Monday, March 05, 2018

Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau @ TheatreFirst in Berkeley through 3/10

An Interview with Brit Frazier, playwright

Dezi Soley is a woman to watch. She gets it right every time.  A goddess certainly, but the kind who walks among us – the characters she embodies as great as the imaginations which birth them—Star Finch and now, Brit Frazier’s LAVEAU: A Conjuring of Marie Laveau, directed by Margo Hall starring Dezi Solèy as Marie Laveau. Recently seen in Alter Theatre Company’s “Bondage,” the Haitian actor is still in the kitchen stirring the broth, this time as chief cook, Madame Marie Laveau. When one thinks conjure woman, Mambo, look no farther that this Louisiana Gumbo Ya-Ya, Spirit Worker.

Frazier’s new work which opens Program A of The Participants at TheatreFirst, once again, Jon Tracy, TF Artistic  Director, has done it again.  TF is the place where discourse around difficult topics like race, class, politics are encouraged.  These seven new commissions in repertory are amazing. The situation of the Laveau piece as the opening chapter is fitting.  Laveau says: “Words are spells, incantations.”  We are what we think, so spirit is self-articulated.  Make sure your thesaurus is open so you can choose precisely.  Laveau tells black women to breathe and let go of a lexicon which has not served us.  Yes, from the stage, the mambo speaks to us.  Where else than at TheatreFirst can one see this kind of work?

On a breezy, lovely Berkeley Sunday afternoon, Brit was kind of in a daze after the warm reception—the work, her work is so magnificent.  She is truly a vehicle for a story we all need to not just hear, but represent—Laveau’s humor and fearlessness is contagious.  Imagine a sorority of Laveau Daughters from the Bay? Brit says when she encountered the Voodoo Woman, enchantress, healer, she wanted to tell her story.  Her Laveau appears vivacious, fun yet reverent.  She has come to set the record straight.  There are too many misconceptions, so bring pens and notebooks.  Laveau is a lesson.

The character admits some people fear her, while others love her.  A scientist, she knows her spells and incantations work, and if her directions are followed precisely, results are guaranteed.  I like that kind of certainty.

An abolitionist, Laveau freed many African Diaspora kinsmen and women.  On stage she pours libations on the many altars assembled as she honors her ancestors and deities who helped her with important work—her primary role was to free her people. She talks about the duppies or sleepwalkers and her reach beyond the grave.

Laveau might laugh, but make no mistake, she is a powerful woman.

An altar dominates the room where Laveau performs her prayers and rituals. Dressed in ceremonial white, we see her shadow dancing behind a curtain as projected images cover a screen ending with Laveau’s portrait.  As she honors her ancestors and prays throughout the work, Laveau sprinkles juicy tidbits about her life between a song or an offering.  She speaks of marriage, divorce, slavery, African deities and spiritual practices.

Solèy’s work as a dancer is evident here. One wonders if the playwright has Dezi in mind as her character evolved.  The actress is such a perfect fit. Even though the work is theatre, the ceremony is real. What Brit’s “Laveau” says is both an affirmation and a word to the wise.

The conjure woman’s magic and spells to keep black women, black mothers, black girls safe— We can see this ideological work in the artistic work of two Bay Area conjure women, Amara Tabour-Smith and Ellen Sebastian Chang’s Housefull of Black Women Project. Housefull looks at how enormous a task it is to be a black woman, to walk in our shoes. Smith and Chang have developed creative queries called “episodes.” The series of episodic moments within a discourse unpack the ever shifting dynamic: black women vs. the rest of the world.

The February “Housefull” episode was passing/through/the great middle. Tabour-Smith et al had audiences look at what it means to lose a child—sexual violation and the cost of refusal.  The work examined what was left – the words that remain after the body is no more. As she called these spirits from slave ships or in slave quarters or working in the field . . . into the room there was a hush—something holy was passing over.  Similar to the masque, a woman dressed in bones walked among us– bones knocking against other bones; rattling, touching us as Egungun or ancestors danced—
Spirit women sang, played music—took us to holy gatherings under sanctified rooftops. We were told to grab hands as we looked for a lost letter, walked down the street into an alley where blood was being washed away only to reappear just as the story recycled.

This episode (as had so many others) took place at EastSide Arts Cultural Center located on a busy thoroughfare in East Oakland (23rd Avenue and International).  Before we went down an alley around the corner, we stepped into a sanctified space where Obeah, Juju Conjurers, Mambo women sat on pillows singing – admonishing, laughing and telling plenty lies.  Also in the room were altars in a variety of sizes to the Orisha: Yemanja, Oya, Esu Legba. I didn’t see Oṣun, but she was probably there. The space was tight and people let go of each other’s hands.

We then left for another leg of the journey, the final stop outside where obeah women sat on benches while others washed a white cloth.  It was a ritual washing, choreographed to the rhythm of the storyteller—Amara’s voice.  She told the same horrible story three times. Each time she reminded us that the story was true. This was the hardest to witness and then leave. We were offered a cookie as we made our way back to the theatre singing “Wade in the Water.” Some of the women didn’t make it across – others stopped singing. The silence was worse than the story we could not forget, the story of the child beaten to death because she refused to relinquish her rights to her body.

This “House/Full” episode was about embodiment and how frightening this concept is to captors who tried to beat it out of the girl and failed.  That night we heard stories. Words spoken like maps tracing our way back home.  Back in the theatre, a film shot on the beach reiterated those same words. Poetic, the repetition was comforting.

This is the place Frazier’s “Laveau” also occupies. This is the place Star Finch’s “Bondage” occupies. In “Bondage,” Dezi Solèy, as mixed-race “Zuri,” is a slave girl who would kill all captors before she relinquished rights to her body.  We also see Dezi in a more contemporary work, directed by Frazier in TheatreFirst’s “Participants: Star Finch’s “Take the Ticket.” The work explores how white theatre artists thematically exploit black pain.

All of these black women characters (and to a certain extent their creators) realize there is no place in the world for them—unacknowledged, they pose a very real danger. Nonetheless, just because acknowledgement is refused does not mean black women are not present and can, if she chooses, dismantle the wall or better yet redo the entire cosmos.

All black women should see Brit Frazier’s “Laveau,” up through March 10 at TF at Live Oak Park Theatre in Berkeley.  Tickets are going fast.  Laveau is an opportunity to leave the baggage behind. It is already too heavy, besides Marie Laveau reminds us, the sh– is not even ours.

Don’t forget to check the tags before exiting the airport or train station.  Just as I thought, the tags are wrong.

I had an opportunity to interview the playwright, Brit Frazier, a fierce black woman in front of and behind the curtain.  She definitely has the ear of the Orisha or black deities.  Ashay, Ashay, Ashayo! The conversation here is insight into the play, answers to questions posed in the review and more.

Here are links to two Wanda’s Picks Radio interviews, one Friday, March 2, 2018 with Dezi Solèy, actress, and director, Margo Hall, plus an interview from the archives (09/09/2011) with one of Brit’s primary sources, writer, Jewell Parker Rhodes.

The Interview

Wanda Sabir:  What is your fascination with Madam Laveau?

Brit Frazier:  “I wouldn’t call it fascination, it’s more reverence. I recognize her power and honor her work. She died supposedly over 100 years ago and is still as potent energetically now as she seemed to be in her time. She is an example of a pillar of spiritual strength, and an unapologetic, fearless vessel of the feminine divine.”

WS: Why is she the vehicle for a celebration of Black Life and Black Women?

BF:  “She was a healer, a root worker, an abolitionist and a juggernaut in the fight to create and protect space for Black People to worship and experience catharsis in the midst of brutality against their bodies, family structures and worth. She realized black love, black procreation, was important; so along with healing and freeing black bodies, she saw to it that our existence wasn’t whipped away by cruelty, she made sure black People had the time, space and security to know love as well.”
WS: The work is a libation for African Ancestors of the Middle Passage. Talk about the symbolism and ritual items from altars to white garment, projected images, dance . . . songs.

BF: “The color white is owned by Obatala in Santeria and Damballah in Voodoo. Both deities bless our consciousness, they are representations of The Mist High in our thinking. The whole piece surrounds the idea of cleansing the consciousness. Laveau mixes a spiritual “white bath” onstage, traditionally used to cleanse the body and spirit of lower energies, negative influences. Ritual and repetition help us to access that which has been stolen, lost or forgotten.”

WS: There is history and a dismantling of lies and mythology associated with this roots woman Voodoo Queen. Talk about your research and how the material chosen made it to the stage and what spells did not (smile).

BF:  “My research involved a mixture of reading, introspection and listening to Marie Laveau guide me through her tribute. There is soo much information about her and her daughters and at the same time so little. Deciphering between truth and lies came from listening to her. I read a few books but two that stuck out were Jewel Parker Rhodes’s “Voodoo Dreams” which is a beautifully rich  “fiction,” but has a lot of fact weaved in and the other “Voodoo Queen” by Martha Ward, which is nonfiction and gives a really extensive account of what Antebellum New Orleans was like.

“Ward also does a lot of research finding old legal documents, articles and interviews about the Laveau’s themselves and their rituals that helped me shape the piece. I ended up cutting a lot of the history around her best friend , priest of St. Louise Cathedral and former leader if the Spanish Inquisition, St. Antoine aka Father Sedella and Marie Laveau’s the 1st, second husband ( a white man , who legally changed his race , gave up his privilege  to marry her)Christophe de Galpion because I only had so much stage time and two ,we, Marie and I, felt it important to highlight the strength, power and resilience of Black Women… men are great, don’t get me wrong… friends are great but they were cut from this particular iteration.

“Ward includes spells in the book, one of which is supposed to be one Laveau’s most powerful spells to ward off injustice . . . it’s a revenge spell. I didn’t use it, because I have feelings around Ward including the spell in her book in the first place (it’s nothing to play with) and two, this piece isn’t about revenge, it’s about self-preservation and believing as black women that we have the power to do practice that conjure, and see results, watch the blessings show up in our lives.”
WS: You have not been to NOLA or Haiti, two places where Voodun is a national religion, not to mention West Africa in Yorubaland.

BF:  “Nope. I’ve never been except in my mind.”

WS:  What have you learned about African spirituality in the writing of this mythical character and what lingers with you now that she is fully formed?

BF:  “I had knowledge of Yoruba and Santeria religions [developed in the Diaspora] before knowing Laveau or starting this piece. . . .  This experience was more about finding her in me. She isn’t a mythical character, she is very real. I learned a lot and was inspired by her unapologetic strength.”
WS:  You have shattered the 4th wall. What is your vision for the future of staged work? Talk aesthetic, respect, ethics, voice, content, authenticity, honesty, ownership

BF:  “I’m not sure. I just know I’m interested in performance ritual… I feel entertainment especially now has been charged energetically/spiritually with ushering in a new consciousness. . . . I just wanna do that work.”

WS:  As the pieces right themselves and artists rethink their processes, what would you like your audiences to take away from this experience?

BF:  “Black resilience and the will “to conjure themselves clean.”

WS:  What are Laveau and Big Mama whispering to you right now?

BF:  “Be easier on yourself Brit. You are magical, gifted and fragile… and worthy. REPEAT AFTER ME, YOU ARE WORTHY! “

WS: Talk about your director, actress, and design team . . . did they make Brit’s vision come true?

BF:  “Margo Hall (director) is amazing at everything, she really helped me activate the piece. My biggest fear writing it, was that it would turn out didactic and visually boring. It’s anything but, in my opinion. Margo is a blessing. Dezi Solèy (actress) is a Queen. She herself is a very powerful bruja . . . . I felt it as soon as I met her, she brings light everywhere she goes and isn’t afraid to drop the performance and spiritually attune. The design team are the most patient and giving people ever!!! I think of them like the nurses in the delivery room, they helped clean my baby, make sure she was healthy and vibrant… I’m so thankful for the Love and care they wrapped [me and Queen Laveau] in.”

WS: What’s next? Margo said you have a longer play written. Are plans in the works for a run? Where are you performing next?

BF:  “I don’t know… maybe a short? Black noire, shot in New Orleans in Congo Square, on Lake Pontchartrain and in Laveau’s old house and at her gravesite; Featuring dancers, real ritual work, and drummers; shot out of order , highlighting ritual imagery. I don’t know… but I can dream. The piece presented at TheatreFirst is eleven pages, the full piece is around twenty five pages. . . . I don’t know what is next.

Here is a short video interview which includes Brit re: TheatreFirst: Between Us: Program A

“My next gig is Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s “Hooded: Or Being Black for Dummies,” March 8-31, at Custom Made Theatre, (415) 798-CMTC (2682), 533 Sutter Street, in San Francisco in which I’m am Assistant Director and Dramaturg and my next acting opportunity is with Campo Santo called “Casa De Spirts” at YBCA, May 16-17, written and directed by Rodger Guinevere Smith.”


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