Dallas — In June 2016, a local actor and singer gambled on an idea that if thoughtfully structured, people might like having a chance to come together and talk about the societal issues which too often ignite extreme responses. For this idea to work, participants would have to be able to trust that the conversational space was safe, meaning one could speak candidly without fear of reprisal. That gamble worked and M. Denise Lee continues to guide Change the Perception, community conversations about the things we need to discuss but too often do not. Lee has now written a one-act play, Funny, You Don’t Act Like a Negro, opens tonight at Theatre Three, after four days of previews.
So many questions were percolating on several levels about this new venture so we chatted with the playwright to ask a few, and about working with director Christie Vela.
The cast includes Jazzay Jabbar, Jessica D. Turner, Liza Gonzalez, Gerald Taylor II, Gregory Lush, David Lugo, Alexis Muturi, Summer Stern, and Juliana Gamino.
TheaterJones: What was the motivation for this play?
Denise Lee: About 15 years ago I was having coffee with my friend, Dr. Sherry Boyd, and she was telling me about an experience she had with a very established school after a choir concert. Sherry was the choir director. An elderly white lady came up to her after the concert to tell her how wonderful she thought the concert was and that she had a history at that school. Several generations from parents through to her granddaughter. They had a lovely conversation. As it neared the end, the woman looked at her again and remarked “Funny, you don’t act like a negro.” Just like that. She turned and walked away leaving Sherry dumbfounded.
Sherry and I laughed and I said, “someone should write that play.” Over the years I would jot down some ideas but I lacked the confidence, the courage. During a rehearsal for Solstice [at Theatre Three in 2017], someone made a comment and I said I’m going to put that in my play. Later, someone followed up with me about it and I teasingly told them that story and said one of these days I’m going to write it.
Three days later Jeffrey Schmidt came to me and asked if I was serious about writing the play. I hesitantly told him I thought so. Moving forward from that conversation, Theatre Three commissioned the play and produced it. This is an opportunity that doesn’t come around often, to have a major theatre produce a work by someone who has never written a play. It shows how much Schmidt is willing to invest in the Dallas-based audience.
You already have a successful conversation series through Change the Perception. Why write a play?
One can reach so many more people with theatre. You have more options than you do with film. The important thing to me was to get everyone in the room. Even with my community conversations there are people who will not attend. Sometimes this is because people do not know me. Sometimes it is because people are not sure what we are talking about, and they fear being a little uncomfortable. The important thing was to have a good director, smart actors, people who wanted to be collaborative in the process because then we get the best out of the effort. I believe we will have people who will come from a broad spectrum. Some may like it, some may not, but they will have something to think about and that, for me, is the important part.
Comedy is hard. Why did you decide to make it a comedic piece?
It is not a comedy, rather it is a comedic drama structured in vignettes, each with a message. Sometimes levity is required to continue the conversation. If you beat people over the head, they won’t get the message. If you teach people you can be serious about a subject, you can laugh together. And if we can laugh together, we can grow together.
What connection, if any, do you see between this play and your work with the community conversations?
Absolutely there are connections because these are topics that we as a community should discuss. The great thing about Theatre Three is that following the performance, we have a talkback forum where we will discuss the themes of the play. The first Monday following opening night, our Change the Perception community conversation will be hosted by Theatre Three. That conversation will have as its focus the themes of the play.
When the envelope is pushed a conversation opens which seems to threaten the status quo, the potential exists for a diverse array of responses. Have you received negative responses?
In general, I would say that so far, 95 percent of the response has been positive. This is not to say that there have been negative responses. Some people, based on the title of the show, are tentative because they do not know what to expect, or they assume the worst. For example, is this play about bashing white people? No, this is not what the play is about. I hope people will be open-minded enough and listen.
[She giggles] People have a hard time saying the title. The box office reports that people will call and say, “I’d like tickets to funny you don’t act like …” and their voices trail off because they don’t want to say the word “negro.”
This is understandable. Given the climate in which we live, it is sometimes hard to know what to say because you do not know who surrounds you. I understand that. But I think I needed a title that gets people’s attention. Hopefully, regardless what stance brought them to the show, they will think and wonder “what does this mean?” I am excited to report that a lot of people are coming to see the show!
This production will reflect the hands of two strong women in you and director, Christie Vela. While this is not a piece about women, the creation and shaping of the piece by women creates an inescapable presence. What has this experience been like for you?
My respect for Christie Vela and her body of work is very deep. Christie Vela is a woman after my own heart because she is no nonsense, honest, and she takes risks. The things she is doing with us in rehearsal are so wonderful. And she gets me, my voice.
I also wanted a broader voice and that this not be solely from the African American perspective. This play is a look at all of us. There were elements about the Latinx culture and the Mexican American culture that I wasn’t sure about. I want to educate, not offend. I wanted to make sure the elements were true, for there to be a reality. Christie has been a great resource for me.
This has been the most wonderful, welcoming experience. As a new playwright, I haven’t known the protocol such as whether I should be at all of the rehearsals? Some of the rehearsals? Or are they going to be wondering when is she going home? Christie has been so open, inviting me to be in the space. I am very grateful to her, especially for her patience.
I admire her so much not just as an actor, or a director, but for her intellect, for being so smart.
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
Seeing my name in a sentence with the word playwright has been a little surreal because I just see myself as a person with something to say. Now I have been given a platform from which to say it. Whether this becomes another vocation we have yet to see. The process has been very interesting and unconventional for me because writing takes discipline. I have had to try to discipline myself to this medium. I have a process for learning lines, and learning music, but for writing, ideas and motivation, it has been different. I’m grateful for the experience to learn about what I have in me that I did not know was there.
It is important for me that people will leave the theatre and wonder wow, have I done that before? have I thought that way before? have I said those things before? I think we don’t ask ourselves ‘why’ enough. We justify our actions with well, that’s the way it’s always been or that’s the way I was raised. We do not ask ourselves why it has to stay the same. Until we start asking why, I don’t think we can grow as a society.
The whole point of this play was to have people look at each other in a different light and realize the effect we have on our children. We must realize how the things we say affect them, and others around us. Words are very, very, very important.