Someone else is acting in it but they're also raising money. And we would beg, borrow, and steal from everyone. From local theatres, from our departments, from our houses. I multiple times put my rent money up on lights in the hopes that we would sell enough tickets for me to be able to pay my rent at the end of the month and if not call my dad to be like, "Hey daddy. I did another show."

Jordan: It happened again.

Hana: "Don't tell mom but could you?"

Jordan: Could you spot me a few hundred dollars?

Hana: Yeah. In fact give me four, maybe five this month. So that's really how I became an artist but also how my professional career began. It began out of this hunger and passion to tell the stories we wanted to tell and we were really focused on how little theatre there was in the Black community. That there was theatre being created. I was in Atlanta, there was theatre being created in Atlanta but not necessarily targeting us. We were on the west end of Atlanta, there was nothing for the young people there so we really wanted to create theatre that served under-represented communities. And we also wanted to create theatre and tell stories and create stories that were answering the questions we had about our lives. So that was what the collective was doing and for me, as a writer, I always viewed my writing once I was able to really think about the politic of it and the aesthetic of it that I really used my writing to answer questions I had about the world.

My artistic practice is rooted in this sense of being part of a spiritual continuum so when I write I understand that the words are coming through me and not of me and that all of this is kind of connected on this spiritual continuum so it's like okay I've got to open myself to listen to the ancestors. So if I have questions about my reality then the answers to that are rooted in the journey that we've come. I have a play called All the Women I Used to Be which is all about this spiritual continuum right? So that philosophy also I think is a huge part of the way that I work in all capacities.

So that's my work as a writer but also the way that I try and nurture the creative teams and the artist when I'm directing a show. The way that I try and lead as a producer in creating a safe space to know that these artists who come to the table are coming carrying the energy and the legacy of all that came before them and that if we don't create a wide enough table we don't create an open enough space than those energies can't collide in a way that's going to make something magical happen as far as art is concerned. So those are the things that made me want to do this and made me believe that this was a valuable use of my time and my talents, right? That if my job was to try and elevate humanity and my two tracks were either I'm going to be an artist and do it through art or I'm going to be a lawyer and I'm going to do it through the law, then the art had to feel like a stronger and more powerful tool than the law. And I found that to be my truth when I was 20.

Leticia: And yeah I think that is even true now as sort of all Black Lives Matter is happening and the racial pandemic that I think Black folks have always known that the law is perhaps not the root for liberation in a way that the arts if you look at Black theatre historically have always offered that mode of intervention. That mode of community building, the genealogical link that you're speaking to. So I just love this idea of a community of the ancestors and how it's so rooted not just in your practice as a playwright and writer but how it influences your role as a director and other artistic ways.

Jordan: Yeah and I think in keeping with that line of thought we're hoping for you to speak to what it's been like for you as a theatre professional working as a Black woman in this industry. You've spoken about your production's commitment to answering questions about the Black community, about thinking about how Blackness functions in your work, and yeah we would like to hear a little bit more about your lived experience as a Black woman in the theatre industry.

Leticia: Do you get this question a lot? I'm just curious.

Hana: I do but it's like I think about my colleagues also Nataki Garrett who's running Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In some ways, people think of us like anomalies but we understand that we're actually part of a very rich legacy in history in that neither one of us should be an anomaly at this point because there are so many Black women who had the talent, the drive, the ingenuity, and the innovation to lead these major PWI's right? And that the fact that both of us are leading institutions are because we became additional bodies behind the bodies of all those before us that kept throwing themselves at the glass ceiling until we could crack it.

So I think we're really clear and Nataki I'm sorry I'm speaking for you, my love. But we're really clear that we stand on the shoulders of all of the women who came before us in that we have a responsibility to all of the Black women who are in the pipeline now to make sure that we are widening the space and that we are holding this space for you all. So when people are like, "What's your favorite?" And I'm like well the most fun I had, the richest experiences were the experiences in the beginning when it was my company. When we were creating what we wanted, how we wanted, the way we wanted it to happen and while our audiences may have been small they were passionate and affected by the work we were doing. You know I often say that I went to the big white regional theatre not because I thought that was making it but because I wanted to know what they knew that I didn't. Right?

So I'm running this small scrappy theatre company, all of us were running on passion as fuel but we hadn't trained as marketing directors or development directors. We had trained as artists and I thought there have to be some best practices that we don't know. So I want to go in and steal the master's tools. I want to get in there, I want to learn what they know. I want to know how, I want to learn everything I can about how these multi-million dollar theatres do it, and then I want to get out and rebuild and refocus some of what we're doing with our company so that we're bigger, stronger, faster or whatever.

I often share that story because it's just the truth and when i made the decision to go into the regional theatre I went and I interned or did an apprentice year at Hartford Stage and I knew walking in those doors that I was making a choice to step away from leading us and artists first because they weren't hiring me because they wanted my work as a director. They weren't even interested in my work as a director. They were interested in the producorial muscle that I had. They were interested in me running the lit department and being an artistically driven admin. And then the fact that I was a great producer became where I was most valuable to the institution as a producer who knew play development.

So I found myself, we're just going to talk on a professional level of how I was able to break open and out of one box and into another is that I didn't need them to train me as a director, I had already done that. I didn't need them to train me as a writer, I'd already done that. I had producorial skills but what I wanted to master was how to navigate and produce at the scale. I wanted to know how to produce a play with a $500,000 budget instead of a $5,000 budget. I wanted to understand timelines and tracks and where all the money was going. When you spend $500,000 on a play where does all that money go? And what happens when the play is over?

Those are all of the big questions I had in my early 20s about how multi-million dollar theatres worked. So I became their artistic assistant and then I ended up the TGC New-Gen grant which was one of the most phenomenal opportunities. And so many, I'm going to say this, so many artistic directors in this generational shift that has just happened in the field, people who are leading these theatres were new-gen scholars or part of the directing fellowship that TCG had at the time. Emilya Cachapero is a brilliant, brilliant nurturer of artists. She has an eye for talent and I just want to say that you can look across the field and see what the investment in those programs has meant for the industry.

So anyone who questions whether or not those types of mentorship programs that have that level of access agency and funding behind it make a difference the entire American theatre is leaning on the backs of the people who were trained in those programs, so I offer that. But that grant brought me back for two years as artistic associate and then I became the artistic producer and then I became the director in play development and then I became the associate artistic director. So I ended up staying in Hartford for almost a decade and I always say I kind of grew up in the business at that theatre because I had such agency and access to learn. And with that agency and access came real challenges. I think that there's no way to ignore the time that I came in, I was the only person of color full-time with the company. I was the Black female voice. I was the POC female voice, I was the female voice in the artistic department helping drive the agenda. There was no sense of how I might benefit the company until I got in there and was doing the work.

Now I will say one of the things that was real interesting about my time in Hartford compared to my time in Baltimore was that in Hartford I worked for two white artistic directors, male artistic directors who really invested in me and believed in me and knew that I was there to serve their vision and I think we're really proud of the work that I did for them because I made their lives easier and made them look good. I worked at ArtsEmerson after that also under a white male artistic director and then when I went to Baltimore it's the first time I worked under an artistic director of color and the first time... There were always microaggressions and challenges and it's hard to be Black and the only voice pushing against the systemic racism of our field. There's no question about that.

When I moved to Baltimore it was the first time that it became glaringly clear how real the racism of our fields can be because it was the first time I was working for a Black artistic director. So when I worked in Hartford and I walked in a room and I came in as the lead producer and was saying, this is how things need to go or this is what things are going to be people didn't question my authority because I had been anointed by a white man and because this was at a time where there were no conversations about EDI. They assumed that the only reason I had my job is because I had to be some mythological magical creature because why else would he hire this Black woman? Black women don't do this job so she must be something special if he decided to hire her. I was walking with the anointment and cover of his, whichever his you want to put in that place because they were all white men, but their anointing. And then, even with all that experience, like almost two decades of experience in leading producorial process, I land in Baltimore and immediately people are like, he only hired her because she's Black. Right? And I'm like, boo did you Google me or check the resume?

Leticia: Yeah. Check the CV.

Hana: Just wait a minute. Literally, I was flabbergasted. I was like really? This is the moment when someone's going to be like she's only here because? And they haven't done any of the work of figuring out what the history is, what the work product is, what the resume looks like, whether I'm qualified. So early on Kwame was like, "You're just going to have to them know who you are and what you've done so that everyone can back up off the idea that the only reason you're here is because I'm Black and you’re Black." And I believe it was the first time in the LORT system that you had a number one and a number two in the artistic position at a LORT theatre that were two Black people or even BIPOC people. So it was revolutionary.

I remember we had a Colman Domingo play on stage, it was in tech and I was visiting. I had been hired and I was actually house hunting and no one knew that I had just taken this job, we hadn't made any announcement yet, I was literally just there for the week looking for housing and sitting in on some meetings, and Kwame's like, "Show up at tech.” So I show up at tech and I walk in and all of these folks I know who are BIPOC artists are on stage and in the room and they're like, "Hey Hana. What are you doing here? What are you doing in Baltimore?" And I said, "Oh you know, I work here." When I tell you stunned silence and then folks started laughing like big huge body laughs, laughing until they cried. And I remember one of the actors saying, "Y'all are so crazy." Looking at Kwame saying, "You know they don't let two of us in the same house." Like what are you doing? And Kwame and I just hugged each other and stood there and looked at each other like yeah, this is more meaningful than we thought it was going to be.

And then a couple of weeks later we went to the TCG conference and again we still hadn't made an announcement we just both showed up at the conference and I had my BCS badge and he had his BCS badge and we were walking around the conference and people were like, "Wait, what?” And it's funny even now thinking back on it but it's also bittersweet because that was just like, you know seven years ago and it was so extraordinary that two of us might live in the same house.

Leticia: And not just the one that is adorned and then surrounded by the same people who've been in the room the entire time.

Hana: It's hard when you think about it. When you pull the joy of everyone's collective joy reminds you of how important every single stride we make as a community actually is, it also reminds me that none of it is actually about me. Right?

Leticia: Yeah.

Hana: Those folks were laughing until tears and then joyful because of me. We're friends but it's because of what this moment means and represents.

Leticia: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Hana: It is claiming space and our success together means no one is ever going to question whether or not you can have two BIPOC people leading an organization in the number one and number two position right?

Leticia: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jordan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Hana: I'm never going to have to question whether or not I can hire a person of color who's supremely qualified to work with me out of fear of what people are going to say. We just have to make it happen. Being the only one is hard. Being the only Black, brown, Indigenous, whatever voice in the room. The reason the system has so often kept us relegated to being a single person was to limit the pace at which we can affect change.

Leticia: My word.

Jordan: Don't make me shout up in here.

Hana: Right? It's not an accident. There came a time where it was no longer acceptable really to have none and so then you let one. And then that one has to fight on so many different levels to affect change. To be recognized. To have the agency to be able to do the work that they are qualified and brought in to do and are often having to work with obstructionism and subterfuge and whatever. There's so many different circles working against you. People at times and I mean this without hyperbole rooting for your failure. Because your failure will further support the concept of white supremacy. Right?

Leticia: I needed to hear that personally but I'm sure some of our listeners needed to hear that as well and I just thank you for that word because I think you're speaking to the broader impact and how our industry is rooted in white supremacy at its core and oftentimes these conversations are stifled because theatre's supposed to be such a liberal place where everyone can be included and like what? Now we have your stories on stage, what do you mean that we're racist? And that our practices are rooted in that? And I think we see that with we see white American theatre in this statement. And my question for you is how do you see your role as an artistic director at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis sort of combating those practices? Or trying to make conversations about racism anti-Blackness in the industry more commonplace?

Hana: Yeah, so my answer now is different than if you had asked me a year ago, right? Like a year ago I would say, "Look that's part of the job. That there's an evolutionary process that I kind of have to lead with a lot of empathy and compassion around the changing of the guard but that my entire career has been rooted in expanding the table." Expanding the art and expanding the audience which is what I was actually hired by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis board to do. And so it was a year ago, it was just a matter of what's the pace that we're going to help bring people along? Well then you go seven months ago, we have a global pandemic that hits and it implodes the global industry. Theatres shut down all across the world. Nobody performing on stage, right? Then we have a racial pandemic that is exemplified by the death of George Floyd, followed by the death of Breonna Taylor, followed by the death of, followed by the death of, followed by the death of, followed by the death of. Right? Which has led to this sense of what I've heard some folks refer to as a racial reckoning though we haven't quite gotten to the reckoning part.

But the combination of that has been actually a pretty, whether we recognize it or not because we're also in it, a pretty massive shift on the Zeitgeist. When you have NFL teams changing the name of their teams, not that this whole thing was a new idea, this has been a fight that's been going on for decades after decades after decades. But the timing now where Fortune 500 companies are having to deal with their profits being affected by how they show up and the overtness of the racism in their campaigns and also who they support.

Then applying pressure to the people they support. So when you start seeing the commercial companies having to navigate and talk about systemic and institutionalized racism what do you think that means for a non-profit who depends on the corporate support who's got the foot on their neck? You know what I mean? So the space right now, our society the cultural lens is being fractured in little ways. It's not happening by accident. Don't let anyone tell you the doors are opening, the glass ceilings are shifting. Someone's being allowed... No one's being allowed to anything. It is literally the will of the people and the bodies of the people who have taken to the streets. Who are in these board rooms making demands? People are making all of this work in our society happen at real risk to themselves. Right?

Leticia: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Hana: So We See You White American Theatre is one of these anonymous collectives that has popped up in the last six or seven months. There's also People for Progress and there's so many of these collectives that have come together and started to push for transparency and I have to tell you when We See You W.A.T. sent an email to my inbox as artistic director and to my managing director's inbox and to the president of my board's inbox dropping a thirty page demand letter comprehensively covering every sector of our field from commercial producers to unions to training programs to regional theatres I mean it's like the entire industry went boom. And that demand letter, which every single one of my colleagues that I spoke to received, required us to expedite what were previously considered slow evolutionary conversations in change and progress.

So we now have to address and not just because there's some third party anonymous group telling us we have to, but because the light is so clearly on it that there is no option of ignoring it. There's no benefit of the doubt, there's no way to cleanly say "Oh I missed it." Nobody missed it. You didn't miss it because it was in your inbox. You didn't miss it because every time you get on a LORT call or call with a national funder or a call with other AD's or a call with other artist collectives. Everybody's talking about it. You didn't miss it because your Instagram is blowing because of it and your Facebook is blowing up because of it. You cannot miss the conversation which means you do not have the option of not participating.

Jordan: Yeah and I just want to know do you... And of course like you just said, this is so ubiquitous that you can't ignore it and if you're ignoring it then you don't want to address it. And do you feel that there's more pressure for theatres who are led by women of color? Or people of color? Do you know, people who are like "Oh I expect this from this person because of this." Or do you feel like it's something that equitably everybody is supposed to be doing this?

Hana: What I actually think is that institutions like my own that are led by people of color actually have a little bit more grace and cover. You know like I say out loud in my department head meetings because I believe in transparency I'm going to say it on this podcast, "There's no question that my organization has benefited from the cover of my Black skin in this moment." That people assume, those folks calling for change assume that my colleagues who are in these positions who have recently taken these positions who are people of color already know that this work needs to happen and are in the thick of doing it. It doesn't mean that we get a pass because like I said, that email ended up in my inbox too. They didn't say, "Oh there's a Black woman running that theatre, she doesn't have to meet these demands." Right? Everybody's getting called to the carpet but I do think that there is an assumption that those institutions that are run by people of color are going to get it right with support and help. And there's an assumption that the institutions that are not run by people of color might not get it right because they might be trying to check a box because they don't actually have a cellular-level understanding of just how much harm our institutions have caused.

Because BIPOC bodies have been silenced during the time of their matriculation through these institutions. People were unable to speak their truth, were unable to talk about their journeys. We're unable to talk about how they were harmed for fear of retaliation, punitive measurements. Afraid that their careers were going to be affected by it and we know this is true. This is not just for BIPOC folks, this is also for men and women who have been sexually harassed at institutions. They are all forms of abuses. And one of the things that's so powerful I find about this demand letter and I had this conversation with my own staff as we were trying to navigate through it when folks are like, there's so much focus on BIPOC and what does that even mean? It's such a new language, it's such a new term for people, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and also someone said, "Some of these demands are bigger than race." I said, "All of these demands are bigger than race and ethnicity.” Here's the beautiful thing about the lens that we can choose to focus on this work with. If you solve the issue of oppression for BIPOC artists you will have solved the issues of oppression for all of humanity.

Jordan: Combahee River Collective said that. They said Black women are free when everybody's going to be free. When Black women are free because in order for Black women to be free that necessitates the destruction of all of these systems of oppression.

Hana: It's absolutely true. Right?

Leticia: Yeah. Yep.

Hana: So the same issues that I have with gender inequity as a Black woman, if you deal with it then all women will have been dealt with as far as that parody's concerned. Which we know has not been true in reverse.

Leticia: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jordan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Hana: The term intersectionality is still a new term for leadership in our field. This idea that oppression can show up in multiple forms and that a body can carry multiple types of people's unconscious bias. I don't have the luxury as a Black Muslim woman, cis gendered, mother, sister, wife to pretend that I don't deal with people's bias on every level. You know I just had another baby, she's two and a half months old. So excited to have her, she's such a joyful addition to our family but it would be impossible to say that when I found out I was pregnant I wasn't thinking about the unconscious bias people hold about a woman in executive leadership and motherhood.

That I didn't have to wonder how some of my male board members might question my ability to lead because suddenly I was carrying a baby. That there might be a bias that says all the things that I was before are going to be challenged by this new moment. And I experienced it a decade earlier with my first child and that was before I was in executive leadership. When I was in senior management. So I could only imagine how heightened it was going to be in the thick of a pandemic where people's fear was going to be set off by their unconscious bias. And so the way I chose to navigate things was to help people manage their own unconscious bias. Which is just an additional layer of work I had to do at a time where there's plenty of work to be done. I actually don't need to have to jump through six hoops. I'd love to just be able to do my job. But my experience as a Black woman in this body in leadership is that I actually don't have that luxury. I have to think about the potential minefields of unconscious bias around me. I have to know where they are and I've got to do the little ballet dance around it in order to succeed.

And that success I'm really clear is not just my success, right? If it were just about me I wouldn't be doing this job, it's not worth it. I can make more money and have less stress doing something else. If this was just about what served Hana I would not be in this position. But because everything is about that continuum and the understanding that it is through us not of us that we are servants to the communities that depend on us and that those communities look like many different things. I've got the St. Louis community and the region but I've also got my BIPOC director, playwright, producer communities. We have a global community looking to us for leadership. I have these babies who are looking saying, "What is the world you're handing to us?" So it's so much bigger than anyone of us individually. And the work is so important. None of us really have the option of checking out. Or pretending that it doesn't matter or that our intersectionality doesn't matter. It's just not an option on the table. If there's oppression anywhere then our job is to root it out.

Jordan: That's a word right there.

Leticia: This whole interview's a word.

Jordan: This whole interview is a word and I think one thing we want to say before we go is we would like to know some works you would like to highlight. Anything that you dream of directing. Whether it's at your theatre or at a different institution or some works that you've encountered that you would like to highlight.

Leticia: Yeah, I also want to know what's your favorite Black playwright?

Jordan: Yeah.

Leticia: I know it's an unfair question I know it's unfair. I know it's unfair.

Hana: It is such a hard question. And you know what's so crazy? It's like there's so many. Like when you ask the question there's so many plays that are so timely, so this, so that. The play I want most to direct again and probably again because I feel like every time I encounter the play at a different stage in my life I understand it differently and I truly think that it is a masterful play that just does not... I think it's too hard is Funnyhouse of a Negro.

Jordan: Oh my goodness. That is my favorite play.

Leticia: You and Faedra.

Jordan: Oh my goodness. I'm obsessed with it.

Hana: Adrienne Kennedy, that play, I remember the first time I read it. I remember the first time I directed it which was in college. It almost ate me. Trying to direct that play it took me out.

Jordan: Yes.

Hana: It took me out. I said, "I'm not ready for this." Literally, I was like ancestors you're going to have to help me because I thought I knew what the play was about and then I started to dig in and I was like, oh. Oh.

Jordan: It's so layered.

Hana: It is. it is and it's why I want to touch it again because I'm a different person now with more life experience and I want to touch it again another 20 years from now. But it's a hard play to do. It's a hard play for folks to find their way through and so any of my producer friends listening right now.

Leticia: Make it happen.

Hana: Who wants to produce this play I'm here for you. I'm here for it. That is one of my dream plays.

Leticia: Yeah, I think, well producers I know you don't know me but make it happen. There's an audience for it. And I feel like we don't give Adrienne Kennedy her flowers. She is still here and that play is remarkable. Even though Leticia is someone who loves a good straight play I appreciate it because the play is so difficult and even when I teach it my students are struggling with it. But I think that's so important and she's riding alongside y'all's king Amiri Baraka and she's doing the work.

Jordan: I mean wasn't her mentor Edward Albee? Right?

Hana: She was also my mentor.

Jordan: Yes, yes.

Leticia: The continuum.

Jordan: Yes. The continuum, yes. The everything's connected. It's a small world.

Leticia: So are you going to answer the other question about who is your favorite Black playwright?

Hana: I will tell you... The folks can't see my face, only y'all can see my face. I have spent my entire career being deeply invested in the nurturing of great voices across the continuum. There are so many living Black playwrights that I find to do extraordinary work. It would be impossible to choose one because I still want to work with all of them and you know...

Leticia: The trap didn't work y'all. The trap didn't work.

Hana: You're not going to be able to catch me on that one however I will say that many, many, many of my favorite playwrights, people that I've grown up in the business with, people whose work I have so respect are doing incredible work and they're crossing over. A lot of them are showrunners on shows in Hollywood and are doing some fierce writing. Part of why we have such great TV is because of these Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous voices that have come out of the American theatre who are slaying Hollywood and making a lot of money doing it. Like getting to buy houses and cars that the American Theatre never let them buy. So I'm here for it.

Leticia: True.

Hana: And I'm here for it because none of them have given up on the theatre. Right? Like you look at somebody like Dominique Morisseau or you look at somebody like Marcus Gardley or you look at somebody like Katori Hall who all have these hit shows on TV. Shout out to P Valley and also—

Leticia: Which was a play first.

Hana: Yes, it was a play first. But also have shows either on Broadway or about to take off on Broadway and also have shows in the U.K. and also are still doing new work all over regional theatres in the country. The fact that the money and the lifestyle, the ease that comes with being paid what your worth, which TV and film can do, and theatre can't yet has not taken them away from the passion in the beginning and the heart of the art which is on our stages. So I have so much respect for all of those veteran voices. There's so many emerging voices that I think are phenomenal. We just did, our theatre did a developmental workshop of Monty Coles adaptation of Black Like Me where he was bringing some fire and I really enjoyed being introduced to his work. I think that he's a great director, playwright, producer. Just so, so many. And the thing that I love is that the work is everywhere. Do you know what I mean? People are no longer just depending on X, Y, big regional theatre. There are these independent new clay festivals that are popping up. There are these Afro-futurism festivals popping up where we're seeing our art at the forefront and I'm a futurist at heart and I'm here for it. I'm here for it.

Jordan: I'm here for it too.

Leticia: Yeah.

Jordan: I’m here for it too. And before we go I just want to ask you, you are a talented artist in your own right and not just on the administration side. So what are you working on? How can folks find you? What's coming up for you?

Hana: Right now so much of my work is in the rebuilding of the American theatre not just my own but really in these complex conversations across sectors of our fields. While theatre is shut down just before we shut down they'd announced that I was going to be a Lynn Nottage play at Arena Stage which is likely to happen when things re-open again.

Leticia: I'm sorry, are you doing Crumbs?

Hana: Yes.

Leticia: That's Jordan's favorite Lynn Nottage play.

Hana: Is it? Lynn is a brilliant G. There's no questions about it. I'm also producing knock on wood, assuming we're able to do the two shoes that we had reshaped our season to, you guys should come out and see our last show of the season's going to be Mlima's Tale.

Leticia: Yes.

Hana: Directed by Shariffa Ali so it's going to be something special. I love Lynn, I love her work. I think that she's brilliant. She's in the cosmos in terms of her writing and her genius. So, so much happening there and then writing, I'm still working on my trilogy which is called the Sprott Cycle: Looking at 100 Years of Family Mythology. I am deep, deep, deep in the thick of rewrites there, and really excited about that piece. I keep getting pulled in the direction of another medium for it. But I think I would love to see it on the stage first. So that's what I'm working on and trying to be the best advocate, activist that I can be while being the best family member that I can be. The beauty of this moment which can feel like a lot of chaos, to give birth in the middle of a pandemic has been really beautiful because it's a reminder of our survival of what we have to fight for. Why thriving is important. It's a reminder of the art and why I do this work and it is a profound reminder of humanity. Just the beauty of our humanity and so I am forever grateful for the beautiful surprise that is my daughter Asha Biena Sharif Jackson.

Jordan: Oh, welcome to the world little one. Ashé, ashé. Thank you Hana so much for joining us. It's always a delight hearing you speak but just the fact that we're able to have you on this podcast is just so special and you've dropped so many wonderful gems. I feel more invigorated to tackle what I got to get done. So we thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us and our listeners and this has just been such a joy for us.

Hana: Well, I'm happy to be here, thank you. I'm so excited about Daughters of Lorraine. I am going to be listening to all of them, downloading them, sharing. When I heard about the two of you doing this I was just like of course. Mind blown, also why haven't we had them at the helm of this before and just so proud even though I had nothing to do with it I still feel such incredible pride in the two of you and how I know your work is going to reverberate and help evolve and change the American Theatre and I'm so happy to know you and I cannot wait to work together.

Jordan: Thank you.

Leticia: Thank you so much.


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 a second season of Daughters of Lorraine. We are both so grateful for the support we receive from everyone who listens to our podcast. We'll be taking a small hiatus but we'll be back with more content very, very soon. In the meantime follow our social media to keep up with our upcoming projects and we have some really exciting announcements coming your way.

Leticia: The Daughters of Lorraine podcast is supported by HowlRound Theatre Commons. A free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. It's available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and HowlRound.com. And if you're looking for the podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify you will want to search and subscribe to HowlRound podcast.

Jordan: If you're looking to connect with us beyond this podcast please follow us on Twitter @DOLorrainepod. That's P-O-D. You can also email us at [email protected] for further contact.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark
Thoughts from the curators

Hosted by two doctoral theatre students, Jordan Ealey and Leticia Ridley, Daughters' of Lorraine Podcast features reviews of Black theatre productions (mainly in the DC/Baltimore area), current national conversations around, within, and about Black theatre, academic discussions concerning Black theatre, recommendations on Black theatre scripts, and interviews with Black theatre artists. This podcast centers and privileges the narratives of Black theatremakers, scholars, and audiences while also underscoring the need for understanding the influence of Black theatre on the American theatre landscape.

Daughters of Lorraine Podcast


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First