The truth is hard to find. Especially, in a world that attempts to silence us. Even to go to great lengths to circumvent it, and create tremendous barriers to prevent us from knowing the whole truth. Because of this, we need storytellers who are brave enough to uncover the truth and share it with the world.
SOULE had an opportunity to speak with Nia Witherspoon, a Black queer playwright from Brooklyn, NY. Witherspoon’s work has been featured in both national and international venues––such as theaters, universities, activist organizations, and nonprofits.
Witherspoon’s writings are published in an array of journals and anthologies. Born to a father who was a Black Panther and a Jewish mother, she reflected on what it meant for her to find herself. We speak about her most prolific play called The Messiah Complex which was birthed because of this relentless pull to prove the existence of her queerness to her father (which we’ll discuss a bit later).
SOULE: Nia, when did you realize you had a love for words both writing and performing?
Nia: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. I was the kid who was always with a journal. I was always writing something, and it mattered to me the kind of pen I used. So, writing is a sacred act for me. As an only child to a Jewish mom and a Black dad, writing subconsciously became the main modality of reflecting on myself. I’ve always loved the written word. Now, performing is a different story. Performing always felt intimate, and for some time I didn’t want to share it with the world. I was an arts kid who took dance classes, recital type of performances.
I saw somewhere where you said ideas come to you as if you are hearing voices and as if conversations are happening inside of your head––how long does an idea go from thought to creation?
That process can take years because it takes time to translate what’s happening in my mind into the world. I work slowly especially with the demands of the world––it really depends on the piece I’m writing. The timeline of a professional artist moves quickly, and you just have to figure things out. One of my mentors said to me that you can’t dig up a seed before its time.
Do people not respect the creative process?
I’m lucky to work with mentors who modeled that creative process and I haven’t felt alone in it. I do find that in general, the Western theatre concept, it’s very subscription driven and it doesn’t lend itself to an experimental process. Therefore, the for-profit theatre world and the nonprofit theatre world aren’t that different. And fortunately, I have found creative homes, that nourish the artists and the creative process. It’s hard for performers because it comes down to what kinds of communities you are building and the expectations.
How did your play The Messiah Complex come about? What inspired you to create it?
It took 10 years to create. I was at a place of trying to find my way as a Black queer woman in the world. And I was having a lot of conflict with my father who was involved with the Black Panthers. He said my queerness had no place in Africa, that it’s not part of “us,” and that hit extra hard, that what I feel most connected to, like my body, and being most connected to humanity and to my culture to who I am, was somehow an outlier? The painful history of debating a lot with my father propelled me to create this story.
It’s the reason for moving forward in the direction that I took to prove him wrong. Saying no and saying why not, has shaped my entire life, even when going to graduate school and getting my Ph.D. at Stanford University, I knew my father was wrong but I didn’t know how to prove it. But in grad school, I could invest my time, energy and resources into understanding how my father was wrong.
There’s this rich history of queerness, sex, gender, and diversity, we came to see homophobia as a deeply spiritual affliction, but that has to do with our oppression, the more White and Westernized we became we internalized our own shame and exhibited lots of body shaming. Instead of being people who held sex-positive images of ourselves. The Messiah Complex was creatively manifesting as this story of a young trans person who was reconciling with his father’s rejection.
The piece still does the work that it needs to do today. I was really excited to do it, it was a piece I made for our people, it was beautiful to see that (story) realized, and responses from all over the country, it’s filling a need that we are craving. A need for our families to try to understand us. I’m no longer trying to prove my dad wrong.
Why are your plays necessary in today’s climate?
Violence against Black queer and Trans POC has never been so widely broadcasted, rates of murdered Trans POC’s has been at an all-time high, but it doesn’t mean they haven’t been happening. It’s the most pervasive form of violence that is a fact of colonization and the transatlantic slave trade and has manifested into State violence. Trans people are being murdered on the streets and it’s a deeper societal issue. I seek to get underneath of what operates at a deep, psychic and spiritual level. I really try to work ritualistically with images, text stories that we may know but need to see again. I do my part to unravel that, it’s all a part of this creative revolution that’s happening now.
Have you received any negative feedback from your creations and how do you manage it?
Oh, what hasn’t been said? Everything has been said like my work is too political, there’s this stigma about art having a social purpose (that it shouldn’t), or the story is too big to be marketable, because I write epic tales. Then I’ve heard that it should’ve been a one-woman show or something easy. And concerns that there is too much re-traumatizing too much violence and death in my works.
But I’m learning to not be a people pleaser with my art, but I’m still human with feelings and hurts, and it makes you feel like giving up because some of those voices can get into your head. But I have to remember that this is so much bigger than me, and I still have the responsibility to do the right thing as authentically as it’s coming to me as a creative spirit.
Which creative piece is near and dear to your heart?
It’s hard for me to say, only because I’m not that old (as a playwright), my first major big piece, The Messiah Complex is my baby, and in it I accomplished so many things and did the best I was able to do with it, I was able to get a cross-section of the communities that I’m a part of—everyone can relate to it. And I know there’s a queer person that is wrangling with that same issue.
The new piece I’m working on is called The Dark Girl Chronicles which is focused on Black women. There are so many different perspectives and representatives in this one, this creation is so crisp and so clear to me, that I didn’t have to reach too hard (or too far) to find those voices. It’s a beautiful holly process, I’m working with court transcripts and having those voices come to me with so much clarity, you know I’m a young artist, and I don’t know if that’s (the ease of creative flow) going to happen again.
What’s it like to be a Black woman playwright in the modern times?
It feels like treading water in the ocean. It’s beautiful and you can see the expansion, you’re right there yet you’re getting tired because you’re the only one sustaining yourself. It’s scary because there’s so much of the unknown and you don’t know if you’re going to land or if something will ever come along. So you can just rest and create the work. I was a fellow at the NY theatre, a fellow at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange and it’s great to have places to hold the work. But honestly, they don’t want Black playwrights.
The undoing racism training that they’re having in the theatre world and you look at the second and third leadership of those organizations, and you wonder what does change really look like? So far change looks like various different fellowships, but once you tap out of those, now what? How do I survive? Even the emerging (playwrights) ones have no salary. You still have to work full-time and produce theatre and maintain commitments. What does rest look like, what does the breath look like? I haven’t seen it modeled, including my mentors. But we’re here.
As a part of academia do you find yourself limited in what you can say or do?
With academia and in my classroom I pretty much say and do whatever I want. Whatever I don’t do or say is a function of my own internalized s—. I might edit myself on some stuff, so that’s usually coming from me. But it’s not to say there aren’t issues in a large structure (a large institution). But I’ve had to face my own stuff to communicate and stand up to this 60-year-old White man who challenged me consistently throughout the semester. So, the question is always what can I do at this moment to maintain my integrity?
What is the biggest contributor to your success?
The refusal to quit, my persistence has been the biggest contributor, to keep editing until…to keep applying for residencies. I’ve applied to the same residency for three years straight until I finally received it.
Your work is so intense and powerful, the content is very raw, emotional, and heavy, what do you do on a personal level to maintain your spirit and energy during production?
If things aren’t seated (grounded), it’s hard to do my work as an outside thing, there’s no difference between my creative practice and spiritual practice. I try to create a spiritual healthy healing space and also attend to embodied ways that my spirit speaks to me. Some things come to me in a dreamlike inspiration.
I’ll spend time in nature, finding ways to calm my mind and heart. I cleanse myself with sage and sometimes it’s not lofty at all. But I practice on being human and to make sure my art isn’t everything. Not isolating myself, but keeping myself a part of my community, my relationships, and not being absent from my life. I don’t have a White model of creating (consistently churning despite the negative consequences), but a Black feminist of creating. I have to create with a different model in a world that wants you to do otherwise.
What advice do you have for those that dream to be a playwright such as yourself?
Everyone says this but you really just have to write and practice writing. Because unless writing can become a regular part of your life, unless you do the thing— and being an artist isn’t about thinking about being an artist, but it’s about doing the work so you can be an artist, you won’t create. Do the thing that you dream of just don’t think about it. Make sure you have a strong supportive creative community, one that will be real about your work and how you can grow and a community that builds you up. Believe in your work and don’t let anyone else be the determining factor of your value as an artist. Listen to the Universe and let the Universe speak to you. Follow your artist’s heart.
What are you working on now? What’s next in the pipeline for you?
I’m currently at work on a collection of essays, tentatively titled Letters to the Nation, and a play cycle called The Dark Girl Chronicles, which explores the criminalization of Black cis- and Trans women via the African diaspora sacred stories.
The Dark Girl Chronicles, is a devised play cycle that looks at Black women and state violence, it uses text from court transcripts investigations, Facebook live postings (like Diamond Reynolds video of Philando Castille’s murder) it merges those contemporary Black storytelling and methodology and pairs it with the existing Yoruba sacred texts of the oracles Ifa and Igloo.
What is the conversation between ancient and contemporary stories and what light can be shed on our current situation and on anything that our ancestors may have experienced? What we wonder about, the interior space, where Black women are forced to be strong (the exterior), the inferiority complex and where are our vulnerabilities and the responsibilities, etc.. The hope is these questions will be answered and more Black women will have the chance to ask these questions in a forum that feels safe. The other hope is that the non-Black audience will be able to see the complexities in a way they’ve never considered before subconscious rewiring started. So the next time someone thinks about the whole “angry Black woman” thing they’ll think differently.
SOULE thanks Nia Witherspoon for the powerful work she is creating and delivering to our community that needs it the most.