Lark Talks: Erika Dickerson-Despenza & Donja R. Love
Donja R. Love and Erika Dickerson-Despenza share a lot of things in common—both are incredible playwrights and former Lark Van Lier Fellows—and now they can add being Lark Board members to that list! In this interview, Erika and Donja discuss why they wanted to join the board and what they imagine for the future of The Lark.
Donja R. Love: Why did I join the board? I joined the board because, one: I love The Lark.
The Lark is, for me, an invaluable artistic home where I saw myself grow, and I believe that if you love someone, if you love something so much and enough, you are invested in its growth. And so I am really adamant in The Lark’s growth. I believe in its vision, in the direction it’s going in.
And also the board needs more melanin. No shade. The board needs more Blackness. The board needs more queerness. The board needs more folks living with Disabilities, whether visible or invisible. I know how I show up in the world, and I know how I would show up as a board member as well: as a board member who would be able to challenge, who would be able to counsel, who would be able to hold folks accountable and hopefully be held accountable as well.
I think above all, for me, it boiled down to love for The Lark’s growth, and me loving The Lark so much that I am invested in it becoming a softer place. How about you? Why did you join the board?
Erika Dickerson-Despenza: At a monthly one-on-one session with John [Clinton Eisner] during my 2018 Lark Van Lier Fellowship tenure, I said, “I really love it here and I hope to be the second Black woman board member one day.” John was surprised. I know then what I know now even more deeply: I really want to serve other playwrights—particularly Black, queer disabled women—and aid the staff in doing that with love, integrity and rigor.
Two years later, I’m the second queer Black woman board member and currently, the youngest board member. (Shoutout to the incomparable Katori Hall for being The Lark’s first Black and Black woman board member and to Judith Aidoo, the first queer Black woman board member!) I am not wealthy. I’m an anticapitalist and I’m not a “seasoned prominent playwright.” Unfortunately, those are generally the folks who comprised boards. But I am here because I am deeply invested in having a play development center in New York that is [more] radical in its pedagogy and praxis supporting playwrights of the global majority, playwrights who are disabled, queer and trans. I am here because I think that The Lark could have a really beautiful place in midwifing radical leftist work—work that envisions a more liberated future, unveils the horror and opportunities of our present and re/members the past.
DRL: Oh I love that, “midwifing that kind of work.” To be able to bring to life new possibilities. I find myself thinking about individuals who are committed to change. Change being this force that can help an individual grow, and become softer, and evolve to the truest version of themselves. I think about—you talked about ancestors—I think about individuals who have come before us who have paved such a radical, soft path. Who comes to mind, and I know you speak so highly of her, is Ella Baker. I think of all of the work that she’s done to reach collective liberation for all Black people, for all people. I find myself thinking of her imagination work. I find myself thinking about her work to dream and to create possibilities. What does that look like and what does that mean?
I am interested in hearing, with being on the board, what do you imagine? What does that look like to you? As the first Black, queer woman, what do you imagine for The Lark’s board?
EDD: I am going to be serving on the Equity, Access, and Inclusion (EAI) committee and I’m really excited about that. There is a national focus on anti-racism work within the American theatre. That is beautiful, critical and necessary work. But there must be just as much attention to homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, fatphobia, sexism, xenophobia, colorism and featurism. I view my primary duty on the EAI committee to see to it that The Lark addresses these -isms simultaneously, as they never occur in isolation and cannot be eradicated by addressing each one singularly and within a hierarchy. The Lark must also broaden what we mean when we talk about access because all too often it becomes narrow very quickly. For example, not all emerging playwrights are in their twenties. What does it mean to be an emerging playwright in one’s fifties and how can The Lark support such a writer? How can our physical spaces accommodate the needs and comfort fat folks and disabled folks, respectively?
The initiatives that I imagine are all about stretching. What does it look like for The Lark’s board to deliberately focus part of our fundraising efforts on supporting Global South exchange programs? What does it mean that we don’t yet have a global exchange program with any country on the continent of Africa? In Southeast Asia? South America? These are missed opportunities to build community across the Global South. I love our Middle East/U.S. Exchange (which is currently on hiatus). But what would it look like to support more writers making more intentional critical connections between, say Turkey, occupied Palestine and the U.S.—all of us living under a police state? I can imagine all kinds of delicious abolitionist artistic/political co-conspiration happening!
Additionally, I’m really interested in how we can serve Black women, women who are non-Black but are of the global majority and nonbinary people who have children. Women are usually the primary caretakers of elders and children. Women caretakers who are also artists often struggle to have space, time, and money to focus on their work. The New Harmony Project (NHP) is an excellent model of such support by way of their flexible Parent Residency Initiative, which provides on-site childcare (or additional stipend to offset childcare costs), family friendly housing and meals, and dramaturgical support. NHP is one of few residencies who provide such extensive support. What is our place in that work?
Last but certainly not least, I’m considering the needs of other Black, queer, disabled women writers. What are our needs for how we create work that is transdisciplinary and transgresses the boundaries of “traditional theater” both in process and product? I’m imagining along the lines of fellowships and programs. I really want to raise funding for a social justice fellowship. I don’t mean for a social justice influencer™ or “superstar”, but somebody whose community has named them (word to Toni Cade Bambara); an artist-activist or cultural organizer deeply rooted in the local community and not just on CNN. What does it mean to have an activist/cultural organizer-in-residence creating community-based work? What does it look like The Lark to really invest in such work without exploiting it?
Those are some of the dreams that I have and of course there are others, but what are you imagining for the future of The Lark and our board Donja?
DRL: I am getting my entire life from that. So many of the things that you said I 100% echo. I love this idea of stretching, and what does it mean to be able to stretch one’s imagination, to be able to stretch ideas and what folks know to be true.
When I think about the stretching, I think about decentralization. What does it mean for individuals on the board—this entity that folks deem having so much power, folks who for so long have been in the ivory tower, who make decisions—what does it mean to understand that you are not the center of this organization at all? And you should not look at yourself as the center of the organization. It is important to understand that we truly are focused on the artist. What does it look like to move us in this direction every step of the way?
I find myself thinking about moving away from this idea of particular awards and accolades giving worth to who artists are. I’m really interested in a writer who got a best playwright award from their church. Because that is every bit as worthy. And that deserves praise and recognition. Not just because you won a Pulitzer, or because you were on Broadway, but because your people said you matter. Us being able to look at people and see value in every aspect of who they are, and how important that is.
Recently, I won an award from POZ Magazine, which is for people living with HIV, for my play one in two. And let me tell you, that was one of the best awards I’ve ever received. My community said, “We see you.” My community said, “Thank you for the work you are doing for us.” And that holds just as much weight as a Pulitzer, as a Tony, as these esteemed accolades that society says are so worthy. I’m really interested in us shifting what worth looks like.
I love the places that you were talking about us going, the fellowships you were talking about. I’m also interested in, what does a program, a fellowship, what does a workshop look like for those who have fallen victim to the carceral system? What does that look like for us to be able to go into these centers and create and hold space for individuals who are incarcerated. For family members who have loved ones who are incarcerated, because we know that when one person goes to prison, their entire family goes to prison. So what does it look like to hold space for family members of those who are incarcerated as well?
This is a radical shift that we’re talking about, and it’s something that—when we talk about this imagination work, when we talk about this dream work—know that it is work at the end of the day. It’s not something that is going to happen overnight. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take some feathers being ruffled, and I’m okay with ruffling feathers.
We need folks to show up so that the work can get done. You talked about individuals on the board who are, for the most part, which is so true, those who have money, resources, access. What does it look like for you to be able to give money, to provide access and resources, and that’s it. We don’t need to hear from you. We don’t need anything from you but just the coin. How well does that sit in your soul? Are you really about advancing this creative, this story? Or are you about people seeing that you have done this philanthropy work? What does that look like to be a trustee, to be a board member, to be a donor, and to just give, then to shut the fuck up. Literally, you don’t say a single thing, and you give so that someone can receive, and someone can grow, and someone can become whole in their artistry and in who they are and give to their community. That’s the imagination work that I’m really interested in.
EDD: I’m meeting you in this what does it look like to have residencies, fellowships that do not require one to be in New York City or in this facility. Part of expanding our notion of accessibility means that we center those who, for example, are incarcerated and thus, cannot physically come to The Lark. This is where strong partnerships come in. I think about PEN America, which has a Prison & Justice Writing Program and a Writing for Justice Fellowship commission, aimed at sharing the stories of incarcerated folks, their families, communities, and the wider impact of the criminal justice system and mass incarceration. What does it look like to partner with PEN America or The Innocence Project?
This isn’t some naive belief that “The Lark is going to do it all!” or be anyone’s savior. We’re not here for that colonial model. But I definitely think about critical connections and the critical mass that it takes for deep, transformative change and to create and sustain relationships in communities. There’s always someone already doing the work, so I think part of The Lark’s work, and part of what I’m imagining is, how do we make the connections and/or fortify and support established connections? In addition to the initiatives that I’m interested in and the populations that I am eager to center in this organization, I’m also thinking about what it means to make and sustain critical connections and partnerships so that we are not overwhelmed as an organization and are doing what we do best while also stretching our capacity and what we think we do best. This happens, in part, by partnering with those who know better than us, those whose hand is on the pulse of the people because their work is rooted in community.
I think that that is also a part of the work with the next cycle of The Lark’s leadership. How do we hold on to partnerships? We’re seeing many organizations flailing left and right because too many exist in this rugged individualistic paradigm that says, “this is my organization, that is your organization over there” when we really need partnerships in order to survive and thrive. There are so many opportunities in making critical connections when doing so with integrity, community accountability and with a love ethic.
DRL: For me it sounds like what you’re talking about is collaboration and community work. What does it mean to really be focused on community and going into the community and finding other individuals and organizations within the community that are doing similar work? How can we grow together and spread our wings to truly be of service, to be able to truly provide? At the end of the day, it is one of the things that has called me to The Lark and what caused me to say yes I will be on The Lark’s board; it’s that The Lark is an organization that is truly of service. How can we stretch our wings to be of the utmost service?
We were just in one board meeting so far, and looking at the faces, there is a certain individual on The Lark’s board, and the individual looks the same. I’m all about oneness, but that’s the type of oneness that can be dangerous.
EDD: That homogeneity
DRL: Exactly. We need to move away from that. So what does it mean to see a board that is reflective of the communities we are talking about serving? What does it mean where it’s not just an older white man on the board? I’m really interested in trans board members. I think that’s incredibly important. That’s a lived experience that we need to root ourselves in because I find myself thinking, and this is me just thinking about liberation work, when we think about being free, we need to center the most marginalized as we work toward that freedom. So when we think about service work, we need to center the most historically oppressed and vulnerable folks and we need to have these folks in the highest of positions within organizations to do the mighty community work, and collaborative work, and to truly be of service.
EDD: And not just anybody. Here’s where the slippery slope of conflating representation politics with identity politics. We’re seeing a lot of people not recognizing what the Combahee River Collective (CRC) was really talking about in the 1977 CRC Statement. Identity politics isn’t about having any Black face in a high place. Or a queer somebody or a disabled somebody or an HIV+ somebody. Yes, we need people from marginalized communities. But identity politics is much more than tokenism. It is an analysis. It’s a way to authenticate one’s personal experiences of interlocking oppressions. So we need folks who are “actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression” and committed to an “integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking” since “synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives” (Word to the CRC). Without folks rooted in dismantling every kind of oppressive system, marginalized communities end up celebrating top cop Kamala Harris as Vice President, sexual harasser Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court Justice, Lori Lightfoot as the first Black and queer woman mayor of Chicago terrorizing my people and Barack Obama undermining the demand to defund the police. There’s a representation politic at play. Many of us are so excited about these figures because we don’t see ourselves in these positions, that at this point, we’ll take anybody. Anybody’s exciting, even those who are against the very community that they are “from.” No class analysis? No gender analysis? No critique of U.S. militarism? (Or rather, ones that simply uphold the status quo?) Just chucks and sorority pearls, charm and flashes of popular Black vernacular? Stop playing in my face. There’s too much at stake. I want more for us. Also: the empire will never save us (nonprofits are included in that). I only believe in the collective power of the people. Periodt.
DRL: Speak the word. This feels like it’s aligned with harm being placed on individuals within certain positions and institutions. I find myself thinking about the EAI gathering that we had yesterday, and knowing that quite naturally you are going to be in spaces with individuals, particularly if you sit in positions of power if you are on a board and you have a particular lived experience, you are going to be in spaces with folks who are not aligned with your lived experience, who may not see or understand your point of view and the framework with which you operate on and under. Just thinking about yesterday how there were comments that were made, there were beliefs that were shared, where you had to show up, and you had to educate. I had to show up, and I had to educate. I want to be a board member. I want to be a trustee. I don’t want to be nobody’s teacher. No shade. Yes, in life we are all teachers to a certain degree and we are all certainly students. I think this is incredibly important. But I also think that it is incredibly important that we make sure that individuals who are existing within these positions are not coming on board to be a teacher. They are not coming on board just to fill a slot and be a face. They are coming on board to do the same work that you are doing. And what does it look like to create space that talks about harm and talks about harm reduction.
One of the very first things I asked when The Lark asked me if I wanted to be on the board was: What is set in place to reduce harm? What is the harm that has been done to people who look like me, who have my lived experience, who are on the board? Because I need to know what I am walking into. If the shit is fucked up, let me know that so that I can know what I’m working with. Don’t tell me everything is fine, and everything is glorious, and everything is amazing, and then I walk in here and the sink ain’t working. The window is falling off. I need to know exactly what home I am walking into. I think those are things that are really important as well to talk about, especially when you are someone of a historically oppressed lived experience. You need to know what you’re walking into, and you need to know that you aren’t going to be that magical person, that magical negro, that magical queer person, that magical person with a Disability who’s going to do all the teaching.
EDD: “The magical young person”
DRL: Exactly. I think that’s really important as well, to talk about the harm that has been done, and what are the systems in place to make sure that that doesn’t happen again for these individuals on the board.
EDD: And to create better systems. What are the mediation and conflict transformation tools that are in the bag here? How do we move when there is a transgression? Because there will be. We are all still learning. Some of us are more intentional about our learning than others. Hopefully greater curiosity and the impetus to be more diligent in our political education as well as our artistic education in reading plays and everything. That’s beautiful, great. But we must be more curious about each other.
I keep coming back to things I’m imagining because I love questions of imagination, which is a radical act for people of the global majority and people who share identities outside of race and ethnicity who have been marginalized. adrienne maree brown reminds us that imagination is such a radical act because it’s a reclamation of something that has been (through colonialism, slavery, imperialism, etc.) and continues to be stolen from us. Any time we allow ourselves the space to reclaim our imagination, I get really excited.
With that, I’m also thinking about, as we’re talking about ‘serve’ because it’s a nonprofit organization, what is The Lark’s stake? Because sometimes, when we say, “I’m just here to serve” we take our stake out of it, which then lends to a short sighted investment and a savior complex. The Lark must ask itself—the board, the staff, all of us must ask: what is our stake in wanting to support Black theaters? What is our stake in wanting to create initiatives that have deeper community impact? Why are we invested in that beyond the fact that we don’t want to be on somebody’s list of organizations that didn’t offer a comment about this Black person who was murdered or didn’t write a statement in support of ____ tragedy. What is each individual’s stake and our collective stake for how we do what we do, and why we continue to do it? That will, I think, lead the impetus to learn more, to be more deeply committed, to fundraise more, to be more expansive in our imagining of what kinds of initiatives and what kind of people we could reach and resource. Without a viable stake, the effort and commitment will fizzle out until the next thing.
DRL: As we wrap up, I am really really interested in holding honest space for this not being altruistic work. For us as individuals who have historically given so much even while so much has been taken from us, for us to be able to say, “I’m being selfish right now. I have every right to be selfish right now.” I think about Audre Lorde’s Use of The Erotic. She truly was talking about claiming space for oneself. Being able to have pleasure. Being able to bask in the pleasure, and not feeling like you have to give anything but being able to take as much as you want. What I’m getting at, is, I’m really interested in hearing: what do you want to get out of being on The Lark’s board? What do you want to get out of existing within The Lark? And you have every right, we have every right, to be selfish in these answers.
EDD: I want to be where the money resides, where the money resides, where the money resides. (laughter). But seriously, I desire to be at the money table because as we are standing on the edge of the new world that we are building together, I want to know the old world ways of how folks did trustee work; the theory and method(s) of fundraising so that I can break them all and be sure not to duplicate oppressive systems as we move toward creating a more equitable arts landscape. There are some things that are evidently working but working for whom? This is a steady interrogation in which I’m very much invested. And “working” doesn’t mean liberating.
Because I have not worked in a financial sector—I’ve been on advisory boards, been an education specialist and an executive assistant director of a nonprofit before I gave myself the space and time to be a full-time playwright, and there’s some financial work in that—but I have not been a trustee before. Part of it is for my own learning so that I know what happens in that kind of space, and so that I can be a co-conspirator in a vision for what a board and what a trustee even is and how we operate.
You talked about decentralizing the board, and that’s about breaking down power structures. I’m really interested in what that looks like in this container of a board of trustees.
There’s the “I’m not thirty yet, and what I have to contribute as a young, Black, queer, invisibly disabled woman from the Midwest with very southern roots, that what I have to contribute is enough for me to be here.” I really stand in that because there are not enough people under 30, under 35 even, who not only look like me, but who are more left-of-center (and, dare I say, radically left), who are in these spaces. I think it’s also a test for me: how do I continue to move radically left in a space that is not? We know the nonprofit industrial complex is real. Nobody’s exempt from that and we’re on the board of directors now. So what does it look like for me to have the politics that I have and be here? How can I help transform the space? How can I be transformed by the space in a way that moves me further to the left as opposed to making me a moderate? That is my personal journey. What about you, Donja?
DRL: Come on now! Yes! I agree. For me, I just want to be the best version of myself. I want to be able to surprise myself and be like, “Oh damn. I didn’t know you were capable of that! I didn’t know you could do that! Come on thru!” I want to constantly surprise myself in pursuit of getting to the best version of myself. So learning what does it mean to be a trustee—all of these inner workings you were talking about—because my hope, my desire is to be able to create spaces for people living with HIV, particularly artists, writers living with HIV. How can I know all of the inner workings of the organization not just as a founder or as an admin, but as someone on the board, as a trustee. How can I know every single element so that when I go back to my community, when I build and create my own, I can do so with the utmost excellence. And when I fail, that will also be okay, because I know how to pick myself up. That’s what I’m really interested in. That’s what I want to get out of it. How can I become the best version of myself to create the best for myself. I think about COVID and I think about a pivotal moment in the beginning stages of the lockdown when it hit me when I said, “Oh, I know why I write. I know why I do what I do” It’s because I’m trying to tell that Donja who was just diagnosed with HIV on December 13, 2008, who’s sitting alone, in a cold ass small ass room that everything will be okay. I’m trying to let that Donja know that I’ve got him. I believe with every fiber of my being that being a trustee is getting me closer to letting that Donja know that everything will be okay. I will work for and build towards a brighter future for him. That’s why I’m on the board.