Interview: Kristen Adele Calhoun Excitedly World Premieres Her BLACK CYPRESS BAYOU

The world premiere of Kristen Adele Calhoun’s Black Cypress Bayou has already begun at the Geffen Playhouse.

By: Feb. 20, 2024
Interview: Kristen Adele Calhoun Excitedly World Premieres Her BLACK CYPRESS BAYOU
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Interview: Kristen Adele Calhoun Excitedly World Premieres Her BLACK CYPRESS BAYOU

The world premiere of Kristen Adele Calhoun’s Black Cypress Bayou has already begun at The Geffen Playhouse. Tiffany Nichole Greene directs the cast of: Amber Chardae Robinson, Brandee Evans, Angela Lewis and Kimberly Scott. After a successful opening weekend, Kristen managed to find some time to answer a few of my queries.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Kristen!

What was the initial spark that urged you to write Black Cypress Bayou?

As we watched supply chains break down in 2020, I reflected on how equipped country folks were to deal with the moment. People, like my grandparents in East Texas, who grow their own food, hunt, fish and generously share with their neighbors perhaps have less panic about grocery store shortages. It made me wonder: what other lessons does the deep rural Black South have to teach us about community? In an ever-changing, tech-driven world, how do we hold fast to old-fashioned ways of being? What existing power structures must be eradicated for humanity to carry on? And to what degree does our survival depend on things we have forgotten? I wrote Black Cypress Bayou to wrestle with these questions and to celebrate the people and places that made me. 

What would your three-line pitch for Black Cypress Bayou be?

In the midst of a global pandemic, a family of Texas women gather at the edge of the bayou to solve a grisly murder. What they discover will lead to either their total destruction or long-awaited liberation. This story asks - what must change for humanity to thrive? 

Is your script still evolving for this world premiere? Or are your words set in stone?

While this production is locked and won’t have any more changes on the page - the lessons from this run will definitely influence the next draft. Each audience teaches me about what is working and what could be more clear, and I love the process of revision.  

Have you worked with any of this cast or creatives before?

Interview: Kristen Adele Calhoun Excitedly World Premieres Her BLACK CYPRESS BAYOU I haven’t but I have been a huge fan of Kimberly Scott and Angela Lewis for many years. I remember watching them both tear up their roles in new plays back in New York and at regional theaters across the country. I’m a more recent fan of Brandee Evans and Amber Chardae Robinson from their television work. They are both so good and radiant onstage. I think our whole cast is phenomenal and so committed to this work of spirit and story. 

It’s also my first time working with director Tiffany Nichole Greene and our collaboration process has felt like a match made in heaven. Tiffany is a genius communicator and storyteller. I can’t imagine this play in anyone else’s hands and I’m so happy Black Cypress Bayou brought us together. We are already planning another collaboration on a play of mine called bloodwork at the National Black Theatre in Harlem later this year. 

And many moons ago, I played the role of Oya in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stirring play In the Red and Brown Water, so it feels like a full circle moment to have the world premiere of Black Cypress Bayou emerge under his artistic leadership. The Geffen Playhouse is truly blessed to have such a singular leader, craftsman and advocate guiding the institution.  

How involved are you in various premieres of your plays?

Very.  I am in rehearsal every day and making changes to carve out the essence of the play.  

When you write, are your characters consciously or subconsciously based on your friends and family?

In Black Cypress Bayou - each of these women is a composite character of East Texas women (and men) I know well. I was pretty conscious of that in this process as I am seeking to honor a community of brilliant folks that are often overlooked.  

Interview: Kristen Adele Calhoun Excitedly World Premieres Her BLACK CYPRESS BAYOU I find in being from the Black South a blend of cunning, strength, ingenuity, humor, and refusal to be bested. Despite our longstanding history of horrors, many of our nation's most revolutionary minds come from the South. The best parts of American culture can be traced to the Black South. And yet, we oftentimes dismiss the entire region as backwards, worthless, and hopeless. Why is that? And how do we turn our attention back to the lessons of community care, love, thrival and hope the Black South has to teach us? 

How long has the gestation period of Black Cypress Bayou been since the nucleus of an idea to opening night at the Geffen?

Almost four years! I started writing this play in April 2020. I needed to write a new full-length play for my application to be a writer in residence at the National Black Theatre and Black Cypress Bayou was my application piece. After years of notes from close friends, a reading produced by Tina Turley at Theatre Tuscaloosa, and a workshop at The Geffen Playhouse supported by the Edgerton Foundation - here we are! I can’t say enough how grateful I am for everyone’s belief and support in this new work! 

You are co-curator of BLKSPACE with Interfest co-producer Nikki Vera. What inspired you to take on that position?

I love this question so much! BLKSPACE is a two-week residency that affords Black artists the opportunity to rest and be in gentle loving community with like-minded artists. We invite artists to join us whose work is centered around liberation and we seek to simultaneously provide an expansive dreaming space for the individual and a collective practice ground for freedom.  

Interview: Kristen Adele Calhoun Excitedly World Premieres Her BLACK CYPRESS BAYOU My co-curator Nikki Vera and I dreamt up BLKSPACE along with our fellow INTERFEST curators many years ago. We know in our bones how exhausting it can be to be a Black creator in spaces that did not imagine our participation at their inception. We know how spiritually draining it can be to live in a world that seems determined to keep us oppressed and I know from my personal retreat and fugitivity practice - how important it is to create a petit marronage in the name of gathering the tools for more sustained freedom in the future. We hope to give our residents the healing space to reset one’s nervous system, grow capacity, and bask in beautiful conversations with fellow artists and a stunning natural environment. 

My work as a co-curator of BLKSPACE brings me so much joy and I can’t wait until we find a new home for this project. If you know of anyone who loves Black people with a peaceful farm, mansion or estate that can host up to 15 artists - please do let us know!  

Who were the theatre makers you looked up to in your formative writing career?

I strive to be in conversation with the works of Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, Israel Hicks, Jeffrey Nickelson, Ebony Noelle Golden, Shay Wafer, Lorraine Hansberry, Dr. Ron Himes, Vickie Washington, Woodie King Jr., Tarell Alvin McCraney, Suzan-Lori Parks, Eric Lockley, Belynda M’Baye, Lynn Nottage, Lynda Gravatt, Katori Hall, Tricia Hersey, August Wilson, Dominique Morisseau, Jenny Koons, Nikki Vera, Marcus Gardley, Jonathan McCrory, Sade LythcottMichael Blake, York Walker, Kemiyondo Coutinho, Princeton James, Roberta Uno, Michael Thomas Walker, Rodney Hicks, Marshall Jones III, Cajardo Lindsey and all collaborators past, present and future who believe in the transforming power of the stage. 

Out of all the awards, residencies, grants, scholarships and commissions that you have received, does one particular honor still stand above the rest?

Interview: Kristen Adele Calhoun Excitedly World Premieres Her BLACK CYPRESS BAYOU Yes. Our National Performance Network grant/commission from the St. Louis Black Repertory Company and 651 Arts to write our play Canfield Drive will always be a great honor. I will sing the praises of Dr. Ron Himes and Ms. Shay Wafer forever. Their trust and support over a multi-year development process was unmatched. 

Is there a new play percolating in your creative brain?

Always. I am working on a love story called out the mud that is bringing me a lot of joy. It has a micro-commission from the Lucille Lortel Theatre, and I am grateful for the support. I also have the culminating presentation of my National Black Theatre residency forthcoming and I can’t wait to share my play bloodwork with the world. 

What’s in the near future for Kristen Adele Calhoun?

Rest and relaxation.  I am overdue for a trip to the Caribbean Sea. I’m looking forward to sunshine, fresh fruit and the space to dream up my next moves. 

Thank you again, Kristen! May you have a successful run at the Geffen.

For tickets to the live performances of Black Cypress Bayou through March 17, 2024; click on the button below: