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Voyeurs de Venus Playwright Lydia R. Diamond

by moxielicious

An Interview with Lydia R. Diamond from THE INTERVAL

Lydia Diamond_1

Written by Victoria Myers

Photography by Emma Pratte

February 16th, 2016

We met playwright Lydia R. Diamond on an unseasonably warm day in February (you know it’s winter in New York when everyone is constantly remarking about the weather) at a coffee shop a few blocks away from Second Stage, where her latest play, Smart People, was in previews. Between the potted plants in the window, the eclectic music coming from the radio (an actual radio), and Lydia’s warm and thoughtful manner, our conversation felt a little like what it must feel like to be inside one of the photos in an Anthropologie catalogue. That might seem like an odd way to introduce a writer whose current play is a thought-provoking and poignant look at race in America, but much like in Lydia’s play, the intersections between disciplines and interests is where the story lies. Smart People concerns a neuroscientist doing a controversial study on race, and the role that race plays for a group of people pursuing their ambitions. Lydia’s other plays include Stick FlyVoyeurs de Venus, and The Bluest Eye, among others. We spoke to her about the genesis of Smart People, her writing process, plans for the future, and more.

(i.) Present

I read that Smart People started when you read an article about science and how we perceive race. I was curious about how that fit into your creative process for this play? Was it a jumping off point, or was it a moment of, “Oh, maybe that’s how these ideas in my head fit together”? 
I would say the latter. Not so much that I wanted to write about this particular study, but that I was so affected when I read Susan Fiske’s article called Dehumanizing the Lowest of the Low. I was so affected by that work that was being done, since at that point I didn’t know about brain imaging and neuroscience and race, and of course it seemed like the perfect marriage. The level of resonance that the article had with me is what inspired the play. Then, to the degree that I wanted to write specifically about race, I then started looking at the other disciplines in the sciences, and there were all of these silos of this work being done and it made me think. It’s interesting that scientists exist in their little silos and I know there are think tanks and things like that where people are brought together, but I think not so much around race since it’s such a powder-keg.

The Interval has talked to a few writers who have done research for their plays, and I was wondering what your process was like for researching and incorporating the science into the play? Because we all know how to do research for a term paper, but it seems like for something creative, your brain has to synthesize the information in a different way.
Well, my brain helps me out with that because I have a funny brain that doesn’t do a good job at holding onto facts. And it’s funny because I was having migraines and I had my brain tested, and there were things that I learned about how my brain worked that would have helped me going through school. But one of the things I don’t do well is the remembering of little facts. Like in a science test in school—I was a straight A student because I had to be because of my mom—it was a struggle for me to remember facts like the periodic table and what year and who invented what. So what I do is I release that. I know I’m not going to remember the date and name of every study, but I absorb it. So for a year, or in this case two years, it was just reading everything and allowing myself to understand it the way a layperson would, because a lot of the science is written in a completely dense, hard to penetrate way. So I just decided to read it and let it wash over me, absorb it, and know that it was in there and it was the ideas that I needed to roll around in. I think as soon as you get too stuck in the specifics of science, especially for something that you’re extrapolating on and kind of making up a new hybrid, you could get so lost in the facts that it would turn into this weird, didactic, boring thing.

How did you come up with the structure of the play? There are a lot of solo moments and two-person scenes with shifting permutations. Did you find that happening organically or was it more purposeful? 
It was absolutely organic. Almost always when I write, the characters and the story dictate the structure, and I don’t know what it will be until the play tells me what it will be. But I look at it now and it makes all the sense in the world because the whole conversation about race is so disjointed and disconnected, and it’s so hard for us to hold on to it, so it makes sense that a play about something that’s so slippery wouldn’t be in a well-made play structure. It comes as this burst of insights and anecdotal experiences—not always about race since we don’t walk through the world being and doing race—but that’s kind of the way it came to me. And it culminates in a trying-to-pull-it-all-together scene at the end of the play when we’ve already established these people in their little worlds like the silos I was talking about.

How much thought did you give to the gender, race, and occupation of each character (i.e. making it a black, male doctor rather than a black, female doctor)? 
I didn’t handpick their professions to work into what I wanted the play to be. That came rather organically. I did know that I wanted a protagonist who was a neuroscientist who was doing this work—an extrapolation of all of these sciences I’d read about—and I knew I wanted him to be white, and I knew I wanted him to be a bit of a tragic hero. But beyond that, the others just organically materialized.

read that you started working on the play in 2007 (the year the play takes place) and then it had a production at the Huntington in 2014. When you’re working on a play that’s about a very contemporary subject, and one where the dialogue has really continually shifted between 2007, 2014, and 2016, does that affect your process of working on the play? Do you have to put blinders on and keep it in its original state, or do you let it evolve?
When I first started, the campaigning [for President] had just started, and when Obama won it changed how I would talk about race and, for a while, it leveled me. It really asked that I step it up in a really profound way. The conversation, for me, felt more urgent but had to be more sophisticated than it ever had been. And then, after a point, I realized that I would have to shut this down because you can’t keep up with history. So I did put an, “Okay, this is where we are, we’re going to end at the election.”

Lydia Diamond_3

(ii.) Process

What is your writing process like? What’s your way into a story?
In broad brushstrokes, there would be theme. But when I say theme, I don’t start with a thesis statement, but in this case especially, I do know that I want this to be an exploration of the slipperiness and the nitroglycerin of race. And then the characters [come next] and I let them talk to one another and that dictates the form. Then I keep letting them talk to one another, and then I massage the structure of the play on the back end. There’s a lot of posting of scenes and of pages on the wall and on the floor and rearranging things and writing things to fill in holes. And even now, in the rehearsal process, just three days ago we took out two scenes. It’s a puzzle. And I’d say for my work that’s not even quite as collage-like as this piece, I still have this puzzle-like way that I put it together. Very seldom do I write in chronological order.

When you’re doing a first draft, do you write very quickly and just try to get all of your initial thoughts out? Or is it a slower process all the way along?
It’s slow. Very, very slow. A first draft is sort of rather arbitrary—what I even call a first draft. I often call the first draft “the first 100 pages.” And it evolves considerably from there. It’s usually by the third draft that it resembles the play you’ll see. Then it becomes very different during the rehearsal process.

(iii.) Sound and Visuals

Are there other areas of culture, like art or music, that affect your work?
Not as much as I think it could, at least not in a conscious way. I’d say it’s more of the sounds and textures of the world around me. Another thing about my brain is that I sort of hear everything at once. I have a weird time with sensory integration. I think that’s why I’ve picked up dialogue the way that I have. I hear every conversation in a restaurant at the same level, at the same time. I think there’s just this way that my brain has synthesized the world around me. So to that degree, yes, because every painting in a room, the music, the ambient noise affects it greatly. It’s funny, since when I teach I have my students do many museum exercises, but I don’t do them as much as I think I should and maybe will for my next play—consciously go to a museum and see what comes of it. My world is full of art, but I haven’t consciously had a physical image that has inspired something that way.

Do you have very strong instincts, then, about how you want the play to look and sound on stage?
I do. I think maybe because I started as an actor. I see it very specifically. I’ve been blessed to work with directors who respect that and bolster that. Like Kenny Leon brings all of his experience and savvy and vision as a Tony-winning director to the table, but just this morning I called him at like 6am and was like, “Oh my God, oh my God, I see the visuals of the epilogue we’ve been working with in a very specific way.” And he was able to say, “I’ve been thinking that too, and I’ve also been thinking…” And that can be quite a collaboration. But I do see things very visually, yes.

(iv.) Fashion

Do you have a dream cultural collaboration?
Funny you should ask. I’m writing a musical with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Eric Simonson for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. They sent me to South Africa and I hung out with the guys on the tour bus for seven days and that is, right now, the most amazing coming together that I could have ever imagined being able to do. I would love to write a piece with dance. Lately I’ve been thinking I’d like to do a fashion play. I don’t know what that would look like at all, but how amazing would that be?

Do you mean incorporating fashion designers into the collaboration?
Yeah, I mean seriously a play about the fashion world. And then I’m like, “How would people do it low budget?” But I like the idea very much. Or even starting with a specific designer and saying, “I’d like to have a collaboration.”

For the Tonys last year, we did a piece on how fashion could be used to bring new audiences to theatre, especially since the museums and ballet have gone into that world and used it successfully.
When I did Stick Fly on Broadway, Andre Leon Tally—I guess he was friends with Alicia Keys—but we started emailing, and he came to the show and he invited me to an exhibit that he had, and that made me start thinking. We fell out of touch since that was a moment but it made me think, “Oh God, yes, that could be an interesting story.”

And could be told in an interesting way.
And could live in the politics that I live in. It could be all about race and gender and class and aesthetics. I’ve also thought I would love to be a clothing designer. I would kill to be Donna Karan. I think it’s such a big, important part of my life, but I think of it as frivolous in a way that doesn’t make sense, that’s very disconnected. So I think it would be interesting to look at moving through a world that’s theoretically frivolous but that is actually so important to everyone, even the people who don’t think it’s important—it’s a conscious decision to decide to be a person who doesn’t give a shit about clothes.

There’s a reason the Met has a Costume Institute.
Absolutely. So that interests me.

When you’re writing, do you know what your characters wear?
Yes, but I learned not to write that in the stage directions because designers can get very fixated on it, and I’ll be like, “Why is she wearing a bright pink hat?” And they’ll be like, “Because you said she’d wearing a bright pink hat and we looked all over town for it.” And I’ll be like, “Oh, sorry, I just saw it in my mind when I was writing, but it’s not important.” So I’ll write them and then go back and edit stage directions to make sure they’re integral to the story and so I’m not micromanaging the designers.

Lydia Diamond_5

(v.) New Play Development

I wanted to ask you about new play development. It gets talked about a lot, but it always seems to make the most sense to ask writers. How do you think new play development can be improved?
That’s a question I haven’t been asked. I haven’t thought about it much. I write slowly and for the last several years I’ve been developing work in the same place. I used to have very strong opinions about development and how it doesn’t work and how it should work, and I’m less hard on institutions now about it. Maybe because I’m lucky enough to have benefited from it and have a sense of agency, so I can often mold it to what I want it to be. I’ve been blessed to have relationships with people [and places] like the McCarter Theatre who hung in there with me for seven years. They commissioned this play and let me have a reading whenever I wanted to, and invited me to their retreat this summer, and let me work on whatever I wanted to, which was mostly this play. I do think it’s nice when playwrights don’t have to feel encumbered by the weight of a potential production. I think it’s hard to create when the eyes of the producer are on you. So my relationship with the McCarter is different because I have a friendship with them, so I don’t feel, “I have to make this play perfect so they’ll give me a production.” And, again, the planets have aligned in my career so I tend not to be hungry for a production; I’m hungry to make the play the best play. But I do realize that’s a privilege. I do know there’s development when a theatre gives you a reading and two days of development and you know that’s an audition. And that’s not a good feeling, but it does feel like part of ecology of theatre. Because I have a child, I haven’t been able to take advantage of things like the O’Neill Festival—all of those things that I wish had come to me earlier in my career, I now find I have to be very selective about.

The childcare issue has come up a number of times; that development opportunities are not lined up to a schedule conducive to caring for a child.
It’s true. And to that degree, when you start talking about gender parity, that’s a really big thing. I do think it’s easier for the guys to leave and do their thing. There have been times in my life where I’ve been almost resentful of that. And I don’t know what the answer to do that would be. Well, yeah, I do—it’s money. It would take organizations being committed to having childcare. Having said that, there have been times when I have said in my contract, “I need…” Is fact, this production, I said I’m going to be need to be able to go home four times during the course of this rehearsal process because I have a child who needs me. It’s having the agency to ask for it, and I don’t know if playwrights always know that they have more agency then they think they do.

And that’s perhaps doubly true for women and a discomfort around asking things that have to do with children.
Absolutely. I came up in Chicago and I talk about Chicago like it’s the Mecca of theatre because that’s what it was for me. I very much grew up in rehearsal rooms where children ran around. In my first regional show at the Goodman, we had a corner for one of the actor’s children and we had pictures he painted, and whenever there was a sex scene an intern would take the kid out and then bring the kid back in. When I did The Bluest Eye at Steppenwolf, there was an actress who I would have breast-pumping contests with. And the director had toddlers running around, and we’d exchange clothing and anecdotes, and the most vivid memory I have is of the choreographer working with her baby latched on. It was like all babies and woman power. I think it can look that way. An artistic director just has to know that a room can look that way. I do find more often in institutions headed by women that there’s more flexibility around that, and an understanding that a child’s presence and creative focus are not mutually exclusive. There’s a certain life that comes out of having life in the room, and normalcy that I think we can embrace more artistically. I’m actually doing a workshop process in Wisconsin, and I’m taking my son who has Asperger’s. I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to do it—if I take a babysitter—but knowing that he’s welcome will make me so much more present in the room than if I’m there, worried that I’ve left him, and he’s going to end up in therapy talking about his mom.

(vi.) Themes

What do you see as the themes in your work? How do you feel they’ve changed or shifted over the years?
I’ve always very organically been drawn to conversations around race and class. They fascinate me because we’re so ill equipped to talk about them. But I would never, until this play, call it a political imperative. It’s just, that’s where I live. When I first started writing, I came at it through a sense of urgency and sometimes presumption—I knew what was wrong with our society, and I knew the answers, and I had a commitment to putting these things on stage so I could change the world. Then I got older and life happened to me in very specific and sometimes not good ways, and then I had a child and a husband who was not well sometimes. I was humbled by life in a way that made me have a lot less of that sense of knowing everything. For a while, I was shaken by that—and that happened actually through the writing of this play—but I figured out [how] to embrace it, and there was something compelling and deeper about saying, “I don’t know,” and writing either towards the answer or writing more towards embracing the question. I think that’s fruitful.

Lydia Diamond_4

(vii.) Representation

Do you find when you’re writing about race or class, but probably mostly race, that when you have to go talk about it in the press that it becomes a whole other can of worms? 
Sure. I notice that often right away they’ll go straight to the politics of race. I’m okay with that because I think that’s important. But I did start to realize, when I do panels and things like that, I’m so much more talking about myself as a person of color in the world or as an artist of color in the world, and I’m so much less often getting to have conversations about aesthetics. I don’t know if I resent that, but I bet that it would be nice in having to live with having to roll the ideas around in my head about the choices I’m making or the development of my aesthetic, and I don’t really ever have to actively think about that going into an interview.

It positions your play and process in a different space.
Exactly. Which is interesting, because at the same time I’m saying to people, “This is a play about family and love and hope,” I’m still knowing that I’m in this [space], and I think that’s part of being African American and an artist. We don’t get to separate ourselves that way. And that is what it is. It can be a burden and it can be a privilege, and either way a responsibility.

A question I ask writers a lot is if they feel their work is talked about differently than they think it would be if they were a male playwright. 
Absolutely. Without a doubt. There’s no nuance around that. I have the double whammy of black and female, although I think I’m always black first. Some people always say, “Oh, the next August Wilson or Lorraine Hansberry,” and I think there are elements of my work that could be Wendy Wasserstein. I don’t know why I couldn’t. I have Pinter-esque pauses. Why has no one ever landed on that? I try not to read reviews, but there was one where someone compared me to Tyler Perry. And I don’t think that’s an insult since I think Tyler Perry has made himself a dynasty that is quite admirable, but it’s not what I do. It doesn’t resemble what I do in the least. There’s nothing that my writing does that looks like what he does. I thought that was weird. And I can’t imagine there’s any white writer on the face of the earth who someone would say reminds them of Tyler Perry. That’s a problem. That means there’s very few paradigms. And very few stylistic opportunities and a small range of stories we’re limited to. I’m venturing into television now, and there especially, I’ve found that there’s this idea of what a black experience is, and because I write what’s outside of what’s been allowed to be on stage, there’s a questioning of authenticity, which is beyond maddening. For a white producer, executive, artistic director [etc.] to tell me that my work isn’t black enough… I’m losing my mind.

(viii.) Past

What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
My brain just went to, weirdly, Sleeping Beauty. It must have been this book of Walt Disney fairy tales and there was this image of the prince with the sword and the queen has turned herself into the dragon and has flames. It would scare the bejesus out of me and I’d be like, “Not that page!” I don’t know why I landed on that because my mom railed against me having images that were only white as a child. To the degree that she would go in and watercolor Dr. Seuss books so they would have brown people in them sometimes. Because the world assaults our young people with images of people who don’t look like them, she wanted me not to be. So there was so much Ezra Jack Keats and fairytales. My world was full of these diverse stories, so it’s interesting that a Walt Disney story came to my mind, and then I feel like I have to explain that. I read a lot as a child. I was an only child with a single mom. So I skip forward to all of the stories of my youth that I’d sit in trees and read, like Little House on the Prairie and Watership Down and the JRR Tolkien books.

When did you first feel like a grown up?
My grandmother started to get Alzheimer’s, and before we knew that she was, she would tell these secrets about our family. I’d learn these things about my family that I just wasn’t supposed to know and I was like, “Wow I guess that’s it. The last vestige of childhood is gone. Because I so can’t un-know that now.”

Lydia Diamond_2

(ix.) Broadway

In 2011 your play Stick Fly was on Broadway. That year, there were more plays by women on Broadway than there will be this year or last year. What’s the experience like of being one of the handful of contemporary female playwrights to make it to Broadway? 
I was aware of the significance of that because it was very significant for other people. Going through it I was putting up a play, so I was doing the thing I’m doing now of the fourteen-hour days in the rehearsal room. It was good because I would not have been able to wrap my head around how momentous it was and metabolize it. That’s probably right, because what I needed to do was enjoy the moment and be inside the rehearsal room with the people. It was the time outside the rehearsal room—there was intense press, there was Alicia Keys, and me having to stand next to Alicia Keyes and take pictures. She was lovely and disarming, but I spent a lot of time looking at myself too much, which made me not feel good about myself. And not knowing how to integrate myself into this world, which was a very new world to me. And if I had to do it again, I would not waste my time feeling that way. I think I understood how momentous it was on the backend of it. I think I got caught up in the noise of it in the middle of it, sometimes in ways that weren’t fruitful.

(x.) Future

What’s something you think people can do to improve gender equality in theatre? 
Produce plays by women. It’s the same thing with diversity of color and aesthetic. Just produce some plays that don’t look like the plays you’ve been producing forever and don’t presume it’s some old, white audience seeing them, and the audience will diversify and the conversation will elevate. I’ve been having the same conversation about race in theatre for the past twenty years. When I was an undergraduate in college there weren’t mainstage plays about black people, there weren’t black people in the department, and a few years ago my college produced a play of mine and people flew in from out of town because this was a moment where black people were finally going to be on the mainstage. And that’s shameful. And that’s not limited to just my institution. I taught at Boston University, and they’re doing a play of mine at Emerson, and they’re doing a play of mine at a university in California, and over and over again it’s kids in these departments that aren’t getting the opportunity to be on stage, and specifically not in racially specific roles, which is a hole in their education. I could rail against that forever, and it’s the same thing: “Oh, we don’t know how to change that.” Well, you do the play. “Oh, there aren’t enough kids in the department.” So you admit more kids. “Oh, we don’t have the money to admit more people of color.” So you get more money. On and on and on. We’re theatre: we know how to put angels on stage, we know how to make people look like they’re levitating, we can lose electricity five minutes before a show and figure out how to put on a play, but we can’t figure out how to diversify theatre in America? That’s ridiculous.

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Who was Saartjie Baartman?

by moxielicious

Saartjie Baartman: The Original Booty Queen

by Cleuci de Oliveira (Originally Published in Jezebel Magazine)

Screen Shot 2018-07-14 at 10.34.29 AM

Hey, did you hear about Kim Kardashian’s butt on the cover of Paper magazine?

Of course you did. You know that butts are insanely big right now, both in a literal and figurative sense. Our culture’s most esteemed, prominent glutes (or, at least, the ones certain media players have decided are worthy of attention) get profiled in our fashion bible and paper of record. They get photo-spreads in Vanity Fair. They’ve led the discussion around VMA opening acts two years in a row. But more than that, they feature center-stage in conversations about whitewashing, cultural appropriation, and what is and isn’t deemed acceptable when it comes to women capitalizing on their bodies.

The discussion is not new. It’s at least 200 years old. And it starts with an illegal immigrant from southwestern Africa who became the most famous black woman in 19th-century Europe, on the back of her notable booty, by the time she was 22. Her name was Saartjie Baartman.

Like Kim, Saartjie (pronounced Sar-key) was voluptuous but tiny. She stood four feet, seven inches to Kim’s purported five-three. Unlike Kim, she didn’t just have her sizable assets in the way of talent. (Whether ‘balancing a champagne glass on your ass’ is a talent remains up for discussion.) She had learned and practiced multiple instruments in her native land (in what is now South Africa). On the stages of London and Paris, she regaled packed audiences with singing, dancing, and instrumental routines. When it comes to her contemporary booty-sisters, she is less Kim Kardashian, more Nicki Minaj.

“She had enormous skills,” says Tamar Garb, professor of art history at University College London and a native of South Africa. “She spoke many languages—Dutch, English, some French, and her maternal tongue. She was very literate and sophisticated. The show she put on was very much a performance, even if the role she was required to play was that of a ‘savage’ femininity.”

Today, Baartman is barely remembered in England. Few people know her name in America. In France, her legacy is a shameful reminder of the country’s very racist (and shockingly recent) past. In South Africa, she is a national hero: schools and streets bear her name.

So who the hell was this woman? And how did she end up the talk of Europe?

Baartman was born in 1789—the year of the French Revolution—in the Gamtoos River Valley in the former Cape Colony. No one knows if, as a woman belonging to the Khoikhoi tribe, she was ever christened with a traditional Khoisan name. In life, she was Saartjie—”little Sara” in Afrikaans, the language spoken by Dutch settlers.

Her family life was marred by death. Her mother passed before Baartman turned one; her father was murdered when she was 17 or 18. She worked as a servant and wet nurse to the family of Hendrik Cesars, a free black man, before moving in with a soldier: a drummer affiliated with the Cape Town troops. By all accounts they loved each other, and they had a child together. But the child died before turning two.

When Baartman’s child passed, her relationship collapsed. She went back to the Cesars household, taking care of their children while grieving for the loss of her own.

In all likelihood, this is how Baartman would have spent the rest of her life. But the Cesars household would quickly fall on hard times. Hendrik Cesar may have been a free man—one who could afford household help, at that—but he was still a black man in colonial Africa. He was also illiterate. Economically, he was at the bottom of the totem pole.

And Cesars, too, worked as a servant. He was employed by a British Army surgeon named Alexander Dunlop—a skilled physician who was not adverse to standing up to his superiors. One of these kerfuffles cost Dunlop his job, and he was shipped back to England in 1809.

With Dunlop gone, Cesars no longer had a stable job, and Baartman’s employment hung in the balance. They were all screwed. So they decided to go into business together, each with the hope of striking rich.

In her sensational biography of Baartman, Rachel Holmes speculates that “Dunlop, Hendrik and his brother Pieter must have been paying close attention to Saartjie, for it was at this point that they hatched an audacious plan.” The plan? Whisk Baartman, the servant of their servant, to Europe, and make her a star in the human freak show circuit.

Everyone in Europe knew about the Khoikhoi women. At least, they knew what travelers’ accounts told them. The Khoikhoi—or Hottentots, as the Dutch had re-christened them—were exquisite, exotic creatures from deepest, darkest Africa. Their buttocks were huge, and their labia unusually long (this trait became known, informally and largely because of Baartman, as the “Hottentot apron.”)

However, few Europeans had ever seen Khoikhoi women up close. Dunlop and the Cesars brothers predicted, correctly, that voluptuous Saartjie would prove a hit.

At this time, the British imperial century was just kicking into gear. Subjects of King George III were colonizing remote areas of the globe and bringing back stories of the “savages” they encountered. Scientists in England and France drew up differences between races, argued for the inferiority of all the non-white ones, and called it science. Freak shows, predicated on these hierarchies, became a popular option for a day out.

Baartman’s Khoisan heritage and unearthly figure meant that she was both an exotic foreigner and a “freak.” Her arrival in London merged those two categories together, ushering in the era of the human zoo.

It’s impossible to say how much Baartman’s own thoughts and feelings factored into her male superiors’ plans. What is clear, however, is that she did not leave Africa against her will.

“She was not a slave, which is a common misconception,” says Garb. “She was somebody who was paid for their work. In some sense, she agreed to the terms of her own subjugation.”

“Which would you chose?” asks Rachel Holmes, Saartjie’s biographer. “Would you rather be a maid in Cape Town, stirring ashes? You’re young! You’re 21! If someone tells you, ‘Get on a ship, and go make your fame and fortune,’ you’re like, ‘Yeah! I’m gonna take my chances there.”

But there’s no discounting the fact that Baartman was naïve. She was all of 20 when she left for England in the company of her former employer, who smuggled her illegally into a ship bound for Saldanha Bay, and then another bound for England. She left behind a certain future of domestic drudgery and the pain of losing her family—twice. In her mind, Europe was going to change everything: she would make it big, and then return to her homeland triumphant.

“She very much believed that she would accumulate the kind of money that would allow her to go back home,” says Garb. She had agreed to work in England for six years, after which she would collect her rightfully-earned wages and travel back to Cape Town on Dunlop’s and Cesars’ dime.

The crew arrived in London in mid-1810. By that point, Dunlop was no longer Cesars’ boss. The two men were business partners now, the managers of “Saartjie Baartman: Hottentot Venus.”

Dunlop and Cesars worked around the clock to launch their client’s career. They secured an event space in fashionable Piccadilly, built a stage, and put together a meticulous set, complete with a grass hut—”Saartjie’s home”—that reflected their idea of Africa back to an audience that had never been there. They sent press releases to the most esteemed members of London society: writers, artists, scientists, minor royalty. They placed an ad in the Morning Herald and Morning Post, which read, in part:

[F]rom the banks of the river Gamtoos, on the borders of Kaffraria, in the interior of South Africa, a most correct and perfect specimen of that race of people. From this extraordinary phenomenon of nature, the Public will have an opportunity of judging how far she exceeds any description given by historians of that tribe of the human race. (Holmes, 6-7)

Baartman made her stage debut as the Hottentot Venus on September 24, 1810, and became an overnight sensation. She’d been in London two months.

The performances lasted an average of four hours, and were carefully choreographed affairs—even if they gave off the air of spontaneity. At the beginning of each show, Baartman slipped out of her “home,” the grass hut, and launched into song and dance. She sang folk songs in several languages, including English and Khoi, and captivated the audience with the unfamiliar sounds of a Khoisan proto-guitar called a ramkie.

From where the audience members stood, Baartman looked scandalously naked. Her only adornments appeared to be all the beads, bangles and pendants that she’d never worn at home in Africa, but that were now part of her ‘African’ costume.

But it’s important to note that Baartman never performed in the nude. She wore a snug, skin-colored body stocking that only hinted at her naked form. This didn’t keep audience members from reaching up and making a grab at her famous behind—as one horrified spectator noted in his diary, a lady in the audience jabbed Baartman with a parasol, because “she wished to ascertain that all was … ‘nattral.'” (Holmes, 4-5) Neither did it keep her contemporary artists from trying to envision what lay underneath the stocking.

Get to know the cast of BLISS: Lydia Real is Maddy

by moxielicious

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Lydia Real stars as Maddy/Medea in Bliss (or Emily Post is Dead!) by Jami Brandli. Lydia answered some questions with AAD Callie Prendiville about her process:

CP: Were you familiar with Greek mythology prior to working on this project? What has surprised you the most about the source material for these characters?

LR: Yes, I was familiar with Greek mythology prior to working on this project.  In fact, Medea is my favorite tragic heroines in Greek Mythology.  I love that she is a foreigner, I love that she is a sorceress, I love that even in her madness, she is always driven by love. This directly links to what I love about Maddy.  She has sacrificed so much and continues to do so for love.  Is it misguided? Yes. Is it irrational? Hell yes. However, Maddy makes her decisions with so much conviction and passion. Maddy (and Medea) is the power in her relationship, the strength in her family.  She just makes things happen, as Jamie writes, “No matter the sacrifice. No matter the cost.”

CP: What is your favorite thing about Maddy? What’s the most challenging thing about her?
LR: What is most challenging about her? I believe I can answer this best in relation to the entire rehearsal process. As a character, she has so many layers, and in being set in the 1960’s, I wanted to make sure that I honored her strength and not make her into a caricature. The playwright did such an amazing job showing power and strength in all of these women, despite being set in an era where female empowerment and individuality was a rarity. As an actor, I was TERRIFIED about singing and playing the ukulele. Singing in front of people is actually a phobia of mine that I have actively been trying to overcome for the past couple of years.  Delicia lovingly gave me a “come to Jesus” bit of advice during rehearsal about owning my art and playing with abandonment.  “Fake it till you make it.” she said, and seriously, it f*#king worked! I faked confidence every time I had to sing, and now I feel no fear.  Thank you D!

CP: What do you hope audiences walk away with after seeing Bliss?

The message of this show is so relevant for our America today.  In our current social climate, the surge of desire for diversity, equal rights and individual empowerment resonate so strongly in this play. I want audiences to walk away remembering that we as individuals have so much power to change the world, that our thoughts and actions have a profound effect on everyone who we connect with.  Our lives matter and we can break the cycles set by society, our families, and ourselves.

Get to know the cast of BLISS: Morgan Carberry is Clementine

by moxielicious

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Morgan Carberry stars as Clementine/Clytemnestra in Bliss (or Emily Post is Dead!) by Jami Brandli. Morgan answered some questions with AAD Callie Prendiville about her process:

Callie: Were you familiar with Greek mythology prior to working on this project?What has surprised you the most about the source material for these characters?

Morgan: I loved Greek mythology as a kid and even had a board game called ‘By Jove’ which explored the stories of the gods, heroes and mortals – so this show is right up my alley. I also played the title role in college in a play called Iphigenia and Other Daughters which explored the Clytemnestra/Oresteia saga, so it is interesting for me to now be on the other side of the story.

Callie: What is your favorite thing about Clementine? What’s the most challenging thing about her?

Morgan: I love that Clementine just tells it like it is, in a climate when that was not always socially acceptable or expected from women. In many ways she is very similar to me with her dry sense of humor, excellent education and ability to stand up for what she wants and believes is right. However it has been challenging to explore her darker side without getting too emotional or melodramatic – to connect with her darkness in a way that is both authentic and fitting within the tone and context of the play.

Callie: What has surprised you most about the 1960s culture that Clementine finds herself in?

Morgan: The 1960s were a time of huge transition, and it is interesting to see how the women of Bliss find themselves right on the cusp of this. Clementine wants to break out of the social stigmas that have trapped her, but still feels largely constrained from doing so. All of that would change over the next decade. It has been very interesting and surprising to recognize many cultural references and standards that I have heard my parents and teachers refer to over the years, and yet also to see how many of the challenges women face remain exactly the same today.

Callie: What do you hope audiences walk away with after seeing Bliss?

Morgan: I hope that our audiences walk away recognizing what has changed in our socio-political landscape, and yet how far we still have to go. I really identify with Clementine, and I think many women still find themselves trapped in these tragic cycles; yet the playwright’s message is that we can become empowered to break the cycle, and change the narrative for future generations. If we can inspire our audiences to do that, we will have achieved our goal.

 Thanks, Morgan! Don’t miss her in Bliss (or Emily Post is Dead!) January 28-February 25.

Katelyn Katz is Anne Frank

by moxielicious

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Starring in the title role of The Diary of Anne Frank at MOXIE is Canyon Crest Academy sophomore Katelyn Katz, whose resume is impressive for her fifteen years: She has performed at The Old Globe, San Diego Repertory Theatre, the Welk Theatre, and San Diego Musical Theatre. Most known locally for her portrayal of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird at New Village Arts, this is her first title role and first time portraying a historical figure. Katelyn answered some questions with Associate Artistic Director Callie Prendiville:

Callie: When did you first read Anne’s diary?

Katelyn: I first read Anne’s diary for a project in 8th grade.

Callie: What was your initial reaction to Anne’s voice as a writer? 

Katelyn: I think it surprised me as well as anyone else who reads Anne’s diary that Anne is so mature for her age, and so willing to stay positive and hopeful throughout her time in the Annex.

Callie: What has surprised you the most about playing Anne during the rehearsal process?

Katelyn: Something surprising about this process has been the amount of credible resources we have about Anne and her family. Not only does Anne have a diary, but Margot has a diary, there are many pictures of the family, and even Miep has a written journal about her experiences helping the Annex members.

Callie: What have been the challenges of playing Anne during the rehearsal process? 

Katelyn: Something that made this rehearsal process different and more difficult than other processes is the simple fact that I am playing a character that was a real person who existed and made an impact on the world. This has impacted everything about the character, from her relationships to her family to her thoughts about herself as a growing young woman.

Callie: What do you hope audiences take away from the production? 

Katelyn: I hope audiences leave the show seeing themselves in the characters and in the story itself. The play is filled with characters that every single person can identify with, each of them giving audiences the ability to reflect on themselves and hopefully attempt to put themselves in the positions of the characters.
Photo by Daren Scott

An Immigrant Story From an Immigrant Perspective: IRONBOUND Costume Designer Anastasia Puatova

by moxielicious

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Anastasia Puatova, costume designer for Martyna Majok’s IRONBOUND, was born in Saint Petersberg, Russia and has been living in San Diego for 9 years. 

“I enjoy working on this play because it ties up my personal experience with touching episodes of Darja’s life and so many stories of other immigrants. This has been a hot topic for thousands of years, even mentioned in Bible. One of my favorite quotes in Matthew 25:35, ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’

I am very thankful for my new home. I know that I will always speak English with an accent, and I will always be ‘very American’ to my friends back in my mother city.”

There is only one week left to catch Anastasia’s work: IRONBOUND must close October 22. Don’t miss it!

 

Get to know the cast of IRONBOUND: Eric Casalini

by moxielicious

Eric Casalini plays Tommy, one of three men in Darja’s life in Martyna Majok’s IRONBOUND. Eric answered some questions about playing the Jersey Boy:IRONBOUND 3

Callie: What is your favorite thing about Tommy?

Eric: Tommy is the quintessential Jersey Boy. He’s at once hyper-masculine, childish, crass, and thoughtful. Wrap that in the Jersey accent and a guinea tee-shirt and he just feels like home to me. I was born there, so…

Callie: What’s the most interesting or unexpected thing you’ve discovered in working on this new play?

Eric: Apparently I move around a lot when playing an Italian from New Jersey. And that doesn’t play well on a small stage. Jen had her hands full with trying to stabilize my movement. I know Italians talk with their hands – apparently I talk with my entire body.

Callie: What is your biggest challenge in this piece?

Eric: Shorts and boots. It’s leaked into my real life because of Tommy. And as a result coming to grips with being old enough to not care what people think about my fashion choices. But also, lying. Tommy is completely comfortable with lying, which is a big challenge.

Callie: Why does San Diego need this play now?

Eric: It’s completely humanizing of a hot topic issue throughout the world, which has particular focus here in San Diego. Any time a thing can remind people that we got all the same parts is a thing that is of good use to us all.

See Eric in IRONBOUND, which begins performances 9/17!

Get to Know the Cast of IRONBOUND: Arusi Santi is Maks

by moxielicious

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Martyna Majok’s IRONBOUND tells the story of Polish immigrant Darja and the men in her life over a span of 22 years. Associate Artistic Director Callie interviews actor Arusi Santi, who plays Maks, to hear more about his MOXIE debut:

Callie: What is your favorite thing about Maks?

Arusi: Maks is a beautifully complicated character. He is a dreamer, a lover, a fighter, a nice guy, a jokester, he can also be mean and hurtful, and having all these contradictions are a joy to play with. This is such a good play! Martyna has made it really easy for us because it’s all there on the page.

Callie: What’s the most interesting or unexpected thing you’ve discovered in working on this new play?

Arusi: I never thought I would have so much in common with a Polish man! I was born and raised in Mexico, so I knew going in that we shared the immigrant story, but I had no idea how deep this connection went. Maks and I share this reality of being an alien in a strange land. We share this loneliness and this need to belong. I’ve always been a big fan of Chopin and have found his music very close to home. Somehow the emotion in his music felt very familiar. So who knows, maybe Poland and Mexico aren’t so far from each other as I previously thought.

Callie: What is your biggest challenge in this piece? 

Arusi: My biggest challenge has been learning how to play harmonica. Moxie was awesome and they got me a harmonica teacher, Jordan Morita, so I’ve been working with him and practicing a lot. And I love playing harmonica now! It’s become one of my favorite instruments.
Callie: Why does San Diego need this play now?

Arusi: It’s an unapologetic immigrant story. There’s no sugar coating it, romanticizing it, or fetishizing it, it just is what it is. And in in that brutal honesty there is such heartwarming beauty. In the world we’re living in, where immigrants are being abused, vilified, and dehumanized, I could not imagine a more relevant play.

Ironbound begins performances September 17! Don’t miss Arusi as Maks! 

Developing Leadership at MOXIE

by moxielicious

MOXIE Theatre is welcoming in a new era of leadership as founding members Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and Jo Anne Glover transition into advisory roles. Founding member and new Executive Artistic Director Jennifer Eve Thorn has surrounded herself with new and returning MOXIEs, all of whom have a former connection with the company. Thorn herself was originally an intern for Sonnenberg at the San Diego Rep, then a partner at MOXIE, and is now succeeding Sonnenberg as Executive Artistic Director.

“MOXIE is developing future leaders,” says Thorn. “We’re growing leadership from the ground up. We believe this strengthens our community and encourages talent to stay local.”

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Thorn first met new Associate Artistic Director Callie Prendiville in 2010 when she cast her in the MOXIE production of The Crucible. “From my first read at the auditions, I was in love with the MOXIE philosophy,” says Prendiville. “These women were creating incredible art, they had babies and families, and there was never a sense of having to choose between making theatre and making a family. As a young woman starting out in the professional theatre, it was really a revelation.” Since her time with MOXIE during The Crucible, Prendiville received a Master’s of Fine Art in Los Angeles and returned to the University of San Diego to teach, often sending her students to write about MOXIE shows. “I’m thrilled that my relationship with MOXIE has come full circle in this exciting way.”

Nicole Ries also worked with Sonnenberg in her San Diego Repdays, and returns to MOXIE as Production Manager. “MOXIE was a big part of what made my plan to start a family while still working in theatre possible,” says Ries. She started with MOXIE as a stage manager and her roles grew: “I started as Associate Production Manager in 2013 before taking the reigns July 2015 after the birth of my second daughter Rosalind. I never had to choose family or career with MOXIE.” Ries is also the resident Production Stage Manager for the Old Globe and University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program and the Ben Vereen Awards (Broadway/San Diego) and has stage managed extensively around San Diego.

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Christine Nathanson, the new Business Manager, was an assistant stage manager for Ries in MOXIE’s JadeHeart in 2014 after interning with the company during a summer break from her theatre studies at Westmont College. She assistant directed the recent MOXIE hitThe Revolutionists. A San Diego native, Nathanson won a double Santa Barbara Indy Award for her directing and acting work at Westmont.

Another former assistant director stepping in to a leadership position, Elizabeth Corrow(Trouble in Mind, The [curious case of the] Watson Intelligence, Our Lady of Kibeho) is the new Development Programs Director. Says Corrow: “I can’t wait to see where MOXIE’s energy and excellence take it in this time of increased attention to women’s rights.” Corrow grew up in Puerto Rico and came to San Diego by way of the Midwest. She has a graduate business degree from SDSU.

Nicole Cantalupo has been MOXIE’s Education Coordinator since 2015. She has utilized the Inspiring Future Leaders Grant from SDG&E to create a program that brings high school students from all over the county to MOXIE to be mentored by production team members. Additionally, Nicole is one of the founding members of MOXIE’s Bechdel Brigade.

Rounding out the returning MOXIEs are longtime company members Missy Bradstreet as Associate Production Manager and Jennifer Berry as Casting Director.

20170802_083300-150x150.jpgThorn is looking forward to the future with gratitude to the past: “It’s a testament to the leadership and community support that MOXIE has had for the past 12 years, that we’ve attracted such an incredible team for this next chapter of MOXIE history. I am ready to learn from these women and honored to lead them. The new MOXIEs have a vision for the future of this organization, they see it as their own and that means my founding partners and I achieved our number one goal. We founded this company for the generations that would come after us with the clear intention of passing it to them. MOXIE’s ‘Second Generation’ is ready to build on the foundation we’ve inherited. We can’t wait for our fans to see what comes next.”

Leigh Scarritt: Director of BROOKLYN

by moxielicious

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Miss Leigh Scarritt is a veteran of film, television and stage and has performed all over North America. When not on stage Leigh is a mentor and coach to dozens of San Diego’s up and coming young talent. She’s currently directing and co-producing a West Coast Premiere musical on the MOXIE stage: Brooklyn. In the musical, a group of street performers known as the City Weeds periodically transform a street corner under the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge into a stage where they present their play about Parisian singer Brooklyn, named after the New York City borough from which her wayward father Taylor hailed. Brooklyn discovers her vocal talents, becomes a star, performs at Carnegie Hall, and sets out in search of her father. Leigh answered some questions for MOXIE Associate Artistic Director Callie Prendiville about why she loves this show so much:

Callie: What is your favorite thing about Brooklyn? What made you want to produce it?

Leigh: I love the tenacity of the character Brooklyn to overcome her circumstances and find her way to be all she intends to be. No excuses. No limitations. No boundaries. She’s remarkable.

Callie: What’s the most interesting or unexpected thing you’ve discovered in working on this new play? 

Leigh: It’s more about what I’ve learned about how this cast loves this story. The music resonates with them and these talented musicians. The struggle is real in their lives and in this script. Plus they each sing like their lives depend on it. I love that about them.

Callie: What is your biggest challenge in this piece? 

Leigh: The biggest challenge is balancing the beauty and the heartache of this story. It’s a delicate one. The heartache is painful to watch but the hope is so inspiring!

Callie: Why does San Diego need this play now? 

Leigh: Brooklyn’s search for her father is not a unique story in San Diego or in any location. The hope is always to tell stories that align with reality and move someone beyond their perceived boundaries. The intention is to leave an audience better than we found them. MOXIE audiences are insightful, informed and introspective so that’s a tall order. The promise is to require everything of ourselves to give each audience.  Every breath. Every note. Every heartbeat. That’s the beauty of live theater!

Thanks for chatting with us, Leigh! Be sure to catch Brooklyn this July.
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