Meet the Fellows: Donja R. Love
Donja R. Love, one of The Lark's 2016-17 Van Lier New Voices Fellows, talks identity, impact, and process with Second Stage Van Lier Fellow and former Lark staffer TJ Weaver.
Donja Love, first thing’s first, how do you pronounce your name?
Lol. Don•YAY. I often tell people to think of Kanye, but with a "D" instead of a "K."
It’s a great name. What’s the backstory?
Thanks. I really wish I had a cool backstory for my name, but I don't. It's real regular scmegular degular. From what I've been told, my mom just made it up. And I'm the oldest, so all my siblings were given names that begin with D. I think my mom was following after my grandmom. Her and my aunt have names that begin with T. I'd often joke that my mom is the baddest...since her name is Trina. Lol. I always thought her name was so fun and cool, while I use to hate mine. No one could ever pronounce it and people would always think I was a girl. And then when you added my last name, I would get made fun of so much. People would always say, "Ew. You love everybody!" or "Watch out because Donja might love you!" As a little kid that was horrifying. I would always say, "No I don't. I don't love anybody!" As I got older I realized how ridiculous that was, and that it isn't a bad thing to love people and to love my name.
And at what point did you find power and ownership in introducing yourself as "Donja Love, playwright," or are you still navigating that?
I'm actually still navigating that. I went to college for acting, not writing. But while in school I found myself super focused on the words, in a play, in a way that didn't feel like an actor. I'd be so fascinated by every word and wonder why the playwright chose this word or that word, out of all the words to choose from. I did that for every character of every play I was cast in or had to read. It wasn't until after school that I realized acting wasn't for me, that writing speaks to me more. So I latched onto as many mentors and people I really admire as I could.
Honestly, I worked with people who made me feel like I didn't know shit. But that good "you don't know shit." That "you don't know shit" that pushes you to know and to grow. And I also read as many plays and saw as many productions as possible. So in that sense, I don't have conventional training as a playwright. But, as I continue to navigate my identity as a playwright, I never stop learning the craft and technique. I feel like I'll always be learning, which excites and humbles me.
In an interview with Philadelphia Printworks you said for those who identify as Black and Queer, three threads unify us in the fight. Blackness, fire, and sexuality. Is this the place from where your characters and stories are birthed?
That definitely is a starting point I tend to go to! The saying "write what you know," is very true for me. I know what it's like to be Black, and I know what it's like to be Queer. So those identities often find themselves in my work. I always try to write full people, and those people are often Black and Queer characters that push to exist outside of stereotypes.
I remember at the beginning of this year I told myself moving forward I'm going to write as Black as possible and as Gay as possible to actively rid the white and straight gaze from my work. And with that I've leaned into so many beautifully complex stories, that challenge my writing and me every day. I've learned that being Black and Queer comes with a set of conflicts that needs to live on stage and the screen. Our stories need to be told, authentically and beautifully.
Oddly enough, I realized something my mom told me after I came out is at the core of my work: “As a parent, all you want is for your child to live an easy life, but you won’t. Your life will be hard, because there are millions of people in this world who don’t even know you and want you dead.” Those people that my mom spoke of, and their stories, is why I write.
And what does it feel like when you’ve finished writing a play or filming a web series and you’ve given words to those whose stories have been erased from the narrative? To then see actors embody those characters and tell those stories?
There's really no feeling to describe when a story comes to life just right. It's the most humbling of feelings. After I'm finished writing something and I see it performed I pray that someone is touched, that they leave my work different than how they came to it. My first thought is the people that my stories depict. I hope I make them proud. It wasn't until a few years ago when I was doing my first webseries, Modern Day Black Gay, that I realized there's another audience my stories can reach. One day my aunt called me and told me she was excited to see my series because she was looking forward to learning more and gaining a deeper understanding of the LGBTQIA culture. That blew my mind, because I never thought about those individuals not in my community taking something away from my work. I was only focused on my Queer brothers and sisters seeing themselves. My aunt came right on through and opened my eyes a little wider. Though with that newfound thought process, my first thought is still the youth, that young closeted kid who hopefully sees my work and is able to see themselves, who is able to feel like it's okay to to be who they are. I'm such a cry baby, so just that thought alone brings me to tears.
Does the past haunt or invigorate you? In what way does it play a part in your work?
I started asking myself, "Can we ever escape the past?" because I realized it always shows up in my work. I'm curious about who people were, and how it influences who they are. I try to reimagine the past with people who look like me, who I may know. I'm intrigued by who people become in circumstances that may feel like there's no way out. Above all, I'm really intrigued by how an isolated moment from the past affects one's present, how that one thing you tried to escape is eating away at you, and what do you do when it's left you bone dry and forces you to see the you that you've been hiding from. In that way the past is haunting, but also hopeful.
Does the writing process get easier with each play or is each play its own beast to slay?
Yaaassss slay! Each play is definitely its own beast. I go into writing the first draft of every play so hopeful, feeling on top of the world. But when I come back to work on the play, after leaving it alone for awhile, I end up feeling so defeated. It never fails. Never. I get so lost in the play, and literally feel like I don't know what the hell I'm doing. I question if I'm even a good writer. That's how funky I get. The only play that didn't happen with was Sugar In Our Wounds, and that was because I was writing it in my head five years before I sat down and actually wrote it. But, normally, each play is like I'm writing for the very first time.
There are a few tricks that help make the process easier: the biggest is leaving a play alone for awhile, living life, writing other plays, reading, then coming back new and fresh. That helps me a lot. But all in all, each play is a new beast I have to figure out how to slay.
If curiosity is the ignition, the thing that sparks the creative process and drives you to the page, once there how do you keep the engine running and beat back the fear that is the blank page, your own creative demons, pessimism, etc.?
That's probably the trickiest thing of all because you may have techniques and tools to get you to write, or from point A to point Z, but the story won't come unless the story is ready. No matter how much you're ready.
What works for me is waking up early in the morning to write. Like 5/6am early. It's something about the stillness of the morning air that opens me. In that quietness, characters speak so loudly. I've tried writing at night and created pages of mess on top of mess on top of mess that I pray no one ever sees! But there are some times that when you keep writing through the mess you'll stumble upon something so beautiful on the other side. So it really is a matter of different strokes for different folks.
For this new play I'm working on, in addition to waking up early to write it, I've been listening to music, in particular, "Mary Don't You Weep" off Aretha Franklin's gospel album. That song coupled with the quiet morning air transcends me straight to the world of the play.
You're now one month into your fellowship year. What have you been up to? And what do you hope to achieve by the end?
I've been writing, writing, writing. I'm working on a trilogy of plays that explore Queerness during pivotal moments in Black history. Three weeks into the fellowship I started writing the third piece in the trilogy, which explores Queerness during the Black Lives Matters movement. That's the piece I listen to the Aretha Franklin song to prepare for. I'm going to leave that play alone for awhile and start writing the piece that explores Queerness during the Civil Rights Movement. And after the first draft to that is out I'm going to get back into Sugar In Our Wounds. That's the piece I submitted to The Lark that helped me get the Van Lier New Voices Fellowship. That play explores Queerness during Slavery, right around the Emancipation Proclamation. Next to getting this trilogy in shape, my biggest goal is to gain more confidence in my writing and write without fear.