Theater In Conversation
Diane Exavier with Shamira Ibrahim
May 2–June 4, 2023
Amid gentrifying construction, street protests and a sweltering summer in Flatbush, the five Abellard sisters in Bernarda’s Daughters, by Diane Exavier, directed by Dominique Rider, take refuge in their family home. Simmering in the losses of their father and their neighborhood, they clash over how to contend with the legacy of their Haitian parents in a city that is no longer theirs. Inspired by Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and a co-production between National Black Theatre and The New Group, Exavier brings to life a powerful ensemble of women to create this sensual and entrancing portrait of a family at a crossroads. Here, Exavier speaks with cultural critic and essayist Shamira Ibrahim about the world of this new play, now on sale at nationalblacktheatre.org.
Diane Exavier: Hello! When your name came up for this interview, I was like, “Ah! I get to talk to Shamira, let’s do this!”
Shamira Ibrahim (Rail): Hi! Right, well first of all, congratulations. You created a whole ecosystem, even before getting it on the stage. I took time to document everything that you put together: you have four essays, a digital EP, a hotline, an audiobook, and a website to host it all, with additional related reading lists, and I’m like, you’re definitely a teacher.
Exavier: [Laughs] It plays its own course.
Rail: To get a sense of your creative mind and your creative brain, how did you begin to chart all of this out?
Exavier: We were talking about natal charts in the rehearsal room, obviously as people do, and my moon is in Virgo. I have a deep obsession with organizational matters and need things to be in their proper order. When I started writing the play, I couldn’t just stop there—there’s something about building out an entire dramaturgical world that’s important to me. That’s something I miss sometimes when I’m watching a play—I have this feeling that the story is a bit out of context, and that there are understandings of how the world works that are being taken for granted. I think sometimes maybe that’s what it feels like to write from what is not the margin. I’m not interested in explaining myself or explaining these characters, but if I’m going to put people in a world, the world that they are inhabiting must be able to hold its own weight.
Rail: The script you’ve written is in dialogue with Federico García Lorca’s La casa de Bernarda Alba and not just that, but also Sylvia Wynter’s adaptation. I went back to the essay she published in Jamaica, and one of the quotes that I found striking was, “The function of the theatre is to explode fears by bringing them out into the light of day.” How did Sylvia Wynter’s adaptation, in any way, influence how you brought together your own story of the Flatbush experience?
Exavier: Having them in conversation with each other makes the link for me. I could have just written a play that was inspired by The House of Bernarda Alba but creating that triangle to throw Sylvia Wynter in there gets me to reconsider what Lorca was up to. Even though it’s so rich in its language, and rich in these character portraits, he’s deeply political. He’s really talking about land, totalitarianism, ritual, and tradition. In 2018, I moved back to Brooklyn after a few years of living in Providence, Rhode Island, and found myself to be a stranger in my city. I’d been coming home here and there, but I really felt like I didn’t understand how I was supposed to be in this city as it constantly proved to me there was no longer space for me. What does it mean to be actively pushed out? You’re sort of watching your own displacement, and you’re competent enough to understand that is so. What are you supposed to do about that?
Rail: I think Flatbush as a site to examine that is poignant, because it’s both local and global in so many ways. Particularly because it’s the site of Caribbean migration. So much of the play is really trying to reconcile all those emotions while trying to find these mini pockets of joy in the middle of this arresting grief. The ways that you navigate their dialogue are so organic, down to the way that people in New York talk. Cutting that through with the actual just, like, normal ways that we interact with each other but really weighed down with the actual home of grief and tension that seems to permeate on an unfortunately more consistent basis. How are you able to define the language of something that is a lingering reality for so many people?
Exavier: There is this feeling of the liminal space. I wanted to reflect that in the way the characters speak to each other. They’re between time and between language. There’s Flatbush talk and this hyperlocality. Thinking of Flatbush Junction, we’re getting closer to Midwood, which means we’re getting closer to a weirdly suburban part of Brooklyn. There’s something about my view from almost the bottom of Brooklyn that makes me look up and out. I have the feeling that that’s what those characters are up to, their frame of vision. They’re able to observe a little longer and a little wider.
Rail: One of the things that also was very striking is the way that you use this moment of grief to unravel personal family secrets. Each of the daughters is kind of discovering different things about themselves and different things about their family. How are you able to kind of tactically decide when to unravel things and what moments were their points of climax?
Exavier: My praxis is gossip. Gossip has a rhythm and it’s like jumping into a double dutch rope. You’ve got to know when to jump in with that, and when to jump out. I think part of the function of familial revelations is that even though they’re so dramatic or so impossible to deal with, it makes the bigger thing that they’re dealing with a bit more possible. What do you do when the world as you understand it is shifting on its foundation? Maybe I can distract myself by talking about this thing that my dad did ten years ago. Even though that is its own catastrophe, in a way, it’s a little small.
Rail: I’m really happy that we had the chance to talk about your play, and I’m really looking forward to it coming out.
Exavier: You’ve got to come through! I’m so glad we’ve been able to connect. After years of my Twitter stanning. I love your writing!