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A Closer Look: The Love* Plays

Playwrights’ Corner
Saheem Ali sits on a couch at the center of the frame, smiling into the camera. Donja stands behind him, also smiling, and looking off to one side. Behind them is a brick wall and a window with light from the bright day spilling in to the room.
Photo by Brandon Nick

On May 1st and 2nd, The Lark will host a Studio Retreat reading of In the Middle, the final play in Donja R. Love's trilogy The Love* Plays, a surrealistic voyage in *Queer love during pivotal moments in Black History. To give you "a closer look" at the play, Donja and Saheem Ali, the director of all three plays, sat down for a conversation about collaboration, Beyoncé, and what they hope audiences will gain from the experience of watching the plays. Check out their conversation below!

SAHEEM ALI: Let's jump right in, my friend. First question: favorite Beyoncé song? Kidding. (Though I know you know her entire cannon). What made you set out to write a trilogy that explored black queerness in America?

DONJA R. LOVE: (Laughs) You know I love me some Beyoncé. I actually thought you were serious and got so ridiculously excited!

But with the trilogy, it wasn't premeditated at all, it wasn't something that I set out to do. I would like to think the idea actually chose me. One day when my husband and I were walking to the grocery store we were talking about Sugar in Our Wounds, the first play in the trilogy. At that point 'Sugar' was two months old, and The Love* Plays weren't even a thought. But at some point in our conversation I gasped and stopped dead in my tracks. My husband looked at me and asked what was wrong? I told him, "Nothing is wrong. I just realized I'm supposed to write a trilogy! Sugar in Our Wounds is a part of a trilogy that explores Queerness during pivotal moments in Black History!" Over a year of working on the trilogy I started to gain a better understanding of it, a better relationship with it, and realized it's actually about *Queer Love throughout history.

So often, those on the margins, those folks who have been historically oppressed - Black, Brown, Queer, Trans, Gender Non-conforming, Women, are told they don't exist. It's as if our actual being has been erased from history. But we know that's not the case. We know we've existed. Our survival, determination, hopes, dreams, fears, hurt, beauty, our Love. It all existed, and still does! 

Also, just in case you really wanted to know, my favorite Bey song is “Grown Woman,” cause (singing) “I can do whatever I want!" (Laughs).

So, now I want to ask you a question. I want so badly to ask you your favorite Beyoncé song, but I'll settle with what about The Love* Plays trilogy spoke to you as a director?

SAHEEM: Ok, first of all, that is WILD because “Grown Woman” is also my favorite Beyoncé song, for a different reason: the African bridge is glorious and brings out the Kenyan in me! I love that in the video, the bridge gets all Alice in AfroWonderland. You better make room for me on the dance floor, because I take it over during that bridge!

Back to the trilogy (smiles)... What spoke to me about it is precisely what you mention: hearing the historically oppressed speak. I had never read a play that explored homosexuality during slavery times, and it felt both revolutionary and matter-of-fact. Of course we existed. And of course no one spoke or wrote about it. The agency and reach of the written word is easy to take for granted today, when every little whim can be broadcast across the planet.

I was also drawn to your incitement of the elements: the earth/tree in Sugar in Our Wounds, water in In the Middle and the sky of fire in Fireflies. A good challenge always gets me hooked, especially one that is absolutely integral to the storytelling.

I'm curious: who would you say are your literary influences, theater or otherwise?

DONJA: Yes, Beyoncé!  Yes, yes, yes! That's why you're the best because you be knowing!

My literary influences? Hm. I love the poetry, and subtlety, in Tarell Alvin McCraney's plays. I love the musicality, and expansiveness, in August Wilson's and Tennessee Williams' plays. I love stage directions - like, love them! If I could write a play with only stage directions, I would in a heartbeat! The first Tennessee Williams play I read was A Streetcar Named Desire. I remember after reading it I couldn't help but feel like Mr. Williams was a fly on the wall in that New Orleans French Quarter. His attention to detail and how he progresses a story through stage direction was a revelation for me. Years after reading that play, I learned that he called stage directions 'love letters to the audience.' That has forever stayed with me.

I'm also heavily influenced by my peers. The simplicity and well of compassion that Korde A. Tuttle, Jiréh Breon Holder, C.A. Johnson, and Nathan Alan Davis writes with is beautiful. The innovation and delicious imagination that Keelay Gipson and Stacey Rose write with are so theatrical. They're all brilliant and inspiring playwrights. Their work makes me cry that ugly cry. I could go on and on about their work and the work of so many other amazing playwrights.

And I just have to say, my all-time favorite writer is Queen Alice Walker. She slays me to life. The full scope of humanity that she writes her characters, stories, and poems with moves me every single time. I'm about to cry right now just thinking about her work. Whew.

So, I have a two-parter: first, what are the things in a play and in a production that move you - that makes you say, 'this is what theater is about!"? Second, is there a moment in In The Middle, or the other two plays in The Love* Plays, that move(d) you?

SAHEEM: Let’s do your all-stage-direction play! I really do love how unafraid you are to let your voice be heard in the stage directions. It betrays the humor and poetry behind your impulses.

I'm moved by moments on stage that transcend reality as we perceive it in everyday life, whether it be a physical moment that unfolds in the tangible landscape, or an emotional moment that heightens a character's experience outside of their/our everyday existence. 

An ancient example: Oedipus discovering he fulfilled the very prophecy he tried so desperately to avoid.

Three recent examples: Philip Howze's deus ex machina in Frontieres sans Frontieres (brilliantly staged by Dustin Wills), the unpredicatable unfolding of Christopher Chen's Caught (expertly staged by Lee Sunday Evans) and the evocation of The Moors in Jen Silverman’s play (adroitly staged by Mike Donahue). What these have in common is a playwright who threw down the gauntlet and a director who rose to meet the challenge. I can think of no higher attribute than surprise in the theater; the possibility that anything could happen next.

In In the Middle, I'm moved by the scene where Mary dances with Nasir. We witness a mother reliving a memory with her dead son, in the most intimate and tender of terms. This was the moment I saw an image of Nasir manifesting in the water. You began a gesture and it inspired me to go further in the imagining, which is the thing about collaborating on a new play I love the most.

In Sugar in Our Wounds, the tree moves me deeply. The historical significance of the lynchings that took place there, the magic realism of branches that sing and grow before our eyes, the witnessing of forbidden love borne beneath its shade... How impossible! How worthy a challenge!

In Fireflies, when Olivia tells God she’s going to give the baby back I feel so deeply for her; not only as an expecting mother, but as a black woman feeling the weight of historical expectation magnified by the failure of her seemingly perfect marriage.

Last question for you: who do you write for?

DONJA: That's really beautiful, Saheem. Your love for, and knowledge of, theater is so inspiring. Thank you.

I identify as Afro-Queer. For me, that means my Blackness and my Queerness are one. That's the place that I wrote from and those I write for. I really do believe that specificity is kin to universality. I have a play called Soft; Or The Dead N---- Poem. It's about a group of young Black and Brown boys who society has thrown away, because they believe their lives don't matter, because they're thought of as so hardened. But when I see those boys walking down the street, or on the corner I see a father who is taking care of his family, I see a divine life, I see a soft and beautiful flower. I wrote that play for my brother. I was very specific about that. Though that play was written for a specific group, with a specific lived experience, once an older white woman came to me and said after my play she sees Black and Brown males, who one might deem 'hard,' as soft flowers. I cried right there in front of her because that's what it's about: writing for one, but writing for all.

And if I can be totally transparent, I also write for me. One reason is because when I was younger I had a terrible stuttering problem. I hated talking, and I hated my voice. I kind of still do. I get super nervous to read aloud or talk in front of people because of my stuttering. Writing is my way of talking in front of people; it's my way of owning my voice. Another reason I write for me is because when I was diagnosed with HIV writing literally saved my life. It healed so many of my broken places. I write to continue the process of healing myself - and hopefully my writing may heal others.

With working on The Love* Plays, as director, what do you hope people take away from the trilogy? And what do you hope people will take away from each play, individually?

SAHEEM: Well, you certainly wrote these plays for me too, my friend. They have healed and nourished me, even in our relatively short journey with them.

From Sugar in Our Wounds, I hope the audience will reflect on the silencing of the oppressed; how the historically marginalized never had the chance to record their emotions and experiences, and how a playwright like yourself can anthropologically piece together the past from imagination and what we know to be true in our present. Same sex love is not unique to our era, though religion and ideological dogma might have us believe otherwise.

From Fireflies, I hope they will experience the complexity of human character; even the revered and celebrated among us have flaws. When I was young, I remember seeing a proverb on a family friend's wall "Behind every successful man stands a woman telling him what he's doing right." I call that gentle misogyny. Your play reminds us how this is too often true.

From In the Middle, my hope is they will reflect on our propensity for rapidly digesting names and stories bandied around in news reports. Too often we forget that beyond the statistics are flesh and blood human beings, with lives that have been upended and relationships severed as a result of these tragedies.

As a collective, I really appreciate that the plays expand the breadth of roles available to actors of color, and advance the depiction of black queerness on stage. Our experiences in life come from the paths we walk and the stories we witness. The magic of theater is the personification of these stories, and I'm excited for the world to experience the incredible human beings you have channeled for us.