Interview: Crystal Rae Tells a Challenging Story About a Loving Father with On The Verge Theatre

Tied opens at The Ensemble Theatre from September 29th until October 9th.

By: Sep. 23, 2022
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Interview: Crystal Rae Tells a Challenging Story About a Loving Father with On The Verge Theatre

The Houston Theatre scene has given birth to a number of playwrights telling stories that explore difficult topics with humor and humanity. With Tied, Crystal Rae and On The Verge Theatre create a one-man show about a bereaved father who celebrates the life of his daughter as much as he grieves for her.

I'm very happy to say we got a lot to talk about both in terms of this play, but I would also love to talk about some of your other pursuits. But let me start with how are you?

I'm great.

This play, Tied. It's a one man show about the father of one of the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Could you talk a little bit about the experience of developing the idea? I understand that there was an actor who pitched the idea to you first and how it sort of steamrolled from there.

I had one on one coffee across from The Ensemble Theatre with Silvana LaToison. He was like, "Hey, I need I need a one-person show or some audition pieces." He wanted to be one of the fathers of the four little girls. Sometimes people have good ideas and I was like, "oh."

So we exchanged a whole $5 for me to start the writing. But I was like, "Hey, can I give this $5 back and I keep the idea?" and he was like, "Keep the five and keep the idea."

About a year later I had the first iteration of it, and we're miles from that iteration now, but that was the jumping-off point.

Out of curiosity, did you do you still have the $5?

It's been a couple of chicken dinners and espressos later, that $5 has been done. Yeah, I hope to make it back one day.

Could you talk a little bit about the emotional experience of writing this play? How do you overcome the feelings to get the work done? Because to be honest, just researching this, I had to like take a break halfway through.

You know, as a writer, I'm a little worried that people will feel the "take a break" part more and skip over the play for a comedy, which is understandable. But I think that I had a ball writing this one-man show, actually.

His voice is my dad under a magnifying lens. Like my Dad times a million. I was really blessed to have a very funny, loving, long winded father.

Something similar to like the Cosby Show where Cliff Huxtable would launch into these long tales and you weren't sure where he was going with it and the kids would kind of tiptoe out the room. That was my dad but his stories always landed you someplace really beautiful that you didn't expect to be. I'm like "Why did we have to go through all of the Appalachian Mountains and then like a loop through Mississippi," but when we finally get here, I'm just like, "You know what that was? That was the best ride ever."

This is his style of talking like you just need to buckle up and be ready. And so his way of speaking is what I did for Tied. He's my only father reference as it were. And so it was super easy to write and to think about how much this dad enjoys being a dad. And how men say I love you differently than how women say it and getting to glean from a really fun childhood.

Now, when we do get to the sad part of missing his daughter, we've traveled so much with him. Just figuring out how to burp a kid and figuring out how to quiet them down. All of that joy of fatherhood mixed in with "and I miss her."

Sometimes it's just a simple line like that. "And I miss her." So Jason Carmichael, who's the actor, does a fabulous job. So those things made it incredibly easy to write. Then the truth that he is gonna forever miss that little girl doesn't have to be shouted.

It seems like you really were trying to give humanity to the bereaved parent, and not be cliched.

That's the truth I'm hoping to be a part of. I'm hoping to be a part of a movement where the face of black men isn't just always so frownish. They're just more opportunities to see men as fathers who love the opportunity to be a father. I'm hoping that the writing gives that opportunity for us to see a black man enjoying being both a husband and a father and his voice in the community and what that meant and how it reverberated in his community. That's important to me.

I can definitely hear how much admiration you have for your father in the way you speak about him.

He's pretty great. He lent me his whole brain. My mom is pretty as can be and she's smart and she's an executor. My dad has vision and imagination. He just screams creativity. So I'm a good solid blend of them.

That's great. I love that. Something I noticed on your website, a big quote. "A failed audition for the Lion King got this whole thing started." I love stories like that. Would you mind elaborating a little bit on what that was for you?

They were doing an open tour. Some of these big shows do open auditions, even though their intent is to hire everybody from New York. It's kind of like they gotta say that they went around and looked at some other folks. They were in St. Louis and I was in Abilene, Texas, which is about six hours west of Houston.

So I'm in it to win it. I jumped in my car and was pretty sure it was gonna get cast as a piece of dancing grass. And I went into that space and the person behind that white table says "thank you," which in theater land means you can go home now. The 16 hours back were tumultuous and fabulous. I got everything I needed. I was listening to a radio station and this black preacher was talking about how fabulous his wife was and telling these stories that I almost wished I could tell. And by the time I got home, I was like, "If I'm not gonna be cast as grass, I'll write my own show."

I'll be in it. I'll direct it. I'll fund it. I'll put it up. I got super aggressive after that. I am so thankful to the Lord for that. Now, if I had been grass, I'd probably still be dancing grass, and not have written any of the things that I'm super glad exists right now.

Nothing gets me fired up more than a good hard "we don't want you."

It put me in a trajectory that I love. I don't know if I'm jumping ahead now in your questions?

Oh, no, you're great. Please continue.

After a while, it was like "let me go see if I can play with the big kids." It was either New York, Chicago, LA, or Houston.

I feel like I'd have "mug me" written on my face for New York. Chicago is my family and they love me and will take me in. But they're my family and annoying. Los Angeles, I didn't know much about TV or Film at the time. So my best friend was like, "Hey, you can sleep on my couch." And she was here in Houston. So I was working backstage with the Ensemble Theatre and doing some clerical work for my church and kind of making things work. Houston has been unbelievably kind to me, like I can't put it into words. It's forgiving you know, you put something up in New York, and sometimes you just get it written off as not knowing what you're doing because you don't know what you're doing.

But Houston has shown itself to be very kind to a learning curve and to this little black girl with dreadlocks.

My latest one is about puppets. That happened because of COVID. I was gonna go learn filmmaking and suddenly I was like, "Well, I'll practice with the puppets that I took from school." I'm outside at the local emancipation Park. There are people walking by and I'm out there with puppets looking like I need medical attention. I mean, I've written a couple of one-person plays, and they've traveled to New York and Chicago and gotten some awards. And that's amazing.

But what else can I do?

Yeah, so puppet shows and one-woman shows and I just wrote a Christmas show for the Ensemble. I do really anything that crosses my mind at the moment. I'm trying to say yes to those things and open up to the stories that are calling my name.

It's really fascinating how that "no" really set you off on so many paths. I would love to talk about the puppeteering workshops for incarcerated youths because honestly, that's beautiful. So please, can you talk to me a little bit about that?

That's with Brave Little Theatre Company and it was amazing. They had some opportunities open and "Yeah, throw me in coach." That's supposed to be the demographic that I'm writing for.

There's a real fight at fourth grade for African American boys and people of color. That's when they're deciding how many prisons they're going to build. That's a big deal and so all of the educational stuff is geared towards that jump-off point.

I want to say that I was brave in the parking lot. I was less brave inside the door. Okay, the big clunky door that makes noise when it closes. I was like, "Oh, well, that was quick, Crystal. Your heart has jumped all the way into your ears." And I'm a short woman too. And I started praying dumb prayers. "Please don't let them confuse me for a person who lives here." Suddenly, I'm just worried that they'll hate the puppets.

But they just love it. But they're kids and I am a middle school teacher. Right? So I've had an opportunity to teach elementary and middle school at camps. It's all the same to a certain degree, but I myself got a little bit shaky in my boots.

The whole formality of being at a juvenile detention center was also unfamiliar to me. The formality of getting them to release their hands from behind their backs because they walk with their hands making a diamond shape as part of the formality of moving through the hallways and the rooms. It took a minute for them to relax their hands. And I have to say, "Give them time." Not that they're actually in handcuffs, but just "Your hands may relax at your side."

That thing took a minute, right? And then we're gonna do something different and I am silly and I make voices and I'm all over the place and I'm not barking. I'll say, "It's okay for you to decline participating in this activity. I hope you decide to join me on the next one."

But by golly, I usually have roped and hogtied all of them into puppets. They're doing voices. They're making up stuff, you know, they're having fun. And one guy was like, "Miss I get what you're saying. But we are in jail and our minds are on a whole lot of other stuff. So this whole puppetry thing is not what I want to think about." And I said, "I appreciate you telling me that. This is an opportunity for you to put those things to rest and tap into your creativity. And hope you take it because it's only going to be here for a few more moments." And he looked at me and he was like, "Okay, Miss," and he got the puppet. In this moment I help them tap into what I think is a little bit of God's design and remind them that there's more to them than this moment.

Wow. That's a really beautiful story. I think once you learn that you can create something you realize that you can really do anything with your life.

I agree completely.

So I've got one more question for you. Would you be willing to talk a little bit about how religion and God have influenced your work?

Oh, yeah. I totally rip His work off, or I'm paraphrasing.

I just love it. I love the stuff that's uncomfortable about the Bible. And so those things that make people itch. I like the things that are just not easy to understand. Those are the places where I like dancing the most. It's like jazz music and some people really get into the strangeness and some people are just like, "please just keep it straight and clean." And the straight and clean stuff is easy to digest. It's the weird jazz moments, right? Like when the drummer goes off and does his own thing. And they're these solos from instruments you can't identify with your ear and you're kind of like "wait, what?" I want to "get it" but it isn't as easily handed to me. Those are the spots where I tend to write from and tend to think about the most.

For example, in Tied all of the guys that are mentioned in the story have biblical names and therefore biblical properties, right, like so he's got an older brother named Moses. And Moses is a black man born in his 60s, except he walks with a cane and he doesn't need it. And every now and again when there's trouble, he can swing this cane at a million miles an hour like some cool kung fu Jedi person and knock a dude so hard that his head comes off.

Like, in my head, we got a chance to redress these guys as black men. How do they sound and how do they breathe and how do they move up?

I love thinking about letting them be human and being here with me and in this time, and I feel like it keeps the Bible from being characters in a land far, far away. I can learn from them better and hopefully help people think a little bit differently or reconsider or contemplate some things that they may have walked past in the Bible and hadn't put in the time to.

Faith and all of that is a gigantic part of the stitching of who I am as a person. And it comes out in my art.

But I do think that there is hope, and there is light and I really relish getting an opportunity to see hope and light on stage. But the hope and light only make sense in juxtaposition to darkness. The darkness is this explosion and four girls that are gone and the ripples. Then the light comes in when the main character has to figure out, "How do I respond to inequality in the justice system? How do I respond to just plain old grief from losing a loved one? What do I do with my own sense of failure? And how do I forgive myself?" And he gets a chance to forgive at all different levels, all different types of entities, which I think is a major cornerstone of faith and Christianity.

And I don't know that everyone will be at peace with how he arrives to this space, but that's not my job. My job is just to tell stories, and then let people kind of think through it and put themselves in those shoes and to wear somebody's skin for an hour.

Tied opens at The Ensemble Theatre from September 29th until October 9th.

For tickets please visit