• Award-Winning Playwright Ayanna Maia talks her New Play, the ‘N’ Word and Hip Hop

     

    Ayanna Maia is a New York based playwright. She is the 2010 Kennedy Center MFA Workshop recipient and won the 2010 Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award for her play King N—.
    YLW: What is King N—about?
    AM: It’s a play about a personification of the last 25 years of hip hop culture. The character goes from boyhood to manhood and he’s holding on to a childhood dream to be a rapper. The play starts in 1987. You see the effects of crack, the effects of capitalism and it all gets filtered through his life. Not to give away too much, but he basically takes on that name as his stage name, and that word as an expression of himself. In modern America, people acculturate and take on different things, and he takes on the word.
    YLW: Did you wrestle with using the N word as the title?
    AM: I did. I said this is going to be a sore thumb.  It came from a reference in another play I wrote.  I had to ask ‘what does my play want to be named?’ versus ‘what do I want to call it?’ I remember entering contests and my mom was like, ‘please change the title’. One of my professors, Suzan-Lori Parks, helped me workshop the play. I told her my reservation, but she said if this is your character’s journey and what your character wants then you can’t act out of fear.  The play is about his duality and the fact that he thinks he’s a king and a n— at the same time. I said I have to let go.

    YLW: When were you introduced to playwriting?
    AM: I got into Gallery 37 in Chicago when I was 13 or 14. I wanted to be in the poetry program but it was full. They called me a few weeks later and said, ‘would you like to write a play?’ My first play won awards. I was the youngest winner ever to win in the Young Playwrights Festival.

    YLW: How do you enjoy NYU’s Tisch Dramatic Writing Program?
    AM: I was getting another masters, and I left to go to NYU because it was a dream to be in their dramatic writing program.  I had Suzan-Lori Parks as my professor, Spike Lee as my professor and advisor. Richard Wesley was my professor, too.  And I had Donald Boggle as my professor. Do you know him?

    YLW: Yes. He wrote the book on black stereotypes in film.
    AM: Right. He wrote Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films.  I had the all-star team in terms of research and media. It was just great to be in their company. They have really lived and expressed themselves in the African Diaspora and universally. I had a wonderful time. I didn’t want to graduate. I just graduated in May.
    YLW: Tell me about the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award. Did they stage your play?
    AM: I got two awards. One was the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award. They also have the MFA workshop, so they pick six playwrights in grad programs. They did a full scale workshop of the play and they had a staged reading. They brought in professional actors, directors. It wasn’t a full scale production. It was a workshop, but it introduces participants to the theater community. One of the women who participated has a theater in Washington D.C and within weeks she said that she wants to put my play up for the next season. If all goes well, it will have a month long run in D.C in May 2011.
    YLW: Exciting!
    AM: I‘ve had plays staged, but I’ve never had a full length play with a full scale production.
    YLW: Do you hang out with a lot of playwrights?
    AM: I know different playwrights, but I find that playwrights are really to themselves. I find playwriting to be very lonely.
    YLW: How so?
    AM: When you’re sitting there writing 120 pages of another world, you just have to go in and write from what you know, your research and what comes to you. For me, it hasn’t been a collective process. It’s such a deep world when you’re writing different personalities. It’s like doing a research project. Even if you write on your own life, you have to step away. It takes a lot of inner work, and inner work hatches alone.

    YLW: Your plays have very strong themes involving black life in the U.S. What do you attribute that to?
    AM: Being raised on the Southside of Chicago with parents who were very into the African Diaspora and different cultures, but especially the African Diaspora, coming out of the black arts and black power movement, it makes me very excited about carrying on the traditions of the African diaspora.  I worked with the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. I write diverse characters, but my plays are centered on the Diaspora even if all my characters aren’t from there. I love to write comedy. But when it comes to high drama, l like writing about the African Diaspora.
    YLW: You also seem to be heavily influenced by hip hop.
    AM: It’s funny, for my character, I wrote his rhymes. I grew up in hip hop culture. I mc’d, I recorded. I deejayed. I grew up as a practitioner; I found that when I write plays, I get to have a better experience with hip hop than I’ve ever had in my whole life.

    YLW: What do you mean?

    AM: I had a lot of misogynistic experiences in hip hop. I’ve had a lot of experiences where I feel the culture is becoming more ignorant. My dad was a DJ, so I remember when hip hop was on vinyl. It was never separate from us. But as females, the older you got there was more of a line. There were fewer female acts, and you have men presenting females, writing their rhymes and it became more sexualized. I’ve written plays about rappers before, but King N–   is the first that got major exposure.
    YLW: Many women who grew up with hip hop as a major influence have an awkward relationship with the culture as they mature?
    AM: Honestly, when I was younger. I experienced a lot of positive experiences with it in Chicago. There weren’t a lot of female rappers and the guys wanted it to be balanced. The guys I was around wanted to support you. As it came into the 2000s, it was less about the culture and more about the rap game. It was sexualized. I was in an all-female group. I’ve had that duality, I’ve been at a concert where a guy had the whole audience call me a bitch. It’s funny to me, I don’t write as much as I used to. But I still have so much love for the culture itself and the things that comprise it.
    YLW: You don’t write as many rap songs as you used to?
    AM: I’ll record a song a year.
    YLW: Tell me about your new play, 510 Murders.
    AM: There’s a play that I just finished writing in May that’s based in Chicago about the chronic street violence among young men.  I’ve really been exploring a culture that either encourages or is apathetic to using violence. The murder rate in Chicago and the demographic it’s specific to really bothers me. I’ve had two students in my short teaching career who were murdered. I don’t want children to grow up in a culture where violence is acceptable or where gang culture is the norm, even for those who don’t want to participate in it. The other thing I’ve been exploring is African spirituality and I have a couple of other plays with some magical realism.
    For more information of Ayanna Maia go to www.ayannamaia.com
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  • Poetic Justice: Interview with Renaissance Writer Robert Bledsoe

     

    Robert Bledsoe is a poet, playwright and travel writer. His book “Centennial” is currently available on Amazon.

    YLW: When were you introduced to poetry? How did you become a poet?

    RB: Growing up I was entered into the Academic Olympics. I was pushed into that by one of my teachers. I grew up reading. Sometimes I really wonder where I was and where were the other kids in my class. We were taught the same things, sat in the same seat, the same material was presented to us. The point I’m making is that I was a big reader especially with content that dealt with black America. So this love of literature carried with me throughout school. We read poetry, a lot from the Harlem Renaissance Era in elementary school. Poetry and reading was fun. I’d go to the library, sift through books. Looking back, I’m amazed at how much freedom I had to do this. This carried on through college where I learned more about Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.. I have degrees in journalism, English writing and poetry.  

    YLW: People are always surprised to find out that you grew up in Englewood. Does the stigma placed on certain black communities bother you?

    RB: Let’s put it this way. If I tell people that I’m from the South Side of Chicago, specifically Englewood, people who know those areas, you can see the look in their faces. It’s like “huh?” Those are areas that aren’t necessarily associated with proper speech, college education, firm handshakes, wearing shirts and ties. It’s an area that unfortunately is associated with what people think is black life: drugs, crime, violence, the black malaise. So when people find out that I’m from there, it takes a while for them to process. And it’s not necessarily white people but black people who have this incredulous thinking process.

    YLW: Why do you think people from the same neighborhoods can take very different paths? Why did you take a different path?

    RB: I can’t really say that there were people on the street saying “you’re going to grow up to be a drug dealer”, or “work hard to drop out”. No one was saying that. The parents want their kids to go to school.  Most of my friends growing up are doing well. I don’t know if it was my block or what but most of my friends are upstanding citizens.

    But in the neighborhood in general, everyone knew the family that wasn’t doing anything. It would seem like it was just one or two houses per block. Everyone else was doing what they were supposed to do. But no one could really do anything about that one house. And somehow that one house really has an effect of damaging an entire community.

    It was only when I got older that I realized these super burdens that we have to carry for that one house on the street. I didn’t really learn the significance of that one house until later. Because that one house would come to define whole communities and that’s not fair. The perception is that all these black communities are blighted and failing but that’s not my experience where I grew up.

    YLW: You’re a poet but you’re not a fan of spoken word.

    RB: No. I’m more of a traditionalist. I’m a poetry snob.

    YLW: Why?

    RB: I think the subject matter is limited and there’s too much emphasis on performance. Traditional poetry isn’t always performed, it’s read. [Spoken Word poets] think if you speak in a certain cadence and inflect on a certain word at the end of a sentence and almost sing, that they are saying something. To me poetry is about reaching the heart and reaching the mind and it’s something that’s pleasing and pleasant. It’s not something jarring.


    YLW: Do you think you’re being a little harsh?

    RB: I’m just afraid that many of our youngsters, when they think of poetry, [spoken word] is what they think about. How many of them are really learning about Maya Angelou? I wish I could say it’s an education thing, but it’s not. Many spoken word people are college degreed, I just don’t think it’s poetry. They’re putting on a show. How about we remove the word poetry and call it spoken word creativity?


    YLW: You have an issue with spoken word being called poetry?

    RB: I think it has usurped the word poetry. Poetry is about more than ‘roses are red, violets are blue’. It’s a craft. I don’t want to say that spoken word isn’t creative, I just think there’s too much emphasis on the performance part.

    YLW: At the expense of the writing?

    RB: Right. You’re not focusing on what’s being said. When you see spoken word, you’re using your eyes more than your ears. I went to a Def Poetry Jam audition and I read a poem I wrote when Gwendolyn Brooks died. Here I am reading what I think is a poem, and everyone else is doing spoken word, and I said I’m so out of place here. But definitely, there was some confusion on my part on how poetry was being defined. People liked it but it wasn’t the write venue.

    YLW: You’re a globe hopper. You’re out of the country three or four times a month. Do you think travelers share a kindred spirit?

    RB: It’s a longing. Why does one travel anyway? If you have what you need at home, why travel? For me, the whole travel experience began with me wanting to know what more out there is there. I know that there has to be some place in the world where I feel free to be me. There’s a song about that. Because the constraints that I felt being who I was on the Southside of Chicago or being one of the few blacks at a small school in rural Minnesota, the constraints on me were tight. They were suffocating.

    YLW: How so?

    RB: Because you couldn’t be a black intellectual. That’s an anomaly. It’s like somehow or another, if you are not a black guy who enjoys hip hop, if you don’t play basketball every weekend . . . and don’t get me wrong, I like watching basketball, but I was never good at it. Somehow or another, some things were equated with black and some things were not. As a collective, I think that black people have bought into it. Travel for me was great. It’s a sense of pride for me that people can see we’re not this monolithic community. We don’t all like hip hop, not all hip hop anyway. Some of these images are damaging. We actually speak more than just Ebonics.

    We can’t have our kids continue to aspire to speak bad language. And that’s what they identify as being black. Maybe I’m old school, elitist, but I think the stakes are too high for us to uphold that alone as the black experience.

    YLW: Why do you travel?

    RB: One travels because one is seeking to discover something. One is not getting something. One wanted tea and spices so they set sail. And I set sail to just learn that there was more to life than America, and getting away from the expectations that are laid out for me. It’s nice to just lay on the beach or read a book on the beach, but these things aren’ t considered black if you enjoy this stuff. I don’t know if you read the John Mayer stuff. (Referring to the John Mayer controversy where he mentioned having a hood pass and not dating black women).

    YLW: I did.

    RB: Why are there elements of our community who feel they need to have a pass and if so, why give it out? And why call it a hood pass? We need a discussion. Do we want to hold on to negative images that go out? We have to have a serious discussion on whether or not we want to move forward. I think President Obama’s candidacy put a lot of this front and center. When people think black American,what do we want them to think first?

    We can’t discount the power of imagery and who has access to media. You can be as individual as you want, but if the collective imagery is of the hood then that individual who doesn’t match the image is going to have a problem. When you step out you are combating the images of people who look like you that are thrown across TV sets across the world.

    YLW: When you travel you don’t deal with it?

    RB: Not as much. Here it’s just so entrenched. Take Eminem. How is it that Eminem can be blacker than me? Some black people would see him as blacker than me. Why? Because he doesn’t speak proper English? He could put on a suit and tie and go mainstream. Do I have that option?

    It’s deflating and defeating to talk about because you realize how entrenched it is. If our youngsters do well in English, they’re marginalized. There’s no reason why in 2010 we should still be having these discussions.


    Robert Bledsoe can be reached at embryonic@msn.com.

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  • Sci Fi Author Nnedi Okorafor talks Literature and Afrofuturism

     

    Nnedi Okorafor is a fantasy/science fiction writer and English professor. Her latest book is Who Fears Death about Onye, a woman with a magical destiny in post apocalyptic Africa.
    YLW: How did you become a science fiction writer?
    NO: When I was a kid I read a lot of books. I read far and wide and not just science fiction. I was attracted to these stories with magical things in them. I started writing my own stories when I was 20. I wrote magical realist stuff. I started off writing fantasy. It was very natural for me. It wasn’t like I was trying to write it. However, people tried to turn me away from that because it’s not academic. I started getting things published. Then I realized I wasn’t seeing Africa written about in the future so my fantasy writing became part science fiction.
    YLW: What’s the difference between fantasy and science fiction?
    NO: Fantasy involves stories where strange things happen that are due to magic, the mystical, or the unexplained. Science fiction is when the strange things that happened are explained through science, even if those things aren’t possible yet. I tend to mix the two. In my first book Zahrah the Windseeker, you have plant technology and there are technology producing plants. But you also have a girl who has the ability to fly.
    YLW: Your book includes a wide range of elements from shamanism to female circumcision.
    NO: There’s shamanism, there’s Juju in it, there’s magic, genocide, female circumcision. It deals with issues of African men and women. I based my Juju on actual Ebo traditional beliefs. It pulls on the fantastical.
    YLW: Afro futurism is a new term to explain science fiction involving the African Diaspora. Is your work afro futurist? .
    NO: People have asked me if I consider it to be afro futurism. By that definition, certainly. But I tend to resist a lot of the labels because labels can be very confining.
    YLW: How so?
    NO: People who usually don’t read science fiction won’t read it if it’s labeled. Octavia Butler wrote Kindred, a time travel story. It falls in the line of black literature, but if you put sci fi on it, some people won’t read it.
    Some reviewers have called Who Fears Death uncharacterizable. Unless people know what something is they freak out or if they can’t name it they ignore it.  The novel before Zara, my first novel was an adult novel, but when my agent shopped it around it got past the acquisitions editor, but when it got to the money part the reps didn’t know what to call it. It’s fantasy, but it’s too literary. Is the main character African or African American? They couldn’t label it properly and because of that it got rejected and I dealt with that for three years. And then I wrote Zahrah the Windseeker.
    YLW: I’m sure people compare you to legendary sci-fi writer Octavia Butler. What are your similarities and how do you differ?
    NO: I’m a huge Octavia Butler fan. She blew my mind. I was writing these things and I didn’t realize that what I was writing could be published until after I read her work. First and foremost, she writes in a sparse format, almost journalistic. There’s no mincing of words. I always liked how she could draw you into the story to the point where you forget that you’re reading. We both deal with gender and race. We write complex characters.
    We differ when it comes to setting. What I write takes place in Africa or a place like Africa. And Octavia’s books tend to be in the U.S or she starts in Africa and goes elsewhere. So our settings are a little different. I pull from a lot of Nigerian folklore and Nigerian myth. She pulls from that, too, but not so much.
    I feel like every science fiction and fantasy writer, we are all compared to Octavia and that’s because she is one of the only black fantasy and science fiction writers, so I guess these reviewers can’t compare us to anyone else unless their black.
    YLW: How have people responded to your work?
    NO: Mostly, really positive. I’ve had some hate mail from people who feel I’m airing African’s dirty laundry.
    YLW: Hate mail?
    NO: I get emails calling me a witch. In Zahrah the Windseeker,  the main character is Dada, which means a baby that’s born with locked hair. Before colonialism that was very special. But after colonialism it was considered evil. And this character realizes she has the ability to fly.  With my book Who Fears Death, I have opinions about female circumcision and I deal with that in the book. At my first book signing for Who Fears Death, in Michigan, these African academics came to attack me. There’s a female circumcision scene in the book, it’s pretty brutal. I read it and one of the professors said in a real circumcision there’s no lights. Well, this is science fiction. They feel I had no right to speak on this because I hadn’t been at an actual circumcision.

    YLW: Do you feel some of the criticism has to do with you being a child of Nigerian immigrants born in America and not Africa?
    NO: Definitely, my fourth was titled Akata Witch. It’s a derogatory term for African Americans, or American born Nigerians. Akata means bush animal. It’s not a very nice term. The book deals with some of those issues.
    YLW: In Post Black, I write about African immigrants and one American born Nigerian said she felt she had to defend Africans to African Americans and African Americans to Africans.
    NO: That’s exactly what I had to deal with.  It’s like you belong but you don’t belong. The thing is, it’s positioned that we can bridge a lot of those gaps. I understand both sides. But sometimes you don’t really want to be on the defense. I can see a non fantasy book in me on this one.
    For more information go to www.nnedi.com
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