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Interview: Theatre Life with Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe

Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe on Arena Stage's latest docudrama and more

Interview: Theatre Life with Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe
Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe

On September 16th, Arena Stage will unveil it's latest socially relevant docudrama. The 51st State will feature the work of several playwrights including today's subject Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe.

Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe has been living his theatre life as a care worker, dramaturg, director, and theatre arts educator for many years now. He is an Adjunct Instructor in Dramaturgy at Carnegie Mellon University and Junior Lecturer in Womens Studies at University of Maryland. He has developed new works at such organizations as Sundance Institute, Kennedy Center, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Playwrights Center, National New Play Network, The Classical Theatre of Harlem, and Arena Stage. He was an Adjunct Instructor in Performing Arts at American University, Lecturer of Theatre Arts at Howard University, Associate Artistic Director at banished? productions, Future Classics Program Coordinator at The Classical Theatre of Harlem, and Literary Manager at Center Stage.

The 51st State shows a snapshot of DC in today's times and all that faces our great city. Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe is one of our finest area playwrights and dramaturgs. It seems to me Arena Stage has assembled a winning combination with Otis, Paige Hernandez, Psalmayne 24, and the other talented artists attached to The 51st State.

Even during a pandemic, such artists as Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe are creating something for all of us to enjoy and to think about. That is what you call living your theatre life to the fullest in these uncertain and always interesting times.

Growing up, did you know that theatre was going to be your chosen profession?

I didn't. In order, I wanted to be a fireman, preacher, then lawyer. I had access to theatre in my youth, but I was drawn to professions that centered around care for others. I learned early that law and justice weren't necessarily the same things, and for the longest time, I thought that the best way to work to harmonize the two was as a lawyer. I perused theatre in undergrad because the theatre folk quickly became my tribe.

Where did you attend school and what was your major?

I did undergrad at the University of Notre Dame where I studied Theatre and completed a Dance minor at St. Mary's College across the lake. I have an MA in Performance Studies from NYU. Honestly, life is my school. I am driven by inquiry; so, I'm an open channel for learning.

Interview: Theatre Life with Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe
Sherri L. Edelen and Thomas Adrian Simpson (at table) filming They Say, part of Arena Stage's new Docudrama The 51st State. The section is written by
Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe and directed by Molly Smith.
Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.

Can you please tell us a little something about the upcoming Arena Stage Docudrama The 51st State?

The 51st State renders a snapshot of Washington, DC at a height of attention to racial justice in the wake of George Floyd's murder, subsequent protests, and a re-centering of calls for DC Statehood as disputes between federal and local authorities play out. The pieces are based on and inspired by interviews with a rich sample or residence in the DC area; all of the interviews were conducted on the same day, and the ten writers fashioned works that captured the zeitgeist. My work concerns failure, action, and idealism-though the latter feels insufficient but is intended to describe both will and effort to make the world into something more just and luminous. Each piece promises to draw out something different, since even if we stand in the same place we aren't a monolith. I'm anxious to see it all together to contemplate what emerges.

The 51st State has more than one playwright working on it. Can you please tell us what your section of the film focuses on?

Focuses is such a marvelous word... because when you live in the world you know that attention is held on one or a few things while everything else keeps happening. In a lot of ways, my section is about attention emerging out of inattention, which in itself reflects America's history of and relationship to racial justice. We meet a married couple in which the wife is a drum major for justice and the husband is an analytical dreamer. He sees the dream, believes in its attainability through multifocal attention, and his wife has a gift for economy and synthesis. Together, they are hailed to the front lines of intersecting battles for justice.

You are both a playwright and a dramaturg. Do you find that one compliments the other?

Dramaturgy informs everything that I do. Except that I wasn't practicing the craft in the theatre, I was a dramaturg before I was ever introduced to the word because how I learned and chose to be in the world as well as my interests were all reflecting a dramaturgical sensibility. When I teach, direct, write, converse, even cook, there is a dramaturgy running through all of that. I learned how to direct by being a dramaturg. What I learned of playwrighting and devising originates in dramaturgy.

Interview: Theatre Life with Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe
L-R Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe and DC's late great gentle musical giant
George Fulginiti-Shakar.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

The DC theatre community recently lost one of its finest artists with George Fulginiti-Shakar's passing. The two of you were partners for many years. Can you please tell us how you met and what you will miss most about his not being here anymore?

I pursued George. After sitting through the invited dress rehearsal for Arena Stage's 2003 production of Camelot directed by Molly Smith, I made a point to find him and talk to him. The orchestrations and music direction were immensely thrilling. Listen to the Original Broadway Recording, and sonically everything lives in the golden age of musicals universe. In the song "Guenevere," for example, the queen is about to be executed and there's still a brightness to the song; whereas George brought out darker tones. George shaped a clear musical arc that matched the narrative starting with threat of war through the carefree and vibrant "The Lusty Month of May" and the descent back into war. I needed to meet that man... and that turned into sixteen years together.

What will I miss most? I believe that presence is a ministry. Having such a worldview, even things that drove me batty are to be missed because it all composed the whole being. I'm not one to shun the difficult and unpleasant-yes, all of it; it's all necessary; it's all a part of living one's whole life. Of course, George is hilarious! And it could be so subtle, but he would always make me laugh; I mean, even close to the very end, George could still say something funny. I'll certainly miss that. Daily, I find myself remembering something or another and laughing; so, he's still making me laugh.

What do you want audiences to take away with them after viewing The 51st State?

I believe in viewer autonomy to the point that I don't insist that I can speak to what audiences will take away. I know that Arena has assembled a tremendous team of artists for this project, and I can guarantee that viewers will be moved, provoked, and delighted. I'm looking forward to seeing the finished project and experiencing it for the first time.

Special thanks to Arena Stage's Senior Director of Marketing and Communications Renée M. Littleton for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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