Heal the Divide: Spotlight on Michelle Tyrene Johnson

Heal The Divide, Playwrights
One of the aims of the Heal the Divide project is to share plays from writers working/living in places you might not normally see put on stage.  Playwright Michelle Tyrene Johnson hails from one such place: Kansas City, Missouri.
 
This has me super excited!
 
I’m also super excited because, HOLY COW, you need to read this playwright’s resume!  Michelle has a journalism and legal background and is a speaker at events around the nation.  The woman has things to say, words to share, and stories to tell.  I can’t wait to see what she writes for us during her three-month residency, and I bet you can’t either!  In the meantime, you can read our interview with Michelle (and her bio) below!

What about our Heal the Divide project captured your interested/why did you decide to participate in this initiative?
As a playwright, I’m always excited to see any theatre initiative that honors bringing people together and disrupting people’s resistance to being uncomfortable about topics that matter.
What areas of concern in your community do you find yourself curious about or interested in considering for this project?
I’m concerned about how the people who often think they have the least to learn, because they lean left, are the ones failing to have their listening ears on when it comes to bigotry, especially racism.
There have been a lot of discussions lately about what artists can do to “make a difference” in light of our current political spectrum.  What do you think we can (or should) do?  Or are there pitfalls we need to avoid? 
Artists need to be the people not afraid to start the difficult conversations in the plays we write and the theatre we create. We need to be relentless in pushing the envelopes, but we need to be willing to take the body blows when not everyone gets it. We need to listen to see what more there is to know or learn but stand strong in dealing with the people who just have different values.
What questions, as a playwright, are you most drawn to explore in your work?
Increasingly I find myself writing the stories that blend magical realism and history and piercing contemporary issues. As someone who loves the stories created by other people, as well as the challenges of telling my own, I like the element of surprise that takes me to familiar places.
More About Michelle:  Playwright Michelle Tyrene Johnson is a former journalist and former attorney who is a diversity and inclusion consultant based in the Kansas City, Missouri area. As a playwright, Johnson has had plays in playwriting festivals locally and nationally, including in Houston, Texas, Medford, Connecticut and Louisville, Ky, as well as in several NYC festivals for her plays “Wiccans in the Hood,” “The Negro Whisperer,” “Trading Races: From Rodney King to Paula Deen” and “Echoes of Octavia.”
In 2014, the award-winning production “Trading Races” and “Wiccans in the Hood” were produced by Philadelphia’s BrainSpunk Theater, leading to BrainSpunk making Johnson their Playwright-in-Residence. Johnson’s “Echoes of Octavia,” which has been produced by KC Melting Pot Theater, will be in the 2017 season of NYC’s Rhymes Over Beats Theater Company. Her play “Rights of Passage” has been seen in Springfield, Mo., NYC’s UP Theater reading series and featured in the 2016 Kansas City Repertory Theater’s OriginKC New Works Festival. Most recently, Johnson’s play “Justice in the Embers,” co-produced with StoryWorks, KCPT, and The Living Room Theater, had successful productions in Kansas City and the Bay Area in 2016.
In 2017, Johnson was one of the featured playwrights in the Obie Award-Winning The Fire This Time Festival in NYC and had a reading of one of her full-length plays at The National Black Theatre: Institute for Action Arts in NYC in March. Johnson’s play “The Green Book Wine Club Train Trip” was selected as the winner of the OCTA (Olathe, KS.) New Works Playwrights Competition. In June, Johnson’s full-length play “Pass Over” had a staged reading as a winner in the Jewish Ensemble Theatre (Detroit, MI) Festival of New Works.

Heal the Divide: The Last of Our Kind, by Cody Daigle-Orians

Heal The Divide, Plays

Every week we will be sharing new plays by our Heal the Divide playwrights.  This week’s play is The Last of Our Kind, by Hartford, Connecticut playwright Cody Daigle-Orians.


Since the election, one of the things I’ve heard most often is, “I can’t believe this is where we are; I can’t believe this is what we are.” So I wanted to write something that responded to that disbelief and took it to its extreme conclusion. “Last of Our Kind” is a sort of social horror sci-fi story, which I thought was the right spirit for our political times. There’s not much more to say about the play, other than a wish that it always remains fiction.


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Heal the Divide: Spotlight on Cody Daigle-Orians

Heal The Divide, Playwrights
I first had the privilege of meeting  Cody at the Great Plains Theatre Conference a few years back.  I was immediately a fan!  Not only did his play grab me in a visceral way, but he was just a fun, compassionate, intelligent, and engaging human to be around.  He also has excellent taste in bow-ties, which immediately told me this was someone I had to say “Hello” to.  I am incredibly thankful that he has continued to let me say “Hello” over the years, as a friend and a peer, in this crazy theatrical world. 
When I reached out to Cody with yet another “Hello…” and an invitation to be a part of our 2nd Heal the Divide residency, he was immediately on board and I was immediately super excited.  I can’t wait to see what he shares with us over the next three months!  In the meantime, I encourage you to get to know a little more about Cody by reading our interview below.

What about our Heal the Divide project captured your interested/why did you decide to participate in this initiative?
These days, when you’re asked to do something that counters the mess we’re in, how can you say no? And I think the intersection of the arts, community and activism — which this project exemplifies — is one of the most reliable routes for making change. 

What areas of concern in your community do you find yourself curious about or interested in considering for this project?

I’m interested in how the queer community is dealing with other forms of oppression: how are queer folks dealing with racism? how are queer folks dealing with gender inequity? how are queer folks dealing with class? The community’s been, in the mainstream narrative, one issue for a long time — marriage equality — and now that marriage equality is a thing and we’re in the midst of an administration that’s attacking marginalized communities across the board, we’re figuring out how to be an engaged, political community all over again. 

There have been a lot of discussions lately about what artists can do to “make a difference” in light of our current political spectrum.  What do you think we can (or should) do?  Or are there pitfalls we need to avoid?
I think we keep doing what we’ve always done: create worlds and tell stories that help people explore what it means to be human, what it means to live in this world together. But we have to be conscious of what we bring to the table and what stories we choose to tell. It’s easy for us to empathize with stories of communities and lives that aren’t our own, and it’s natural for us to want to amplify those stories and communities. But they’re not our stories to tell. Representation and appropriation are big important questions right now: we have to be careful not to become part of the harm we’re writing against.


What questions, as a playwright, are you most drawn to explore in your work?
How do we decide who we will be during moments of great loss? That’s basically the central question of almost everything I’ve written, and right now it seems a more appropriate question than ever.
Are you engaged in any other organizations fighting for change or progress that you want to give a shout out to?

My day job is at The Westport Library in Westport, CT. I’m the program specialist there, and I think libraries deserve a special shout out for being institutions of learning, of curiosity, of intellectual engagement, of community, of change.

What did you take away from reading the plays from our first residency?  

I really liked this balance between the personal and the public that ran through these plays. It’s a wonderful by-product of the way this project is set up, and it’s a beautiful statement of how we need to be as citizens in the world. The personal is political. The political is political. And where those things bump into each other is where we live, work and attempt to get along together. These plays embody that. I dig that.

More About Cody: Cody Daigle-Orians is a Louisiana-born playwright and teaching artist now living in Hartford, CT. He is the program and events specialist at The Westport Library in Westport, Connecticut. He was the resident playwright for The Playhouse Tulsa’s 2013-2014 season, the company playwright for Acadiana Repertory Theatre and a company playwright for Manhattan Theatre Works. Plays for The Playhouse Tulsa: William and Judith, Tulsa! A Radio Christmas Spectacular, Little Women and The Bottom of the Sea. Plays for Acadiana Repertory Theatre: In the Bones, The Survivalists, and The Woman’s Part. Plays for Manhattan Theatre Works: Providence, A Home Across the Ocean. His work has been produced and/or developed at the Astoria Performing Arts Center, New Jersery Repertory Theatre, The Actors Company Theatre (NYC), The Growing Stage (Netcong, NJ), SNAP! Productions (Omaha, NE), Gadfly Theatre (Minneapolis, MN), StageRIGHT (Seattle, WA), Prologue Theatre Company (Chicago, IL) and the Great Plains Theatre Conference (Omaha, NE).

Heal the Divide – To History: One, by Jaisey Bates

Heal The Divide, Plays

Every week we will be sharing new plays by our Heal the Divide playwrights.  This week’s play is To History: One, by Los Angeles playwright Jaisey Bates


TO HISTORY
/ To Whom It
May Concern.

One: War
/ Paint

This Letter
was inspired by
a friend’s FB post

re: a Native play
silenced by
a new sculpture

based on a scaffold
that silenced
Natives’ lives.

Here’s a quote from her post (also included with her permission in the ensemble spoken word poem play):

“NOBODY came to our event tonight because our ENTIRE audience went to protest at the Walker instead of celebrating OUR own Native-made art right here. A perfect example of how our communities of color are forced over and over to defend our people and histories and to educate at the expense of celebrating our own vitality.” — Rhianna Yazzie, Founder, New Native Theatre, MN

Here’s the goal of this Letter:

“Putting the history side-by-side to the night when people from the Native community had to choose to either celebrate who we are or fight for our voices to be heard.” — Vanessa Goodthunder (Dakota), Company Member, New Native Theatre

To learn about New Native Theatre:
newnativetheatre.org


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Heal the Divide: Spotlight on Playwright Jaisey Bates

Heal The Divide, Playwrights

Jaisey Bates is the kind of playwright that, once you meet/work with her, you kind of just want to invent more reasons to get a chance to work with her again.  Not only are her words achingly beautiful, but her personality is so engaging and honest that I find myself awed by even her emails.

Which is why I am so totally thrilled to announce that Jaisey will be participating in our 2nd Heal the Divide online residency! I’ll be sharing Jaisey’s first Heal the Divide play next week, but you don’t have to wait that long to get to know more about this talented and creative human.  Check out my interview with Jaisey below.


What about our Heal the Divide project captured your interested/why did you decide to participate in this initiative?  What questions, as a playwright, are you most drawn to explore in your work?

A ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’
short scene answer attempt

(to save time so folks might
spare a few moments more
for perusing Protest Play PDFs),

re: why
/ from whence these
/ my words.

At Rise:

A woman
reads

the (mortally?) wounded
world around her.

It does not
compute.

She studies
the Story Math
of History:

“Who lives, who dies,
who tells [the] story”
called History.

The Subtractors
/ Silencers.

The Subtracted
/ Silenced.

Specifically:

The Indigenous
Silenced.

She receives
via internet

an invitation to
add three gatherings
of words to the

Healing

the Divide
equation.

She decides
to write
three letters

To History
/ To Whom

It May
Concern.

To the
Gates
keepers.

From
Allies

of the
Indigenous

‘Gates
Kept’.

She writes.
She writes.
She writes.

What areas of concern in your community do you find yourself curious about or interested in considering for this project?

I currently live in LA which has the largest urban population of Natives in the U.S. Most of my words speak from an Indigenous perspective.

There have been a lot of discussions lately about what artists can do to “make a difference” in light of our current political spectrum.  What do you think we can (or should) do?

Dear Artists.

Hearts
forward.

Heads
high.

Courage, my
friends,

as we try
to help
write

a more just
and tolerant
world worthy

of our children’s
bright promise.
And of theirs.

And hope.
Always, forever
remember: Hope.

My words and I
stand this ground
beside you.

May we
find ways

to walk
together
in Beauty

this
belovèd
ground.

XoXo,
Planet Nine

Are you engaged in any other organizations fighting for change or progress that you want to give a shout out to?

Some hashtags for movements of interest and action, mostly through writing and staging plays:

#AfterOrlandoPlays
#BlackLivesMatter
#ClimateChangeTheatreAction
#ICantBreathe
#InsteadofRedface
#NoDAPL
#StandingRock
#WaterIsLife

What did you take away from reading the plays from our first residency?

Intriguing range of perspectives and approaches from the resident playwrights. Also fascinating: the college Heal the Divide on Campus initiative. I hope we online folks might have the chance to read some of the students’ efforts.

More About Jaisey:

Jaisey Bates, a misplaced Maine-iac in LA, writes and performs with her nomadic multicultural theater company, The Peoplehood. LA and NYC venues for her words have included the Agüeybaná Book Store, Art/Works, Eclectic, EST/LA, Lounge, Naked Angels, Native Voices at the Autry, Open Fist, Performance Loft, Playwrights’ Center Stage, Samuel French Bookshop, Studio/Stage, Unknown and Victory theaters. Her words have enjoyed road trips to several states and teleportation to Canada and the UK. Her full-length plays include The Day We Were Born, RUN, This Radiant Wasteland, and Variations in the Key of White.  Real Time, her fancydance variation on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, is The Peoplehood’s Menu of Performance Possibilities, an ever-evolving multitude of mix-and-match short plays and spoken word pieces. Her motto is “Have Words. Many Words. Many, many Words. Will travel.” Her education includes Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, American University in Cairo (Fulbright/Johns Hopkins SAIS) and Loyola Marymount (MA in English). She wrote a blog, “Native communities and climate change, center stage”, for the HowlRound’s ‘Theater in the Age of Climate Change’ series. She tends to speak of herself in the 3rd person. She also answers to the name Planet Nine. She is very grateful to Brilliant Words Warrior Woman Tiffany Antone for this chance to work toward Healing the Divide. She hopes with all her heart that we will learn to walk in beauty this beloved ground.

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Five Interviews: Wrapping up our First Heal the Divide Residency:

Blog, Heal The Divide, Playwrights

One of the things I’ve LOVED about our first Heal the Divide residency is how unique each of our playwright’s voices have been.  Including their beautiful, powerful, moving, short plays has been an honor!  We are gearing up for our second Residency, and I’m seriously excited about each of our new playwrights!  But before I tell you all about them, I’d like to share this final group interview I conducted with Mikki, Diana, Jen, Taijee, and David.

Q- What was surprising to you about writing for (or reading) Heal the Divide?

David — I came in with just one idea, but of course knew I’d be writing three plays. So what’s surprising is the wealth of things to respond to; it’s alarming to live in the time we live in, but it does provide a lot of stuff to draw from.

Jen — I am surprised at how optimistic and hopeful the project has made me feel. Also, how joyful both writing plays and reading the other plays has been.

Mikki — How each playwright is speaking from their local perspective in some fashion, and the national implications are so evident.

Diana — I am surprised at how easily the work came, and how much all the writers are responding to. There is so much material to work with. Our society seems to be at a tipping point.

Taijee — I was so happy when reviewing my work to see how much I observed in just watching people! I loved hearing all of the different voices in the writings of everyone involved! It was very worthwhile!

Q- Have you found yourself reading more local news or eavesdropping on neighbors in a deeper way?

Taijee — I definitely find myself eavesdropping a lot more.  I find that whenever I travel, someone and/or something that someone has said, always catches my ear.

David — So, a thing about living where I live (NYC) and taking the transportation I do (the subway) is that I am constantly bombarded by the close proximity of other voices. I don’t know that I’m listening MORE, but I am definitely hearing.

Mikki — I love eavesdropping on my neighbors! But only to the extent that I can hear them from my porch. I live in an area densely populated by retirees, and they have a lot of opinions—and a lot of time to opine! My favorite thing is listening to one person argue why Hillary should go to jail and the other piping up about pussy-grabbing. To each other.  As if this is how we find common ground. This is what our discourse has devolved into. No high powered anyone is going to jail, and pussies are for grabbing. In case you hadn’t heard.

Jen — I am also a total eavesdropper. I always have been. I’ve noticed folks have become very reactive these days. Also, I think folks are listening closely now.

Diana — I have listened to a lot. In my building there have been marriages and friendships that have broken up due to the current situation. As a matter of fact, my DACA play came from a situation I overheard. People are talking about these issues, out loud. Americans are both comfortable with, and repelled by confessional conversations and it seems like we are hearing a lot of it.

Q- Where have you been looking for inspiration?

Taijee — I think about some of the people I grew up with and some of the stories that stuck with me involving them.  It helps me draw from that dark place inside of me that still needs healing. Writing helps me to do that.

David — Oh, God, I love and bless Wonkette. They take NO PRISONERS, whereas I tend–at least in my writing–to want to explore all sides of character. Twitter and the NY Times are constantly throwing divisions that need healing in my face.

Mikki — I try to look to everyday people for inspiration. When a news story crosses my path, it’s often something I found on Fark or Reddit (and then proceed to try and suss out the veracity of the story). I like those types of places to mine for “news” because of the collective consciousness it seems to be born of. If it’s lies and subterfuge, the readership poke holes in it pretty fast. NPR is my usual go-to for news when I’m looking for substance.

Jen — It’s not about me. Inspiration finds me, and I get out of the way. Usually, at some point, there’s one thing that makes the whole piece cohesive.

Diana — It’s pouring out of me. I’m a political junkie, and the drugs have been so bad lately.

Q- What would you like to see happen as a result of your Heal the Divide residency?

Taijee — If I could just touch one person and inspire them to do what they love by overcoming the divide, that would be good enough.

David — I would loooooove to see these plays, all 15 of them, combined in a reading series or something. That would be so exciting, to see our wildly different voices bumping up against each other and soaring together. Because so far the plays feel harmonious and utterly distinct. Really exciting.

Mikki — I hope it encourages more people to blaze an art-filled path towards a better world.

Jen — I want to second what Taijee, David, and Mikki said. I’m awful at being result-oriented. Right now, I’m focused on process.

Diana — I hope it encourages people to write their way out, to quote Hamilton. To use their brains to find solutions to the pain instead of violence.

Q- One of the goals of this project is to bring disparate communities together by exposing them to plays inspired by each playwright’s community. How do you see theatre affecting/interacting with audiences to affect change?

Taijee — TIP Harris, a rapper, answered a similar question that involved his and other artists lyrics and their effect on the communities that listen to it.  His response was, “If you want to change the message of the song, change the environment of its origin.” I believe the theatre can do the same thing.  Instead, we change the environment by letting people know what the message is upfront and exposing them to the truths in which they, and by they I do mean all of us, choose to want to hide.

Mikki — I think the compelling thing about theater is it goes unchanged in how it can reach right into an audience member-or actor for that matter-no matter the era. If an issue is playing out in front of someone, just absorbing the story gives them space to feel it from a different perspective. It’s literally the incarnation of “I never really thought of it that way.”

Jen — When I think about work that has affected me and changed my perspective, I doubt very highly that the writer set out with the intention of rocking Jen’s world. However, I think those works contain a lot of truth and commitment to that truth.

Diana — I hope theatres can get past the radicalization of Spanish, and embrace this new majority minority. I hope they can be brave and learn to hear new words without feeling excluded and thereby excluding in the process.

David — The great goal for me is to see great diversity on stage but also in the audience. And then to encourage continued interaction after the play is over — to urge people to discuss what they’ve seen, what they feel. So it’s as much about the extratheatrical experience as the theatrical one from lights up to lights down.

Did you have a favorite play in this series?  If so, what about the play made it stand out to you?

Diana — The play I wrote after Charlottesville (Rally), started out with anger towards the young white woman, and every rewrite I was filled with more and more compassion for her situation. It forced me into her shoes, and I learned about her. That was powerful. To get past initial impressions and move towards compassion.

David — Mikki’s Joe Arpaio play (The Reality) really killed me, in the very best way. Just gutting. So, so powerful.

Taijee — I was very surprised how far, Between Love and Hate, went for me. To see students and faculty interested in my work was very moving for me. I look forward to the years to come.

Jen — I don’t have one favorite play either written by me or one of the other writers. For me, the joy of the project was its variety. I also enjoyed reading the new plays every week and being impressed by everyone’s range and creativity.

Mikki — Let me break the rules. There were a few plays that stood out-and by stood out, I mean they had me up at night thinking. They were: Boxes by Jen Huszcza-the way she used movement to speak was so powerful. Rally by Diana Burbano-the image of a child in a klans robe just tied me up in knots. Swing Low by Taijee Bunch was a trip into the first terror some of us ever know in life. And Meanings Of Love by David Hilder catches you completely off-guard with the line ‘don’t assume’…whew. Powerhouses. I enjoyed reading all of the resident’s works, but those really stood out to me.

Q- Now that the first residency is over, do you have any advice for other playwrights who want to write plays from/about their own communities but maybe aren’t sure how to start?

Diana — Write! Scraps of conversations, monologues, devise pieces with community. The stories are there, they just need to be given permission to be born.

David — YES, what Diana said. Consecrate words to page. Build. Make.

Taijee — Definitely agree with Diana! Write your heart out! Be honestly sincere! Don’t be afraid to live in the uncomfortable!

Jen — Don’t be afraid (like Taijee said) of writing something imperfect. Also, maybe as a starting point, think about what the word, Community, means to you.

Mikki — Poking around the local theater and library are good starting places where like minds can be found. Collaborate. This is something we can all take part in. Write. Go get it.

Q- Any parting words you’d like to share with Heal the Divide fans?

Diana — May we all find the joy we need and see hope in the cracks.

David — Thank you. I hope we all find ways to honor each other’s inherent humanity.

Taijee — Thank you to everyone who took the time out to read our plays! It means so much! Keep striving hard and seek a life useful to create harmony among all peoples.

Jen — There are fans? Hello, I wish you ease.

Mikki — Thank you for reading our work and for showing interest in the project. Three cheers for peace and goodness!

Thank you again to our FABULOUS playwrights!  Thanks for your support and engagement with this project.  We look forward to sharing more socially conscious new works with you, beginning in November!

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Heal the Divide: Dreaming, by Diana Burbano

Heal The Divide, Plays

Every week we will be sharing new plays by our Heal the Divide playwrights.  This week’s play is Dreaming, by Long Beach playwright Diana Burbano .


The ending of DACA, and the lack of response to Puerto Rico, made me want to dig deeper into stories of the immigrant community.  I recently met a woman, a beautiful Mexican woman who is a jazz singer, who shared with me heartbreaking stories of how she had been treated as a Mexican in America. How her humanity was questioned because she worked minimum wage or under the table jobs. I had another friend who recently saw her daughters fiancé off to basic training. He assumed that of course he would be naturalized, because he was willing to die for his adopted country. He had been singled out by recruiters because he was a poor undocumented Latino. I put the stories together, and it became a short story of a mother saying goodbye to her child.


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Heal the Divide: Boxes, by Jen Huszcza

Blog, Heal The Divide, Plays

Every week we will be sharing new plays by our Heal the Divide playwrights.  This week’s play is Boxes, by Los Angeles playwright Jen Huszcza.


It took me several drafts to get to the play below. The image of boxes fighting for space came to me after Charlottesville. I had also been reading Jeremiah Moss’s Vanishing New York about the gentrification of New York City in the twenty-first century.

At first, I had the boxes talking, but then I realized what they were saying was redundant. The gestures were what I needed. This is the first time I’ve ever put charts in a play.

Since this is the last play of the cycle, I wish to thank Tiffany and Heal the Divide for letting me react to the news cycle in my own way. I want to thank my fellow playwrights whose work delighted me and challenged me.

Peace.

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Heal the Divide: Swing Low, by Taijee Bunch

Blog, Heal The Divide, Plays

Every week we will be sharing new plays by our Heal the Divide playwrights.  This week’s play is a monologue titled Swing Low, by Southern Arkansas University student Taijee Bunch, a playwright from Lonoke, AR.


I wrote this piece because I wanted to continue on with the trend of breaking the barriers of stereotypes in my community. A huge one that included myself, was that there aren’t many positive male figures in the stereotyped black home. I feel that this was a sensitive area for me and the men in my community. I actually didn’t have a strong relationship with my dad until I was much older and I grew to understand and appreciate him, however a lot of families aren’t that lucky. I hope that this piece will inspire black men to see that there definitely needs to be a change in the way we see ourselves and how others see us.


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Heal the Divide: The Weather Today, by David Hilder

Heal The Divide, Plays

Every week we will be sharing new plays by our Heal the Divide playwrights.  This week’s play is The Weather Today, by David Hilder, a playwright from NYC, NY. 


In this piece — which, yes, I wrote while in London (today) — I wanted to step back from everything and look at conversation, that lost art I so often miss in political discourse. I started out thinking about the weather and ended up with some sort of neo-Socratic dialogue, which wasn’t my aim, but that’s the great thing about writing: Being surprised.


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