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A Closer Look at AS IS: CONVERSATIONS WITH BIG BLACK WOMEN IN CONFINED SPACES

Playwrights’ Corner

As Is: Conversations With Big Black Women in Confined Spaces, is the story of four Big Beautiful Black Women living the everyday struggle of trying to lose a few pounds and navigating their Big Black Womeness in the confined spaces of their lives. Before a public reading of this play on November 8th, playwright Stacey Rose sat down with fellow Playwrights’ Week 2018 participant, Franky D. Gonzalez, to talk about the play’s development process, Black Identity, and the inspirations that push her to continue to create stories.


FRANKY D. GONZALEZ: Could you speak toward the process of writing this play?

STACEY ROSE: Absolutely! I wrote this play while a playwright in Season Four of The Brooklyn Generator, an amazing group that every season challenges each of its playwrights to write a play in one month. I chose to use my month to write something about a topic I'd otherwise avoided in my work, weight. The 30 day time crunch disallowed any flinching on my part. How The Generator works is, each playwright at the beginning of their month hosts a "party" which is basically a time you use how you feel to gather whatever intel you may need to then go off and write your play. I invited a group of Black women of size, all of whom were actors, and my  Brooklyn Generator cohort, to a conversation about what it means to be a Big Black woman. I posed general questions to the group. I posed deeply intimate questions about sexuality, body confidence, etc. to the group and allowed them to answer anonymously on sticky notes.

I gathered all my intel including a bag full of stickies and went off to write a play. I wrote the initial 15 pages, which gave me a feel for who the characters were, and then in true Stacey Rose fashion, I procrastinated and wound up writing the rest the weekend before the reading. This actually ended up being ideal approach as it limited any meandering I could do on the pages and created a naturally confined space to squeeze the robust lives of these women into.

FDG: Your use of weigh-ins and meet ups in saunas, to me, recall ritual and congregation. Why did you choose those specific locations to stage the majority of the scenes?

SR: I chose to put the ladies in spaces that encourage them to present different than what they already were, that would inherently put them in conflict with themselves or others mentally or physically. All the years I dieted, scales, gyms, and weight watchers meetings were places/things that I either congregated with those whom were like me or confronted the presence of those whom were not. They had the power to shift my mood or how I felt about myself instantly. These ritual negotiations with the world and Big Bodies felt like perfect places to hold this story.

FDG: I would love to know about your reasoning behind the naming of your scene titles. All of them recall ways to heat water and the results of said heating. Can you speak to the state of the play and how each scene corresponds with the chosen title?

SR: We all, like water, take the shape of the container we are in. We are constantly shifting states, like water. The arc of the story of the play finds the women in different states within their personal lives  and their friendships. I wanted to play with the idea of having each scene/movement convey those different states.

FDG: In your bio you talk about your interest in exploring Black Identity, and the dilemmas behind being the "other." What struck me the most about this play was how even together, there was always a deep sense of isolation among these close friends.  I am curious about your thoughts with regards to the forging of the individual Self in the context of Blackness, Black Identity, and the "Othering" that occurs even among those who share certain commonalities?

SR: Thank you for this question! I was a Black nerd before it was cool to be. I was a chubby little girl who grew up in the projects, read books, and was called White girl by the neighborhood kids. I don't carry any bitterness and still rep where I come from real hard (Elizabeth, NJ!) with adult perspective, because I understand better what all of it was about. When oppressed, people tend to seek a higher level, whatever that "level" is, they sometimes impose some type of oppression on other people in an effort to feel superior. The result is a subgroup within a subgroup. That subgroup then seeks to forge identity in their own ways. For me, being smart in my mind made me "better" than the kids that bullied/ignored me. What was actually true is that we were all children living just above the poverty line seeking to mentally and physically survive in a world that didn't give a shit about us. This is why within my work I try really hard not to feature any one form of Blackness as ideal, but rather I love presenting Black Americans in as many different manifestations as I feel capable of, humanizing them always over vilifying or sensationalizing  them.

FDG: In this play you dive into the three of the biggest issues in our society; weight, race, and gender.  Yet your play never pontificates nor espouses a specific political philosophy while still making tons of commentary on contemporary society. Can you talk about your philosophy and approach to crafting dialogue that successfully achieves this effect?

SR: It's gonna sound really flippant, but I just let the characters talk. I let them be real human (which they are) while inhabiting these Big Black Bodies. They came to me how all my other characters do, so I just listened and wrote it down. The dialogue is "theirs." By showing up and being who they are and having full ass, sexual ass, complicated ass lives, CAMILLE, ANTONIA, D. EVERETTE, and BEV have made all the political statement that's needed. I always feel most impacted by work that engages its politics in this way.

FDG: What inspired you to write on this subject matter?

SR: I went on my first diet when I was nine and wore girdles from about that time. I was always made to feel like my body and the size/shape of it was a problem or undesirable. I have weighed as much as 340lbs, had gastric bypass, lost 125lbs, and gained it all back. I've had a breast reduction. I have considered other procedures, all in an attempt to seize control over my body. To get my body to a place where I didn't cringe when I had to look at it. Then I became a playwright. This opened the door to an exploration of self that was deeper than flesh. It allowed me to live in my mind, engage its creativity, and relish in it. In there I could finally be "great," but guess where my brain lives? This body. This big wonderful body that has carried me the last 42 years, through the birth of a son, 20 years as a respiratory therapist primarily working night shift, various injuries, and the all out war I declared on it at age nine. Creating something in honor of my body and bodies like mine was something I've known I wanted to do for a long while. I wasn't interested in making a piece that asked an audience to consider why bodies like mine are awesome and valid and long over due for celebration. I wanted to simply write something that displayed the awesomeness, validity, and complication, of these bodies that at times feels like a celebration. I think I've done that.

FDG: One of the things that really hit me was where everyone ended up at the end of your play. Particularly Antonia going forward with her plans despite the major revelation in the scene previously (trying not to spoil!!). But can you talk a little toward how you come to your decisions for your characters' story arcs?

SR: I think each woman moved forward in a way specific to who they were. Had D. Everette experienced what Antonia did, her choice would be the complete opposite. If Antonia experienced what Bev did, I think her life would unfold in a completely different way. That's the fun of writing stories. You get to allow your characters to do some shit you might never do or allow them to do shit you would to its furthest extreme.

FDG: On a more general note, what inspired you to write plays?

SR: Initially anger, specifically anger over Bob Johnson selling BET (it's how I wrote my first actual play). More and more, I find I write because I absolutely love telling stories and finding new ways to tell them. The communal, up-close-and-personal nature of Theater makes it my favorite way to tell stories.

FDG: Could I ask for your perspective and thoughts on the direction of the American theater?

SR: Theater artists should be more focused on one another and the betterment of the work than the institutions behind the work. In that way we won't tether our perceived success to whether or not we have been acknowledged by the industry. We are the industry. I think - I hope - theater is heading toward this kind of radicalization as resources become more limited, and the need for individual stories grows. To be clear, I'm deeply grateful for each and every organization that has supported me along the way, but I'm fully aware that I arrived at their doorstep with everything that makes me the artist I am. Their work was helping me hone and better understand it. They've done a fantastic job.

FDG: If you're comfortable sharing, what new plays are you working on?

SR: I'm writing two new plays this year: 
America v. 2.3: The Gospel of Simeon Samuels (The Goodman Theatre's Playwrights Unit); and TRAPT(The Civilian's R&D Group). Details about both will live on my website.

FDG: Who do you count among your creative inspirations?

SR: Let's start with Ntozake Shange and the legacy she gave Black women playwrights. Her glorious use of Black vernacular language, radical attitude, and demand to create on her own terms is what I take with me into the work I do. Let's move on to a few of the women who made me want to write in the first place. Suzan Lori-Parks, Adrienne Kennedy, and Lynn Nottage. The generosity of spirit that they offer to the Playwrights coming up after them is extraordinary and I hope to do the same for the generation of playwrights coming after me. Toni Morrison because... Toni Morrison. Then, giving credit where its due, Rod Serling, Stephen King, Octavia E. Butler, and Jordan Peele. I draw endless inspiration from how these writers tap into our social anxieties to create left of center stories that hit us where we live. From there, Black writers of all mediums currently setting the world on fire with our stories. The list is far too long and I would forget folks and they deserve better than that. Just know I see you. Thank you for seeing me. Let's continue being our ancestors wildest dreams.

FDG: Do you have anything special that you must do or must have in order to write plays?

SR: Wasabi peas, great music, and a REALLY warm room.

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