Watching Staceyann Chin perform is to witness a force of nature—from her lithe frame and bruised-beautiful survivor’s flesh can come a pummeling hail storm of honesty, hilarity, and heartbreak. Throughout her award-wining career as a spoken-word poet, activist, and performer, Chin has long drawn from her personal experiences. Hers is a practice rooted in the mining of her own life—and the out loud sharing of the words and stories sculpted from it. As Chin has written, she is a “strange orchestra of chance and choice.”
Her latest effort, MotherStruck!, running now through January 29 at Culture Project,is a fierce continuation in her creative trajectory. Written and performed by Chin, with Cynthia Nixon as director, the solo showchronicles her real-life journey to motherhood as a single, black, lesbian artist in New York City without the heteronormative support of a partner, family, or health insurance. Chin greets the experience armed only with her iron-willed desire to have a child. As she occupies her new show, her prism of identities, now including that of mother, meld fluidly as she poignantly and hilariously recounts her seemingly insurmountable struggle—IVF treatments, being broke, a near-miscarriage—to conceive the “radical feminist ninja messiah” she has so longed for.
Jamie Maleszka (Rail): Bell Hooks has said that “we cannot have meaningful revolution without humor.” Can you talk about the necessary role humor plays in your work?
Staceyann Chin: For sure. I am Caribbean, Jamaican. I am black. People of color particularly— black people, immigrants, women, queer people, poor people—the conditions of our lives often have sorrow. One can drown in sorrow. I find that laughter is a more than adequate raft. In fact, it can even be wings. My whole life, I’ve watched my family laugh hard, out loud at the most painful things. When I moved into a space where therapy was a catchphrase, I often looked down on laughing. You know, “I don’t know why they are laughing at these difficult, serious things that shouldn’t be laughed at.” That’s how I felt in my early to mid-twenties. Then, as I became an older woman with a child, surviving many, many fractured relationships, I found that if I can find a moment to laugh while the waters are slamming against my sinking flesh, it’s almost like a little air bubble that lifts you. Before you know it, you are afloat again.
Rail: This too shall pass.
Chin: Yes. My grandmother used to say that to me. This too shall pass—for everything. That remains my rudder. When things are really good and so great, you have to remember that this will not be forever, so, revel in it, sit in it, try as you might, even though it is your instinct to look ahead. Stay with it. Be present.
Rail: The literal run of a show teaches just that. Tuesday night was decent. Wednesday was shit. Thursday was magical. And so on.
Chin: Yes. That steadiness. And you never know what an individual show is going to be like. You know, I have a kid. That alone can upend your day. The kid is much more unpredictable. But I feel quite grateful for: one, the space to tell this story; two, the story itself; and three, for the survival of the story.
Rail: In the instance of life imitating art, the production itself has faced many obstacles. [Originally scheduled to open this past October, MotherStruck! was pushed to a mid-December premiere due to unforeseen financial issues.]
Chin: The inside joke for the production team whenever we’re having problems is, “Oh yeah, we’re Murphystruck. We’re not MotherStruck! Today, we’re Murphystruck.” The birth of the play has mimicked the birth of this kid. When you start to make art of your life, it just becomes this cyclical thing where the art becomes an additional variable in your life. It becomes this moving, twisting, turning thing.
Rail: There is nothing more intimate than the real-life moments you are mining in the show. How do you get those experiences to a place where they are removed from your flesh and sinew and become raw materials and paints upon a palette for you to work with and govern?
Chin: I think it is important to approach that in the writing first. You have to polish the writing first, so that it doesn’t fail you when you are struggling, when your flesh is up against the story. I spent a lot of time working on this script. Cynthia [Nixon] and I asked hard questions about the story. We front-loaded the script work. A lot of work was done beforehand and during rehearsal and even as we are up in previews.
The script doesn’t have everything that happened in it. The script helps you to isolate the events of the story you want to tell. Once you isolate them, then you can focus on that story and not be concerned with the noise of all the other things that happened.
Rail: What were the moments of origin for this to be realized as a piece of theater?
Chin: I couldn’t find anything about artificial insemination or what it means when you don’t have resources and you want to get pregnant, and you don’t have a partner, and you’re not supported by the heteronormative structures—like insurance, community, and family. What do you do when there isn’t a straight line ahead of you to go after the thing that you desire? I’ve always understood that examination of the self can lead you to answers for questions that are not immediately apparent in an experience. So my first idea was to make a film about this. Let’s put all this together and have someone follow me with a camera. But I wanted the freedom to be able to do it when I wanted to and not to hurry things up and to do it regardless of the camera being there. So we gave up on the film idea. After which, I blogged for Huffington Post about what I was experiencing. I also wrote poems when Zuri was born to herald her arrival. So there were various ways of expressing this. Then I started to slowly put them all together to tell the story. Some of it is poetry. Some of it is prose. Some of it is a series of questions. Soon, I had eighty pages of text. I wasn’t sure what it was. I started reading it out loud at my performances across the country. The more I performed it, the more it became alive. That’s when I started crafting it as a play, as piece to be read out loud—as a thing to be shared, not as a thing just to be written and read quietly.
Rail: Did you ever worry how being a mother might affect your activism and work?
Chin: Especially about abortion. I worried that being pregnant would make me shaky on my pro-choice stance. But being pregnant confirmed it. This is such a gargantuan undertaking that I cannot imagine a woman being forced to change her life in this huge way if she didn’t want to. That’s like a life sentence for someone who did no wrong. It is so hard, and it changes so much of your life—going out at night, having any personal time, being alone, having money to spend on things for yourself. The sacrifices are so great—even the emotional space that you have to create for another human being, whether you want to or are inclined to. It is not good for you, for the kid, if you are landed with these responsibilities that you don’t want.
Rail: How has welcoming your daughter affected your creative practice?
Chin: I used to write whenever I felt—and you can insert any New Age, know-it-all voice here—I wrote when I wanted to. I wrote when I was inspired. If I wanted to write at two in the morning, I did. If there was a poem brewing in my head, I could lay about and let in brew for a long time and when it was ready, I could putter about with a first draft and then spend the whole next day just working on it. It’s this very self-indulgent relationship with your art. Now I find that when I have a thought in my head, I have to hold on to it until Zuri goes down for a nap, and then, I write. It has to be out of me before she wakes up in an hour and a half.
Rail: Has it prompted you to be more concise? More direct?
Chin: It has certainly increased the speed of the writing and changed my inclination to let it stew and therefore lose it. My relationship with my art has become more urgent. Now I have more than one lover. Now I have more than one passion and priority. One doesn’t become the thing that happens all the time, the thing that informs how everything else happens. I have two passions. So everyone has to share the space, and there’s only one me. Timing and management are very important.
Rail: This kind of work helps to demystify the very notion of “otherness.”
Chin: Yes. Like sometimes, I question if I’m one of those true artists, because I can’t make up a story to save my life. And thank God, I have a dramatic life so I can write some shit [laughter] that people are interested in. But I’m deeply inspired by the details of reality. Like in the show, the names of the drugs. Menopur. Lupron. The names of the other drugs they give when they think that you are miscarrying or you’re contracting. To me it’s musical. Why do we need to find specific words to make poetry when there’s so much poetry in real life? Like the list of baby things you have to get: organic cotton carriers, bottles shaped like the nipple, hospital-grade breast pumps, Moses baskets, video baby monitors. It’s like all of these things, to me, make for good drama, good poetry, good storytelling. Maybe because as an artist I can’t make up stories, I’m looking for the stories in what’s actually around me.
Rail: Would you describe your evolving relationship with your audience as that of a confidant?
Chin: I think of this play in a weird kind of way. The set is round, like I imagine the inside of my head is—very womb-like, very inside of somewhere. Circular. Dark in some places. Less dark in others. I think of the process of performing this play as letting the audience peek inside my head. So they may be even more intimate than a confidant. People like to say to me, “Oh, you’re an actor.” But I’m not really an actor, because if you give me someone else’s lines, I don’t do them so well. But when I stand on stage with my work, I become naked so people can see what’s there. The more I try to put on something, the less the performance works. For me, it is more about stripping away things that work as shields and to allow the audience to peek in.
Rail: In MotherStruck! there is this incredible moment that, for me, encapsulates the shift from the previous incarnation of yourself as artist to where you are now. In it, after some misogynist homophobe trolls you on Twitter, you literally charge up the riser into the audience and let loose that now signature roar of defiance, of poetry in response. But it’s suddenly interrupted by Zuri calling out to you, “Momma?” In The Other Side of Paradise, the memoir of your childhood—
Chin: It is the developing of the roar.
Rail: And with the performance of BORDER/CLASH ten years ago—
Chin: It was the roar.
Rail: And now, this is the third act: motherhood.
Chin: Yes. It’s so interesting that you say that because it is so true. I was developing the roar in the memoir, and in BORDER/CLASH I could really roar quite loudly. In this one, I have had to come to terms with the roar not being the most important thing. If you think of it as a beast: in the memoir, the beast was being groomed and it was kind of cute, but still a little ferocious. In the last play, BORDER/CLASH, it was an animal let loose. It was a beast. Here. Now. It’s like the beast …[smiling] has a kid. Yeah.
Rail: It’s been interesting to watch that build.
Chin: I’m not so much watching as I am experiencing it, and so sometimes it is interesting to hear people talk about it. I usually tell people, “when I was in my twenties, I rolled around with a sledgehammer.” In my thirties, it was like “Oh, what’s going on Staceyann? Stop sledgehammering. A scalpel is so much more effective.” Now that I’m in my forties, I’m thinking both of those motherfuckers are needed. Sometimes, you need a sledgehammer to knock things down, and sometimes a scalpel is what you need. Now it’s about knowing that you have a choice.
The two sweetest moments are when, as you said, one moment interrupts the other in the play. It’s like the time I am most gentle, I’m not considering anyone else. I’m not sitting here with the baby thinking of how my mother left me. I’m not trying to figure out how to make money or to travel or to try to change the kid. It’s really a little conversation with my kid, where I’m trying to explain that these monsters—which are real—can be reduced to tiny silly things.
MotherStruck!, written and performed by Staceyann Chin, directed by Cynthia Nixon, presented by Culture Project, Robert Dragotta, and Rosie O’Donnell with Susan Mikulay, Eric Falkenstein, Michael Drescher, Ken Schur, Sue Wolf, and Julio DePietro runs December 4 – January 29 at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, 45 Bleecker Street. For tickets and info visit cultureproject.org.
JAMIE MALESZKA is a freelance writer born, bred, and based in New York City.