Know who you is. Know who you is? What is you? Me: I am on a quest to exhume/resurrect my lineage. I am black and gay and I have something to say. But where, oh where is there a place for those like me in this sometimes-crazy and chaotic world?
My play bonded, which is directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera for Playwrights’ Arena, is a re-imagined slave narrative set in 1820. Sonny, Lily and Jack are the last remaining slaves on a crumbling, cash-strapped Virginia farm. When Asa, a “house boy” from New York, is brought in to help in the fields, repressed desires and memories of loss are unlocked, forcing Sonny and the other slaves to face their bridled passions and test the limits of the cruel world as they know it. This play is about four people who are simply trying to endure. And then “¦what happens when Sonny and Asa fall for each other.
Of course, we have made a lot of progress since 1820. Today, the first African-American President isÂ in the White House, same-sex couples can marry in some states, and in President Obama we have an ally sometimes. But lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, what-have-you people of color (especially of the working class and poor) are still too often pushed to the margins””if not completely erased from”” the historical record.
With bonded I want to say: We did exist/We still exist/We shall exist. I need that affirmation. I am sure I am not the only one.Â Finding our place in history is one way of reminding those who seek to denyÂ that we are humanÂ that we are not mere political issues,Â that youÂ can’t vote on a proposition to strip us of our civil rights and relegate us to second-class status.
I started this search for my heritage way back when I was an undergrad at Dartmouth. I was a first-generation college student thrust from the inner city to the Ivy League (which is a-whole-“˜nother play). I was fortunate to be granted a research fellowship that allowed me to work with a professor to investigate coded discussions of eroticism, romance and sexuality in African-American slave narratives. I was never fully satisfied with the quality of the resulting academic paper, theÂ writing of which was somewhat rushed as I hurried to prepare it for presentation at a conference.
The ideas in the paper begged for a creative outlet. When reading these first-person accounts of life in bondage, I was drawn in by what was not said as much as by the heartbreaking (and yet inspiring) testimonies that were recorded and survive on the printed page. With these tales of my ancestors as my guide, I am trying to lay claim to my own place in this world. More than characters in a play, these are people who have visited me (as crazy as that may sound) and have begged me to listen, imploring me to give voice to their all-too-often silenced stories.
There are a lot of people– whether they are black/white, liberal/conservative, gay/straight or anywhere along the spectrum””who take issue with me for digging up “old stuff.” They want to separate issues of sexuality from discussions of freedom and equality. And they certainly don’t want to see gay slaves gettin’ it on.
With relatively few depictions of black people on our stages, they’d rather see something else. Tyler Perry’s over-hyped chitlin’ circuit”“minstrel-soap opera-melodrama may be more of their style. Or maybe they like plays about liberals sitting on couches quoting dead philosophers and griping about their bourgeois problems. This play is not for those crowds (even though I think they could learn something and be affected in a meaningful way).
As a black man, I know stories set during slavery are painful and embarrassing. But through the pain there is hope and perhaps there can be growth for a better listen. I know I’m not an academic (by any stretch of the imagination). I am just a playwright who is passionate about””if not obsessed with””history and myth. In the words of Suzan-Lori Parks, one of my literary idols, “History is time that won’t quit.” I want to dig into that history. I want to play around in all its dirt, get all messy and covered in its secrets, sift through the myths and facts, and get buried so deep that when I return to the surface, I will have exhumed something precious and unexpected.
My writing goals: to historicize the queer, to queer the historic, and to remember those who have been penciled in the margins of that Book of Life. I want to serve as inspiration for others (not just black or gay) who feel rejected and systematically oppressed in this society. With my play, I hope I have done these people justice. I am one of them. And I just won’t quit.
Bonded, presented by Playwrights’ Arena and Latino Theater Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center, opens March 18; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; through April 9. Tickets: $30 (on Thur., $10). The LATC, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles; 866.811.4111 or thelatc.org.
Donald Jolly, originally from the District of Columbia, is an LA-based playwright who employs imaginative uses of language to explore the intersections/interactions between race, class, gender, and sexual orientation through historical and contemporary lenses. His work has been developed at Horizon Theatre Company (Atlanta), CalArts, Celebration Theatre (LA), USC School of Theatre and Company of Angels. Donald is a past participant in Center Theatre Group’s Writers’ Workshop. He is an Associate Artist with Playwrights’ Arena, a member of the Company of Angels Playwrights Group and a member of The Dramatists Guild of America, Inc. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Donald also holds an M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing from the University of Southern California. For more info, check out his website at www.JollyDrama.com.