Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sharon Bridgforth Interview - March 15, 2006

Sharon Bridgforth, writer/performance artist/activist

Sharon Bridgforth, born on May 15, 1958 in Chicago, Illinois

Interviewed on March 15, 2006 by Ana-Maurine Lara

What are some defining moments in your younger years that have had a major impact on who you are today?

The first defining moment was when my mother decided to move from Chicago to L.A. I was three (She grew up in Memphis, got pregnant when she was 20 – she says they kicked her out, they say she left. You know how that goes.) We ended up in Chicago where her mother was. My grandmother enjoyed a good party & a good drink and apparently my mother and her roommate thought my grandmother was paying the rent and she wasn’t. So actually we were evicted. And on the day that we got evicted my great aunt & uncle were visiting and we got in the car with them and ended up in L.A. cause that’s where they were living. So that was an incredible set of opportunities/challenges/circumstances. I was born in Cook County hospital; my mother was struggling. To be a single parent in Chicago with an alcoholic mother was probably a lot more difficult than being a single parent in L.A. because of the weather obviously, but also because we had a little more support in terms of other family being there. By then she [my mother] had two sets of aunt’s and uncles in LA and we had family in Fresno. During that time period black Americans had migrated to many places from the South and in LA there were a lot of black people from the South. The Easy Rawlins series – Walter Moseley does an incredible job of documenting that time period. So my mother would have been one of those people in that time period that he writes about in that LA – which is one of the reasons I love that series. So I grew up in South Central LA and even though it was LA it was very much like living in a little southern town because all the black Americans were from the South. So the sensibilities and the protocols, so to speak, had a southern tint to it. I knew one black American person from LA., of course her parents were from the south, all the other black Americans that I knew were from somewhere else. I didn’t know other black kids that were born there. So that says a whole lot. But us moving to LA meant that I grew up in LA – my mother raised me with her having a certain kind of hope for having a better life. The promise and possibilities of sunny Southern California and hopes and dreams, like her peers, all this kind of colored the experience of being there. And it was fun. And LA is a huge city. The LA I grew up in was much more segregated than it is now. When I was growing up, the black American area was one area, the Chicano LA which of course was much older, was one area. You had an afro Caribbean type area, Korea town, China town, like all these very, very, very clear lines – parts of town that were very Jewish. Class-wise, in ethnic neighborhoods the class lines kind of blended over.

Cause everyone’s living together?

Sharon: Yeah basically. There were certain areas where black people with money were more prone to live, but it was inside of a black community. I grew up taking the bus to get to where I needed to be, from a very young age. So as I went through school my bus ride got longer and longer cause I was going to school further and further away. Eventually for high school I went to school in Echo Park. So from South Central to Echo Park was a two hour bus ride. I experienced the world and it was magnificent. I think that had everything to do with how I see myself and how I imagine and hope for the world to be. It was a very good thing in many ways. And you know of course everybody – the Indigenous people, they murdered and maimed and killed them right off the bat – and then you have your Chicano communities and people that have been there forever. Other than that folks were from all over the world and everybody was there hoping for the same thing: for a better life, for financial freedom & security, for education for their children and all of that. So that was the constant in the bus ride, so to speak. The languages, the sensibilities, the protocols, the music, the food, the smells changed drastically from neighborhood to neighborhood & at the same time (I was born in 1958) so I was a little girl when the Watts Riots happened. And we lived not to far from where the riots took place, so you could see the smoke, you could hear the sirens, national guard all of that and the explosion of the black power movement was part of the reality of things, too. The brown berets and all that. It was an exciting time.

It was all part of your reality

Yeah and then Hollywood. Rock and Roll – and when I say that I mean it as a black art form all of that. I think that was a major thing. It was good in a lot of ways. It also created in both my mother and I a sense of mourning for home. A sense of displacement, to some degree. Me sensing through her a feeling that we were...we were not in exile, but that we were very far from the home place. That there was not a sense that this is our home. It was more a sense of “this is where we’re going to make it. We’re here and we’re going to do better because we’re here.” So a sense of longing. A sense of displacement to some degree. A sense of loss, a sense of grief and all of those things later became really important in my writing. That I was able to access those things later became really important for me. So that was a really incredibly important time. And then I think for me the next huge thing that comes to mind at the moment is when I actually...I spent summers in Memphis, so I did get to go to the homeplace. I went to kindergarten and first grade in Memphis and I went back almost every summer until I was a teenager. So being able to go and connect with the big family and to be inside of what was home and to be... I was the youngest of all the be the spoiled one inside of all that was really important and again later fed my work because I learned how to tell stories from being in the room with them. And my mother and her friends, too because they carried that with them but the sense of family, the sense of blues as a way of life and I mean that in a positive way, in the sense of how to survive, the medicine of laughter and desire and knowing who we were and what our stories were, I was able to be grounded in that because my mother sent me back. Part of the reason she sent me back was that she was trying to do things for herself so that she could get better jobs.

246 And then the next big thing for me is that I went to high school in Echo Park. And I chose that school because they said they had karate and I ain’t never taken no karate class to this day! It was nice in the brochure, but there wasn’t no karate class in there. But it was Catholic school. I went to Catholic school almost the whole time, starting in fourth grade. This school was in Echo Park, it was all girls. Latinas from everywhere – Cuba, Costa Rica, Mexico, LA, Panama, St Lucia. It was so much flavor. There were not very many black Americans and there was one white girl in the whole school for the whole four years I was there – so you know that was a story. Indigenous girls, just everybody. It was so fantastic. So I was able to move in and out of their homes and really just experience how much we are the same, despite what ever language differences might be in the home, or the particulars of culture that might be in the home, we really were just very much the same. It was all about love and everybody was just trying to make it. And I had so much fun, I just had the best time and made deep, deep, deep, deep friendships. Partied hard and played sports and did all that stuff. That was really important because it gave me a sense of belonging. And it was a small school so I was able to, not only really, really truly, truly belong, but I was able to explore the world in this place. And I knew I was loved, and I could just be myself.

You mean in LA in general, or in your school?

In my school. It was a fantastic experience. I don’t think the education was all that great, and that was of course why my mom sent me to Catholic School. Looking back what I realize is that it was a working class school. I was on the volleyball team. We played on concrete, whereas the other schools they had indoor gyms and all this fancy shit. But we didn’t care. We were very happy. It was very important. And then again, later, that is the context that I create my work in. The sense of being part of the world, with the sense of a burning drive for justice, and civil liberty for everybody so that was pretty incredible.

I imagine living in segregated LA and going to school in Echo Park where so many things were different might have led you to question some things as to whether they were true or not.

Not then. Much, much later. Then I was too in it. And I also did not have any political language at all and no context for that. Or sexuality or anything. Now I know that a lot of girls were dykes. I was a big old dyke but I didn’t know it and I had no politicized conversations going on anywhere around me. And at home my mother was very focused on trying to survive. Trying to make sure I had what I needed, trying to work, pay the bills, you know and it was hard and it must have been terrifying cause she was alone. Even though she had some family there she really was a single parent in the true sense of the word. So I think a lot of her focus was on providing and on struggling to just make it. And I don’t think she had any political language or anything. She still kind of doesn’t really move that way but I think her sense was that she didn’t want to be in the confined, contained spaces that she had grown up in. She was supportive of a bigger world. So it was not till much much later that I even noticed some of the boxes around race/ethnicity and class. In terms of sexuality and gender I think I was always out of the box in my house, you know, cause I was more like a little boy than a girl, always.

Are you the oldest of your mom’s children?

I’m her only child, and my father has four kids but I didn’t meet them until I was 16 so I didn’t really grow up with them. If anything I knew that I was not a regular girl and that how I felt was not what I saw around me. And so that was probably a place where I did question. But you know, even in my school - now I know that a lot of the girls were gay, were lesbians – nobody was talking about that stuff. That wasn’t even a word I knew.

What’s your coming out story or stories?

239 I went to a Catholic college for awhile. I went to St Mary’s in Moraga, California and I graduated 10 years later from Cal State LA, but right after high school me and about 10 of my friends from high school went to St Mary’s. Because the recruiter was cute. That was what we based our decision on. His name is Tom Brown. I still remember Tom. He was just really very handsome and very much trying to help the people and there was a Latino Brother (as in man of the cloth) also at the school that was very much about not just recruiting folks of color, but help us stay in. And they would do wonderful things like have retreats for us and stuff like that. But still none of us graduated from there. We couldn’t take the shock. Moraga was too different from LA. And first of all we didn’t have no direction and no goals. Nobody was talking to us about what we wanted to do with our lives, we hadn’t even thought about that. So we were just wild party girls and we went to the school that was in an extremely wealthy little area in northern California, so not only the cultural shock, but the shock of the landscape, cause it was very much in the country and the class shock and then the shock of college and the fact that we weren’t grounded in ourselves – we weren’t really able to take in any direction cause we hadn’t had any up until that point. So none of us graduated from there, that’s long story short.

258 I hung out in northern California for awhile. I was 22 when I got married. I actually got married in LA. My daughter was born in 1982, her father and I met through mutual friends. We really were like best friends but I thought, cause again there was no talk about sexuality, I knew I was different but I couldn’t put it together that I liked women. That wasn’t even...even though I always had crushes on women for as long as I could remember, it did not occur to me that it was something that I could do. So I thought, he’s my best friend, I love him, and yeah - let’s get married. And so we got married, and at that time we were both born-again Christians and the thing was you couldn’t fornicate. So that had a lot to do with it. So, we got married in June and by October one I found out I was pregnant, so then that changed everything. So it was at that moment when I knew that I was pregnant that I really, really had to take a look at myself. And one of the first things that came clear to me was that I liked women. I really wanted to be with a woman. It was a long process to get from that realization to being with a woman. I knew that I needed to divorce and all that. It took a little while, but by the time my daughter was six months old, me and her father were separated and at least going through the divorce. I went back to school, finished school. He and I co-raised her. It was set up in different ways at different times during her life, but after we got over the bumps of divorce, we became really close. And he actually became one of my best friends and his family and my family, we’re all still family. He passed not too long ago, but we really did make family together. I miss him terribly. By the time she [my daughter] was 6 months old I knew I wanted to be with women, but then it was about 2 years before I actually was with a woman.

307 What happened was, I was writing. I knew I wanted to be a writer. I was studying writing in school. But I had a kid and I was on welfare and trying to figure out how I was going to take care of this child. The Urban League was offering computer programming classes so I went through a summer course and in that course there was this woman that later became my first girlfriend. It was two years from the time that I was separated to me getting with a woman. And by the time I got to that I think I had just processed so much that I was just out. I was just ready. She however was not. So that relationship did not last very long, but it was important because it was my first relationship with a woman and it was clear to me that this was who I was and this was what I was going to do. And after I broke up with her, that didn’t last very long, I ended up at Jewel’s Catch One – Jewels is on Pico near Crenshaw in LA. and its in the neighborhood and in fact one of my best friends from high school lived down the street, so in fact, all this time I coulda been going to Jewels but I didn’t know it was there.

324 The first time I went into Jewels - some gay men that I worked with took me in there cause they were like, ooh you know child you need a lover. Cause I didn’t know any gay people, I didn’t know no lesbians, I didn’t know nothin’ and I was working, a single parent and all that - so they took me to Jewels, and when I walked in it was ohmygod. It was another one of those moments when everything changed. It was the first time that I felt that being who I was was right. It was like church. You come in and you go up these stairs and there are all these black people, men and women. And in those days, I don’t know how Jewels is now, but in those days you were there to dance. And it was house music, the old, real house music and so people would be in shorts, you know very casual – in t-shirts or jeans and whatever cause you went there to dance – and it was open all night. So it was men and women and drag queens and everybody, and in the main area, a huge room with house music and lights flashing and all those black bodies and it was really a spiritual experience. So everything changed. And then I met the person who would be my second girlfriend there.

353 By that time my daughter was a little girl, and I don’t know what she said to my mother but she said something to my mother and then my mother calls me at work and says “are you a bulldagger?” So I said yeah, cause I was like, how could she not know. I just didn’t think, so I was like, yeah and then that began a 10 year process of war with my mother. And then after, through the course of fighting with her, I did not care what anybody else thought cause that fight was so hard and so rough and so terrible that it really was a blessing. Because, what other people thought – there was no room for it. It didn’t matter. And my daughter has only known me to be gay, so that has never been a problem. And because I wanted my daughter to grow up with my mother, I stuck in and hung in there and eventually we worked it out.

Ten years later?

372 Yeah ten years later. It was a long fight. Oh ms. mother.

What does it mean for you to be an artist – a writer – in the world?

386 Well for me initially I started doing it just because I had to. It was like breathing. I’ve always been a reader. So when I was a kid and be on the bus I just read voraciously – just everything so I was always a reader. But when I was 15 I started writing. And it was just, you know being hormonally poisoned and just trying to survive my own emotions. It was actually the Bible. I was reading the Songs of Solomon and Psalms and I just thought they were so pretty. And there’s this one thing, I forget from which it’s from, but “for everything there is a season” you know it comes with this whole list of things. And I just thought it was so pretty. So I started writing. I then saw writing as something that could be transformative for me emotionally so I had been doing it for a really long time. Initially I was doing it for myself, and then I studied it in school cause I figured I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have a lot of stuff, but for my daughter, the least I could give her was the opportunity to dream and if I didn’t dream myself, I couldn’t be a good example. I wanted to be a writer, I just didn’t know how to imagine it. Hadn’t been around people that were doing that. Hadn’t been to theatre. I think the first time I saw a play I was 20-something. I was just trying to find my way.

421 And somewhere along the way, probably around the time I was in my early 30s it all clicked together. So everything came together and so now what I can say, is that it’s what I’m here in the world to do. It’s my gift that I have been given. It’s what I can contribute. I see it as a spiritual responsibility; I see it as an Ancestral calling. I see it as a privilege. I see it as a way for me to honor not only the reality of my life and experiences, but my mother’s and all those who came before us. A specific thing I have been given is the opportunity to tell the stories of the Ancestors and to keep their voices alive. I see it as service. It’s what I’m here to offer in service to the Ancestors, to the Universe, to humanity and to my own destiny. So I take it very seriously.

How would you say your work is influenced by who you are?

I spent so much time finding my way and really I was just being guided to get to the right place at the right time.

B 000

Now what I know is that life and art are not separate. As you know, my work lives in a Jazz aesthetic, so it is all about the work being work of spirit and work of spiritual revolution, so the place you work from is from inside your own self, so everything impacts and informs and dictates what I write, how I move through the world with it, how I get to the next moment. And that includes all of the influences, so my Ancestors, my family, my community, my mentors, the people I mentor and my life experiences, each moment contains everything and determines how the next moment unfolds.

How do you define success as a writer and artist?

019 That is a very important question. That is an excellent question. I had to tackle that question some years ago. What I came to is that this is my life, so it is not about the next gig, the next published thing. It is not about money and awards. This is my life. And on top of that it’s part of my ancestral legacy, so I am being given their stories. I have the responsibility of their influence as I move forward. So what I have to do is create a life that nurtures and supports and provides opportunity for me to do what I’m here to do. When I do that in a way that is healthy, that, to me, is success. When I create a life that allows me to have quality time with people and to take care of my health and to have joy in my work and to fully realize my artistic projects and vision, that’s success. So how I’m living is a reflection of my success. And when I am successful money, opportunity, support flows to me organically. I started a touring company in the early-nineties—the root wy’mn theatre company. We were touring and it was wonderful. We had so much fun and we went so many places. We were doing very well. It was quite an amazing thing. It was something that I just started and didn’t know any better. I worked with some incredible performers and just really had a lot of support from around the country and we got to do a lot of things. But I began to realize that I was edgy and irritable and pissy a lot of times and tired and burned out. I just kind of didn’t even like myself. I was exhausted in a way that was really bad. I was exhausted to the bone all the time. I realized that I was always living in the future. If you’re touring, you send stuff out and you start having conversations about things that are going to happen in a year or two, the same with grants and mounting shows. So I realized that I was always in the future. I wasn’t even in the present moment. I didn’t realize how profound an effect this was having on me. I wasn’t really doing my work because I was doing my work--the things we were touring were things that I had written, so it was my vision and it was my words, but I kind of wasn’t really writing. I wasn’t able to do everything I needed to do to keep the tours going and write to my full capacity. So a combination of situations happened. The thing that affected it the most was that the performer I worked most closely with decided to move from Austin to Los Angeles. So that created an almost-impossible situation for me in terms of creating shows because of how we worked. So I had to re-evaluate the whole thing. That’s when I realized I wasn’t in the present moment. I was making myself sick—

from exhaustion?

068 And from being out of alignment with what I’m supposed to do—which is write. So I was doing all this stuff but I was not writing from a place of full power and potential. Once the dust settled and I figured everything out I realized that first I had to create a life based in the present moment and it had to be a life of health and joy and love and abundance and creativity. And it had to be based on the fact that I was writing. So as soon as I did that I got the publishing deal with Lisa [C. Moore] (RedBone Press), which was the thing that I had wanted deeply. I really wanted to be published.

As I’ve been talking to different people one thing that’s become very apparent to me is that all throughout the country there have been these pockets of amazing work happening out of the vision of us, of who we are in the world, so I would like to hear more about “the root wy’mn theatre company” if you want to talk more about it. And if you don’t that’s okay too. I would love to know what your vision was with that and what you were doing. You mentioned that you were producing works that you created. How did you actually get pen to paper and that onto, what did that look like?

087 By that time I had had an experience in theater. And when I had that experience in theater—Word Of Mouth Women’s Theatre Company (Austin, TX) produced one of my pieces. I didn’t even know it was a one-act, but it was a one-act. That experience allowed me to see what I was really doing and then once I knew what I was really doing, then I was able to build on that. So what I knew after that experience of seeing my work performed in theater, I knew that I had a particular vision for my work and that I had to make it happen myself, because I didn’t know who else to turn to at the time. I just didn’t have a model for it at the time. My idea was that visual art, movement, voice, music, dramatic interpretation and words all tell the story. That each medium should be responsible, be a part of the articulation of the story. So the work was text-based, but the other mediums were critical to how the story got told. I was just very fortunate. Austin, Texas is a place where people are accessible. I ended up being able to work with Marsha Ann Gomez who is one of my mentors and we were just like sisters for a while. She passed. Marsha was a sculptor. She was also a human rights activist, one of the founders of the Indigenous Women’s Network, environmental activist and just an incredible visual artist. And Marsha had a lot of language around using art as a medium for social justice. And she was from Louisiana and was crazy. So I could just hang with her and I just learned everything. I asked Marsha to work with me with the theater company and she looked at the script and she said, “Girl, you’re just trying to pray.” So she said, “I’m going to make the set an altar, a living altar and the performers will just perform inside of this living altar because what you’re doing is praying”.

114 Michelle Parkerson, who’s a fantastic filmmaker, performer, writer, Renaissance woman and now a professor at Temple. I asked her to come in and direct the first piece, so Michelle came in to work with us on our first show (“love rituals & rage”). Omi, Dr. Joni Jones was actually the first person we worked with. I asked her to help us, to take us through some kind of creative process, because what I knew was that the actors needed to collaborate in bringing the script to life. I did not want a process where I was telling them what to do. I asked Omi to do some intensive workshops with us so that we could all learn how to do that, so that the actors would be more like collaborators instead of people who are told what the vision is. One of the performers (Anoa Monsho) in the early stage of the theater company was a dancer and so she did a series of dance workshops for us. So you put it all together in the pot and you get gumbo. Michele Parkerson directed the first piece which was called ‘”love rituals & rage” (1993). I produced the first show in Austin (at the Vortex Theatre) and some folks came from other places and we got support from some of the presenters here in town and we got booked in other cities and the next thing I knew we were on the road. That set-up, then became the vision that I worked from. The performers never left the stage. The stage was a living altar. I saw the performers as collaborators. Voice, movement, music, text, ritual, dramatic interpretation and visual art all was part of how the story got told. After the first tour, I was extremely tired from managing people, because that’s what you do. So the first show had I think 4 performers (Arimma Matlock Abdullah, Kaci Fannin, Anoa Monsho and Sonja Parks) and myself and our manager (Lori Wilson), so the next show and the one after that I made one-woman shows. Sonja Parks was the one woman that I worked with. We toured for a few years together. That helped me to really know what I was doing. It also helped me to be in a position to meet people that were the folks that had broken ground in what I was doing. I met Daniel Alexander Jones who had come to Austin to do something and had heard about root wy’mn and we talked. And then through him I met Laurie Carlos and of course, she’s one of the foremothers of this whole thing. And ongoing conversations with Dr. Jones and many other people. Once I started getting mentorship, being able to walk with people, I grew strong and clear. I’m proud of what we did with root wy’mn. I think we were very successful in what we set out to do and in what we did, but I still think that was very much a learning curve for me and it was trial by error and fire. But it was critical and it was also experimental in terms of the discovery of what it was, but it led me to the people that knew. And then eventually I was able to work with Daniel, and I worked with Dr Jones the whole time and eventually Laurie Carlos directed my work and then everything changed. And then, I became the writer that I was really capable of being. So what had happened was,...

I first started working with Laurie in 1998. It was a process for me to learn what I needed to learn; I see it as a mentorship process. In Jazz you are mentored by walking with people, so by just being at her side, by having her direct my shows, by being able to talk with her and hear her and see her work, that’s how I learned. It was really more like 2002 that for me the break happened. That’s what Dr Jones calls it – she calls it the break. She’s writing about the jazz aesthetic and right now she’s talking about the break. It’s a Legba moment. You literally break open and you have a Divine opportunity to make a choice about how you’re going to move forward with your work. And so you can either do what you know or you can go into the unknown which is more scary, more rigorous, and more dangerous in many ways and of course that’s where you get your chops - when you take that road. Luckily I took that road. And ironically it was a piece I was writing about being on the bus in LA that that happened in. The piece is called con flama. Laurie directed that piece. I got a Theatre Communications Group/National Endowment for the Arts grant as a playwright – I got $20,000 and all I had to do was write. It was the first time I didn’t have four jobs and write, tour etc. So I used that TCG grant to write con flama as a playwright in residence at (The old) Frontera @ Hyde Park Theatre where the Artistic Director at the time was, Vicky Boone. Frontera produced con flama with Laurie as director; Lourdes Perez & Annette D’Armata composers; Dr Jones as dramaturg; Leilah Stewart set designer and Florinda [Bryant], Sonja Parks, Ana Perea, Zell Miller 111 as performers. It was just incredible. I created a good draft during that process. I completed another draft during the process of a reading that Dr Jones directed (at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, San Antonio, TX) and I was able to finish the script after a full production – an equity show at Penumbra Theatre Company. Laurie was the director (she also was responsible for making sure the piece was produced); Lourdes Perez & Annette D’Armata worked with us again as composers; the performers were Djola Branner, Aimee Bryant, Zell Miller 111, Mankwe Ndosi, Sonja Parks, Ana Perea and Amber Sunshower Smith. Laurie worked with me that whole time and just basically broke my ass down. She worked me, and she worked that piece and she did it with love and respect and fierceness and at the end of that process I had done growed up.

I would love to hear more about your writing process.

237 It’s different now. I don’t know what it is right now. I know that I am driven by feelings, I feel I’m driven by the ancestors. I know that there’s something they want me to write about but I don’t know what it is. I know if I just stay open and look for what’s in my present moment it will eventually become clear. So part of what I try to do is get seated in whatever I’m feeling and then I try to match music to that and photographs and usually I read a lot of biographies and autobiographies. love conjure/blues, I read about the lives of: Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Jimmy Scott, James Brown, so many people. I read a lot of books and in each of those stories, incredible artists, incredible lives, incredible parts of our history – in each I found something that either kept me inspired and determined or became a kernel of something that later became a story.

How’s that different from your process when you first started writing?

Because I know how to facilitate it better now. It used to be that I thought I had was almost like I was a method I had to live the drama. It was terrible. Yeah – I used to drink. I don’t drink anymore but I would live the drama and I would have all this drama and confusion, craziness going on all the time and I would just be out there and then I would write because I would be heartbroken or in some kinda swirl and I would use that to write. Then once I would get inside of a piece, then I would eventually slow down and then my process would be cleaning the house, being quiet, creating time, you know all that. But to get inside of it, I would create, essentially, drama.

To get to that emotional state.

281 Yeah. Now I don’t do that. Now I try to feed the feeling through music, through reading, through conversation, through looking at photographs. I don’t have to be a method writer anymore.

Do you have any questions for me or anything else you want to share.

I think that I should talk about the fact that I had cancer. I am a recovering alcoholic. I think I should talk about that, too. Both of those things have to do with my creative process. How I was living, and how I had to change. I have what I think is a chemical imbalance and I think that growing up in LA and being wild and fast just knowing how to get around and being free in a way because we were in a large city. I knew how to get around in the city from a very young age and I was just wild and there wasn’t the village to keep an eye on me. My father’s from Louisiana, my mother’s from Memphis. I think the Louisiana in me contributed to the chemical imbalance.

How do you mean that?

Well while it can be something that is magnificent something that it drives you to be highly creative, extremely social and very productive. It can also mean that you tend towards excess. I was living in excess and part of it is that I think for so long I didn’t have any direction or language for where I was or what I felt and then by the time I started writing and became a method writer then that translated into me being in the bars and me being wild and just drinking – self medicating

All of the intensity...

Yeah – it was just a lot of intensity and I didn’t know what to do with it. It was like being nervous all the time and excited all the time and so I just drank. And I had a good time, I wrote a lot of good things. I have great memories but I never need to repeat that. I’m grateful I survived. I haven’t drank for 12 years. It was my desire to not drink that led me to my spiritual self, essentially. Because I wanted to not drink so bad, it had gotten to the point where I ...cause I was functional...knew I could not reach my full potential as a writer if I kept doing that. That became the thing. Cause I knew that the ancestors were talking to me. Cause it used to be that I would literally hear the stories, they would just visit. And I knew that I couldn’t fully receive what they were trying to give to me if I kept doing what I was doing. It also had gotten to the point where I was feeling sick but they couldn’t find anything wrong with me. It took me a few years to actually stop drinking. But the desire to stop just really broke me down and made me very surrendered and that was really important. And then came the cancer. I knew something was wrong with from as early as 1995, but I didn’t get diagnosed till February 2005. As early as 1995 I was going to different doctors, I got all kinds of tests, and every time I got a physical I would say cancer ran in the family, that I was afraid that I had it. But the doctors thought it was allergies, cause you know in Texas allergies can make you feel very sick, and they weren’t finding anything and then I went through a period of not having insurance. In 2002 or so I got a MAP card (in Texas it’s kind of like city assistance for health coverage) and I went in and got a physical and told the doctor what I always tell them, which is cancer runs in the family I don’t feel right, I feel like something was wrong, I afraid it’s cancer. And she was so rude and so mean to me, and the wait in the waiting area and in the cold exam room had been so long, that I didn’t want to go back. I’ve thought about it a lot and I think that one of the things that happened was that it was a city clinic, a lot of people that go there don’t speak English, a lot of people that go there are people who have been manipulated and trained to think that the doctor is god, so people don’t question the doctor. And you’re kind of at the mercy of these people, and they know it. And so I went in there telling her what I needed and she did not like that. And so...

God forbid there be an empowered patient.

405 Okay? That Doctor did a physical which included a PAP smear but to find out the results you have to make an appointment to see the Doctor. Which means that you have to wait hours and you have to see the awful people, again. I didn’t want to see that doctor and I didn’t want to go through all that again so I asked if I could just pick my results up. And they were like, basically, yeah you can pick your results up from the Medical Records office but only if you pay $20 plus something a page and I was like `I don’t have any money. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m at this clinic.’ They were like `sorry, you have to pay.’ So I was like, `well I can’t pay. Can you mail them?’ They were like, `no’. I was like `umph. Later I returned to get allergy medicine. I returned to change my address. I returned back to Medical Records to try again and they said no again. And I have the documentation from that. Long story short, and don’t you know - and those people never wrote me, they never called me, they never said anything to me when I was in there getting my allergy medicine - that that PAP smear showed cancer. So, it just so happened that...2004-2005 I had insurance for the first time since 1998 (I have been self-employed as an artist since 1998). I was Artistic Director at ALLGO (Austin’s Queer People of Color Organization), I had insurance. I said, I’m gonna get checked from the rooter to the tooter baybay. So I got everything checked. And don’t you know my PAP Smear came back abnormal. They sent me to the gynecologist and then within a couple of months I had a radical hysterectomy.

Tape 2, Side A

Makes you wonder if they want people to die.

000 I know. I was Blessed. I had insurance, I had great doctors. I had a magnificent surgeon. I had a partner. I had great spiritual community. My family and community was supportive. So in a way, it probably was really a blessing because had that happened in 2002, I was not supported enough. It was before my partner and I got together. During that time (2002) checks were not coming on a regular basis. When you’re self-employed you’re getting paid and nine times out of ten you’re doing well, but the checks come when they come. So I was in a situation in 2005 where I knew when the checks were coming and I had insurance. It was a divine opportunity for growth, for clarity, for me to know that I’m loved and taken care of, and for me commit to standing fully in my Divine power. I did try to sue, but the [George W.] Bush administration has made it impossible for people to get any righteous help. I checked with many attorneys and essentially nowadays, to do a malpractice suit – even if you have a good case and mine was a good case – if you ain’t dead or maimed or completely fucked up, at the end of it all, you’re not going to win. Or you’re going to take such a financial risk that it just isn’t worth it. So, all the attorneys that I spoke with told me they felt it was a good case, they felt it was something I should’ve of course be compensated for, but what would happen is that for them to do the case, they would have to put out $40,000 or so in expenses, and if we didn’t win, I’d have to pay them back. So, I just...I did file with the Texas Board of Medical Examiners. They wrote back and said I didn’t have any basis to file a complaint. It’s just infuriating. I at least wanted to file a complaint, to follow through, partially because I know that there are people out there that are going to be going there everyday and there’s no telling what they’re going to be treated like.

And that’s the thing. You had this particular situation, with so many blessings. But for every person who has the ability to deal with it, there are 10 people who don’t. And it’s so deep.

It’s so deep, you know? So, here I am. I’m cancer free. I did not have to have chemo. I feel healthier and better than I ever felt. One of the things that I now know is that I was sick. I was sick for a long time. And I was so exhausted and it’s not normal to be tired like that. I thought it was `oh, I have a big work schedule.’, `I have allergies’. `Drink more coffee and push on.’ That ain’t normal. It is not normal. And so now, I feel better than I have felt for as long as I can remember. I mean I have to be very careful. I’m learning how to create a life that is in filled with Abundance, balance, joy, generosity and gratitude. I feel better than I have felt for as long as I can remember and I now know just how sick I was.


Yeah, it’s really something.

Did that affect your creative process?

Yeah, part of what’s happened – and I think this is why I don’t quite know what my process is now. I’m still in recovery. And also, because I had such a spiritual shift and alignment and just such a radical transformation, I’m just adjusting to a whole lotta things. I’m not quite sure how to facilitate it right now, the creative process. I know that it’s kinda the same. I can tell that it’s time for me to write. The ancestors are talking to me, kinda giving me a nod here and there. I know that I need to read and look at pictures and listen to music and so I’m doing that and have conversations that might spark something, but I don’t have the same attention span. I can’t focus in the same way right now. I know that it’ll all become clear soon. But it’s not clear right now.

Alright. I had another question, but it has gone. Is there anything else you wanted to share.

No. Just that my daughter’s 23 and she’s a performer. And my partner is wonderful and this is a great opportunity. I’m glad you’re doing this.

Thank you. Thank you so much for taking the time. That is so exciting that you’re daughter’s a performer.

Yeah. She’s an exquisite singer and an incredible actor. She graduated from NYU – the Tisch School for Performing Arts, The Lee Strasbourg Studio. She’s amazing. I feel very blessed. Her and I’ve been through a lot. And we support each other, we see who we are. We work together from time to time. We’re very, very different in many ways and it’s cool. I learn a lot from her. Yeah. And my partner, her and I, as I was saying, we’ve worked together for 16 years, she has a wonderful talented daughter that is a dancer. I’ve know her since she was little, so it’s all quite special. My partner and I, we’ve been together since `04 but we’ve worked together for 16 years. So that’s pretty special.

The flow’s there, for sure.


Do you want to say anything about the Austin Project at all, what you’re working on right now?

79 Yeah, yeah – that’d be fun. My partner, who’s Dr. Joni Jones, Omi Osun Olomo, is Associate Director at the Center for African & African American Studies at UT [Austin] and is the producer of The Austin Project. It was her idea to bring artists, scholars, and activists together for a creative process. It turned out that it became women. She started this in 2002. Initially it was going to being open to both men and women, but it turned out that it was women, so it is women scholars, artists, and activists. This is the fourth year that we’ve been doing it. I’m the anchor artist, so I facilitate the creative process. She always brings guests artists in. Laurie Carlos has been a guest artist for all four years. Daniel Alexander Jones, Robbie McCauley, Carl Hancock Rux have been guest artists. Local artists like Zell Miller 111 have done work with us as well. It has been a tremendous experience. We come together for four hour sessions, once a week for 10 weeks or more. We just get inside of a jazz aesthetic, which is about being present, walking together and focusing on a creative conversation that includes personal experiences. At the end of it all, the women present work that they’ve created in the Austin Project. And yeah, we’ll do it again next year. This year, at the end of the Austin Project we’re also going to have a training. I’m going to present, I’ve created a method of facilitating creative writing that I call Finding Voice which is the method that I use during the Austin Project. I’m gonna train the women in that method at the end of it all this year.

Also I want to mention that Wura [-Natasha Ogunji], myself and Krissy [Mahan] are in the process of creating a film of love conjure/blues. The piece will live as a film, and also it will be digital environment that I will read inside of. I am calling it a text installation. So, we’re in the early stages of that. Raising money and planning on shooting a few scenes.

That’s exciting.

Yeah, so I guess there’s a lot going on. And I guess somewhere in the back of my mind or in my consciousness, sub-consciousness, there’s a new story brewing and so I’m looking forward to seeing what that is.

And what the ancestors have to say.

Yeah, yeah- very, very excited.

Well, thank you so much.

Thank you. Thank you.

[End Tape 2, A 127]