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A Closer Look: Bernarda's Daughters

Playwrights’ Corner

On Friday, November 8th, The Lark will hold a public reading of Diane Exavier's new play Bernarda's Daughters, as part of our Playwrights' Week 2019 festival! The story takes place in summer, in Flatbush, and the Abellard sisters are in the heat of mourning their father, their neighborhood, their lives. To give you a closer look at Diane's process, fellow Playwrights' Week writer Jaymes Sanchez interviewed her about the real-world challenges that find their way into the play, how poetry is in conversation with the piece, and, of course, love. Check out what they had to say below, then join us for the reading!

JAYMES SANCHEZ: How did you decide to structure this play without Bernarda appearing in it? How did you manage to achieve the effect of five daughters feeling limited and stifled by the circumstances of their lives without including Bernarda?

DIANE EXAVIER: What a great question! A dear friend recently described my work as, “excavating grief, relation, and care.” I think absence is integral to all three of those things. Grief is a result of absence. Relation is a kind of hope or practice against absence. And care is always necessary at sites of absence. So, there’s a real way in which my play doesn’t work if Bernarda is there. Her absence actually builds her presence. The structure of the play also has to do with what inspired me to write it. After I moved back to NYC in 2017 from Providence I was complaining to another friend (group texts save lives) about living at home. I had moved back into my childhood home with my mom and sisters. While I love my home, it has always been, for various reasons, a trap that is really hard to get out of. So, my friend said something like, “Omg, this sounds like The House of Bernarda Alba,” which I don’t know how I hadn’t thought of it first. We joked about how I was living this adaptation; and you can’t joke with a playwright about stuff like that because we’ll just write it. I started thinking about what my House of Bernarda Alba would look/sound/feel like; but I didn’t want to include my mom as a character because, at the time, I had taken a sharp dramaturgical turn toward care in my playwriting. And that meant reconsidering how and why I wanted to constantly throw my relations into my plays. So, the absence was (and is) a way for me to think about mothers—as forces, as spirits, as reasons, as warnings, as people—without indicting or accusing or condescending to my own mothers. The absence is also forgiveness: me of them, them of me, I hope. And so that palpable limitation of these grown women sitting in their mother’s house gives way to a tangible mercy. What we don’t see is what we fear, what we dream, what we love most.

JS: Gentrification, race, and anti-immigrant bias are a powerful presence in this play. Can you talk more about how the present moment in the U.S. compelled you to write this play?

DE: This country is a MESS! I mean, it always has been. But it’s really on one right now. There is a great On the Media podcast episode mini-series called “On American Empire." I’m low key obsessed with Brooke Gladstone, but what I really appreciate (and want to tear my eyes out) about the series is its broad scope in contextualizing the fever of American expansion—how it has encroached and still encroaches, how it ties itself to a moral project, how it keeps going until it hits a (literal) wall. The thing about projects of nation building is that people live in nations. People live in cities. People live in neighborhoods. The gentrification and displacement happening in Flatbush (and so many other places) right now is so deeply rooted in racism and anti-immigrant bias because it is an extension of American expansion. What is so funny to me is to see white people now moving into these neighborhoods south of Prospect Park not bothering to get to know their neighbors, not trying to get in step with long established community flows, not thinking twice about why they think they deserve to be there only for them to turn around and talk about how what this president is doing is just so despicable; and I’m like, “Excuse me, fam, but you are James Monroeing all over Nostrand right now!” (If you listen to the podcast episode, that reference makes way more sense.) The moral of the story is: don’t cry crocodile tears for what America is doing when you are Americaing all over communities that have, in small and big ways, been working against whiteness and empire for decades upon decades.

JS: Your character page tells us that each of the daughters is named after someone, mostly poets. Your notes also tell us that the play is in conversation with various other texts. What more can you tell us about the interplay between the play and these poems, poets, and people?

DE: When I’m not working on plays (which is, lol, too often) I moonlight as a poet and essayist. I’m actually in a year-long poetry incubator attempting to make my way through a manuscript right now! I am such a poetry fan girl. I’m obsessed with all the poets. And maybe it’s a grass is greener situation, but I think poets are so cool, so cute, so ON IT. When I think of contemporary poets who are peers, there are ways in which they are able to gather their people that I long to see in theater. Writing plays to be produced in institutions where people buy $60-$200 tickets and writing poems for people who scrape together $15-$20 for a book are totally different endeavors. This interplay between different texts and genres is part of my attempt to break down some of these walls and to actually sit a bunch of poems and a play in the same room. I think I’m also trying to make a case for plays as texts to enjoy reading (imagine!) and wondering about how that can be a kind of activation, a kind of rehearsal. I know most people would disagree with me and perhaps several of their arguments would be on point. But I think a play low key happens even when you are just reading it. And I love the theatricality of poetry! I love writing plays that are really giant poems. And all I know is that every time I see a play, my first thought is, “Why wasn’t there more poetry in that?” Linguistically, visually, physically. Why aren’t there more things colliding, breaking, turning, becoming? It is 2019. Why are we still putting couches on stages? How are we still this obsessed with American realism? Also, poets are the only people who know what’s going on, so there’s that.

JS: You explain in the text that "any silence is not silence." Your descriptions of what happens in those silences really spark the imagination. What more can you say about how you imagine those moments playing out on stage?

DE: Oh, I have no idea! That is truly my director’s problem (my bad, Dominique!). But I will say that those silences, especially as they compose the last act, are spaces of poetic encounter. I wonder if that’s what imagination is: how your desire encounters someone else’s desire. It’s a thing of collaboration. So, I can’t imagine it alone. I really don’t know.

JS: Sexual tension raises the stakes significantly in both your play and the source text. What role do you think that has in the characters' lives and their actions in the play?

DE: Yo, I love writing about sex. I love writing women who are sexual and are constantly trying to see what’s good. I don’t write a thing that doesn’t have some character wrapped up in the throes of sexual desire. Maybe it’s because I grew up Catholic and Caribbean, so the pressure to be a “good girl” was always so intense. But everyone knows, especially mothers, that “good girls” are always the worst girls! (I was very good, I swear.) So, I’m fascinated, too, by how women even hide their desires from each other. The women of this play are deeply interested in freedom and part of that wrestle must be with their own flesh. It’s as if the distance between their bodies and someone else’s becomes the measuring tape of how possible it is for them to get free. And that’s thinking about sexual intimacy, sure; but it’s also thinking about the violence enacted on people’s bodies and the sisters’ own proximity to these people who have fallen victim to empire in different ways. Also, I have raged about this on Twitter several times, but no one is interested in the erotic lives of Black women. No one cares about what Black women want, what we’re into, what turns us on. It is wild. I am so tired of seeing depictions of Black women where they are used as political symbols, struggle metaphors, the ones who are supposed to contend with entire national histories. And it’s like no one ever asks whether these characters want an egg sandwich or want to get laid or want to take a nap. It’s so absurd. But it’s also why we have greats like Toni Morrison who will tell you. Another invaluable resource is Saidiya Hartman’s latest book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, where she dives, so rigorously, into the archive to help us see the lives of young women who were caught out here in this country just having the audacity to want, to see what’s good.

JS: Several characters describe work as a component of love. Some characters question whether love is desirable or if  it even exists. How do you think these ideas contribute to the construction of  these characters?

DE: Ugh! I’m obsessed with love and writing about love. Imagine being on this planet in the total debacle we find ourselves in and not having love be your first and absolute priority! The situation is DIRE. I think love is so many different things. And I find that each year in my writing I take on another exploration of love: love as recognition, love as correspondence, love as space, love as sight, love as care, love as work. These women are also descended from Black people who were forced into slavery by whites who had so mangled love, completely destroyed it. Any kind of love born out of that space—the bottom of the ocean, the fields of the plantation—is a chaotic love. It just is. If you say “love,” you have to know that you are saying love in capitalism, love in empire, love “in the wake” (to borrow from one of my favorite scholars and Twitter comrades Christina Sharpe), love after slavery, love in war, love in loss. It is no surprise that the women of this play liken love to labor and think about love as a deeply physical, rigorous, laborious thing. I, myself, think of love as a deeply physical, rigorous, laborious thing. It's like in Toni Morrison's Beloved when Sethe tells Paul D, "Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't love at all." Thin love really ain't it. Love is thick. It should make you sweat. But it should also keep you safe, hold you close, make you wonder, make you laugh, make you quiet, draw you nearer to yourself. Love is absolutely work. Love is practice. Love is rehearsal. Love lives in our bodies. These sisters are trying to reach their bodies. They are trying to reach their love.