Seeing a good play moves you. It shifts something in your very chemistry. It alters you irrevocably. But also, when you go to a play, you change it. Because theater is different from almost any type of art we consume. A movie, a book, a painting — each can be interpreted in different ways. But they’re static. They don’t talk back, they don’t subtly shift and meld to your reactions.
Theater is a living, breathing art form in which real people are not just performing words on a page, but communing in an experience with the audience. The way actors move, speak, and feel is all affected by the viewer’s energy. Because going to a play is an act of participation. And watching really good theater — the kind that makes you think, dream, hurt, heal, laugh, cry — that’s a unique kind of catharsis for everyone involved.
We recently spoke with three young playwrights, all women of color, who are using theater to explore the themes and injustices they’ve faced. Their voices weren’t being heard, so they took back the public stage quite literally to raise up the stories of those around them. They’re using theater as an act of resistance. It’s powerful, urgent, and deeply important.
Jessica L. Hagan — playwright of Queens of Sheeba, a play that explores the misogynoir black women face — on using theater as a path toward healing:
We had all these focus groups with just black women where we sat down and we just discussed all the experiences that we’ve had. And it was crazy because we’re different ages, different shades, different sizes, and we all had such similar experiences. We cried and laughed, we screamed, we hugged together, we held each other. It made me realize how … I think sometimes, it’s only when you speak to other people that you realize that you’re not going through it alone. So, that sisterhood is something that I’ve really wanted to put on a platform.
I have people come up to me after the show. All types of people but naturally, it’s the black women that I want to hear from the most because I’m like, “I want this play to do you justice, I want this play to honor you.” And I’ve had black women who were teenagers, and black girls who were like 12, 13. And then I’ve had black women who are in their 60s, 70s, 80s, people of my mum’s age being like, “Thank you. I really identify.” Being like, “I go through that at work every single day.” And that is what made me feel like, “Yeah, I’m doing something here.” Getting that response from the very people that I try to speak with, if that makes sense, including myself.
I think the throughline of (Queens of Sheeba) is, “I am a Queen, I am enough as I am. I am completely enough by myself.” And I think having no set, no props, and just watching this show — and being so intrigued and entertained by it — you realize that it’s purely what the girls are doing with their bodies, with their vocals, and with their mouths. It reinforces the idea that “I am enough on my own.”
I can take your attention for an hour. I can teach you, I can make you laugh, I can make you wanna dance with me on stage. And that’s all from my instrument. And the response has been beautiful. It’s been nothing but positive.
Dionna Michelle Daniel — playwright of American Saga — Gunshot Medley: Part 1 — on bringing pieces about social justice directly into the communities affected by them.
I started writing Gunshot Medley right after the Charleston church shooting happened in 2015. It’s been three years since the initial cause, but it feels so real still. And the play itself is dealing with the cycle of oppression and racism in the United States. So, I feel like the play, sadly, is timeless.
At the very end, the main character starts saying the names of people who have been lost to police brutality and violence and racism. And it is written in the script that you keep going as long as you have to. There are always new names that get added, almost every night. I remember there was one night, I got a text from the lead actress and she was like, can I add this person? It was the man who was in his own house and then the police officer walked in thinking it was her house and shot him.
It was interesting because we did Gunshot Medley for about three weeks at Rogue Machine Theater at the Met Theater in Hollywood. That was drawing a lot of theatergoers and also, just Rogue’s demographic of patrons. Watching the play at Rogue, it was so quiet at some moments. And I would be sitting there thinking, I don’t know if they get the references. I don’t know if they get the Skittles and Treyvon. Where, performing it in Watt’s it was just like, literally, from the very beginning, all understood. It became a call and response with the audience. That was very beautiful to hear and almost felt like we were sitting in church.
Rhianna Yazzie — playwright and founder of New Native Theater in Minneapolis — on not doing theater to just to teach non-Native people:
The most frustrating thing for me is that Native stories and theater were always created to educate non-Native people. For instance, I know that there are other writers out there in the American theater who really believe that the way to go is to write stories so that the rest of America can get to know Indians and to learn our background. I just take a different approach. I personally feel like, well what’s the use of trying to teach white people, or non-Native people, about Indians when we here living in Indian country are experiencing so many deficits, so many unspeakable problems?
If we’re making theater for ourselves then we are strengthening our people. Native people are here, we are resilient, and I want to put my time and energy into that.
There’s this play we have right now, it deals with sexual abuse in the family, sexual assault, and the statistic is that like three out of five Native women have been assaulted in their lifetime. If you think about the number of Native women who are coming to see our play, the chances are really high that the majority of them have experienced what they’re seeing.
There aren’t many opportunities to talk about this subject openly, in a celebratory way. Because performing the play is a celebration. It’s a different kind of environment — as opposed to being in a therapeutic environment or being in a protest. And so we do specific cultural things because it’s normal for us like, for instance, smudging. After the show, we invite anybody who has any issues to come up to the stage with us and we smudge with folks who want to smudge with us afterward, and that’s a really healing experience.
That power of storytelling — where you’re able to talk about things in a different way. It lands in people’s nervous systems differently, and so it becomes a very healing experience for audience members. And for the cast. Because we’re not immune from those statistics either.
All three women on why diverse representation matters in theater and storytelling:
I think about the first time I saw a person of color on stage. And how that made me see that I could be a part of this world — that I could do this. And I think representation, creating access for younger people is really important. I hope that with my work, like one: I’m contributing to that. Somebody can see their own story. And then two: I think that it’s hard because I think there are a lot of people, non-POC or even just like in other areas that are either not queer or not trans, that are trying to tell these stories. And sadly, they’re just missing the mark.
I think growing up was really complex for me because I’m extremely dark. And it was very rare growing up that I would meet people that had my skin tone. Even my mother and my sister, they’re not as dark as I am. And so, I really struggled with that. There’s a writer called Bola Agbaje. She’s written so many stunning plays like Gone Too Far and Off the Endz. And growing up, seeing her as a black woman who I knew personally, just killing it, gave me so much reassurance. And then I had my mother who raised me to never feel like I was for the consumption of anybody. She raised me to believe that I was entirely for myself. And so, I grew up with an idea that as the world tells you that you’re for everybody else, it was very clear that I was for me and for me alone. It helped me to become strong.
I would think, oh God, every time I saw a Native person on a film, here we go. It’s going to be some terrible representation.
When I got to be in my 20s, I was sort of like, wait a minute: “How come I’ve never seen myself reflected? How come I have had to go through my whole life without having stories that reflected my experience in the way that basically any other ethnic group in the U.S. has — stories in the mainstream that reflect their lives? Even with other communities of color, there’s still a lot more representation than there is of Native folks.
I think the mere fact that Native people exist — and the mere fact that we produce plays — is a political statement in itself.