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TBA Online: News & Features: May 2018

Keep An Eye On: Lisa Evans

Wednesday, May 2, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Rotimi Agbabiaka

When Lisa Evans makes their directorial debut with the world premiere of WAAFRIKA 123 at TheatreFIRST, they will be fulfilling a dream that is as much personal and political as it is professional. 

The play, written by Nick Hadikwa Maluko, chronicles the struggle of gender-non-conforming Awino to live freely and openly in hir rural Kenyan village. Evans first got involved with WAAFRIKA 123 during a staged reading three years ago and has been a fierce proponent ever since.

“For me, as much as I wanted to be a part of [producing the play] and am so honored that I’ve gotten to be involved in some way, I feel like so much more of [my drive] was … that I wanted this show to exist in the world,” says Evans.

Lisa Evans. Photo courtesy of TheatreFIRST

For Evans, an Oakland-based actor, poet, and cultural worker, the play strikes a personal chord by placing the coming out story in a non-Eurocentric context and exploring what it means for a person to come out but still stay connected to their cultural traditions. 

“As a black, queer, non-binary person so much of that still is my story,” says Evans. “What does it mean to come out among the people who have shaped you and your understanding of the world and be like ‘No I’m not leaving. I refuse to give up my home and I refuse to give up my family and I refuse to give up my culture.’”

Unlike Awino, Evans left their birthplace of “south, south, south, south San Diego” to attend the University of California in Santa Cruz and made the Bay Area their home upon graduation. However, their work as an artist has been indelibly shaped by a strong family tradition of storytelling, influenced by Evans’ great grandfather who migrated to Imperial Valley, California at the turn of the twentieth century, becoming one of the first black cattle ranchers to own land in the state.

“Not a lot of people in my family would self identify as artists,” says Evans. “But when I watch my mom tell stories—her timing and delivery and characterizations—that’s where I get it from. Our [family’s] running joke was that Great Grandpa came to California in his thirties and didn’t tell anyone where he came from and so literally my dad spent decades piecing it together. All the history we have is oral. It is entirely a griot tradition.”

This tradition sparked Evans’ commitment to telling stories that often get left out of the official records. It’s a commitment that led this self-professed “history nerd” on an unconventional path that includes stints as a history major, slam poet, youth educator, arts administrator, dramaturg, performer, and director.

It was finally seeing themselves in theatre that brought Evans to UC Santa Cruz. While visiting the campus as a beneficiary of a program called Engaging Education, Evans saw a production of a play by the university’s Rainbow Theatre Troupe.

“Sitting there I am watching this story about a black kid from Southern California and I was like, ‘These are people that look like me and this was written by a black student and directed by a black student and all of the tech and production folks are all folks of color, this is amazing!’” says Evans. “That was something I’d never seen because even though I went to a school that was mostly students of color we did Moliere and wondered why no one was in the audience.”

Evans ended up majoring in history at UC Santa Cruz but worked with the Rainbow Theatre Troupe and the African American Theatre Troupe. They also did slam poetry, attending national competitions and honing their storytelling skills. Upon graduating, Evans spent five years doing youth development work with such Bay Area organizations as Youth Uprising and Destiny Arts Center. This led to a position at the California Shakespeare Theatre as associate director of artistic engagement, where Evans oversaw a new approach to community engagement. 

“How do we bring community voices in direct conversation with the art and actually have them be part of the creative process,” Evans says, describing the approach and recalling a high point: Cal Shakes’ 2016 production of Fences where director, Raelle Myrick-Hodges, added the voices of women in the community to the show’s sound design. 

More recently, Evans premiered their first solo show, You Really Should Sit Like A Lady Or How I Got To Femme, as part of last year’s Hope Mohr Dance’s Bridge Project and served as dramaturg for Marcus Gardley’s Black Odyssey at Cal Shakes.

For Evans, these varied theatrical endeavors allow them to apply the storytelling tradition to inciting societal change. 

“Social change cannot happen without a cultural shift,” they say. “If we are not creating different examples of the culture we want to see, then [the new culture] doesn’t exist. For me it’s about: what types of stories can we be telling that continue to push that shift in culture.”

WAAFRIKA 123 runs at TheatreFIRST from May 6 to June 2, 2018.

Rotimi Agbabiaka is the Features Curator for Theatre Bay Area. He is an actor, writer, director, teaching artist, and a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Learn more about him at