Put Some Respect on Black Theatre with Lisa B. Thompson
Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminist, 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: Lisa B. Thompson is currently the Bobby and Sherri Patton Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, Department of Theatre and Dance, and the College of Liberal Arts’ advisor to the dean for faculty mentoring and support at the University of Texas at Austin. Thompson is the author of Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class. She co-hosts and co-produces Black Austin Matters—a podcast and radio segment on KUT, Austin’s NPR station, that explores Black life, culture, and politics in Central Texas. Thompson’s work has been supported by a number of institutions including the American Council of Learned Societies, Hedgebrook, the Five Colleges, the University of California’s Office of the President, Stanford University’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and the WEB DuBois Research Institute at the Hutchins Center, among many others.
Jordan: In addition to her scholarship, Thompson is also in acclaimed artist. Four of her plays have been published, which are Single Black Female, Underground, Monroe, and The Mamalogues. She has published articles and reviews in Theatre Journal, Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Theatre Survey, NPR, Criterion Collection, Clutch, The Huffington Post, and The Washington Post. Thompson’s plays have been produced Off-Broadway, throughout the US, and internationally by Crossroads Theatre, Theatre Rhinoceros, The Vortex, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, Soul Rep Theatre Company, Austin Playhouse, Ensemble Theatre, and the National Black Theatre Festival among many others. We had a chance to have a conversation with Lisa on navigating life as a Black feminist scholar-artist, and on putting some respect on Black theatre.
Hi, welcome back to Daughters of Lorraine. I’m Jordan Ealey.
Leticia: And I am Leticia Ridley.
Jordan: And we have such a wonderful episode planned for today. Every episode is wonderful and special, but we are so, so excited to be having a conversation today with Lisa B. Thompson. Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine.
Lisa B. Thompson: Thank you for having me. I’ve been stalking you guys, so I’m happy to be able to be in conversation with you, and I’m really proud of the work you’ve been doing.
Jordan: Thank you.
Leticia: Thank you. We really appreciate that. And you are actually our first artist/scholar on the podcast. So you are now a trendsetter.
Jordan: Making history.
Leticia: Making history on our podcast. So thank you, just to echo Jordan, for being here. And we’re looking forward to our conversation that we are going to have with you today.
Jordan: So we don’t imagine that people who listen to this podcast won’t know who you are, but for those of you who might be unfamiliar with Lisa’s work, could you introduce to our listeners a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Lisa: I am an artist/scholar. I consider myself an artist and scholar because I both am a professor of African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas, and I began my career as an English professor and have taught Black studies, Black literature, Black cultural studies, and written about Black life as feminist scholar and a cultural critic since I was a graduate student. So that’s part of what my journey, important part of my journey. I got my PhD from Stanford in modern thought and literature. I worked with the wonderful Harry J Elam Jr., who was my advisor. And while I was at Stanford, I took a playwriting class from Cherríe Moraga. And if you don’t know who she is, just read This Bridge Called My Back. She’s one of the co-writers of that. And with that class, I wrote a play called Monroe, and she really thought it was outstanding enough to invite me to be part of a writing group of professional writers in the Bay, in San Francisco.
And after the class ended, I ended up really seeing that what’s for you is for you, and I’ve always been a writer. My first time I wrote a monologue was the first fifteen, twenty minutes of a course with Ntozake Shange when I was a undergraduate at UCLA. And before that, I was considering myself a poet and consider myself still a poet. I retired, I would guess for the last twenty years. But what was interesting to me was when I joined that writing group in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to have a reading of some of the work I was working on during that time for the Brava Theatre, and I was reluctant to do it because I was telling the other people that were in the writing group, “I’m getting my PhD. I’m working on my oral exams. I can’t be doing this stuff. Come on.” And they’re like, “Listen, women’s theatre, we’re two gay men. We need more women in it. Blah, blah, blah.” I said, “Okay, fine.”
So they did a reading of Single Black Female, and the reading happened on a Sunday morning. I was happy. My mother was there with me and people were laughing. And actually, I went to the rehearsal the Friday and I thought, “Okay, this is actually funny.” Right after, people were applauding and a woman came up to me and said, “I want it for next season for Theatre Rhinoceros. That’s how my career began. So it was produced when I was a student at Stanford, and it’s still running. It’s kind of crazy. So Mike and at that time, Harry Elam came to opening night and looked at me and said, “If you want to do this instead, or both, you can do that.” And actually before him, it was somebody else said the same thing. Valerie Smith said the same thing to me.
So I was trying to decide when I finished my Masters, if I wanted to go on grad school or work or be an artist or what. And she’s like, “Just do it all.” I’m like, “You’re crazy.” And she was right. So she was right first, I gave her props. Valerie Smith, she’s the president of Swarthmore now. She’s another mentor of mine. And it was clear that this is how I see the world. These things come to me in both a creative form and scholarship and they lean on each other. So I talk about them being it’s a slash between artists/scholar, but it’s a porous thing. It’s not a wall between the things and it comes out in my teaching as well. So I feel like I have a very rich life. I get to talk about Black art. I get to write Black art and be around other Black artists and teach Black artists. And so my students have gone on to do some amazing things. So it’s a very rich and rewarding life.
Leticia: Yeah. I would say just what a genealogy. Valerie Smith, riches upon riches upon riches.
Lisa: I would joke about that. I’m the Black feminist Forrest Gump. I don’t know. People are like, “How do you know so and so?” You don’t plan these things. And then my contemporaries, people like to sometimes say to me, “How do you know?” So the funny thing, so the person that asked me to do Single Black Female, Adele Prandini who ran Theatre Rhinoceros, the oldest I think queer theatre in the US, the theatre stuff is archived at UC Berkeley. Anyway. So she says, “Who do you want to direct it?” So I just met this guy who I thought was this explosively brilliant, really creative. He had directed a piece Up Jumped Springtime. Saw it running around the Mission District of San Francisco. I said, “This guy, his name is Colman, Colman Domingo.” He’s like, “Okay.” We got to his show and we hung out after that show, after his show, Up Jumped Springtime. And we just hung out and were like, “Oh my God.”
We fell in love with each other. We’re like, “Oh my God.” So people say to me, “How do you know these people?” I’m like, “We were all broke together.” And loved each other’s spirits and that’s what it is. And I think what’s really important is to come up with your people and I’m so happy to see him getting his flowers and his chocolates and his bubble baths and everything else. But yeah, that’s it. I can’t even tell you. You have to look at Monroe and look at the development history of Monroe. And they do a really good crack at it.
Leticia: I’ve seen that. Sterling K. Brown.
Jordan: Just a little name. Emmy Award winner.
Lisa: His wife too, his wife, Ryan. Both of them were in theatre. And actually, when they were in it, I knew they were going to blow up. They were incredible. To me, they were undergrads and I’m a grad student. I’m like, “Okay, you can be in my... Yes, I will let you.” And then it was like, “Oh my God.” I knew it. I’m like, “It should have happened ten, twenty years earlier,” because they were that good. So yeah, I know it’s bizarre. It’s bizarre.
Jordan: Part of me feels like that is very Black theatre. I know from working in Atlanta and then I’ll see all these people and I’ll be like, “Oh my God, Leticia. I know them from doing this” I feel like that’s such a Black thing where oh yeah, homie who I worked with at this one thing a million years ago is now... it’s just amazing. It’s a family reunion all the time.
Lisa: It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful to see people that you respect and love, win. That’s the best.
Leticia: Yeah. I love what you said about the dance of being a playwright and scholar. And the choreography to riff off your article that you wrote for JADT. Can you just talk a bit about how these two identities work in concert with each other? And what is the drive behind your work, and how do you describe the plays and academic scholarship you write? What really interests you?
Lisa: What interests me? Oh gosh. It’s many things, but I guess I am drawn to light. And whether it’s people like I mentioned, all these wonderful people I’ve had a chance to know the light in them. So that’s one piece, and the other part is the light of the work. So for me, I remember being a little girl and hearing on the radio, KDIA, Oakland’s radio station, the advertisement for for colored girls.... I never forgot that moment. And then reading The Bluest Eye for the first time, or the performance of a piano lesson at LATC. That is what draws me. So both as an artist telling stories that share my light with other people and that feeling of you hear people. I like to say in the back of the theatre when I’m working, I’m working on something and watching it and seeing it connect to people. It means quite a lot to me.
And then the questions I’ve had, I just want to explore them in multiple ways. So Black women’s sexuality, what seemed by female was the things that I could not put in my dissertation, or you can’t footnote in the same way, index in that same way. So they happened at the same time. So I realized that I have these creative pieces that can’t stand in for a part of theorizing that really is real and true, but is not in terms of how the academy operates, does not see it. But the things the way academy sees the world, people in the art world don’t see. I guess I double have double vision. I can enjoy both. So Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New Black Middle Class was the theme of the book, but Single Black Female actually was and also released quicker. It got to the stage faster. It made it Off-Broadway before the book came out, which was a dissertation. So I feel like to take it a question and issue and use more than one apparatus to unpack it and explore it.
So coming up now, I think I’m really fascinated with Black history and I’m working on these history plays, I’m working of a trilogy of plays that deal with the Black migration from the South to the West Coast, to California, an underexamined part of Black life and the reverse migration. And it really does track my own life because when writing Monroe, I was thinking about my parents thinking Detroit, Chicago, New York. Hell no, we’re going to San Francisco. Let’s go. What made my family say we’re going to do that? So that was interesting to me. Monroe came out of that, and then I didn’t realize until my parents were gone and my grandmother was gone because when I wrote it, my grandmother wasn’t living, but my parents were living. When I wrote Monroe, I was doing spirit work and I didn’t realize that.
So when it was being produced in Austin, it was part of Austin Playhouse Festival, Texas plays, and ended up being produced. And I was sitting there going, “Oh my God, I brought them back to life.” I didn’t realize that in these characters were symbolically my mother, father, and grandmother. And also that I had no idea that Monroe—because at the time that the play came out was when Bryan Stevenson’s amazing project about the lynchings of Black people was becoming research about where in the country lynchings were happening the most. And I didn’t realize that Ouachita Parish where my mother was born and raised and my great grandfather and all these people, that they came from this place that was number five for lynchings in the US.
I think that work, they didn’t sit down and talk to me like, “Well, of all the places in America where we come from was the most horrific and traumatic.” They were the sweetest people, innocent. My mom was such an innocent person and my uncle Aubrey, dedicated to him. I’m like, “We grew up in that? Wow.” And that they came out so pure and beautiful and loving despite that horror. So that’s what I captured with Beck, the main character. But I didn’t sit down and plan to do that. I wasn’t like, “I’m going to write a story that captures the, in the sense of my...” No. I didn’t realize that until some years later.
Leticia: I love this goal that I’ve seen very much in Monroe, as you just identified, as focusing on the migration to California. So I am a product of migration to California. I’m also a Black Californian, but from southern California. And it was such a pleasure to see Shreveport in Monroe because that is where my grandmother is from who came to California. And that was just like one, I just would never hear that. But I think the project of focusing on Black Californians is, like you said, underexamined, under-studied. Jordan will joke all the time to me and be like, “why isn’t there any Black people in California?” And I’m like, “yes, there’s Black people in California.” Because Jordan’s from Atlanta, one of the Black Meccas.
Lisa: And now because there’s so many people from California have moved there, too. The new reverse migration has changed Atlanta so much. Yeah, and I’m part of that migration now. The majority of Black people live in Texas now.
Leticia: Yeah, so I just love that focus and I think it’s necessary. And you really capture that in something like Monroe, this sort of desire to move California. And also, the fear of going to California, not knowing what you’re going to find. Chicago is perhaps, like you said, quite... A little bit more safe. We kind of maybe know what we’re going to get, but California is just so far. One, it allows the characters to sort of dream of the possibilities of it. But it’s also sort of a level of fear of, could we make this migration and then encounter something that we didn’t expect that could be just as bad as the racism, the Klan, the lynching that we experience in our day-to-day life?
Lisa: Absolutely. I do see that. Well, I hope that more people are open to seeing all the Black experience as opposed to just... That they’re all authentic as well. So yeah, what produces the Boyz N The Hood? What produces a The Last Black Man in San Francisco? It’s this whole beginning that happens in the South and that migration. And so the next part of that trilogy is set in 1972, San Francisco, is called Gold. And then the third is going to be called Blood, which is in contemporary Texas. And so I’m hoping that it’s received, and I’m hoping that Monroe receives another production. It’s been breaking my heart. I’m glad Mamalogues has taken off. People are happy, are excited about that piece, but I would love to see Monroe in its moment somewhere else.
Jordan: The multiplicity and the authenticity of multiple forms of Black experience, it seems to be a very recurring theme that’s in your work. And with The Mamalogues and Single Black Female, and even in your book Beyond the Black Lady, there is this focus on middle class, the Black middle class and Black middle-class life and experience. And so, what does a critical examination about the Black middle class illuminate about Black life? Or what sparked your interest in talking specifically about this experience?
Because it feels like one that most Black people are familiar with, but we don’t necessarily have a lot of critical examinations of it, and can be kind of pigeonholed in many different ways, whether it’s good or bad or whatever it might be. So what do you hope to bring to that conversation and expand to us about how we talk about middle class Black life?
Lisa: I love that question. And what’s fascinated me was, one, is the way in which class in the US in particular is not spoken about openly, but it’s definitely there. You feel it, you know it, you can taste it, eat and smell it. Everything. And the performance of class, too. Class authenticity and people’s desire to not be class privileged and Black. Because in some way, that renders you inauthentic and not Black.
And I was always fascinated... So as someone who came from a working-class family, and we’re also clear though that even within that, people were in my neighborhood were like, “Well, yeah, but your dad was home and you guys had a house and you weren’t renting.” And when you have air, you don’t notice it. If the air is cut off, you’re like, “Huh.” It was very helpful to have friends that made me think about that. You also had class privilege. And you had a grandmother that would buy you coats for Easter, who owned property herself. So thinking about, okay, were we working class or were we...
But definitely, we did not realize that we were bereft until I got to undergrad and met another sister on the same dorm floor who had a comforter. And I was like, oh, I didn’t even know what that was. She had pillow shams, and they’re all matched, and she had the wallpaper to go with it. It was on her bulletin board. And we lived in the same city, and I lived on Lula on the other side of the tracks, the BART... And it’s like, “Oh, wow, okay.” So it’s the beginning of learning about that. She came out, and not as a queer person, but had a cotillion.
Because so different. And her mother visited us, visited town. And she’s the only person that had a car. So we had to all rely on her to get our hair done. We’re like, can we go get her in the middle? UCLA was in the middle of Bel Air, and you know, you from LA, Beverly Hills and Brentwood. It was nowhere to get your... And I just got in the park, I was like, “Oh Lord.” So that was to me striking, that her mother wrote up the thank you note when she visited. I’m like, what? I’m sorry. So I was fascinated with Black people of means and also very aware of my own class ascension, that some kind of institutional entry in certain kind of institutions and education has this thing.
But I’m ready to go anywhere. I’m at the barbershop with my dad, his friends. And then can go to the doo-doo-doo doo doo up to Oakland Hills or whatever. Never passing though. The difference is I think I came on people who are doctors and lawyers, and navigating those interactions with Black people who have those backgrounds and seeing how their parents treated me. And it was just very interesting to... So that’s why it’s fascinating to me because I neither see them as the answer, the Talented Tenth, or the sellout. That they are just as human as everyone else in navigating all this stuff, and so that’s what I really wanted to illustrate in the work.
There’s a line in Mamalogues, “If I’m my ancestors’ wildest dreams then why I’m living their worst nightmares?” So the idea that you’re living your best life, at the same time, you’re dealing with this horrendous stuff. And that’s where my experience was with getting to know Black folks who came from middle class, the higher class in terms of social capital and financial capital than my family. And also, understanding how my friends who had less saw my family. And so it’s been fascinating to me. It’s just a different kind of way of dealing with oppression.
I’ll never forget the LA uprisings. And I think it’s Larry Bobo, Lawrence Bobo—he’s at Harvard now but he was at UCLA at the time—he did some interviews with Black folks and found that for those who were higher class were most enraged people. And so because what it means that you [ascended], just a racial privileged class about this idea of, you’ve done all the things and it’s like even more. You did all this stuff and you know you’ve been robbed. Twice in some ways. So I have a soft spot for Black folks of all classes.
And that is why it’s important for me that I tell that the story and see that the Black folks who are middle class are never too far from other folks who have less. Either they’re literally in their family—who’s going to be the Terry in Soul Food? Everybody needs a Terry to pay for everything though. So that figure, it’s unpacked some of that. So that’s really interesting for me to write about that a little bit.
So that play became interesting. Then, what happened to me is I became a single mom of means, and many of my friends are as well, and I didn’t see that anywhere. That’s all my work. It’s always also about, what do I see and am I experiencing that is not being part of the conversation? Let me change. So my people was that. It was like, Black women who are middle class, because up until then, it was the respectable ones. The Coretta Scott Kings. And I’m like, well, but I know that Black women who are of certain all those things and getting it in. Who are sexually active. This is before Insecure. Single Black Female playing that out, that Black women were professionally accomplished are sexual beings is also something I wrote about in the book.
So of course, The Mamalogues is also about invisibility of people. Black, middle class, single mothers are unintelligible to everybody. Okay, wait a minute, you’re a Black woman of a certain thing. But wait a minute, you don’t have a husband? What are we going to do? You have a kid? Oh my God. Where’s the welfare check? What do we do with this person? So you can tell I have a lot of voices in my head. It’s an interesting experience like bringing all those voices. And what does it mean to navigate that every day, all the time?
Just had today, the dentist’s office, and she was like, “What’d you do this summer?” To my son. She’s like, “Oh, yeah.” If he wasn’t doing anything this summer, he’s still worthy and wonderful and you should be delighted to see him and not just... I call it talking bear syndrome. I’ve seen a bear, I heard about it, but you’re a talking bear. My God. I’m like, “No.” Anyway. So going on to the center piece of my work because I think that it’s too easy to dismiss the Black middle class as sellouts and too lazy to consider them their only leaders. So neither things are true. They’re just trying to figure it out. And they’ve had a disproportionate amount of responsibility for the race, and has that really been healthy for anyone? I think no. I don’t want to be part of any group who would not let my mother be part of it.
Jordan: Yeah. Just opening up that conversation about class and Blackness is really important. Because a line that you wrote in Single Black Female was really striking when you’re like, “Yes, we are of financial means, but we are three paychecks away from being broke.” It’s like that constant dichotomy of, I think about this all the time as someone who grew up with two working parents, but they came from low-income backgrounds. And I consider myself first generation middle class. And so it’s like, one wrong move and it’s back. That begins again for my family. So it’s just interesting to me when I was reading your work of, oh, wow, this feels very relevant to my life. But also, like you said, not necessarily an experience that is addressed. It’s like, oh, your parents move up and then you move up and then that’s kind of the end of the conversation.
But there’s so much more to talk about, especially when you’re discussing race and gender. And then you brought in also this conversation about parenthood, which is so fascinating because you’re right. Before I read The Mamalogues and Single Black Female, I hadn’t really seen that conversation about being a person who has ascended in class but is also still dealing with motherhood and parenthood and sexuality and all these other different things that we just don’t see.
Leticia: Yeah, and Jordan and I actually talk a bit about our sort of class positions. So I’m someone who grew up in poverty, and my mom has a disability and my father was incarcerated for most of my life. And now I have a PhD. Now I have a salary that firmly places me in the middle class. And I’m trying to negotiate, what does it mean for me to ascend into this middle class? I have an older sister who’s also now middle class, but still having sort of the weight of poverty, feeling like it’s still on my shoulder. And same thing about, you’re one check away. And I’m thinking about the conversation that you also put in the Underground with Kyle and Mason, and Mason ascending to that middle class position. And I was like, “Oh man, he sure do sound a lot like me.”
Lisa: I look good. I’m volunteering. I’m donating what—
Leticia: Yeah, exactly. Oh, you want me to risk it all? Oh, I’ve been there before.
Leticia: That wasn’t fun, right?
Lisa: It’s a holiday for you, yeah.
Leticia: I say all that to say, I concur with Jordan that you capture this Black middle class conversation so well and so dynamically. Like you said, it’s not one side or the other, but it’s really dynamic and generated a lot of even conversation with me and Jordan as we were prepping for today.
Lisa: Oh, thank you. Yes, the male version, and I’m really proud of that piece. Glad that people have responded to it. It’s going to be a reading this week, this fall in New York. So I will give you more information for sure.
Jordan: Yes, please do.
Leticia: Please do. And listeners also.
Leticia: Look out for that reading as well.
Lisa: Yeah, it’ll be in the city. I’m praying that this will all come together. Because I’m going to be at the New School as a Presidential Visiting Professor. What is it? It’s my title.
Leticia: Congratulations. Yeah.
Lisa: Yeah, here it is. It’s Presidential. We’re now performing artists renowned performing artists: “Bill T Jones, and a scholar and playwright, Lisa B. Thompson named the New School’s 2022-2023 Presidential Visiting Scholars.” So, yeah, that’s next.
Leticia: Wonderful. And in wonderful company with Bill T Jones.
Leticia: I mean, we want to now shift a little bit, and ask you a question. So, we’re both, you and I—not Jordan, Jordan doesn’t have a Twitter—are on Twitter, and I posted a few months back, “Black theatre is Black studies.” And you liked the comment, I think, commented back to me. And what I loved about this conversation is that you and I both working in the theatre and also a part of Black studies as a discipline, as a theory, as a praxis. Oftentimes I feel like Black theatre is often so much left out of that equation of Black studies.
Lisa: Don’t get me started. Yes. The new book is going to talk about that. So, I’m working on that introduction now slash proposal about put some respect on Black theatre. Come on, now. Y’all out here buggin’. I mean, to look at what Black theatre artists are doing right now, it is amazing in terms of not just the work, but also the politics behind the work. We had two Black women, award-winning playwrights, pull their shows from major White theatres. People were running roughshod, right? And people did things that were not right. And they stood behind it. And also, there was no other artistic genre that did what Black theatre artists did during the George Floyd uprising. So, that’s a little preview of what I want to say. So, I see Black Theatre is Black studies, that Black theatre is to have a more prominent space in the field, and that you can’t talk about Black art, Black life without understanding the importance of Black theatre. If you do that, you can’t just talk about Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson and they think you’re done.
Leticia: Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of folks don’t know that Sylvia Wynter writes and plays. These are sort of long traditions that existed that I think is often overlooked in Black studies. And as someone who loves Black studies, I’m always curious about, there’s been articles written about Anna Julia Cooper and her theatre criticism. So, theatre has had a staple within the giants of Black studies, and I’m always curious about when and where that enters into our Black studies conversation.
Lisa: That has been dormant. I mean [Amiri] Baraka, talking about, I mean, just the long lineage of folks, and it’s hurtful. I think Black folks themselves putting together top books list, and don’t... Black plays are public. They’re books. Screenplays aren’t published like that. It’s not everything that’s visual. Come on now. So, that’s the thing that’s disturbing to me. And the early work of Black theatre artists, foundational.
So yeah, I’m just thinking about.... Oh. I was thinking about this summer, I was at the archives of Brown, the Black Feminist Archive that Ann DuCille created, and spent a lot of time with her work and her poetry. Also, another artist/scholar. I created a database of Black artist/scholars, and so that’s another project. All the projects are an important project for me, but what really struck me was that Hortense Spillers is playwright, too.
Leticia: Oh my goodness. I did not know that.
Lisa: So, I’m like, “We got to clean this up, y’all.” Because it’s Sylvia Wynter, Hortense Spillers. And I love how everyone is going all in with Octavia Butler and Zora Neale Hurston. But I need to see y’all doing this for people who are alive too. Because my generation is like... My former partner interviewed Octavia Butler, and I was my twenties. People weren’t doing that. Then do that, but be conscious of who is the Zora Neale Hurston I’m not paying any attention to right now? Who is the Octavia Butler I’m not paying any attention to right now? Who am I not? And yeah. So, that’s it.
And I’m still waiting. My work never been written about by any Black woman. By anyone, critically. The theatre work. So, just need to think about what... So, the project is about writing about contemporary Black theatre artists that, I’m realizing if I don’t write about my people, who’s going to write about them? So, this book is about contemporary Black theatre artists and their role in rendering Black history, but they also are history makers themselves. So, it’s a passion project out of love. And because of the credential, what it would mean for me to have this book out, and hopefully we’ll be able to have folks understand what we’re missing by not paying attention to what’s on stage.
Leticia: I love that. I love the focus on the contemporary, because it also makes me think about something that Jordan and I also talk about a lot, which is why are Black women often rendered to the past only? So, we only become worthy of study after we have passed on, right?
Lisa: This is why I’m like, “No, I’m here for a long time, y’all. Just get cracking now, I could use some feedback.”
Lisa: They going to be like, “Oh, wheel her in.” Yeah. That’s it. Really important. It’s cute, because now we want to go honor... How about giving people those flowers when they’re here? Then give them. They’re tweaked. Yeah. And what happens when we just only focus on people who are already overly examined, we need to... I mean, in terms of other type of art. Take some of that energy. A little bit, you don’t have to do it all, and spread it more evenly. We’ll have a richer conversation. Because the person that you guys are wanting over is reading all that stuff. That person everybody’s going crazy on, they are reading deeply and widely and citing widely. So, more of that. But I understand the hustle, I’m not coming at you. I get it. It’s a different world now with social media and everything to be an artist and a scholar. It’s different. I think you kind of have to navigate all that.
Jordan: Yeah. I’ve talked a little bit about, I mean, Leticia and I talked about it all the time, but with these Black women I study, and probably the Black women you study as well as yourself, is there’s now this kind of capitalistic urge to be the multi-hyphenated artist. But it’s actually a material demand for Black artists. You can’t just focus on one thing, because you have to make money now. So, for instance, Zora Neale Hurston couldn’t just write her novels and just write her novels. She had to be an archivist; she had to go to school; she had to do all these other things in order to supplement herself in a way that someone like Rogers and Hammerstein can be composers and that’s their craft that they can focus on, because the material conditions are different.
Your article, “Dancing on the Slash: Choreographing a Life as a Black Feminist Artist/Scholar,” was so important to both of us, because we are both Black feminist artist/scholars. We study Black feminist artist/scholars. And it is something that we are also trying to choreograph a life as. And you have this metaphor that you use about the slash, and I will let you talk about that slash, but I just think that is so brilliant. But I would love for you to talk about the importance of Black feminism as a perspective for your life as an artist scholar. And also, what should emerging Black feminist scholar/artists, such as Leticia and I, and also others who maybe listen to this podcast, take from both your life that you’ve learned while navigating the university, and in the professional theatre world, as both an artist and scholar, but also as a Black woman and as a Black feminist. What should we keep in mind as we all try to choreograph our lives in that way?
Lisa: Love it. The biggest thing I believe is to enter rooms, including your own room, every day you’re working in. I’m speaking to you from one of my offices, my home study. But making that space, and enter it with full intention, being your full self. So, I feel that a lot of people who are artist/scholars are not doing those things. Just, “Okay, I need to eat, so I’m going to do something else.” I used to joke around about that, because I felt uncomfortable claiming my desire to be both. I am a thinker. I am a scholar. I am an artist. I’m a mother. I’m many things too, but in terms of the public life that... And taking up that much space. To insist that people take seriously, you, as an artist.
Someone asked me about being considered artist/scholar. I define that as someone... Because a lot of people have novels in their drawers. I don’t mean that. I mean that you are out in the public sphere being judged for both your scholarship and your art. Your stuff is being reviewed by critics. It’s being publicly seen and discussed. And there are people doing other things. That’s something else. For me, that’s how I define artist/scholar. And I think for Black women, decide that that’s what I’m going to do, that I’m going to do all the things. It’s a lot. And I am so proud of the journey I’ve had, going from... I used to make a joke that in my spare time, I’m going to do that. But part of it was, to be honest, probably it was a flex, because then they would Google it in their spare time to review. And I’m like, “Yeah, my spare time.”
And along the way, was also to protect myself from the administrator at Stanford who said to me, and this is not in high levels, she was just someone working, anyway, a position that was not a high position. I was getting ready to go to do a dissertation fellowship. She said, because my play had gotten a lot of press, and I was a grad student. So, she said, “Don’t go out, and make sure you work on your dissertation. Don’t go out there and write on a play.” I’m like, “How dare you? Wow.” So, when the New York Times review came out, and this guy was associate professor of another race in my department. This is my first job. And she had brought the paper into my friend in the office, and we were talking about it, and she thought it was great. He goes, “Oh, is the reviewer a friend of yours?”
Jordan: Excuse me?
Leticia: For our listeners, you can all see the Black femme/women turn of the head that we just all did on camera.
Lisa: In front of people. And it was like, “Wow.” And I was like, “No, I never...” So, petty me, Petty LaBelle me, just recently Googled him. He is still associate professor. And I’m like, “You know what? I’d love to...” So, you don’t have to do anything to people. The universe will take care of it. But I was a junior professor at that time when this happened. This is before I had tenure. So, it’s like, “Wow, you’re going to undermine me like that.” It was just funny, so yeah. But yeah, look, he’s still... Bless his heart, as they say. But the audacity of that, of not only deciding to do both, but also do it at a certain level, has been something I’ve learned to protect myself, but by softening it for people and joking and whatever.
But now, I probably will talk more about that in another piece, “Confessions of a Black Artist/Scholar”. I’m working on that too. “Confessions of a Black Artist/Scholar” is talking about what it means to navigate this life and career. I urge people who are coming after me, which is why I’m working on the artist/scholar initiative at UT, is to leave the pebbles. People don’t to reinvent the wheel. And there’s many of us out there who made a life deciding I am both. Or all three. Or many, many things. I’m going to give one life—and thinking about my ancestors and what they were denied, and their humanity, and their dreams, and aspirations, and the way to take their talents and see them to fruition—I’m going to take up as much space, and room, and resources as possible.
I am of the generation that is, in many ways, the first to be able to move into certain spaces and push back. And now, you gave the wrong person a main chair. They’re feeling like... What I can use for good, for others, and to insist upon the fact that this is what... So, now I’m doing podcast. Everything you want to do, do. I just want to tell Black scholars, artists, and just Black folks, period, whatever it is, do what you want. Because nothing is going to protect you from any of that stuff. Anything else. So, you deny yourself, and then it still is going to come. So, no. And Black feminism, for me, I did not begin a Black feminist. I come from the age of the women’s libber. Argue with my dad in the seventies saying, “I’m a woman’s libber.” I was in second grade, third grade. So, I always, always, always been about womanhood. Even as a girl, I was little girl, I was that girl on the playground.” Nope. You’re a girl. You can’t.” I’m like, “No, I’m the president of the school.” In sixth grade. I’m like, “No.” And I’ll never forget that facing sexism and understanding that and an intersection. I didn’t of course have the language for that. I’m laughing because I was also RA for Kim Crenshaw.
Jordan: Oh my goodness. You really are the Black feminist Forrest Gump. It’s true. It is true. Not Kimberlé Crenshaw!
Lisa: Which yeah, I was. Anyway, yeah, I did RA for her for one... She helped me out when I finished my Master’s, and she was like, “Do you want to work for blah blah blah?” Yeah, she’s amazing. She’s wonderful. It’s so funny, but yeah, this idea that what it means to be a Black woman—and to be Black and a woman and the way those things work together—the article just, she gave me the, I have a signed copy of the off print of it, of her article, and that basically coined that [intersectionality] and was just really shaped my thinking, made me feel like, “Okay, I’m not crazy.” And that’s what probably the work we’re going to do. Maybe that’s what drive more of that. It’s the light, but also to let people know you’re not crazy, or we’re all crazy, or being crazy is excellent because we are seeing this madness happening. So that’s big.
Yeah, I believe my feminism is eternal, and whatever it costs me is fine because it’s such a life-giving way to see the world. And I love that I raised a son who may not, he calls himself one, but he understands enough about the world in beautiful ways. And our conversations about Roe v. Wade have made me feel like maybe I did some really good parenting. He’s a teenage boy who understands the significance of that recent ruling in ways that made me feel so proud.
Leticia: That’s so wonderful. That’s so wonderful and I think that—just to give you your flowers for a bit—I think it’s so important for Jordan and I to see and hear you claim Black feminism as such a central part to your work, both as a scholar and artist, and just your way of life. Jordan and I often talk about, as we always do—clearly everyone we talk a lot—is around what is the place for Black feminist artists/scholars, specifically in the field of theatre and performance studies. Who are those folks that are actually claiming it proudly? And not just a generic feminism or even, I hate to say intersectional feminism, which I will say that I don’t think is an actual thing. It makes me cringe. But to name that is just so important because it’s like, okay, these are the folks that I’m in conversation with. These are my interlocutors. These are the folks that have modeled what a Black feminist scholar artist can be within these fields, so I thank you and Jordan, I’m sure, would say the same.
Lisa: Thank you. I love that, yes. And there are women that are ... Nicole Hodges Pursley and Monica Ndounou, right? These are my sisters and is more that do that. And also Colman Domingo is a Black feminist. There are also Black, queer men who are part of my world that definitely understand that and live that with their work too.
Leticia: Yeah, Jordan and I were like, we need a journal. It’s about time we had our own journal, Black feminist theatre and performance studies journal.
Lisa: It’s so much work to talk about. It’s not getting... Ooh, yeah, let’s talk. Let’s go.
Leticia: Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s make it happen. All right, we’re coming to the end of our interview, but before we go, we have two more questions. The first one is what is the state of Black theatre, and where do you want to see it going? Perhaps, what do you think is missing? What are you hoping in the next fifteen, twenty years?
Lisa: The state of Black Theatre… I think Black theatre is robust, complex, and thriving. And I want to see... There’s two Black theatres, though. There’s Black theatres in the LORTs and Broadway, and there’s the Black theatre that is run by Black theatre. Black theatre are producers, and they’re both amazing. And I see more and more conversation between folks doing both things, which is really wonderful to see that. And I just want to see Black investors investing in Black theatre, both versions of Black theatre. And we don’t need to, well, I don’t want us to have to choose. I like to read the New Yorker and Twitter and Instagram and New York Times and Essence, and I want the full breadth of everything. I’m always want that. I want Chitlin’s Circuit and the Tony Awards, all of it.
And I think that more of it, more of us working together, [having] conversations about each other’s work. And not understanding the business is fine, but it’s also just the stories, I’m so fed and overjoyed by the work that’s coming out, and can’t wait to be able to see more of it. Being in Austin, I definitely get a chance to see young folks who are, and people of all ages, making new work. And here I think more of us turn to places that are outside of New York, in Chicago, in Atlanta, thinking about broader that way, other parts of the country. But I’m also, I think that’s coming, and so I’m happy.
I want us just in general to think more broadly about intergenerationally and having more intergenerational conversations like we’re having now, because it’s what we’re missing out on. To me, if you don’t spend in a week, if you don’t spend time talking to somebody twenty years younger than you and thirty years older than you, then you’re missing out on the Black experience. You can’t be an echo chamber of only people. I have friends in their seventies and friends in their twenties and thirties and then, of course, a child in his teens. It’s important to have that range.
And I want to see that working range on stage. I want to see neurodiverse Black folks on stage. In our art broadly, I want to see Black folks, differently abled Black folks who are trans, queer, people who are asexual. I want the whole spectrum of Black humanity, and I’m pushing that in my own work, but make sure you’re doing it in a way that’s respectful, especially if you’re an outgroup person. But you can’t be excused to... like more... Even I’m thinking, I wear glasses all my life. Do any of my characters have glasses? I’m like, where is that? Yeah, being more conscious of presenting the world that we love in our work.
I think Black theatre is fantastic and life giving. In the way that I call the city boom, boom, boom. I have to get in by a certain [time] ... I have a whole thing where I stay and then I can walk to all this stuff and get to the matinee. Try to do matinee Saturday and Sunday and a show. And I’m always trying to figure out the math, like, okay, who has a Sunday night show? Oh my God, then I fly out Monday! But yeah, I wish I could do, see more. That’s part of that question. What was the other part of the question?
Leticia: I think you got both of them, the state of Black theatre and where you would like to see it go.
Jordan: Where you want to see it go?
On Daughters of Lorraine, we end every episode with recommendations for people, whether it’s on a topic that we’ve talked about or a guest. And since you are our guest today, we wanted to give you the opportunity if there was anything you wanted to uplift in terms of plays or books or articles that you think our listeners should be attuned to.
Lisa: I would like to just shout out, for many reasons, Mary Alice. She just passed and she was like one of my mothers. I always thought if there’s a biopic, my family, when she played my mom. I urge people to watch Charles Burnett’s film Sleep with Anger, starring Mary Alice and Danny Glover and others. It’s an amazing moment, amazing work, amazing work. I was thinking about that. I like always want to throw back. But also I just read ... And where’s the other one? Oops, can’t see this one. This is Sugar in Our Wounds, my first time finally get a chance to read his work.
Jordan: Sugar in Our Wounds and Fireflies, yes, Donja R. Love.
Leticia: That’s a great name.
Lisa: I’m immersing myself in his work. I’m about to start reading Old in Art School by Nell Painter. I think before you dive into that, I keep a stack of African American memoirs and autobiographies because it’s about life and wanting to hear what other people have done who are in the past or current artist-scholars. I’m working on a course for that. I’m also rereading Toni Morrison, August Wilson. I’m teaching a class on them, put them in conversation with each other.
And I want encourage people to read more plays. Because it’s a thing you can do. People are like, “I don’t go to theatre anymore right now because whatever”. But it’s like, you can read the plays. They’re there. Excited about being able to do that. And I did also directed for the first time in the spring. I don’t know if I told you guys that. I directed Colman Domingo’s Dot for the Ground Floor Theatre here in Austin, my first time directing. And first time he directed something, it wasn’t his own work. It was my play. It was a nice Theatre narrative, elegant. And he came out to meet with, come to rehearsal once and it was really beautiful.
And it really made me think about being an artist/scholar. And that’s why I’m not a playwright/scholar. I want the whole breadth of my artistry and being able to ... I ended up acting in Monroe because actors weren’t available when I went on for. It’s just being open to art, and even art no one ever sees—drawing, coloring. Let’s play. I want encourage that. I’m looking forward to, want to see note soon, and all art, visual art. My house is full of Black visual art. And that keeps me lifted too so it’s not just the fetishization of my genre, but it’s all of them. I’m influenced by all and love all.
Say, how you doing? I have to stop me. Things are crazy in the world, but God, you need to get up in the morning and I could watch Black films in my house and the music. And I grew up listening to Black music, with my mother playing Black opera singers and my dad playing jazz, and just a rich, rich life. I’m happy to be in conversation with people who are going to take the world, when I am gone, to keep it going and make a place for my son to enjoy more Black art. I’m glad to see y’all out here. I hope we stay in touch with each other.
Leticia: Yes, definitely so. And I will also just, we got to plug your work. Please make sure you read, produce, teach Underground, Monroe, The Mamalogues—
Jordan: They are all in—
Leticia: Single Black Female.
Jordan: They’re all in a book together, as you all know. Please get the book, and please teach it, read it, and produce these plays. Again, they’re all in one book, so you can’t say any excuse. They’re all in one place, so just want to say.
Lisa: Single Black Female is on its own. Concord Theatricals has Single Black Female, so they can read that. What I was going to say, and then coming next is The Black Feminist Guide to the Human Body, which I received support from the NPN and the Black Art Matters Austin, who I’m late for a Zoom with, Black Art Matters Austin support financially. That’s coming in 2024 and will be going to different theatres and definitely in the Lorraine Hansbury Theatre in San Francisco and to Phoenix, in Phoenix, the Phoenix Theatre in Des Moines, Iowa.
Jordan: Engage the work, y’all. Ain’t no excuse.
See the work, and I’m sure we will be back. Daughters of Lorraine going to see the shows and return to your work again to see it on stage.
Jordan: Yes, yes.
Leticia: Thank you so much for joining us today on Daughters of Lorraine.
Jordan: It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you and hear about your journey. And again, you’ve been such an inspiration to the both of us, so this is just an absolute honor.
Lisa: Thank you. Thank you, thank you so much. And be in touch. Let me know when it drops. And tag me up. Okay.
Jordan: Follow Lisa B. Thompson on Twitter.
Jordan: If that’s where she wants to be found.
Lisa: Yes, Twitter and Instagram. Auntie’s on all the platforms. All right, thank y’all. Thank you so much.
Jordan: All right, thank you. See y’all next episode.
Leticia: This has been another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. We are your hosts Leticia Ridley...
Jordan: And Jordan Ealey. Our next episode will feature the life, labor, and legacy of Robbie McCauley. 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 [email protected] for further contact.
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