In case you haven’t noticed, actor-playwright Eisa Davis has been on quite a roll the past couple of seasons. Her play Bulrusher was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and she starred in both the Broadway and Off-Broadway productions of the hit musical Passing Strange, for which she won an OBIE Award. This week, theatergoers can experience both her acting and writing talents simultaneously when New Georges and the Hip-Hop Theater Festival launch the premiere of Eisa’s new play, Angela’s Mixtape, which spans three decades in telling the autobiographical story of the author’s radical Bay Area upbringing in a family that includes her famous aunt, the professor and activist Angela Davis (whose notoriety in the early 1970s reached such great heights that both John Lennon and The Rolling Stones wrote songs about her). Eisa plays herself in a production that moves, according to the show’s press materials, “as smoothly as a DJ fading from song to song. Each track, each memory, has a built-in switch to the next, for theatrical momentum that keeps on building.”
On the eve of the play’s opening, Eisa visited the ol’ blog to talk about its origins, the challenges of playing herself, and, of course, her legendary aunt. Check it out, people…
This is obviously a very personal project for you. What inspired you to write it?
There were a few sparks. I wrote it in 2003 when the Hip-Hop Theater Festival asked me to present a reading of a new piece and this was the thing that fell out. Particularly because my mentor, the playwright Adrienne Kennedy, had urged me to write about Angela and my family. Another important reason was that I wanted to document how and why I’d evolved, as it seemed to be a specific story that many may not have seen before yet could identify with. And last but not least, I wanted to have a conversation with my family about some of these issues and as you’ll see in the play, that hasn’t always been the easiest process for me to initiate.
This is a memory play with the musical structure of a mixtape. Why did you choose that particular structure? And how does it specifical ly serve the narrative?
It’s always funny to answer questions about plays as if there was rational choice involved. I follow urges, needs…and then once the play is down on the page looking entirely alien from what I expected it to be, I get to work with brilliant directors and actors and hear back from friends, audience members (and in this case, family) to shape it into what the work itself wants to become. So the mixtape was the natural form for the content of play because it’s intensely personal, it’s idiosyncratic, it’s rhythmic, and it isn’t linear. Like a lot of plays, the narrative is about a kid trying to figure out how she fits in the world, and a mixtape seemed the perfect way to share her epistemology on her own terms.
I imagine that the task of playing yourself in a piece you’ve also written is a slippery slope. Why did you decide to do that? And what are the challenges you’ve faced, so far, in playing yourself?
I don’t know how to play myself. I really don’t. I’m six years old in parts of the play, and I don’t remember that. So I’ve tried to just feel like I did then. And I ask Liesl, the director, if it’s annoying. I wrote the play as a fun thing to do with my cousin Cecilie, who’s also an actress. But she and I don’t have to be in the play for it to land, thank goodness. We actually had a production in Atlanta last year with the actor Ayesha Ngaujah playing the character of Eisa. And it stood on its own. In this production in New York, Ayesha is playing my cousin Cecilie and I’m playing Eisa. One of the hardest challenges in the process has been delineating when I have to be an actor and when I have to be a writer, learning how to protect each from the other.
How aware were you of your aunt’s notoriety when you were growing up? And what kind of influence has she had on your life?
I knew that she had an aura about her, gave inspiring speeches, that there had been a trial and an international movement to free her and an acquittal. I knew that everyone else treated her as a woman of significance. But I didn’t really understand her in the way that other people saw her until I left home and went to college and studied her and the movement and philosophical schools she was part of. Her influence on my life is impossible to measure–my mother and I in particular are in a dynamic with her that is symbiotic. You know, it’s a two way street. It seems to me that Angela’s always taken pains to keep her public stature one thing, and her relationships another. This is not to say that she isn’t personal in her political engagement, as she is, very much. But any burden I’ve ever felt is something I’ve taken on myself.
What first drew you to playwriting? And what made you decide to pursue a career as both an actor and a writer?
I always acted and wrote little stories. They were inextricably connected in my mind. I would make up shows to do with Cecilie, as well as with any and all available children after dinner. My former stepfather is a filmmaker so I even started writing a screenplay when I was six–in which I was a character. Just kid fun, you know? But it continued to be something that I enjoyed and took refuge in. So these hobbies became how I make my living–but not without hesitation. I may have fantasized about being on Fame like every other kid in the 80s, but I didn’t really imagine that I’d have to (or want to) put in the work Debbie Allen was talking about in the immortal words “You want fame? Well fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. In sweat.” I had a lot of fear about pursuing an artistic life–because it would mean taking major risks daily. But being happy, and helping the people around you become happy, is worth any sacrifice, and creating live performances is what I love to do.
What’s up next for you after this?
This summer I’m working on another new play with director Liesl Tommy, who did both Angela’s Mixtape and The Good Negro at the Public. It’s called The History of Light. The Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia is putting it up. I’d really like to go on a surfing trip. Paying rent would be a good idea too.