Dallas — When Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving married in 1958 in Washington, D.C., it was legal. D.C. along with nine states, did not have anti-miscegenation (anti-interracial relationships including marriage) laws. Had they stayed in D.C., their story might never have been told. But they wanted to live in their home state of Virginia and in that state, along with 15 others (primarily the slave states), they were in violation of state law. It would have been easier to give up and live apart but Richard (white) and Mildred (African-American and Native American) loved each other so they sued the state of Virginia. Their case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and has become known as Loving vs. Virginia. Not only did they win in court, following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, the remaining 15 states all abolished their anti-miscegenation laws. This is why we know their story and why it has been told and retold so many times.
Loving and Loving by playwright Beto O’Byrne and developed with Meropi Peponides, was first staged in New York City as a co-production between Radical Evolution and Harold Clurman Lab Theatre. Its regional premiere opens this week at Bishop Arts Theatre Center. O’Byrne is from White Oak, a small town in East Texas. He and Peponides co-founded Radical Evolution, which premiered the play in New York. O’Byrne was formerly the Artistic Director of the Austin Latino Theater Alliance. Peponides is one of the three directors of Soho Rep in New York City.
What could another play about the Loving case offer that distinguishes it from existing properties? O’Byrne and Peponides wanted to create a piece about the Lovings, but with an examination of mixedness. As biracial people themselves, the creators were interested in that aspect of the Lovings’ relationship and how that might inform the experiences of other such people.
For more insight into this approach, we chatted with the Bishop Arts production’s director, Morgana Wilborn.
TheaterJones: Knowing the story of the Lovings, I’m interested in hearing how you became associated with the work?
Morgana Wilborn: Unexpectedly, Teresa Coleman Wash [founder and Executive Artistic Director of Bishop Arts Theatre Center] called me. We had enjoyed a previous conversation about art. I am a photographer so I assumed that was why she was calling. She said she decided I was the right person to direct this play, so she sent me the script, and told me about O’Byrne and Peponides.
I am a black bi-racial woman. I say that because I connect to all of the black matriarchal lineage in my family. Also, it my African-American culture that I best know because I am and have been more engulfed in it throughout my life than the white side of my family.
What appealed to you about the work?
Once I read the play, I felt at one with the piece. Not only did I share the narrative — my father [who is deceased] was white, like Richard Loving, and my mother is black, like Mildred Loving — the character who drives the story is a biracial female like me. Her name is Maya.
Loving and Loving has all of the historical elements of Mildred and Richard’s lives, their court case and the racial trauma that was inflicted on them as they were just trying to live and love freely. However, Maya uses the Lovings’ story to learn how to love herself as well as those around her. Supporting her research into the Lovings’ story, Maya conducts interviews with biracial, multiracial, multicultural people and tells the story through them. O’Byrne and Peponides wrote this such that no matter where this is produced, a director can interview people in their community who have this biracial lineage whatever that may be.
What have you observed through your interviews?
Working with this collective of biracial creators, and conducting interviews for use in this play, I have learned through those conversations something I did not experience growing up: I was not alone in that others like me were growing up without seeing ourselves in our communities very often.
When we did see someone, we were like “Oh my God! There’s a biracial person! They look like me. Did they experience what I experienced?” For many of my biracial friends, their parents were in interracial marriages or relationships, growing up in the ’80s, ’90s or 2000s.
I interviewed Mexican and Iranian multicultural people, Mexican and Black multicultural people, those who have African-Black lineage, those who have black fathers instead of white. It was so beautiful and those interviews will be featured in the play. In the script the original interviews were of people in New York. I’ve had the opportunity to add in that local Dallas flair, of those who, whether they moved to Dallas or were born and raised in Dallas or in Texas, were able to tell their story.
Of what potential importance is this play for our region at this time?
It sets a primer for use by this younger generation to use while growing up. It can really help those who many not have the tools — the people around them or the stories and narratives which can let them know that yeah, there are people like you. My generation didn’t have as much access to these stories. It is so great to share multicultural and black histories with a younger generation. They need to hear it and to be seen. The creators said this is why they believed I could shepherd this story along with the actors and the creative team.
Tell us about your cast.
In the role of Mildred is Camille Monae. We last worked together in An Octoroon [at Stage West in Fort Worth]. I’ve admired her work. She and I have talked about Mildred, asking the question “who was this woman?” We are of a different era. Our work in rehearsal was to understand that our black woman today is not a Virginian black woman living in a rural community. It doesn’t mean that Mildred lacks the fight and the gusto despite the way her voice made her sound. We must think of how she moved through her world. We carry so much power in our bodies from our ancestors. I know that Mildred drew from that as well.
DR Mann Hanson is Richard Loving. DR is a married queer cis white man who is stepping into the role of a man from the 1950s and 60s who is not queer and figuring out who is Richard. What would a married man struggling for the right to love experience, which is similar to what we think of regarding the right to marry for the LGBTQ community.
Straight white male actors are often cast in queer roles, but queer actors are not as often cast in these straight roles with the dignity they deserve.
Colby Calhoun is Maya. During a conversation with the creators, they told me “Morgana, we don’t want you to feel that they have to be binary cis male or cis female.” That relieved me because the actor I wanted to cast, Colby Calhoun, is non-binary, non-gender conforming with the pronouns they/them/she/her. Whether you are multiethnic multicultural or whether you are trying to understand your sexuality or gender and the fluidity and spectrum through which you exist in that, Maya is trying to figure all of this out and uses this beautiful complicated love story to assist in that. Colby has shown up to tell their story and it’s been very hard and beautiful at the same time. It’s a way for the community to see that you do not have to assume a certain role as a certain gender unless it is specifically called for.
I am so glad this story goes beyond cis black and white, interracial, intermarriage but also talking about gender. Using these stories from our ancestors to assist in how we present ourselves in different areas of identity. This is a story about love, about identity and our rights to live and to love freely.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I am very proud of my creative team, and very grateful to Teresa Coleman Wash. She is committed to providing opportunities for people who are not white to tell our stories and uplift the next generation to work. This is my first professional directing job. She has given me this opportunity. My mentors are Vicki Meek, vickie washington, Akin Babatunde, Christie Vela, the women of Soul Rep and AART [African American Repertory Theater] and Jubilee [Theatre]. Being raised in Soul Rep and Cara Mía, I feel that I had a community to uplift me and I never want to forget that. As Shirley Chisholm said, “If there is not a seat at the table, I’m going to pull up a folding chair.”