Staging Black Intimacies
Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminists. Exploring the legacies, present, and futures of Black theatre. We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley—
Jordan Ealey: And Jordan Ealey. On this podcast, produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, we discuss Black theatre history; conduct interviews with local and national Black theatre artists, scholars, and practitioners; and discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing.
Kaja Dunn is an intimacy professional, cultural consultant, educator, and director, as well as a member of SAG-AFTRA, with performances in over forty productions in five countries. She specializes in the intersection between intimacy, race, and culture, presenting work in Germany, Australia, and England, as well as the US. She’s a resident intimacy and cultural consultant for the Forger Shakespeare Theatre in DC, associate faculty at Theatrical intimacy Education and an associate professor at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. A few select works includes The Best Man: The Final Chapter, The Equalizer with Queen Latifah, American Prophet at Arena Stage, Confederates at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Choir Boy at Denver Center and ACT Seattle, Harlem on Amazon, A Strange Loop and Sugar in Our Wounds at Penumbra Theatre.
Leticia: Dunn is a recipient of the Kennedy Center’s National Medallion for her work on theatre and race. She has published in several journals and books about race and theatre intimacy, including [a] co-authored chapter in [The] Arden Research Companion to Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance, a chapter on Black American intimacy and several upcoming chapters on cultural competency. Her proudest work is mothering her three sons, Ian, Zeke, and August. In today’s episode, we interview Kaja Dunn about her extensive work in theatre, television, and film, and practicing culturally competent intimacy direction.
Welcome back to Daughters of Lorraine, episode two. And do we have a treat for you! We have a special guest interview that we’ve been talking about for a very long time, Jordan, haven’t we?
Jordan: I know we have, we have. We’re like, “At some point we have to get this person on the podcast.” We are so excited about the work that they’re doing and that person is none other than Professor Kaja Dunn. Welcome to the podcast, Kaja.
Kaja Dunn: Thank y’all so much. Thank you.
Jordan: So just to start off, we introduced you in our episode preview, but we’d love to just give you a moment to introduce yourself.
Kaja: Sure. So I am an associate professor, newly, I’m still celebrating, and I am the first African American—there’s an Afro Peruvian who established this distinction, but I’m the first African American woman to achieve tenure at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in 109 years.
First, [but] will not be the only for very long, and will not be the last, because we get through those doors and then we bring a bunch of people in. I was blessed by Tomei and Kyle and Victoria who was there before I was, but who started laying the groundwork, who were the first Black professors tenured there. So I’m a tenured professor, and I teach anti-racist and equitable theatre practices, as well as I’m working with the acting program and the directing program. I direct and I also, for the past probably four or five years, have been working as an intimacy professional. So in television—and I’ve gotten to work on some pretty iconic Black projects—so, recently I did Best Man and Harlem, and then for the strike I got to work with Queen Latifah on The Equalizer. So, I have to say that, that has been all of my little Black iconic… not little, big Black iconic dreams.
And then I do the work in theatres, and I’ve been really blessed to get to do a lot of different types of work, but especially focusing on the Black diasporic experience. I’ve got two chapters coming out in two books. And so one just got published, and it’s on culturally competent intimacy choreography. And then I have another that was published in Australia and is now revised and published in the US on the history of Black American intimacy. So that’s something I’m really excited about because it combines my former work in women and gender studies and Africana studies and theatre and intimacy. And that work has been a real joy I’ve gotten to work with... In just some really wonderful rooms. I’ve gotten to work at historic theatres like Penumbra. I did A Strange Loop on Broadway, but also I’ve worked with Hana Sharif, and I’m now the resident intimacy choreographer at the Folger Theatre. So, I just got off the phone with Tamilla [Woodard] at Yale, and we’re about to do A Winter’s Tale. So It’s been a really exciting couple of years. And I’m also the proud mama of three Black boys. One is a young man; he just turned thirteen and started high school.
So yeah, I love the work that Garlia does on [Black Motherhood and Parenting Play Festival], and then shout out to another Black woman, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, who founded Moxie Theatre. Also sort of set that pathway as Black women who are like, “We’re not going to separate our lives from our artistry, and we can have joy and we can have family if that’s what you want, and it’s hard, but it’s doable”. So I’m just really grateful for all of the people that theatres brought in. And I also work with Black Theatre Network and the Black Theatre Association. So I’ve had sister scholars in Nicole Hodges Persley and Dr. Monica Ndounou and Eunice Ferrera. I’ve been really blessed with the community that theatre’s given me.
Leticia: Wow, the whole time you were speaking I was like, “Talk yo shit. Yes.” Wow. You are multi-hyphenated everything and, one, I’m just like, “How do you do it all?” Because you seem to have your hands in everything and not just to have them there but at a top impactful level. So just someone on the outside looking in, looking at your work, looking at all the things that you’re doing. One, it’s so inspiring, but also, it’s just so great to watch good things happen to good people. So I just want to sort of give you your flowers at this moment and just thank you for all that you are doing and continuing to do and being a sort of point of connection for so many people and for young academics like Jordan and myself looking for someone to sort of model in our own career.
So I just want to start by saying that. So thank you, thank you, thank you so much. We want to go to the beginning though, right? How did you get into theatre? Why theatre as an artistic form? Who introduced you or how did you sort of fall into this thing that we like to call theatre?
Kaja: My mama. My mother still loves theatre and she said I was backstage when she was in a community theatre production of Grease. She was Cha-Cha, but she actually has... She doesn’t have a ton of my childhood stuff, but she has a Doctor’s record at three where the doctor was like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I was like, “An actor or a lawyer,” and they were like, “Oh, how cute.” And then she’s like, “And then we took you back at six and you were like, “I’m going to be an actor or a lawyer.” And then at ten you were like, “I’m going to be an actor”. And she was like... I’m hardheaded. So as you were going I was like, “Oh, it’s so nice that these qualities that drove my teachers and my parents nuts are now useful,” right? To be in know and do all the things.
I had community really early, and my mom, we did not have a lot of money growing up, but my mother and my grandmother and my great-grandmother, actually, who I was blessed to know for a long time, were all people that the economic circumstances were not our circumstances. So we went to theatre. My mom... I think I went to Jesus Christ Superstar in third grade. She took me to the Boston POPS, because it was free in the park. So we just had a lot of exposure. And then when I was... I am a child, I’m going to age myself, but I’m a child of the first Bush, when they decided that we were going to take arts out of the public schools and we were just going to focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic. So I literally remember the moment our gym classes and arts classes went away in third grade.
And so all through school we didn’t have a theatre program, and then in high school my school didn’t have a theatre program. And so, I opened the phone book, because I’m old and we had those back then, I opened the phone book and I found this thing called Young People’s Performing Company, and we couldn’t afford the tuition. So my mother called the director and said, “I’ll make costumes.” I think they were doing The King and I. So she made 140 costumes, and that bought me my tuition for the first year, and then she worked for them for a year, and then Jeffryn Stephens allowed me to teach the younger kids to attend. And I mean that place, I still have friends that I met when I was fourteen, and I did that up through eleventh grade. And then I got into North Carolina School of Arts, and that’s when I was like, “Oh, I can go to school and get money for this.”
And then I like to tell parents I never waitressed. My first two jobs, I had health insurance. I worked with Kaiser Permanente, but the thing that always kept showing up is I always had a passion for, partially because of the way I grew up, partially because of who I was, I always had a passion for social justice. So one of my first jobs was touring, doing shows in middle school about race and divorce and puberty. And then my second one was working and doing a job with Kaiser Permanente where we would go in and do sex ed shows for middle schools and then counsel people afterwards.
But in the three conservatories I went to, I think I only had two female professors the whole time, maybe three, and no people of color. And so for me, I just got through talking to Tamilla, and I’ve talked to Karen Ann [Daniels] at the Folger about this too, and we’re like, “Oh, we’re the people we wanted. How do we become the people we needed when we were young?” And I had some really great professors and I had some people who have loved on me, but I worked with Playwrights Project, and that was the first time I had learning and teaching modeled for me in a way that was not frightening.
And I was like, “Oh, I’m...” And then I kept getting put with the kids that other teaching artists couldn’t handle or would leave, so I got a lot of kids in juvenile hall. I started working with their homeless and former foster youth, and I really loved it and I thought, “Oh, I want to...” One, I want better opportunities for my own children, because I was seeing the economic disparities in schools. And two, I know how to do this and I know how to do this in a way... I know what didn’t work for me. And so that drove me to go back to grad school. And I did have some really wonderful teachers in grad school in Virginia, but when I came out, Playwrights called me back, and they were doing a show with former foster youth at a university and they said, “We know you just got your MFA, we know you’re really passionate about foster youth, would you be interested in coming to Cal State San Marcos?”
And when I was there, I did that thing that you do when you’re hungry. I had, had a child in grad school, and I was like, “Hey, if you ever need somebody to do a masterclass,” or “I need more creds on my CV.” I didn’t get teaching experience in grad school. There was an emergency faculty replacement, and I got a call a week and a half before school started and they said, “Can you teach Chicano Theatre. Introduction to African American Theatre, and Acting One in a week and a half?” And I was like, “African American Theatre and Acting One, yes. Chicano Theatre I can teach, but not in a week and a half. Here’s two other people that you can call.” Three classes are a lot when you’ve never... And I’d never prepped a syllabus before. But that first year went really, really well. And then I ended up staying for four or five years.
Christianne Papier did a conference in Atlanta. No, she said it was Atlanta, and then we got there, and it was Marietta—it was way out. We had a lot of people from Black Theatre Network, and when I went, I presented, we had just done Twilight: Los Angeles, it was a little bit after Tamir Rice and what I had done in that show, we had twenty-five actors and we’d had some really big breakthroughs in terms of the kids really not liking each other when we started and me learning what silence could do in a classroom and letting them talk through their experiences. And we had some real pivots in the way students looked at themselves and each other in race. And we ended up bringing in a lot of community workers. We brought in religious leaders and arts leaders and leaders working on the abolishment of the prison industrial complex. And this was as an adjunct.
And part of the blessing of my first job was I had no idea what I was doing, and I had no idea what I should and shouldn’t do and the school wasn’t super resourced at the time. So they just let me figure stuff out. And I say that was the best PhD program I could have ever had. Dr. Thomas when I was there was like, “You need to be in a tenure track role. You need to start applying.” And so it was a lot of people from Black Theatre Network that do what they do. They embraced me, and they started advising me, and I got the job at UNC Charlotte and then really found research funding, which let me do this thing where I was like, “It’s great that we have safe spaces for queer folk, that’s important. You know who’s not represented in any of the work that I do? We’re not talking about safe spaces for theatre students of color”.
I love that: becoming the person that you want or you need or making the thing that you want to see.
So, I started doing that work and then got to go to England and looked at what some of those issues were and started writing about consent, got brought on with TIE and then sort of led to all this and starting my own consulting firm and consulting. And I thought when COVID hit, “Oh, all my research is going out the window thinking about race right now. Everybody’s just trying to figure out how we do things on Zoom.” And I had six weeks where I thought my work was not going to have a place anymore.
And then, I hate when people call it a new moment because it’s not, and there’s a lot of people who’ve been doing a lot of work for a long time, but the death of George Floyd let some people know that race is a thing. And that highlighted some of the work I did. And for me that was a moment to really continue to network because one of my big beliefs, my career has gone slower because of it, but I think you shout out people in the room, and you connect people and if you keep working ethically, your time will come. It might not [happen] fast, but I think it lasts longer.
Jordan: Thank you. We always love to hear people’s journeys and how the ways that theatre shows up in our lives, it’s just so varied and diverse and different across so many different artists and scholars. And so, thank you for sharing your journey and something you said about being the person that you needed or wanted, when you were an emerging professional coming up, reminds me of Toni Morrison. I love that: becoming the person that you want or you need or making the thing that you want to see.
And just in hearing your journey, I mean, I’m like, “What is it that you don’t do?” You’re an actor. You’re a director. You work as an intimacy professional now. You’re a scholar. You’re a professor. You’re an advocate. There’s so many different hats you’re wearing, both in your personal life and your professional life. And one of those that I think that our listeners aren’t really probably as familiar with is your work in intimacy direction/coordination and as a professional... And so, we’d love to just hear a bit about what is an intimacy professional? What does that look like? And yeah, what do you do really within this particular emergent field? But I’m sure that there’s a longer history there that people are not familiar with.
Kaja: Thank you Jordan, and it actually stems from feminism.
What I will say really quickly, because if there is anybody listening who feels like an imposter, I think academia in the western world is sort of set up for people who have resources. And I think when I went to college, I felt like an outsider. Our school did not have theatre. I didn’t study Shakespeare before I got to college. So I felt like I was always behind. I thought the things that didn’t make sense didn’t make sense because there was something wrong with me. And now I realize, while I understood the culture I was being trained in, they didn’t understand me. So, and this leads to intimacy, was the ethos when I was coming up was to break you down to build you up. And I was like, but if you don’t know a person or their culture, you’re just breaking them down. And I think for me, the thing that drives me the most is we’ve lost so many good artists and scholars.
We’ve lost so many voices that should be present who would make things better, because we don’t have the people to nurture them. And so I’ve been really blessed in that... Who I didn’t mention in that list of people I’m grateful for is when I got to UNC Charlotte... Thought I was being a smart ass. And so they had a mentorship program and I was like, “Great, I want a Black woman who’s made tenure with three kids.” And the thing about the South, and this is the tragedy of it right now, and I’m sorry, I know this is going a little bit away from the thing, but the tragedy is all of these laws that are driving so many of us from jobs that we really loved.
The legislature, after asking us to create these classes on race is now demanding lists of who’s teaching, right? They’re literally keeping track of us. They’re doing things, they’re dismantling work, and the research circles that exist in these universities are unparalleled anywhere else. The Black femme female identifying network at UNC Charlotte, I don’t know if I will ever see it, including in HBCUs, the way that the Black women there took care of each other. We had an organization called Seeds, I don’t even know if UNC Charlotte knows that, that’s their retention strategy because with all the craziness that went on, we stayed with each other. We wrote during the pandemic about Black mother schooling. None of us were economists, but we were presenting at economic forums and talking about, “Here’s what the New York Times is missing”.
But I said, and this is the importance of mentorship, too, I said to this mentor that they found for me who had three grown children, the first thing she did was introduce me to every other Black mother on campus who had a child under two. And those women became my community for the next five years. I used to say I couldn’t write. I’ve started publishing, but I have a learning disability that didn’t get diagnosed till later, because I couldn’t bring home bad grades. And so many people in our community, that was not a thing. That was a thing that misbehaved kids had and not me. And so I always said, “Oh I’m not good at writing”. I did not fit the mold of a traditional academic. I didn’t fit the mold of a traditional actor. They were like, “If you like all these other things, you don’t need to be acting.” These women, when I started writing with them were like, “Don’t you ever say that again.”
Right? I said something, and it got put into the intro of something we did. I wrote for Theatre and Embodiment and that article got picked up. That’s what really got the attention towards, “You might be doing this wrong.” I wrote something called “Hidden Damage,” and they created writing circles, and they would not let me say that I was a bad writer, and they started pointing out, and I needed that in a way that I don’t think I could have ever related. And we’re all going to see Usher. I still... And I say that because we are hyperproductive, but we also... Those women got me through the pandemic. We created... We wrote about Black mother schooling in a book that our former chair published called Black Women in the Rona, but we also created a graduation ceremony for all of our children on Zoom, months after the pandemic started. So our babies got their kindergarten graduation, people came out in their robes, we sang the Black national anthem, and some of our children have been like, “The pandemic wasn’t that bad.” And we were like, “Because y’all had community. You all had...”
And it was through those communities, because there were multiple of them for me, that I survived that and having those women. And so I just think if there are young academics out there, find your people and find the women who want you to succeed purely for your success, that will go to Charleston with you after you get through of a year of homeschooling and wile out. We watched The Chair and went to dinner, but we got away, and we listened to Waiting To X-Hale the whole way down. But it was through those women I started doing work in women and gender studies. It was through that work that I started doing work in women and gender and Africana studies. And so intimacy is making sure that there are boundaries and any act of simulated sex or physical intimacy is treated like we’re in a work environment.
So it’s the choreography of physical intimacy, but it’s also the creation of a boundary culture. And for me it’s a lot of choreography and a little bit of dramaturgy work. So, there’s a lot of research. My practice specifically looks at race and intimacy. There were a lot of people when #MeToo, became more talked about in popular culture, everybody thought gender was the key factor in that. And so you had a lot of white intimacy choreographers going into rooms and causing harm and choreographing things, I will not mention the play that I just talked about, but choreographing things in ways that Black people, particularly female identifying people were going to these plays and going, “What the hell just happened?” And I was like, “Oh, we need more people in the room who know what the history...”
Black and other directors of color and directors of marginalized groups for the most part, many of us have always been thinking about how we create cultures of consent and how we undo harm because so many of our bodies have been used or our stories have been told in ways that are really problematic and harmful.
And so an organization, Theatrical Intimacy Education, with some people I had worked with before called me, and they said, “Hey. We’re noticing that everybody who’s showing up to our workshops are white women and a few gay white men. We want to offer scholarship. Can we pay you to consult with us?” And I want to point that out because they asked to pick my brain in a conversation and they offered to compensate, even as a very young company. And when we talked, I said, “This is all great, but what are you offering that people of color want? So, scholarships: we love money, but we don’t all need money. What are you talking about where consent and boundary and power comes into play with race and ethnicity?”
And they were like, “Say more.” And then they were like, “Great, can you develop that class for us?” And so I started with Foundations in Race and Intimacy. I had been doing some work with Actors Equity already around race and theatre and doing training workshops for actors and stage managers. That’s the other thing I forgot to mention, so that’s part of my consulting. And then started really developing workshops on why race was an important factor and the history of how sex has been used in colonization. So one of the things I say in all my workshops is intimacy stories are both stories of culture—there’s cultural stories and supremacy stories. So they’re really beautiful things. Each of us, each culture has acts of intimacy, but they’re not the same in every culture. So, in my culture, I’ll talk about, you might have a woman with a man sitting between her legs or a partner sitting between her legs, and they’re corn rowing their hair, and that’s an act of intimacy that exists in my culture. Some of my South Asian friends, there’s the touching of the feet of their elders.
There’s a great study that just came out that talked about... It was in the Journal of Psychology. It talked about how Pakistani men living in Norway increased the physical closeness of Norwegian men who are native Norwegian because there’s so much more physical contact among males in Pakistani culture. And so, when we think that all intimacy is the same, when we take a fight approach to intimacy, we actually do some damage. Because often when you’re thinking about fight choreography, you want to be as realistic as possible, and we’re seeing some of that show up on stage. And the thing that my personal ethos is one, realistic sex is often only interesting to the people participating. It’s not that much fun to watch, sometimes not even to them. It’s really boring, and it’s long. And so, what we want to do is actually tell the story. What does this physical contact or this intimacy want to tell as a story?
But also, I’m a woman over thirty; I’m a mother. We never get to see ourselves as fully imagined sexual beings. And I know a lot of Black mothers, they are coming into their own the older they get. And so the blessing of something like The Best Man—which Chelsea Paisley, [who] founded TIE with Laura Ricard, invited me along to that one... I joke with her, she started with... You know The Best Man, right? And I was like, she laughs because she was like, “It was just an introduction.” But she brought me on that project and A Strange Loop. But I met Dana North on that project and also Dominique, who was a Black female executive with three kids at Showtime in the 1980s. And I was like, “Can I just sit near you? Tell me how you did this.”
But I’m really interested in intimacy, is when we change the ways that people see us as intimate... Not even people see us. When we change the ways our stories are told about how we’re intimate, we actually change futures for people. We change marriage prospects. We change the way we get to see ourselves.
And so often the way that Black intimate stories have been told in film in particular has been either interspersing violence, you think about Queen and Slim, you think about Beale Street, there was literally... 2018, or it was 2017? I got so sick of going to the movies because it was like I went to see a love story and then in the middle of this passionate intimate scene, I’m watching somebody get shot. And I was like, “This is now becoming pathological.” Or if you will go back and you watch something Waiting To Exhale, our sex scenes are always made fun of. But we don’t get to see genuine intimate humor a lot, and I’m so grateful for projects like Harlem and projects like Best Man, where they really were interested in what it means to show not only sex but the female point of view.
Because there’s a lot of things we see, like a woman bouncing on top of a man that is considered sexy and you’re like, “Yeah, that position actually isn’t that much fun, it’s a lot of work”. If we’re really talking about... And I think the ability to get to have that conversation, the ability... Saying I just got off the phone with Tamilla at Yale who’s doing A Winter’s Tale at the Folger. I got to work with Brandon Dirden and Crystal at Two River doing Wine in the Wilderness, working with Hannah and Elizabeth Carter on Confederates, the rooms and the people and the discussions. I did Sugar in our Wounds at Penumbra, Choir Boy with Jamil, and getting to walk into spaces and saying, “You know what we don’t see with Black queer youth? Queer youth are always aged up and over eroticized, and Black boys don’t get to be kids. Can we make this scene fumbly? Can we add some laughter to the scene?”
So it’s going to be beautiful and beautiful, but I also want to see... I have sons, right? Sex isn’t super coordinated. And this is something intimacy coordinators talk about a lot, is the sort of when you cast a twenty-five-year-old and you do a sex scene, you’re not doing anything realistic with what teenage sex is. It’s messy, and it’s fumbly, and we can argue that we show more realistic portrayals, then we actually have to be realistic and not fetishize young bodies and especially young bodies of color and especially queer young bodies of color. So I’ve been blessed to do a lot of work with queer youth and then a lot of really complicated work like both Confederates and Sugar in Our Wounds so show sexual assault by white women who appear on stage in the most innocent of costumes and form.
So playing with the idea of what does it mean to make sure that the audience knows that this is a sexual assault, because even when they articulate that because we’re not trained to see that. So that’s the work I’m interested in, and it’s also the work I do. I teach a class called Foundations of Intimacy, Race, and Consent, and then a second level course called Race and Intimacy Choreography, where we talk about not just how you avoid harm—I think that’s the part of DEI work that everybody runs with—but also what are the assets that come when you are culturally competent. The thing that I’m sort of on now is it can’t just be about training white people to do the work. There has to be more advocacy. Also, like I said before, the basis of consent work comes from a lot of work from [Audre] Lorde and [bell] hooks.
Some of the direct things, and so in 2020 we actually were convening a conference at Princeton on race and intimacy, and it ended up being virtual because of the pandemic—t was one of the first things to get shut down. And as I was talking to Chelsea and Laura and Brian Herrera at the McCarter, I said, “These are Black women’s ideas.” And we came up with the idea that I think 80 or 90 percent of the attendees were Black female-identifying people. So one of the things I tell people and I tell my students because you talk about race and people are like, but disability, but Judaism, but transgender, and it’s like great, there are bodies of color in each of those identities we don’t talk about... When we talk about disability, you are imagining a white body. So let’s talk about disability and intimacy, but let’s put a Black female-identifying body. Let’s talk about trans issues; let’s put a Black Colombian in that representation.
And God bless Ann James because she called me before she started Intimacy Coordinators of Color, and she was like, these organizations are excluding us, and they’re making us jump. And these are things we know. And I talked to Valerie Clayman Pye, who has some issues with the field and rightly so, but she’s like a lot of us have created... I’m a Black queer woman. We have been creating cultures of consent in our rooms. So one of the things I’m very cognizant of when I go into a space is that I did not create this work. I will say I’m learning, I’m learning to overcome my upbringing and claim what I have done, because the humbleness has not served me well in this field, but I was the first person to write about it or offer classes in it.
But Black and other directors of color and directors of marginalized groups for the most part, many of us have always been thinking about how we create cultures of consent and how we undo harm because so many of our bodies have been used or our stories have been told in ways that are really problematic and harmful. And for me, a really key point of intimacy work is recognizing really where this field starts. So it was used for the first time in 2014, but many things, the codification and commodification of it is not necessarily the start.
There are people who benefit from us thinking certain people invented it. Right, now, there are people who give them their props, like Alicia and other people. What I appreciate about Laura and Chelsea is they will say, “We did not create this,” right? Consent has existed, but there are people who benefit from the idea that this is a new thing. The same way there were white women, too. But really what’s important for me is that when people go in the room and they don’t recognize the racial dynamics and they don’t recognize something I talk about in my classes is hidden white women dynamics, one of the earliest forms of a very perverse kind of white American economic feminism, they had slave circles the way you talk about a quilting circle.
These women would get together and talk about breeding their six through twelve-year-olds and it’s a dark history, and it’s like, I, because of my body and my identity, I have to be aware of how I present in every room I walk into. So what I tell white choreographers, I’m not asking you to be ashamed and I’m not even saying you can never take a job. Clearly that’s not an issue, because there’s a lot of white choreographers on a lot of projects. But I am saying the way I have to be aware when I walked into most rooms, you have to be aware of the history your body has, and it’s not just Emmett Till and the whistle; this goes back. Deep.
And we’re not talking about... Often Southern women are portrayed as victims of the patriarchy, Southern white women, and it’s like, no. There was a perpetuation because you lost your land, but you could keep your enslaved people.
So that was a way that white women build wealth. And if we’re not talking about that, if we’re just talking about the sisterhood, because the sisterhood can exist, but the sisterhood has to exist on a very truthful level. And the way that the male coordinators I know take care when they’re working in a room of young women, they’re aware of their bodies. People also need to be aware of the identities that they’re bringing into a room. I’m aware of my straightness when I work with queer culture. Robert Ramirez, my students asked him yesterday, if we have proximity to a culture, if we grew up in a culture... So I have a student who’s not Chicano, who’s another ethnic group, but grew up deep in South San Diego. She said the places, and I was like,
Leticia: I lived in Escondido.
Kaja: So you’ll know this, this student said El Cajon and National City. And I was like, “Oh, you know.” Right.
So my former partner grew up in National City, too, and I was like, “No. There’s no way that you...” And what Robert said is, “The way I look at it is do you have a lifelong investment in these communities?” Right? Do you have a history of doing work in these communities? That doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to, but it means if somebody invites you, these are the questions you ask. Do you know what you don’t know, and are you willing to grow in that area? And are you okay if people are being themselves in these spaces?
So when we did Choir Boy, Jamil would wile out in tech. So in between, he got work done. I’ve never seen somebody work so efficiently and so joyfully, but in between you were hearing Atlanta hip hop through the decades, and he didn’t explain it to people and people caught on.
But there was some discomfort in some of these places we were working at first. And then people were like, “Oh.” You’re asking eight Black men to appear naked on stage in predominantly white spaces. You best make sure that these spaces feel like we have [comfort inside] of them. And one of the ways we do that is... I mean I will tell you, this last year and a half, I’ve never had so much fun during tech. I’ve had four or five techs that I’m like I don’t want tech to be over. And I never thought it as a theatre person, but...
Jordan: Never have thought that.
Kaja: Confederates at St. Louis Rep, dear lord, Wine in the Wilderness at Two River… Brandon Dirden and the teams that he assembles, the Black women in that room, those creative teams, it was just introduction to Black design history, the stories, and the respect and the love. I was like I don’t ever want tech to be over because there’s a way that people work that I was like, “Oh.” And Jamil, same thing. I mean these were joyful processes. Karen Ann too with Our Verse in Time and Vernice; people built community. And I think that is the thing I love most about this role is all the... I’m glad that you all think I have my hand in things for me. Sometimes it feels like I haven’t gotten as far as I want to in any of these fields, like you want to master them. And intimacy and academia are the two places where it feels like, “Oh, all of these experiences I can actually put them together and they’re all useful, they all serve me.”
Including, I grew up with very strict upbringing, and there’s a lot of admirably so, very sexually liberated people who do intimacy work. But what my background allows me to do is to look at the understudy who’s really hesitant and who is afraid that they’re not living up to their job and to go, “I’m really good at my job and I can make anything look sexy. Show me where your boundaries actually are. I’ll talk to the director, and we’ll, make sure we have something that works for you,” because I know what it is to grow up in that household where my mother actually talked about sex pretty openly, but there were very clear rules about what we were and weren’t supposed to do. And another thing that I think I’ve been able to do in this role is explain that, particularly white women, but what they see is, and some white men, what they see as sexually liberated, they’re not taking into account that we had cultures of sexual liberation and we were attacked for them.
And so often the Black community, sometimes rightly so, is cast as very homophobic or very repressive and it’s like, “Y’all, whenever we’re attacked, we’re not presented as human.” And so while respectability politics doesn’t work, it was a protection technique. It was us trying to protect and if you don’t understand that, you go in thinking that you are liberal because these people aren’t as educated. The same thing in the South, and it’s like, this developed because of something, this isn’t just how people... This is in response to centuries of colonialism. And so for me, all of these things and the drive to keep working is because I can see impact even if I don’t directly benefit, I didn’t directly benefit in some ways from the work of race in the field because I’m still struggling with SAG and with certification, and there are other people who I think have benefited more from it. But I also know that that eighteen-year-old Black boy that goes to college and is in that room for the first time, it is less likely that he’s going to be hurt by the work.
Jordan: Just the different ways that we again need to create intimate spaces, right? Playing Atlanta hip hop music and making sure that... I mean the work that for example Dominique Morisseau does in all of her productions with having, “Here’s how you can engage with the work.”
Kaja: And this is something I forgot to mention, Eunice is doing a book with Lisa about justice in the classroom, and my chapter in that is using Black pedagogy as a way to think about how we train all students. And this was something else I picked up with my colleagues at UNC Charlotte, which was the dean came to us and was like, “Hey we’re getting... What do we do? Can you do training for the faculty?” And I said, “Instead of having us focus on training white people, you have six Black faculty here, many of us were newer, but who all study Black art forms. Can we get together?” What I actually said first was, “Can you give us a year where we don’t have to talk to white people and we go do our own work, like an Africana arts studies department?” And he was like, “No, I can’t”.
But I was like, “I’m serious.” Because, I mean, it was in the middle of all of those questions and all of those faculty meetings and all of... And I was like, you all don’t realize how wearing this is, and it never counts as research.
And I had started my own period of discovery, discovering the role my family played in Cape Verdean Liberation and why it wasn’t talked about and the role the CIA had with the Portuguese secret police. And it was a sister at Johnson C. Smith Turza Lima, who took me under her wing and Eunice who was like, “Hey, you need to come to these Cape Verdean things.” And somebody there was like, “You need to go interview your family.” And it was really hard interviewing, and my family would not talk about it. And then I found their names in pamphlets that were like African liberation pamphlets, and I started to read the history and that led me to Amílcar Cabral, which I also hadn’t been able to study.
And I started reading Black Liberation Movement and I had gotten flack for using the term decolonization because people said, “No, no, that belongs to Indigenous people.” And I’ve always questioned how we use Indigenous because it’s like, “Well I’m Indigenous too. I was taken from the place I am Indigenous from.” But you find the use of decolonization in Pan-African liberation thought. And the moment, in my... I was thirty-nine or forty that I realized, because it was a couple years ago that the work I do is actually my family’s legacy. That I’m not a stranger, that I’m not... I think for many reasons—I’m light skinned, I did not get a PhD, I didn’t grow up in an academic setting—I’ve always felt like an outsider. And there was this really profound moment where my great uncle sent me, his wife sent me his documents, and I realized, “Oh, this is my legacy.”
And I had my eleven-year-old son, and he said, “We’re from a family of freedom fighters.” And I thought my children can name every Greek God and all of Henry the Eighth’s wives, and nobody in their class knows where one of our countries of origin is. Nobody knows where the Cape Verde islands are. Nobody knows that gas chambers were invented there. That drive to make sure that we’re talking about this and we’re teaching, and that’s what drives... I hate writing. I really, I admire people who love the act, but… Kathy Perkins taught me the importance of making sure that it’s documented, because otherwise it disappears. And the fact that many of us see things that are valuable that other people don’t. When we had that Black Arts Collective at UNC Charlotte, so it was Chris Berry, a dancer; Tamara, who’s writing about Ring Shout; and Queen Dubose who is a Black opera singer. We started to look at all of our greatest cultural assets are under people’s beds. But when you look at K-12 Black pedagogy theories, what they’re talking about is reclamation and salvaging and restoration versus breaking someone down. And when we can take that idea, when we can say you can start with yourself, you don’t have to do Laughter on the 22nd Floor or whatever it is. You don’t have to do Tennessee Williams, you get to start with you and from you. We will find you in all of these other works, but you need to know you first and that’s what hasn’t been done.
There’s been a lot of stripping; the “them” got trained out of them. One of the things I write about is this work for us, many of us, it is for us but not just for us. Many of us who are fortunate get this from our families or get this from somewhere, but you all are also teaching your children that they’re not good enough unless they produce, which is a problem because this way of teaching and pedagogy and supremacy culture, we are saying that everybody has inherent value.
And the only students I have right now who know that, went to... It was interesting when I taught my class about Black liberatory pedagogy, the students who were like, “Oh, nothing about this is unfamiliar,” is students who went to very elite private schools and boarding schools. They were like, “Everything was centered around us,” and that, for me, was eye opening. And I was like, “Great. So that’s all we’re asking for, for everybody”.
And Tonya Pinkins had me on her podcast to talk about intimacy, and she was pushing back, her podcast is called You Can’t Say That. And she has... I love Tonya, I love Tonya. That is a woman that I’m like, “Oh you did this when there was no reward for the work.”But one of the things I said to her is like, “Look, I could never go up to Tom Hanks and grab his balls and violate him and not respect his boundaries.” All we are asking for is that that is the case for everybody. There have always been boundaries for certain people. So when people talk about, “Oh this is ruining the field,” and I was like, “No, no, there are certain people I could never do this to, but everybody else.” And so that is also an important cultural part of the work, I think.
What does this physical contact or this intimacy want to tell as a story?
Jordan: We always see what we talk about on the podcast, the beginning of conversations at the end of them. And in the spirit of that, we would love for you to share any resources that our listeners can engage around anything that you’ve discussed today, whether that’s books, podcasts, articles, anything that people can continue to have these... Or to see these conversations blossom.
Kaja: So I’m going to shout out some dear friends who are also great writers. My girlfriend Dr. Janaka Bowman Lewis just published Light and Legacies: [Stories of Black Girlhood and Liberation], and I really... It’s such a beautiful book. She’s an English professor who was also the head of Women and Gender Studies, and that is a book I love. And then one of my other co-writers, and I want to make sure I get the title of the book right because I’ve been using it a lot: Dr. Tehia Glass, Tehia Starker Glass, has written a book called I think it’s Teaching for Justice and [Belonging] and it’s written in a very conversational way. And so it has questions at the end of every chapter, but if you are in a classroom, I think the original audience that it was conceived for was elementary school teachers. But it’s got so much practical advice.
Daina Barry’s book, Sexuality and Slavery and... It’s Barry and [Lesley M.] Harris wrote it, it is excellent, excellent research, that’s rediscovering the histories of enslaved people, because we’ve sort of... They’re complex right? And so bell hooks’ Reel to Real, is... We talk about foundational and All About Love. And I will say, because I didn’t have the education I wish I did necessarily growing up, and so hooks and Lorde were always presented to me on this mantle, right? They didn’t seem like real people in the way that they were presented. And so I didn’t read hooks until much later and then I was like, “Why didn’t I have this when I was eighteen?” She writes like you’re talking to a girlfriend, and I felt such a kinship.
Angela Davis, same thing, because of Janaka and Tehia, I got to have breakfast with her. And just what amazes me about Black scholars and activists, Black female-identifying scholars and activists, is their sort of practicality in their work and for most of them the way that their work translates into instantly useful. And I think it comes from where research often comes from, which is this urgency: we do not have time. It’s not that our work isn’t complicated and nuanced, but the smartest people can make the most complicated concepts understandable. And I think that’s something I really appreciate about Black female scholars. So yeah, I think any are sort of the top of my list if you’re interested, especially if you’re interested in something like intimacy, understanding the stories of the people you’re writing from... Oh one more I’ll mention Angela C. Pao and No Safe Spaces, about casting and the different types of casting.
And if you’re like me and you’re like, “I cannot read a book right now,” she has an article that summarizes it. And then also one of my dear mentors, Kathy Perkins. I was looking up Roberta Uno, because she’s one of my heroes, and I found an interview that she did in 1991, and I played it for my class and they could not believe it was 1991. It is so relevant. I think the NYU archives have it. Look up “Roberta Uno interview.”
But what I did not realize until I played it for the class, because when you’re prepping notes, you’re not fully paying attention, I was like that voice that’s interviewing her... Kathy Perkins. Kathy Perkins interviewing Roberta Uno is one of the most profound things I have ever heard. And then I’ll promote, Brooke Haney has a book coming out that I have the Black American chapter in. Dr. Ayshia and her book, Intimacy Direction for Theatre that just came out. Black Women and da ‘Rona, I have the mother-schooling chapter in and then Eunice Ferrera’s book that’s coming out soon about social justice in the classroom and Lisa Biggs. So yeah, that should keep you busy for a while.
Leticia: You have given our listeners one, just a plethora of ideas and thoughts to marinate on, and also great selection of books that I even am going to check out that I was not familiar with. But before we sort of go and let you get on with your busy schedule of directing and acting and intimacy coordinator and being a mother and all the great things, we would like to ask you, where would you like to be found? How can people continue to follow the work that you’re doing?
Kaja: I have a website that my agent has told me I need to update. So I just got signed with Alexander Creatives, so if you are interested, when this strike is over, hopefully by the time this airs, the strike will be over and these producers—I’m a proud SAG-AFTRA member—will give us our due. But if you’re looking for film and TV, I’m represented by Alexander Creatives for theatre work. It’s kajadunn.com. I’m on Instagram under Kaja Dunn. I am coming away from the thing that is now known as X; I will find another thing like it. But yeah, Instagram is probably the best social media and if you’re looking to send a direct email, kajadunn.com has a place where you can contact me.
Leticia: Great. Thank you so much Kaja.
Jordan: Thank you for joining us. This was so awesome and it’s always so lovely to meet... I remember the first time I heard you speak was at ATHE. Yeah. So this is a real treat for us and I know for sure listeners are going to be so, so thrilled.
Kaja: Oh, well, thank y’all. It was great hanging out with you and I’m so proud of you all. I remember [y’all being] grad students. For me, it’s a joy. The whole purpose of this work is to make sure that we’re here, and so sometimes I still feel like a newbie, and so it is joyful for me to bring people and if you ever need anything, please let me know because I’m really proud of you.
Jordan: Oh, thank you so much.
Leticia: Thank you so much. We will see you all next episode.
This has been another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. We’re your hosts, Leticia Ridley—
Jordan: And Jordan Ealey.
Leticia: On our next episode, we’ll discuss the legacy of the Negro Ensemble Company. We have so much in store for you this season that you definitely will not want to miss. In the meantime, if you’re looking to connect with us, please follow us on Twitter at @dolorrainepod, P-O-D. You can also email us at [email protected] for further contact.
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