PLAYWRIGHT E.E. WADE ON BLACK WOMANHOOD, CANNOLIS AND THE MAGIC CITY.
This interview was first featured on IndieTheatreNow.com
The Rhythm/Da Blues by E. E. Wade follows Leena, a young woman growing up in Birmingham, Alabama who’s struggling to find her own voice in a family of storytellers. When she turns to her aunt, Miss B. Darling, a transwoman and queen of rhythm for guidance, Lena learns to dance on beat and spit her truth like never before — -but will that be enough to help her navigate the bumpy road to adulthood?
E. E. Wade is a playwright and performer based in Los Angeles. The Rhythm/Da Blues is her first project as a part of her NYC residency with The Gnome Haus, an independent theatre company who performs at the historic 13th Street Repertory.
Topher Cusumano, co-founder of The Gnome Haus, had a chance to talk to Ms. Wade about her hometown, black womanhood, crafting trans characters, and more!
Hey Erika! You just wrapped a rehearsal for your new solo show The Rhythm/Da Blues, so thanks for taking some time to chat with us.
Oh! Thank you for having me!
First of all, welcome to New York! This is your first time visiting the city, what’s your impression of the Big Apple so far?
I love the charm of the city. Things here feel used and worn until they’re so familiar to the people that live here. That, and I love the food. There’s a lot more seasoning going on here than there is in LA. It reminds me of home.
Watching you play multiple character in the piece is a blast to watch — -but it also feels like Birmingham itself is a character in the play. Can you speak a little bit about your connection to the city, and why it was important for you to have The Rhythm/Da Blues be set there?
Birmingham is definitely a strong theme in the play. Growing up there, I saw all the everyday magic of the city. We’re called The Magic City for a reason. Sometimes people only see images of close mindedness and racism from the South, but those same images hurt the disenfranchised people that live there. Black people live and thrive in the South. We don’t see that often. I wanted to show my hometown in a way that has different colors than we’re used to seeing, but doesn’t shy away from the threads of the Old South that still exist.
The piece is “inspired by true events” as opposed to being strictly autobiographical. As a writer what were some of the benefits and challenges of blending fact and fiction?
I was always told to write what I know. Writing from a place of personal truth makes your material more specific and authentic feeling. If I’m writing a piece on black womanhood, I can get all the nuances of my own experience just right. It might not apply to all black women, but the familiarity there opens the doors for people to invite themselves into the world I’m trying to create. Blending fiction just helps you tell the story. If you get too wrapped up in your own narrative, especially in a solo show, it becomes an hour and a half about your life that you’re asking an audience to watch and maybe respond to. This isn’t just about me. It’s about the South, black women, trans women, women in general, magic, family, heartbreak, music, poetry, and a lot of other things. Keeping it strictly about my life prevents me from touching all those bases.
In the play, Leena’s aunt and mentor Miss. B. Darling is a transwoman. It’s a really beautiful, complex relationship you created between the two characters. Why was it important for you to include trans representation in your piece and how did you go about crafting the character?
It’s important for me to include Miss B. because I wanted to discuss black womanhood in a very inclusive and specific way. Trans women are a part of that narrative. I wanted B. to be a fully fleshed out representations of a black trans women that wasn’t a trope or caricature. She’s so loving and honest. She’s one of my favorite to play. If any character in the play was going to be the heart, it would be Miss B. Darling.
You and your director, Lindsy Bissonnette, started this process when you were both in graduate school at Savannah College of Art & Design. How has that director/performer relationship evolved between processes?
We have both grown so much as artists. Lindsy has always been fearless to me. It was fearless of her to take the task of directing a new play, but also a new solo performer. The Rhythm/Da Blues is my first solo show, and Lindsy has made me so comfortable in my own skin. She lets me make mistakes, but she also holds me accountable for the hard work that this play requires. Sometimes, I hate E.E. Wade the writer for the things she makes Erika E. Wade the performer do.
One of the reasons I think people are going to love this play so much is the insurmountable sense of joy you’ve embedded into the story- while still being able to raise serious topics surrounding black womanhood, trans identities, the sense of loss after leaving home- how did you go about striking that balance and why was is that balance important to your work?
I love talking about everything at once, but maintaining a simple thread of identity in all of my pieces. As humans, we think about a million different things at once. At one moment, we could be several different versions of ourselves, so why not write plays that do that too? You can be joyous and homesick. You can be a black woman who is shy and opinionated at the same time, too. I want to see all of those things on stage, all at once.
After pulling so much from your childhood and young adult experiences for this piece, what advice would you give your younger self if you could?
I would tell her to be patient, and to never let other people define her. I’ve always had this confidence that I couldn’t really identify. Because I didn’t understand that part of myself, I let others tell me it was wrong. Now, I am very self-aware; my joy cannot be determined by anyone but me.
Thanks again for chatting today! Last question before we head out- if you could take one food from Birmingham and one food from New York back to LA with you, what would you take?
Hmm…I definitely can’t leave Birmingham without Green Acres chicken wings. They’re always hot and fresh, and come with French fries, a piece of white bread, and fully loaded with hot sauce and ketchup. It’s not pretty, but it’s the best and cheapest chicken you’ll find. And, I’m definitely not leaving New York without the amazing sweets here. I’ve had some of the best food while here. Of course, I love cannolis, but I love the pasta sauce here too.