On occasion, I like to feature artists, writers, filmmakers and other creative people on this blog. Today’s focus is on theatre.
Shawn C. Harris is a playwright from Richmond, VA who has written, developed, and produced plays in NYC’s indie theatre scene. A passionate advocate for improving diversity in theatre, her works consistently feature strong roles for women, people of color, and LGBTQ people.
Shawn’s plays include ENCANTA, TULPA, OR ANNE&ME, THE ROSE KNIGHT, and a variety of short pieces. Her work has been featured at The Cell Theatre’s Blackboard Plays reading series and WOW Cafe Theatre.
Since 2008, she has been writing essays and sharing resources about theatre, social justice, and diversity on her blog, Love’s Labors Lost.
In 2010, Shawn founded Crossroads Theatre Project to develop plays that challenge assumptions about what African diaspora theatre is and what it can be. Through Crossroads Theatre Project, Shawn’s full-length play, TULPA, OR ANNE&ME, received its world premiere at the 3rd annual Planet Connections Theatre Festivity.
Crossroads Theatre Project is currently developing her next play, ENCANTA, for production.
Thanks for being here, Shawn. In one of our conversations, you mentioned that the Crossroads Theatre Project was named after Eshu/Legba/Ellegua. Can you tell us a little bit about that? It seems fitting, Legba being the lwa of communications, among other things.
The way I make sense of it is that Eshu builds connections and exchanges between people, places, words, realities, and ideas. This can make him complex and sometimes paradoxical. Sometimes helping, sometimes harming. Sometimes fun, sometimes terrifying. I think that many times people simplify that by calling him a trickster, but I prefer to think of him as a guide into new ways of perceiving and understanding. Simply by being what he is, he challenges fixed notions of identity and perception.
It is likewise with Black identity. Black people, and therefore Black theatre, are not just one thing. Blackness is often seen as monolithic, so that tends to mean that people often simplify what Black humanity, and therefore Black art, is or can be about.
Crossroads Theatre Project is my way of giving space to the spirit of what Eshu represents while also rooting it in Blackness and in the intersections of Blackness and other identities.
I really love the way you just described him. You’ve obviously done a fair amount of research into African Traditional Religions. Is there one particular branch that interests you more than others, and do you see yourself one day traveling down that path?
I’ve committed to another path, but one of the things I wish to bring to my current practice is a sensibility rooted in African spirituality such as diunital cognition.
Let’s talk about your latest project, “Encanta.” I was trying to think of how to describe it and came up with romantic fantasy comedy with a touch of swashbuckler. How would you describe it? It doesn’t fit neatly into one category.
“Romantic fantasy” is a good way to describe it. I don’t particularly worry about how to label it genre-wise. I prefer to say what the play is about and let that speak for itself. Once people get to the part where the play is about a pirate and a sorceress falling in love, I hope it’s pretty obvious that I’m not dealing with a slice-of-life drama.
I love the humor throughout the script, even during the more dangerous scenes. Was it originally conceived that way or did you ever consider writing it as straight drama?
It was originally conceived to be lighthearted and funny.
At the beginning of the script, you mention that all parts can be played by trans and genderqueer people. I take it you put that right up front to keep that prominent in any potential director’s mind?
I wrote these characters so that trans and genderqueer people could play them, so that trans and genderqueer people can imagine themselves in these roles. A director grasping that point was a secondary, but still important, consideration.
For the record, it was not a Herculean task to make these roles inclusive of trans and genderqueer people. It wasn’t even difficult. So anyone claiming that it’s oh so hard to write roles for trans and genderqueer people is making excuses.
In your scene descriptions, you cast we the audience as part of the crowd on the street, or neighbors across the street, etc. We are participants in the world of the play. Is there a nonstandard way you visualize producing this play? Would you prefer to produce it in, say, a large room rather than the standard stage which separates audience from the cast? What inspired you to do this?
I don’t see it working well with a proscenium stage. I’d prefer something a lot more porous that combines the art with, say, commerce. A black box theatre can do that, but I would honestly prefer to stage this play outdoors in the midst of some arts and crafts fair or something.
Natural elements play a key role in some scenes. How do you visualize presenting those in your play, especially if you are in an outdoor venue? Would you use props, rely on dialog, or some combination of both?
There are ways to do it, but that’s the director’s job. It won’t work the same way it does in film, where the camera tells you everything. On stage, you’d have to use your imagination more actively.
One of the things I love about theatre is that the power of suggestion is much more potent. So you can take mundane objects like, say, a bath towel, and sort of transform them into other things. That same bath towel can be a superhero cape, a wig of long hair, a baby wrapped in a bundle, or something else entirely.
I really like the way romance and love is presented in this script. Women love women, men love men, and it’s just the way it is without any social stigma. The woman/man combo is not presented as the norm. Does your desire to contribute to a more accepting world affect the type of setting in your work (i.e., fantasy rather than contemporary)?
Not consciously. I just wanted fun, romance, and magic because I’m interested in that. I wanted something that came from my own experience and things I’m interested in without having to justify it.
I was far more deliberate about all the characters being Latino and Afro-Latino and opening all these roles to trans and genderqueer people.
You probably get this question all the time, but what advice would you give aspiring playwrights and other creative folks, especially those who are members of marginalized groups?
I don’t like giving advice. I find that most people have more wisdom about their situation than I ever could. But one piece of advice that has worked for me is to never take on debt to make theatre.
If you would like to read more from Shawn, check out her blog Love’s Labors Lost.