Teaching Artist Leah Reddy spoke with playwright Mansa Ra about
…what the end will be.
LEAH REDDY: What inspired …what the end will be?
MANSA RA: After writing Too Heavy for Your Pocket, which was essentially for and about my grandparents, I really needed to write a play about me. I just needed to write a story that would've made a difference for me when I was growing up.
For me, it was the question of, “What if we all could get in a room intergenerationally, what would we say? What would we fight about? Because, I'm sure we would still fight, but what if the struggle wasn’t about sexuality or gender or color? It lent itself to so many life lessons. …what the end will be is about mortality, and love, and family. I hope it's just a cathartic experience for everyone, regardless of ethnicity or sexuality or gender. If we really get to the heart of it, there are so many differences we have, but we don't have to highlight those differences, we can just be ourselves.
There is an organization called SAGE [SAGE: Advocacy and Service for Queer Elders], that I worked with in Harlem when I first got to Connecticut for grad school. We did this show at SAGE where it was an intergenerational dialogue with elderly, queer Harlem residents, and also a lot of homeless youth who are trans and queer and non-binary. They put a show together, a kind of a community art endeavor. We did not sell tickets, it was an after school engagement kind of thing.
When I met the SAGE community, I felt a little guilty. I'm a young, Black, Yale graduate student who gets to come into their world. It meant a lot to me. And I was like, if I have the opportunity, I just wanted to, again, give them a proper play, and then give young me a proper play because coming out in Memphis, Tennessee at 14 years old was not easy.
LR: That’s a great place to jump into my next question. What is your theatre origin story?
MR: My theatre origin story. My first play I saw, I remember viscerally. It's one of my first memories. I was eight years old and my mom took me to a Chitlin' circuit play called Sang Sister Sang at the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee. I don't think I had ever been that transported before. It was this musical piece about some blues divas meeting in heaven, like Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. And when we left, my mom refused to get me the soundtrack. I was like, “Mom, please, please, please get me the soundtrack. I need it. I can't stop thinking about it.”
LR: Where did that interest go from there? Once you were hooked on theatre?
MR: Once I was hooked, I was too shy to share what I wrote. I was a kid who was always walking around with a clipboard. Ask anybody in Memphis. My first time sharing my writing was my freshman year of college. And we were doing this theatre appreciation project where someone writes, someone directs, someone designs, and we all present at the end of the semester. I wrote a piece and when it was over, everybody clapped. I thought, “This is for me. I can just show you the characters I've been thinking about, and someone else will do the hard part of [performing].”
LR: Could you talk a little bit about your playwriting process?
MR: It usually starts with an image in my mind. I start asking questions about the image: What happens when [the character] goes back inside? Or why is he outside the house now? I continue to ask more provocative questions. I have that image and I'll think, “Why is Bowzie [from Too Heavy for Your Pocket] in the field? Where does he go next?” Or the piece Shutter Sisters that I wrote for The Old Globe. I had this image of these two women who were opening the shutters to see each other. And I thought, “Well, who are you?”
Then, if I write 30 pages by myself, I've done really well. Almost instantly I find actors to read with. Once I hear the 30 pages aloud, I know what the play’s about. I can write the rest of the play. Once I hear someone's specific cadence, the rest of it almost comes a little bit effortlessly. Even today, I am rewriting …what the end will be based upon the humans we cast. It really is all about making sure a performer can stand on stage and repeat those lines every night for weeks.
LR: Can you talk about why representing the intergenerational experience in this piece is important to you?
MR: That was a part of my life at 14 actually. My grandmother moved in with us from Detroit. She lived with us until she passed away. I have two stories about her that I love and I’m glad are part of my life. I think it was New Year's Day the year that she passed away. “I think this is it. This is the year I get to see my sister.” I'm choking up a little bit remembering.
I was in college at the time she passed. About three or four months later, my grandmother and her sister visited me in a dream and stayed with me the entire night. They sat with me and chatted with me and let me know how proud they were of me. That's a big part of what I wanted to give to my queer elders. I wanted to give them a chance to say goodbye and find who's waiting on the other side.
LR: That resonates, especially since this play was postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic. How did the pandemic affect your play?
MR: I couldn't write during the pandemic. I'm a really sensitive person, so it was hard. When the pandemic hit, it felt like all I could do was support our bus drivers, and the people who make the world go around. It took a while for me to understand art as one of those things. Once I did, the play changed drastically. Now, it is much more about grief and release and goodbyes and freedom and how freedom really looks different for each generation. I've been working on this play for a really long time, and it means the world to me and the ability to give this play as a COVID gift, because we've lost upwards of 700,000 Americans [as of March 2022], and all of our lives have changed.
LR: How does collaborating with a director shape your work?
MR: What I love about working with a director is they are the ones tasked with realizing a vision, while I get to just dream. I write, “It's a beautiful home,” and that's all I have to do. The director and designers are researching homes and gardens, figuring out which beautiful home, really concretizing it. The first time I stepped into the set of Too Heavy for Your Pocket I cried, because they had brought my dream into a reality that I could literally touch and sit on. Like I said before, plays start with an image for me. Then the director digs deep into each page and puts that page onto the stage. I get to focus on the words and the language while the directors are the ones really actualizing it. I don't envy it, it is a tough, tough job, but it is one that I really respect and admire.
LR: I just have one question left. What advice do you have for new or emerging artists?
MR: Art is an employable skill. Don't let people tell you otherwise. It always breaks my heart when young people are artistically inclined in any way and are steered away because they don't think it will make money. If you dream of being an artist, it takes a lot to win an Oscar, but it does not necessarily take that much to be involved in your community and be employed. There is work for an artist. Is it a hard road? Probably. But so is law school, you know what I mean? It's not any harder than a lot of other occupations, and if you love it, it's so fulfilling.