(Playwriting) DONJA R. LOVE

(Playwriting) DONJA R. LOVE

Photo by  Brandon Nick

Photo by Brandon Nick

In his recent trilogy The Love*Plays, Afro-Queer playwright Donja R. Love explores issues of queer love at key moments in African-American history. In this interview, he discusses The Love*Plays productions of Sugar in Our Wounds and Fireflies, along with his beginnings as playwright, the challenges of writing a two-character play, and The Each Other Project, an arts and advocacy community he co-founded.

Interview by Tyler Nesler

What attracted you to playwriting? Have you always been interested in writing for the stage, or was there any particular catalyst in your life that drew you to the form?

When I was little I suffered from a severe stutter. I was so embarrassed to talk. So, instead of speaking, I wrote my thoughts, feelings, and conversations down. Writing literally became my voice. I didn’t think much of it, or realize I was exercising my calling, until December 13, 2008 when I was diagnosed HIV+. That’s when I wrote my first play. It was so healing that I’ve been writing ever since.

You’ve received a lot of positive notice for your two recently produced plays Sugar in Our Wounds and Fireflies. These are part of a trilogy that explores black queer history in unexpected places and time periods. Did you start off writing these projects with a thematically unified series in mind, or did that unity fall into place as you worked on these projects?

I had no clue I was writing a trilogy when I wrote the first play, Sugar in Our Wounds, in the beginning of 2016. A few months after writing Sugar, I started thinking about other historical markers in Black History (the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter) and wondered about Queer Love* during those times. After asking myself that, The Love* Plays was born.

Sugar in Our Wounds is about a developing intimate relationship between two male slaves during the Civil War. When you were writing this, which character in the play did you feel closest to? Which character was more difficult for you to render or inhabit?

I felt the closest to Aunt Mama. I grew up with so many women in my life. Aunt Mama felt like those women and the women who came before them. I never had trouble with her language and actions. It flowed so naturally. In terms of the more difficult character, interestingly enough, that was James, the young queer enslaved man. I felt obligated to fully capture his queerness during that time. That was a lot of pressure I put on myself to get him “right.” Honoring his untold humanity was important to me.

Manhattan Theatre Club production of  Sugar in Our Wounds  (2018). Tiffany Rachelle Stewart as Mattie, Chinaza Uche as Henry (rear), Stephanie Berry as Aunt Mama, and Sheldon Best as James. Photo © 2018 by Joan Marcus

Manhattan Theatre Club production of Sugar in Our Wounds (2018). Tiffany Rachelle Stewart as Mattie, Chinaza Uche as Henry (rear), Stephanie Berry as Aunt Mama, and Sheldon Best as James. Photo © 2018 by Joan Marcus

In Sugar in Our Wounds, did you base the burgeoning and ultimately tragic relationship between James and Henry off of any particular historical accounts you’ve read of similar figures? How documented were relationships like this from the period, or are most of these stories lost to history?

The tragedy of James and Henry came from history. It came from how Black bodies were (and still are) treated and the lynching that happened. Queer love, especially among enslaved people, wasn’t documented because of erasure. The closest I got in my research was slave masters and enslaved men. And even those accounts ended tragically, for the enslaved man. Understanding all of this, and how Slavery was rooted in capitalism and creating more slaves to work, it was clear that James and Henry went against the foundation of Slavery. With that in mind, as much as I selfishly wanted otherwise, the ending to their story though tragic was very authentic to the time.

Sugar in Our Wounds features a large mystical tree that speaks and moves and is integral to the story. When you were writing the play, were you at all concerned with the logistics of how such a prop would be built and operated? Fireflies also features rich set and lighting designs. As a newer playwright, have you resisted any tendencies to keep your plays more minimalist or black box out of any possible budget limitations for staging?  

The tree in Sugar become another character — one of the most important characters, when we think of the historical relationship that Black people in America have with trees. The fire/sky in Fireflies seemed like the best way to capture Olivia’s rage and transport us into a time when racially motivated bombings ran rampant. That was all I could think about when writing those plays. I didn’t think twice about being produced. If I can be honest, I never thought these plays would be produced. When I learned that they were it was confirmation that the way these stories were being told is the way they needed to be told.

Your play Fireflies features just two characters, civil right leader Charles and his wife Olivia. Since the couple and their dynamic are the essential core of the work, did you find it more challenging to write this compared to a play with a larger cast, such as Sugar?  

Absolutely. 100%. Yes, yes, and more yes! When writing a two hander there’s nothing or no one to hide behind. There isn’t another character that can come in and break the tension or shift the scene. It’s just those two people. So that was a challenge, but wildly enough what made writing Fireflies so difficult was I kept thinking about my grandmom and great-grandmom. Before writing the play I did something I never do…I did interviews beforehand. I talked to my mom-mom and nana. I normally wait until after I finish the first or second draft, but with this play I was so excited to sit and talk with these two women that I completely threw my process out the window. So, when I sat down to write the play all I could think about was what my mom-mom and nana said instead of what Olivia and Charles were saying.

Atlantic Theater Company production of  Fireflies  (2018). DeWanda Wise as Olivia and Khris Davis as Charles. Photo by Ahron R. Foster

Atlantic Theater Company production of Fireflies (2018). DeWanda Wise as Olivia and Khris Davis as Charles. Photo by Ahron R. Foster

There are many layers to Fireflies: there is the overarching topic of racism and the nascent civil rights movement, then there are explorations of feminist themes (it turns out Olivia is the unrecognized author of Charles’s soaring sermons), mental illness, marital infidelity, and secret queer love. During the writing process, how did you manage the thematic balancing acts of this work? Did you mostly formulate it on the page, or did workshopping processes help you find a balance? 

Lord have mercy there really is so much happening in that play. Whew. Thank God for trusted collaborators. My director and dear friend, Saheem Ali, was such a big help along the way. I also had phenomenal actors help me discover these characters and their world during readings and workshops. I kept a lot of the conversation, early on, rooted in scene five. I called it “the scene when the shit hits the fan.” The artists I worked with really helped me balance and find truth in the play.

The third installment of your trilogy is the play In the Middle, which takes place against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement. The play was staged in a workshop production in 2018 at The Lark in New York. What’s next for this play in terms of production? Are there any upcoming stagings in the works?

As of now, no. Currently, I’m really interested in stepping outside the trilogy and showcasing other works. I’m really, really excited about that. But I do look forward to sometime down the line when In the Middle gets another life!

You are the co-founder (along with Brandon Nick) of The Each-Other Project, an arts and advocacy community for queer and trans people of color. The project is a platform for several web series and media projects. Are you involved directly with most of these creative productions? Are there any particular creative collaborators and current projects supported by this community that you would like to call attention to at this time?

Brandon and I started TEOP as a labor of love almost seven years ago. He often works as the producer and/or director of photography. I work as the writer and/or director of the projects. We always strive to create and hold space for our queer and trans family of color. We’re working on a few shorts that we’re excited to share with the world very soon!

What’s coming up for you in the near future? Any new plays in progress or other projects that you would like people to know about?

This Summer I’ll be at Williamstown Theatre Festival with a play and then this fall I’ll be premiering a new play. Both plays mean so very much to me and I’m really excited to share them with the world!

You might also like our interview with the playwright Ray Yamanouchi. Also check out our recent interview with the short story writer and novelist Catherine Lacey.

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(Music) BRASS BOX

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(Music) RITUAL HOWLS