“No one is going to mythologize my life,” playwright and filmmaker Kathleen Collins told a group of film students at Howard University in 1984. “No one is going to deny me the right to explore my life experiences as normal experiences.”
Collins’ insistence on portraying the banality of African American women’s lives rather than replicating the Hollywood narratives that pathologized or mythologized them resonates with a new generation of black female artists who have recently discovered Collins and her work. Part of what makes Collins’ writing so appealing is her attention to complex internal struggles and external journeys, of what Elizabeth Alexander calls those “black Bohemian women” who often work as artists and academics and have a lively life. robust intellectual. Because she renders them so carefully and imbues them with such vulnerability, her characters have heightened insight and are aware that they are both liberated and alienated by their knowledge of how others see them and stereotype them.
Such rich psychological portraits of black women are what initially attracted Afrofemononomy, a group of black women stage performers, to Collins’ plays. In addition to adapting this Howard University talk into a monologue, they also perform “Begin the Beguine,” a one-act quartet by Collins that has never been produced before.
Over the last two weekends, as part of a program called “Work the Roots”, Afrofemononomy performed the title track “Begin the Beguine”, featuring actress Ruby Dee and her son, blues guitarist Guy Davis, as well as “The Healing”. “The Reading” and “Remembrance” at various locations in New York (from a lawn in Harlem to a park in Bedford-Stuyvesant). On Saturday May 29, they will present the premiere of a multimedia installation called “Gold Taste” which is a response to “The Essentialisn’t”, a theatrical work by one of the band members, Eisa Davis. The play will be on view until June 27 at the Keith Haring Theater of Performance Space New York.
The debut of Collins’ pieces is part of a continuing resurrection of her works after her death from breast cancer in 1988 at the age of 46. In large part thanks to her daughter Nina Lorez Collins ‘commitment to preserving her mother’s legacy, we are now able to access the gift of Collins’ ambitions and archives, including the 2015 theatrical release of his 1982 film, “Losing Ground”; publishing her short story collection “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” in 2016; and, in 2019, the arrival of “Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary”, a mix of her short stories, plays, diary entries and film scripts.
Davis, an actress and playwright recently seen on HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” first became familiar with Collins ‘writing when asked to do a public reading of Collins’ news at the Brooklyn Public. Library in 2017. But, she realizes now, Collins has been with her for much longer. “She’s a literary grandmother to me who’s just been under my nose all this time,” Davis said. “When Nina first gave me these pieces, I was like ‘Kathleen Collins, Kathleen Collins, Kathleen Collins’, then I looked at my library and found ‘9 Black Women’ pieces, an anthology 1980s, and her ‘The Brothers’ in there. It’s the only piece she’s ever produced, [a production of the Women’s Project, now WP Theater] at the American Place Theater.
Once she read Collins’ other plays, she immediately shared them with her friends and other black female theater performers with whom she frequently collaborated in the most common way: over dinner, during museum visits and beach visits, via texts, after seeing plays. together, and last year on Zoom. In 2019, their casual interest in Collins’ pieces morphed into a more concrete idea to stage them and share them with the general public.
“In many ways it was an attempt to take the model of our friendship and then apply it to the terms under which we collaborate,” said Davis.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz (“Marys Seacole”) said learning Collins’ plays allowed her to take different risks. For the project, she painstakingly transformed Collins’ “The Reading,” a 30-minute piece that anticipated our conversations about racial microaggressions today. In the waiting room of a black medium, a tense conversation ensues between Marguerite (Kara Young), a black fashion designer, and Helen (Amelia Workman), a white novelist. As Helen tries to assert her right, Marguerite steps back and ends up denying Helen the opportunity to occupy the space that she, as a white woman, feels obligated to inhabit.
“For me, celebrating and exploring collectively around Kathleen Collins’ work is another way of seeing yourself before you even know how to see yourself in life and community,” she said. “This, to me, is really moving because I was like, ‘Oh, this is someone I should have known. She added, “Now I can find out, and I don’t have to find out on my own.”
In addition to the moving performance of individual actors, these pieces, which were not open to criticism, were made even more engaging due to the casting and directing. Collins wrote “The Healing” and “The Reading” with white characters, but because Afrofemononomy came from their group, they provided a space in which black actresses were always in the foreground. This gesture was intensified by the intimacy of their ensemble. At the end of “The Reading”, the audience was led by actress Jennifer Harrison Newman to dance with the cast, an invitation that transformed the luminescent installation and the graffiti scrawled wall that read “Last night I dreamed that I was dancing in the image of God ”(a replica of another piece by Collins in the quartet) at a community party celebrating the creativity of black women.
Inviting us to those tender moments where Collins’ black female characters take off their diapers, the performances themselves transport both these fictional characters and that actual black cast far beyond the strict racial and gender categories that envelop them and we.
“These are stories about the inner lives of black women,” Nina Lorez Collins told me. “One of the reasons I love ‘Begin the Beguine’ is because it’s about race, but neither is it. It’s really about the inner life of this artist, this young woman. And I just don’t think we’ve seen anything like it. ”
As avant-garde as Collins’ characters were in his day, they remain singular today, giving us rare social insights into how we can navigate our unique moment of slowly returning to each other, in the spaces. audiences, and ultimately, live, in-person performances. In the preface to “Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary”, fiction writer Danielle Evans described Collins as “a master of times when the inside becomes the outside, when all pretense vanishes.”
This vagueness between our inner selves and the identities projected onto black women was at the heart of Afrofemononomy’s vision of “Remembrance”, described as “a kind of personal session”. Under the direction of Jackie Sibblies Drury (“Fairview”) and starring Davis as the woman and Kaneza Schaal as Collins speaking to Howard’s students, it becomes a conversation between two black women who, while giving each their own monologue – one takes place in a bathroom, the other at a desk – sometimes end up blending into each other. All the while, they demand that the public see black women in public with the same clarity that we see ourselves in private.
But such revelations and reversals of gaze will also be essential for large swathes of America’s theater community which still grapple with debates about inclusion, equity and white gatekeepers as they seek to address the wrongs of the racism and institutionalizing the healing that Collins’ vision offers for her of black characters and for the black female theater performers who embody them.
After spending two weeks performing and a few years studying Collins, Afrofemononomy decided to wrap up with Davis’ musical play “The Essentialisn’t” in the band installation “Gold Taste”, and to reimagine for a while. older when Harlem Renaissance writers WEB Du Bois, Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen debated racial representations in their day. It begins with the still vexed question: “Can you be black and not play?”
Extending Collins’ legacy to Davis, Kaneza Schaal, member of Afrofemononomy, said: “Eisa is [also] sitting on a treasure trove of pieces she wrote. And it’s up to us to make sure that our own daughters are not the first to produce this work. She continued, “There is an urgent need to address Davis and Collins simultaneously. The intellectual harmony that Eisa creates with her ancestors is amazing, and yet another extension of this fabric.
Essentialisn’t: Gold Taste installation
May 29 to June 27 at Performance Space New York, 150 First Avenue; performancespacenewyork.org.