Barbara Jwanouskos interviews Donald E. Lacy Jr.
Today I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and mentor, Donald E. Lacy Jr., regarding the collaborative piece, Endangered Species conceived of and created alongside theater artist, Sean San Jose, as well as the voices of formerly incarcerated men that Sean and Donald have been working with. I only very recently learned about the show and so I was fortunate when Donald was able to respond so quickly before the deadline.
Donald is an actor, an activist, a radio host and DJ, a comedian, a compelling performer, and a prolific writer — among some of his many other outstanding contributions to the community. In the interview below, we talk about the impetus behind Endangered Species and how the process unfolded. Endangered Species and Ascension (written and performed by Rising Voices and directed by Catherine Castellanos and Margo Hall) are a part of the Restorative Performance Series playing at Bindlestiff Studio on July 15 and 16. For more information: http://m.bpt.me/event/1844925.
Barbara: Tell me about Endangered Species. What is it about and how did the idea for the piece start to form?
Donald: Thank you, Barbara, for having me back on the blog. I like reading what you write. Well, the idea for Endangered Species came from the fact that a class that Sean San Jose and I teach in conjunction with the San Francisco Sheriff’s department, the class is for formerly incarcerated men.
The charge was to write a play based on their real life experiences with the theme of how to stay out of prison. We did several writing exercises on their neighborhoods, their homies and life behind the walls. The theme that kept coming up was how many friends and family members they had lost to murder and violence. We asked them to compile a list of names of all the people they had lost and one of the young men who is 25 said, “Man, I ain’t got enough paper to write down all them names.” He said since elementary school growing up in Oakland he had lost most of his friends. Only a few were left living. So murder and violence of Black men is beyond epidemic proportions. Add to the mix that Black men are incarcerated in the United States in record high numbers. So therefore when you think about all the Black men who have been murdered since the middle passage (some estimates are as high as 400 Million) the Black man is indeed an Endangered Species who through various forms of genocide is being systematically eliminated.
Barbara: I’m curious to learn about yours and Sean’s creative processes. What were you considering when you began the piece? What elements felt important to retain and what others did you end up cutting?
Donald: In terms of the process, the initial part as I alluded to earlier was a series of interviews with the program participants. They told layered stories of life on the streets and life behind bars. The initial part of the process was to merely have them compile these stories that they would write. Some of the clients were better storytellers than writers so we were thinking of merely framing their stories without writing them down word for word per se, but to let their natural charisma and ability to communicate drive the piece. The class started with six guys at its height but a couple dropped out then we were down to four participants. Two weeks ago, two of them went back to jail and another one dropped out so we were down to one participant who, mind you, has not acted in a play before. Even before the guys started dropping out we wanted the piece to be about where you are from, family, friends, your crimes, life on the inside and the loss of lives you have experienced.
Interestingly enough the play was also going to have a piece about how you were going to stay out of jail –a lot of those guys were multiple offenders– and how to stay alive once back on the streets. Ironically only one participant is still standing. So two weeks ago, we took the gist of the stories of the previous participants, added the idea of the Black man facing genocide, and wrote original scenes to compliment what we had already created and were able to use. We had to cut some of the stuff we were gonna use once guys got locked up and dropped out, but we added the character of the Voice Teeoni who is a women who works with these men to keep them from going back to jail. Her personnel testimony is one of the most powerful stories I have ever heard which I won’t share here, but when people hear it in the show it will blow your mind and break your heart. In a word, she is simply incredible.
We also called on our Campo Santo family member, Juan Amador, to utilize his prestigious rapping/spoken word skills and his acting ability. I have worked with Juan several times and what he is doing in this piece is amazing. We hired a young actress, Ariella, who was referred to us by Smiley and she is a powerhouse. In fact I am gonna claim right now as having discovered her. Thanks, Smiley! Your girl is incredible. We added another young actor, Eric, who I saw in Margo Hall’s production of Hamlet: Blood In the Brain and he is strong as well. The cast is rounded out by the one sole survivor of the program, Jeremy Dorsey, who has never acted before but is doing dynamic work. I am so excited to see this thing go up. Sean and I have created a living breathing entity. It reminds me of the Marvin Gaye quote when asked what his inspiration for creating he said is and I quote, “I’ve heard millions of cries for millions of years.” If you come see this piece you will hear and feel those cries. The spirits are speaking strong in this one.
Barbara: I’ve worked with you on Color Struck, which has toured nationally and inspired many with your one-man show about your own experiences dealing with racism and how you came to learn about the system of White Male Supremacy. In the end, you have a poem where you repeat the phrase, “endangered species” in reference to Black men in today’s society. Does this piece take off where the last play ended in some ways? I’m wondering about the linkage of those very powerful words and poetic performance.
Donald: Wow, Barbara, did you read the script? That is exactly what it is. In fact that poem is used in this piece, a part of it anyway, as the thread that holds the theme together. It is interesting to hear a part of that poem spoken by a woman and a Latino male, as well. As you know, that piece as it is used in this play addresses the elimination of the Black man through drugs, injustice, murder, incarceration and several other unnatural societal factors that have contributed greatly to the Black man’s current situation. Pieces of that spoken word piece are strategically weaved in between the real life stories that the characters tell and make for a very compelling piece of theater. In fact this is not theater. It is in a theater and there are lights and sound like a play, but these are real stories onstage told in a real way. It is as powerful as theater can get in my opinion.
Barbara: You have such a rich and inspiring background of incorporating social justice themes into your art. How did this develop? Was it a skill you had to refine over time? How do you know if you’re doing it “right”?
Donald: Well, I can say I came by it honestly. I grew up in east Oakland, California. At the time, the Black Panthers were thriving and at the height of the Black Liberation struggle. I was always a person of consciousness, which was stimulated by my parents who gave me the book, Black Boy, by Richard Wright when I was eight years old. I was taught by my parents about Paul Robeson and his commitment to activism and elevating Negroes, as we were called back then, and working class people. I remember watching the ’68 Summer Olympic games as a kid and seeing John Carlos and Tommy Smith raising their black gloved fists on the medal stand. I loved it when Cassius Clay won the heavyweight champion and then the next day changed his name to Muhammad Ali and declared he had joined the Nation of Islam. The autobiography of Malcolm X opened my eyes to so many things about America and set me on a path of studying the myth of White Male Supremacy and institutionalized racism. And then I hear Richard Pryor using humor to address societal ills. Then Stevie Wonder’s song, “You Haven’t Done Nothing.” Big brother Stevie and Richard are my two biggest artistic influences.
So I was an activist from a very early age and I was taught to be proud of my Blackness and Black people. When I first got into theater I felt a responsibility to do work that spoke to the struggles and experiences of Black people and our fight for equal rights and justice. I love entertainment, but I have always done, for the most part, work with some type of societal significance or that raised questions to spark dialogue. Just as I do with Color Struck, which has been sparking dialogue about race around the country for going on nine years now and counting. I don’t know necessarily as looking at it as if I got it right or not, rather I look at it as what do I want to say and how can I tell the truth. For me, I believe in speaking the truth, like Cleopatra was Black, not looking like Liz Taylor, that is a truth. Some people will say, “Heh heh, that’s not right,” but whether you think it’s right or not, it is the truth. So for me, it’s all about truth-telling and I can feel it when I have told the truth in an uncompromising fashion. The beauty of the truth is that the truth cannot be compromised.
Barbara: Do you have any advice for writers, performers, comedians, artists of all kind, really, for creating new work and specifically I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on how artists can try to create art that has a conscious or impulse for social/political change within it?
Donald: For other writers and artists I can’t tell them what to write or how they should address social ills, but the first advice I would give is to say you have to feel passionately about what you are writing about, whatever that may be. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but for me, I have to care. Especially as it relates to social issues and or injustices. I despise injustice. I despise racism, so having such strong feelings about those issues, it makes it easy for me to tap into what I want to say about those particular issues. But for me, I like to support my point of view with facts. For instance, to write Color Struck, I had to examine the history of institutionalized racism. I also had to learn the true history of Africans before slavery was instituted and after we were forcefully brought to America. There are a lot of things I read from young activists/writers who feel strongly about injustices like Eric Garner, Freddie Grey, the Black Lives Matter movement and many other issues. The funny thing is the more injustice rears its ugly head, the more these great young voices of dissent rise to the forefront. My one word of advice would be don’t be afraid to speak truth to power. In the seriousness of the times we live in, we need more voices speaking out against injustice… Fight the power!
Barbara: Any last thoughts and shout-outs to other performances around town?
Donald: Yeah, big ups to Margo Hall and Catherine Castellanos who are doing a piece with our piece called Ascension. Their piece is with formerly incarcerated women who are telling their stories. I saw a version of it shortly after Sean and I were hired to work with the men. It was very moving, raw and powerful. I don’t keep up with the Bay Area theater scene too much anymore.
For Black actors now, Bay Area theater is separate and not equal. I have been fortunate to be doing more work in Los Angeles this year. I lament the death of Black theater in the Bay Area. Yes, Marin Theatre has done some good black plays including August Wilson stuff. Bravo. Yes, Cal Shakes has opened up and done Raisin in the Sun, Spunk, and Montoya’s great work… But you got to understand when I started acting in 1984 (yes I’m that age) there were, count ’em, 6 Black theatre companies where Black actors could work on their craft. Because let’s face it, if you are not doing a play in front of a live audience, you are not working on your craft. Sure, you can do scene study and get great acting coaching, but until you do it in front of a live audience six, seven, eight nights a week, sorry, Charlie, you ain’t doing it. We had Oakland Ensemble theater, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, Julian Theatre, Egypt Theatre, Full Circle Theatre Collective (my company) and, of course, Black Repertory theatre. What we got now?
I’ll leave it at that.
Donald E. Lacy Jr. is a performer, comedian, and writer. You can catch his show, “Wake up, Everybody” on Saturday mornings from 7 AM to 12 PM on KPOO 89.5 FM San Francisco, www.kpoo.com. He is the founder and Executive Director of the Lovelife Foundation, created to provide youth services and mentoring in radio and television programs to affirm life.