BWW Interview: Lisa B. Thompson and Her New Play MONROE at Austin Playhouse
Lisa B. Thompson burst onto the Austin theatre scene in a big way last season with her play UNDERGROUND, which was not only nominated for most of the awards given in Austin, but also managed to walk away with a few. She capped off the season by winning the New Play award from Austin Playhouse's annual playwrighting contest. The contest winning play, MONROE, is opening at Austin Playhouse on September 7th in a World Premiere production. Thompson, besides these two plays, is also the author of the book Beyond The Black Lady: Sexuality And The New African American Middle Class (University of Illinois Press, 2009) which received Honorable Mention in competition for the Gloria E. Anzaldúa Book Prize from the National Women's Studies Association. Her work has appeared in Theatre Journal, Theatre Survey, Finding A Way Home: A Critical Assessment Of Walter Mosley's Fiction (University Press of Mississippi, 2008), and From Bourgeois to Boojie: Black Middle-Class Performances (Wayne State University Press, 2011). Her plays include Single Black Female (Samuel French, Inc., 2012) which has been produced throughout the U.S. and Canada.
BroadwayWorld recently had the opportunity to sit down with Thompson to talk, in depth, about her new play MONROE, right before it makes its World Premiere at Austin Playhouse to open their season.
BWW: I first became aware of your work with UNDERGROUND last season at the Vortex. Then you won the Austin Playhouse Festival of New Texas Plays which resulted in this upcoming production of MONROE at Austin Playhouse. Can you give our readers a broader view of your work?
LT: I want to present underexplored stories about African American people in my plays. With SINGLE BLACK FEMALE I was interested in expanding the representation of black women to include a depiction of sex positive middle class black women. In UNDERGROUND I was focused on depicting black male friendship as well as advancing the conversation about reparations and other forms of radical black activism. In MONROE I tell the story about a black family that wanted to leave the south for California instead of the places so often associated with the Great Migration. There are so many untold stories about black life-I want to do my part to broaden the narrative.
BWW: Has MONROE been staged before?
LT: No, the September production at the Austin Playhouse is MONROE'S world premiere. There have been readings in San Francisco and in upstate New York. I'm overjoyed to finally see this play come to life. It's fitting that it will be staged for the first time in the south. I guess we've both come back home.
BWW: How many plays have you written?
LT: That's a great question. I've written six full-length plays including a one-woman show. I've also written several short plays.
BWW: What drove you to be a playwright?
LT: I haven't had much time to consider that question because I've been busy writing! I began writing poetry in high school. When I was in college I began performing my poetry at open mics and became a fixture in the spoken word scene. While I was at UCLA I was fortunate to encounter several legends. In Ntozake Shange's class I wrote my first monologue during a free-writing exercise. I'll never forget that her friend George Wolfe gave a guest lecture. His groundbreaking play COLORED MUSEUM was about to open in Los Angeles. I went to see it and was inspired. I consider Shange and Wolfe my biggest artistic influences. When I was getting my Masters in African American Studies I was lucky enough to take a class with Anna Deavere Smith, who at the time was an emerging artist. Her model of fierce art making shaped how I understand the political intervention that artists must make-especially in these times. That's when I wrote my first full-length play-a one-woman show called DREADTIME STORIES: ONE SISTERS HAIR. I performed it at the Inner City Cultural Center's Talent Fest and was a finalist. At that moment I realized that I could conceive and write a rather interesting play very quickly. I also discovered that I was too lazy to be a performer!
BWW: I have to say, I was blown away by the riveting production of UNDERGROUND at the Vortex, but unfortunately didn't manage to catch the staged reading of MONROE. I'm really looking forward to this production. What can you tell us about the story?
LT: Thank you! I'm so glad you found UNDERGROUND riveting. MONROE is quite different in terms of pacing and style. It's about a family and community that is trying to recover in the immediate aftermath of a lynching during the 1940's Louisiana. The victim is a young black man from a prominent family. During the play we see how his family-particularly his younger sister and his best friend-cope with his violent murder.
BWW: Where did your inspiration for MONROE come from?
LT: My mother's family is actually from Monroe, Louisiana. Although I grew up in San Francisco, I recall overhearing my parents discuss life down south. I was always curious about what called them to California during the Great Migration instead of to the northeast or the Midwest like most African Americans fleeing the south during that period. It wasn't until I was preparing for the reading in April that I learned that Monroe, which is in Ouachita Parish, has the horrific distinction of being among the top five counties for lynching in the US from 1877 to 1950. When I discovered that awful fact I realized that I was doing more than telling an under examined migration narrative but that I was also doing spirit work. What I mean by that is - I'm connected to Monroe through my maternal roots. I owe it to my ancestors to shed light on the atrocities that occurred there as well as the lasting trauma experience by those left behind. I pray that MONROE brings those lost spirits some peace. I also hope my play honors the memory of those being killed in modern day lynchings: extrajudicial killings of black people at the hand of law enforcement, or in the case of Nia Wilson, deranged white supremacists. For more information see the New York Times article "Map of 73 Years of Lynchings." https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/02/10/us/map-of-73-years-of-lynching.html.
BWW: You're already an accomplished writer in your other life. What are some of your works?
LT: I appreciate you asking me about that. I've published several academic articles about African American theatre and performance. My most significant scholarly publication is my first book, Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class which explores the contemporary representation of black middle class sexuality across several genres. I feel that it is a blessing to write in different mediums. I find that my scholarly and creative projects influence and enrich each other.
BWW: Most audience members don't know anything about your life in Academia. Your field, Modern Thought & Literature, seems to also work as a perfect description of you. What can you tell us about your life in Academia?
LT: It's true that most people who attend my plays don't know about my scholarship. The doctorate I received from Stanford is in Modern Thought & Literature. That program allowed me to flourish as both a scholar of African American cultural studies and as a playwright. I was a graduate student when my first play was produced. Since then I've considered myself an artist and a scholar. That means I both produce art -as a playwright and poet, and I'm also an academic that researches, writes and teaches about contemporary African American art and culture. I 'm lucky that all aspects of my work are appreciated by UT Austin.
BWW: What is your biggest challenge in bringing MONROE to a fully staged life?
LT: My biggest challenge is carving out the time to revise while juggling my responsibilities at the university, and as a mother. I'm really fortunate to have a visionary director in Austin Playhouse's Lara Toner who understands the story I'm trying to tell. I couldn't think of a better person to work with on this project.
We are definitely excited about the chance to experience a new play from Lisa B. Thompson, known to her friends as the Play Professor. MONROE opens at Austin Playhouse on September 7th and runs through September 30th. Tickets range from $16-$36 and can be obtained by calling the Box Office at (512) 476-0084 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.