The May/June issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine includes a feature by Sara Felder titled “Juggling the Truth: True and Semi-Factual Confessions in Solo Performance.” We’re pleased to present a number of Felder’s interviews with her fellow Bay Area solo performers that went into the article.
Lisa Marie Rollins is a writer, playwright and performer. Her play, “Ungrateful Daughter: One Black Girl’s Story of Being Adopted into a White Family… That Aren’t Celebrities” has been awarded grants from the James Irvine Foundation, Zellerbach Family Foundation and the City of Oakland. She also supports performing artists with dramaturgy, direction and production in the Bay Area. Be on the lookout for her “Writing and Developing the Solo Performance Play” workshop coming to the East Bay this summer. Lisa Marie is excited to hold the New York premiere of “Ungrateful Daughter” at the New York International Fringe Festival this August. For a list of her upcoming local and national performances check out: birthproject.wordpress.com.
“The Truth About Being Ungrateful”
Lisa Marie Rollins, interviewed in person by Sara Felder, March 2012.
How do you negotiate truth and theatricality in “Ungrateful Daughter”?
My story is a true story, based both on my experiences and the impact of those experiences on my emotional life, but it’s also highly theatrical. For example, in one part of the play I describe going home as an adult, being with my mother in the kitchen and seeing a newly mounted figurine on the wall of Aunt Jemima. This really happened. However, in the play Aunt Jemima comes to life and we have this conversation about what it means to be a black woman in a white household. We disagree. She’s very conservative on the subject. In real life I went home and there was this figurine on the wall, but I couldn’t have that conversation with my mother. But in the theatre I can have the bigger conversation, with Aunt Jemima. The audience knows that I didn’t really have that conversation with Aunt Jemima, but they get the bigger truth of the moment.
For a while there, I kept hearing stories on radio and talk shows with authors or performance artists who had written a memoir and the trick for the interviewer or the show was to “out” them for the memoir not being “true.” There seems to be some narrative around “truth” that I don’t quite understand. Like, “if we find out that any piece of this memoir is a lie, then your memoir isn’t worth anything.” But what exactly is “creative nonfiction”? What does it mean to craft a story and take an idea and develop it to make it great literature or a great play? Similarly, for the work on “Ungrateful Daughter,” there are so many parts that are true, but do I remember them exactly the way that it happened? I am 41, and is my memory really good for something that happened when I was seven? I mean, I can remember the power of the emotions, the overwhelming traumas, the pain, the joys. But if my mother saw the show (no, she hasn’t seen it yet), what would her memory of the moments I depict be? There are several lover relationships I also examine in the play. And do those men and women remember it the same way as me? Probably not. Yet whether or not it happened in a way we can all agree upon doesn’t matter to me as a writer. What matters for me—and I know that I’m certainly not the only person who has said this in both literary and theatrical worlds—is what is the truth of it that belongs to me? Sure, I want people to be entertained, but this is me getting far, far away from the idea of solo performance as therapy and recognizing that the way that I’m writing it has something to say that is bigger than the story of the play or the moments it inhabits, because my story has deeper, global implications.
Why solo theatre? Why this story?
It happened partly by accident. I’ve been writing my memoir and had been writing my blog, investigating themes of adoption, race and the global market of children. I wanted to try a different form that I could connect to my writing, and since I have been working in the theatre for so long, I wanted to see what would happen if I started writing my story for the stage. The process of moving from being a poet and a fiction writer to a playwright has been challenging and amazing; I’m obsessed with dialogue and how scenes can actually move through the advancement of dialogue.
What else was going on for me was that, much like the way that I feel that black/African diasporic studies, ethnic studies or gender/women’s studies evolved as a discipline, I also feel like there’s something called “adoptee pedagogy,” that is a way that adoptees have been contributing to the discourses of adoption, race, reproductive justice and so much more. It’s well documented that for many years our stories were just these anecdotal stories about race and racism or reproductive injustice or poverty in families of origin. It’s just anecdotal. There are no statistics. There’s no common thread of stories. So vocalizing my story is a contribution to a multitude of transracial and international adoptee stories that have been exploding in the past 10 to 15 years. Because while it’s mine, in my story there are common threads and themes that impact all of us, regardless of domestic or international adoption status. Part of what the work does is attend to some of that—thinking of ourselves as cultural workers, culture bearers. It’s not art for art’s sake. It has that heavy bent, but for me utilizing the convention of theatre and comedy was important.
Why is this the story that you want to tell onstage?
Why this story? Because it’s the story. It’s the story that needs to be told right now for me. I feel it’s the first story, because without telling this story and getting it out there, other stories wouldn’t emerge, like the story of how I became a writer or the first time I really fell in love, and the disaster that was, or the stories of my body or my family. Those stories can now come out.
What’s the story of the play?
The story of the play and story of my life are sort of the same. I am a transracial adoptee. I’m a mixed race black woman adopted by a white family. My entire family is white, German, Yugoslavian stock—blond hair, blue eyes. I grew up in Washington State. I grew up isolated from any communities of color and went to majority white Christian private schools, church, camps, everything.
I continue to find it fascinating the way many people react to title of this particular work, “Ungrateful Daughter.” There are actually adoptive parents who won’t come see this story because they assume that I’m and “angry adoptee.” But the story is a love story and really examines not only the phenomenon of American imagination of adoption—the celebrities, the white savior complex, etc.—but the very, very intimate and personal issues of the ways that the adoptees struggle with connection. It explores what happens when we’ve been cut off figuratively and physically from the birth cord of our families of origin and the feeling of simultaneously being at home and isolated in my family. The play is an attempt to express how I navigate these multiple layers of being. How can I learn to reconnect with people intimately (in relationships) when there seems to be, at my core, a giant wound? Yet, having a very stable, loving family is actually the reason I have the ability to stand onstage and talk about the racist shit that happened to me as a child. Because I know that whatever I do, my parents won’t disown me or whatever. They might not get it, or be confused, but they aren’t going to stop loving me. Also the title itself, “Ungrateful Daughter,” is a talk back to adoption discourse that is rooted in gratefulness. The whole thing is a push-back for adoptees (“Shouldn’t you be grateful? Would you rather be languishing in foster care?”). There is something about being “loyal” to your adoptive family that gets played out here. We are required to never be ungrateful, because really, you keep talking like that, you will get left without a family if you’re not careful, lady! That in itself is a helluva thing to put on someone who already lives daily with a loss of origins.
So it’s literally about giving voice to this story.
Theatre is breaking the silence. Theatre is literally giving voice. Different than my poetry manuscript, the amazing form of solo performance gives me a way to not only vocalize but embody these stories in ways that I can’t in my other work. Standing onstage, telling stories and inhabiting characters, it makes me think of the way I feel when I leave a live music performance. It’s about not only the words and what’s happening on stage, but it’s the actual energy that the movement and vocalizing creates! This sonic energy and movement fills your entire body as you’re telling your story. There’s something different there than the thrill of someone reading my poems or my other creative work. It’s still just as powerful and transformative, but it’s different. For any of us that work in theatre or live performance, we know it’s about the immediate connection with the audience and feeling them respond.
This giving voice and breaking silences also goes back to my earlier thoughts about what stories are being told about adoptees and what stories are not. In the adoption community, sure, our stories are actually being heard and recognized, but in American culture in general? It’s still the colorblind or “multicultural” perspective, like, if we just throw a bunch of kids of multiple races in a TV show, we don’t have to address race, because they are “there” as a visual. But what happens when, for example, the black parents of the black adopted young man in 90210 actually appear? It’s like the same narrative told back in “Diff’rent Strokes” in the ’70s; they are pathological, or impoverished, or unstable, or drug addicts, or gamblers or…whatever. The erasure of birth parents in American cultural imagination as it relates to adoption for me partly represents the inability to deal with race on a deep, committed level.
The theme of coming out is important because there’s an erasure and recoding of our bodies by our parents, by our communities, by the adoption system. The color-blindness is really just invisibility—don’t pay attention to those racist things happening, they don’t apply to you, you’re different, you’re special. Parents think, “As long as I love her, race won’t matter.” But that completely erases my reality; it’s like the action of invisibility. For many adoptees, “coming out” as a person of color is actually a step in adoptee consciousness. We have to sit down with our parents and be like, okay, you know I’m black, right? Even with the new liberal, über-aware parents, I still see ways in which they fight against really wanting to understand they are going to have to be battling racism on a daily basis. White parents are like, I need a day off from this shit! Okay, yeah? I need my whole LIFE off, how about that?
Is it important that the audience believe this is a “true” story?
Yes. It is. Over and over, adoptee narratives get dismissed because we are supposedly “angry.” Yes, there is some anger in this piece; I definitely do harsh and satirical critique of adoption system and the global market of babies. The reason it’s important is because of the constant dismissal of our experiences. My story is not just mine; there are thousands of us. It’s not like I’m a random person who doesn’t understand the complexities of the experience. I’m not saying my story is THE story either. It’s one story, one of thousands; it’s just unique because it’s mine.
Who’s your audience and what’s the response been like?
It ranges and is really wide, which I totally love. There are older Berkeley and San Francisco theatre audiences, new younger hip audiences, the adoption community, my academic and creative communities, and my favorite, adoptees from all over the globe. So many adoptees. I can tell when there are crews of adoptees in the audience. They laugh and cry the hardest. They come up after the play in tears. So many adoptees share that they felt and feel so lonely and isolated. I had one woman tell me that watching my play was like having someone read aloud from her own diary. To me, the fact that adoptees are so isolated in our experiences and there is no one to share with, but then they see my story and lights start flashing and something starts opening up and really healing—for me, that’s the key. It’s the validation that this is a story that needs to be told and that it’s a particular truth for us. Adoptees, both my age and the next generation, are the reason why I keep telling the story. Even if it continues sometimes to hurt and be painful when I tell it, I do it because I know someone out there can’t say this stuff out loud, and they need it.
Sara Felder is a local solo performer who recently workshopped a new play, “A Queer Divine,” at the Marsh on June 6. She is teaching solo performance at Berkeley Rep this spring.
Lisa Marie Rollins.
Photo: Hali McGrath