The Perfect Mix: Assembling Angelas Mixtape: Playwright Eisa Davis with Tommy Smith
Any time I try to describe my life it feels like it’s bursting at the seams.
It’s just too much to say – it’s definitely not linear.
A mixtape seems like this way that would capture the emotional content, as well as the space for the odd personal idiosyncratic elements to just be okay.
So the first draft came out fast.
I had the title and the blurb before I even wrote the play.
The Hip-Hop Theater Festival asked me to do something in their fourth year.
I’d done a play with them once before.
And they were like, Do you have anything new we can put into this slot?
And I didn’t think I had anything that would work.
And they were like, Why don’t you just write something new?
And I was like, Okay.
And then they were like, Okay, we’re putting the brochure together, what’s the play that you’re writing?
And I was like, Um … well … um … I’ve really been wanting to write something like kind of a memoir thing.
And they were like, That’s cool.
And then I actually had a conversation with Adrienne Kennedy, who’s really been a dear dear friend and mentor for me from the first class I took from her in college, and over the years, she understands what it’s like to be a black woman playwright in particular, and she just has this honesty that is unbridled: She doesn’t know how to lie at all.
And that is something that I just admire so about her.
And we were having a conversation, and she really likes Angela*.
And she just was like, You’ve written some other plays.
It’s okay, you can write about her now.
It’s all right.
And I was like, Really?
And she was like, Yeah.
And so when they called me again asking for a title, I was like, It’s called Angela’s Mixtape.
And then I had to like, write a blurb about what it was about.
So I wrote the blurb but I still had not written the play.
So basically wrote the play really fast, like in a week and half or something.
And I had this huge stack of pages.
And then I had my cousin who is in the play, like my actual cousin, come into town.
Because I wanted it to be something that we would do together in the way that we used to do little shows and stuff after dinner.
I thought, Well why doesn’t she come to town and we’ll do this reading at New York Theatre Workshop that the Hip-Hop Theater Festival was putting up.
So she came and she nearly lost her voice reading through all these pages.
So from her reading through them I just cut cut cut.
Its interesting what you said about how, uh, how memory, when you think about memory it’s more, it’s not … linear, and I really like that about the play and how it sort of represents these memories in sort of like, its almost like a mosaic of different things and it goes backwards and forwards in time: I guess I don’t know how to ask, it’s some … I don’t quite know how to ask this but is there any … what is the difference between your memory of it and Angela herself, or are they inseparable, I guess. Does that make sense? Or …
Say it again for me.
You’re reconstructing Angela through this play. Even though this play is based on historical events, it is fiction, so how does your vision of Angela differ from the actual Angela?
Oh I see what you’re saying.
There’s no way that anyone who’s ever depicted in a play would be happy with what they see. Because there’s no way that you could share the full essence of a person in an hour and a half in our case.
This is a very particular slice of time.
Really the Angela I knew from growing up with her until I was about 19.
So it’s a very particular dynamic between her and my mother.
And just what it was like being a child and growing up and spending time with her.
So that’s not the Angela I think many people would know.
But how does it differ from the real Angela?
She’s not that person anymore.
She’s older, I’m older.
We’ve completely changed.
And think that’s actually a very important mission for me with the play.
And that it’s something that Angela talks a lot about in her speeches, where she is always just trying to deconstruct the image that is offered of her as just afro big mouth open screaming fist in the air.
People are always like, Oh, she’s a Black Panther.
She was only a Black Panther for six months.
You know, She was toting guns.
She was never toting guns.
She did keep some for her protection.
She was getting death threats all the time.
Then her bodyguards used them.
So there are all these ways in which her image has either been stamped or commodified on tee shirts and videos.
And that evokes a very particular kind of person that she wasn’t even necessarily at that time.
She wasn’t that person.
So there’s that, and then there’s the fact that she’s alive.
Many people think she’s dead.
She’s like, still alive and still doing what she did when people first started hearing her name, which was as a professor and an activist, and that’s what she continues to do.
So I think that it is about the shifting of identity and how what you think is a person isn’t necessarily who they are.
And that’s been a scary part for me because this play is so personal and reveals all these things that only your shrink should hear.
I don’t have a shrink so that’s probably why I made this play.
It can just be really frightening.
You think, Wow, people are going to know all that dirt on you and they’ll try to take advantage of you in a certain way, or just imagine you have all these weaknesses that they never knew about, you know?
That’s the part that would be frightening.
But at the same time I just know that the strongest position is, Tell what your truth is.
No matter how vulnerable that is, that’s actually, I hope, something that would be helpful for other people to hear and helpful for my family too, to be able to see this, because some of these things are things I would never have a conversation with them about.
And then here they are on stage.
But it’s not A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
*Davis. Eisa, who is Angela’s niece, describes her aunt as an “American political activist and professor of philosophy. Her imprisonment and trial in the early 1970s sparked an international campaign for her freedom. Since her acquittal, Davis has continued to teach and speak around the globe, with a particular focus on the eradication of the prison industrial complex.”
New Georges/Hip-Hop Theater Festival production of Eisa Davis’ ANGELA’S MIXTAPE runs April 6 to May 2, Mondays through Saturdays 8pm; opens April 9 at 7pm. The Ohio Theatre; 66 Wooster Street, Soho. For tickets, call SmartTix at 212-868-4444. For further info, visit www.newgeorges.org.
Tommy is a playwright. He lives in Manhattan.