This past Saturday, March 16, 2013 at Oxon Hill Public Library in Oxon Hill, MD, my theatrical musical piece “In Her Words“, which debuted last year began its tour for a second time. I directed and produced this piece again through my organization Liberated Muse Arts Group, working with women I’ve collaborated with over the past five years on this piece and other productions, including my musical “Running: AMOK“.
“In Her Words” is a short 40 minute theatrical piece with music (not quite a full-length play) that is told from the perspective of a college student who is learning about the other side of some of her favorite female creative artists. As she does her research, with the help of her adviser, the ghostly angel and poetic goddess Lucille Clifton, she learns some backstory on some legends, including Billie Holiday, Zora Neale Hurston, Lena Horne and Nina Simone.
I wrote this piece in 2011 after listening to a Pacifica radio interview from the 1960’s with Lena Horne. Hearing her voice recount her early days of being friends with Paul Robeson, being blacklisted and her views on race in America, I was mesmerized. At the time, my cable and internet had been turned off and I would take my daughter to the library after school to use the internet and to research more about Lena Horne and other women who I knew about as creatives but not so much as having a particular stance on social issues. What I found was very interesting. Even after my cable was turned on, I still hung out at the library to read their autobiographies and find little tidbits that I hadn’t known before. “In Her Words” was written in less than a month. It was produced less than six months later.
I knew immediately who I wanted to play Nina Simone. I had known Anisha “Mama Moon” Newbill since 2007 and she and I had came across each other online first because we both shared the stage name “Moon” and I had always wanted to meet this other Moon that folks always had good things to say. She joined the online space LiberatedMuse.com when it was a digital community in 2008 and later performed with her band Uninterrupted at our first Capital Hip Hop Soul Fest. I kept abreast of her performances and her interests through Liberated Muse and often remarked how she so reminded me of Nina Simone. It was kismet almost that she responded that Nina Simone was one of her supreme favorites. It didn’t hurt that Anisha favors Nina Simone in ways. When I began casting, I contacted her first and wasn’t worried when she said she was pregnant that moment. That was of small circumstance. She debuted as Nina last year less than a month after giving birth to her second daughter, Xena.
I knew that I wanted to work with Nia Simmons, Quineice and Colie Williams again since our work together in “Running: AMOK” but I was unsure at first who they would play. That didn’t last long, though. I literally woke up one day and said, “Colie is Lucille Clifton”. That took some convincing of Colie on my part. She wasn’t feeling that at first, but I wasn’t beneath begging. It was probably really hard for anyone to see how that decision was made, but, I can’t even begin to explain it. I just felt it. Colie looks absolutely nothing like Lucille Clifton, but, that was no matter. Lucille’s essence is about her consciousness. Maybe that was what it was, for I think Colie is one of the most conscious sistas I know. Maybe. But, whatever spurred the decision, I am so grateful. She is quiet wisdom, strength and elegance in the role.
Nia Simmons and Quineice auditioned with Naomi Rose (and Anisha, who really didn’t have to audition, I knew who she would play already…even though she was really, really pregnant) and it was really hard at first to decide who would play who. I think I had assumed before the auditions that Nia would Billie Holiday, Quineice would be the college student “Cass” and I wasn’t sure about Naomi Rose because I hadn’t worked with her before yet she was an active member of the online Liberated Muse community. When I met her and witnessed her bubbly personality and almost mercurial personality, I instantly thought of a teenager. She embodied my idea of the character “Cass”. I think she had come out to audition to be one of the legendary women highlighted. I don’t think she planned on being the leading character with the most lines.
Nia Simmons as Lena Horne and Quineice as Billie Holiday just made sense. As I look back and think about how I was unsure at first as to who would be who, I laugh because it is a scenario that surely proves that the best decision always rises to the top when necessary.
In our first run of the piece in 2012, the woman who played Zora Neale Hurston, Tracy Chiles McGhee, was someone I had approached very similar to how I approached Anisha. I knew without a thought that she would be the best Zora that I could find at the time and she had to do it. She was surprised– to say the least– because (1) she didn’t know me like that and (2) she hadn’t acted a day in her life before. But, this social media is a very telling thing. I think I have above-average empathetic qualities to pick up impressions, yes, but I also think I am highly observant and can sense when someone has a gift or passion, even if they aren’t fully aware. Tracy has a flair for expressing herself that is highly evident through social media. She also has a visible adoration for Zora Neale Hurston which I thought would be necessary to embody her spirit when personifying her. When she came on board as Zora, she WAS Zora!
When Tracy had to bow out for this season (she just got an agent for her forthcoming book!) I was a bit frantic about replacing her. I wanted to work with someone who, if they didn’t have the visible passion for Zora, at least they could act. Lyn Artope was the immediate choice.
Lyn had ducked me initially when I was casting for the show in 2012. She thought that every role was a singing role and knows how I am, so she didn’t want me to try and “convince” her to sing which she is against on every level. When she came out to the show as part of the audience and expressed her love of the piece last year, she admitted that to me. I remembered that when I needed a new Zora, and this time, she was down, now knowing that Zora IS NOT a singing role. She plays Zora Neale Hurston this season with such sassy abandon that it is hard to believe that she is the newcomer to the cast. Bassist Will Henderson, ties it all together as our sole musician, bringing his love for each of us and for the women portrayed.
This cast has infused such energy in this piece which decided on its own that it would be born and brought to stage. I am in awe whenever I watch it. I’m always like, “I had something to do with this. Wow.” This past Saturday, at its opening at Oxon Hill Library, the family of Lucille Clifton were actually in the house. They came up to me and Colie Williams and commended us for teaching the younger ones (Lucille Clifton’s great-neice and great-nephew) about their aunt who had died when they were babies. I am welling up as I type that. Can you imagine what that must feel like to be told that? Such validation.
This piece has really made me feel more confident on so many levels. For one, the trust that the cast has in me is so uplifting. I really try my best to do right by them and I am very blessed that they take this seriously enough to bring their A-game. They are all actively gigging artists and they continue to perform in this piece which pays spare change if anything.
Then there are the dear folks who I know who show up to each performance or at least contribute in ways that they can. My friend Gary Young (who I collaborated with for “Running: AMOK) took these photos in this post. My friend Tariiq Omari interviewed me for his show to help spread the word about our play. He also came out to this season even after already seeing it last year like my new friends Larry and Robin who came out again. Larry is the one comforting me in the picture above when I lost it after meeting Lucille Clifton’s family.
Some friends who couldn’t make it but believe in it contributed to it, allowing me to pay small little stipends to the actors, pay for printing, pay for my internet (which got turned off again, incidentally). The full list of these generous donors is on the website for the play. I appreciate them all so much. My friend Tinu not only contributed but is helping me make a button and make it easier for people to donate online. How grateful I am for all of these people.
So, when you come out to see the production on Saturday, March 30 at 4pm as we celebrate SWAN Day at the Potter’s House, understand the group effort that this production is. Understand that we are collectively sharing with you history about these phenomenal women while also striving to entertain you and raise your consciousness. What you see on stage is not merely a fly by effort, but a giving, intentional and preciously crafted experience presented by dedicated artists who are sharing their talents for a fraction of the cost they are worth. As I know this truth to be so, I am eternally humbled that I am a part of this collective.