Sharon Bridgforth and Andre Lancaster

Recorded July 25, 2008 Archived July 25, 2008 01:06:40
0:00 / 0:00
Id: LMN000455


Sharon discusses her approach to writing plays.

Subject Log / Time Code

SB/ what is theatrical jazz?
SB/ hear deeply
SB/ bringing community together through drama
SB/ how she started writing
SB/ when her writing wen from private to public


  • Sharon Bridgforth
  • Andre Lancaster

Recording Locations

StoryCorps Lower Manhattan Booth

Partnership Type



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00:05 Hi, my name is Andre. I'm 29. Today is July 25th. 2008 VRI MN City Hall Downtown Manhattan, and I'm here interviewing Sharon Bridgeport who is a friend and a colleague. Hi, my name is Sharon Fritz 4th on 50. Today is July 25th. 2008. I'm in Manhattan and I'm here with Andre who is a friend and colleague. Singer play writing and what makes your playwriting unique over the past couple of weeks. We've been talking about your work and in relationship to Freedom Train. So yeah, I would love to kind of open up that discussion. Okay, great. Thank you. I write performance literature. My last piece was what I called a performance novel.

01:05 Delta Dandy, I have a feeling that it will also be a performance novel but it's so new that I'm not quite sure how to talk about it yet and in that type of detail, but what I do know is that I consider it literature that lives in an African American tradition specifically at lives in a theatrical Jazz aesthetic and some of what that means to me is that the work is is about documenting the times it's about

01:39 Uplifting the spirit. It's about working with Blues as a base and it is about oral tradition, which is to be performed so that the article Jazz aesthetic is a lot of things but you know, just as a kind of a a way to start the conversation. That's what I'd say. What's the what is the article Jazz? Dr. Johnny Jones on the ocean Aloma who is the director of the center for African and African-American studies at UT Austin and she's also in performance as public practice at ut-austin. Sue the director. Now this is the director of the semester. She's the scholarly expert until I am not professing or trying to give the kind of detail that she could give she's writing a book. She's currently in process with a book called.

02:39 Jazze, PHA Che in the power of the present moment. That's a tentative title and think but I'm she's also written a lot of Articles. One of them is called cast a wide net and it's in the theater Journal some of the things that we know is that this comes the theatrical Jazz aesthetic as we Define it comes out of a tradition. I'm so I would say directly. I feel that my artistic lineage is from Lori Carlos who was one of the original cast members in For Colored Girls Who considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. She was also one of the original players in the oven guard seen here in the seventies and New York and she's just done too many things the name but she's like my mentor big sister, but even before I met her I think intuitively I was already connected to her and the type of work that she has helped put in the world.

03:39 I would say Audrey in Kennedy, of course into Zaki shange Diane McIntyre. Lots of people have broken ground in the theatrical Jazz aesthetic and some of the characteristics of the theatrical Jazz aesthetic as as we have talked about them or that the work is process-oriented versus product oriented in it's not that the product suffers at all, but the focus is on process. So the magic happens when the people are in the room and what you hope for is a spark.

04:16 That ignites Innovation collaboration in a unique way and Community. I Look To Jazz musicians to find language for myself. And for what I'm doing. So, you know, I've read a lot of biographies and autobiographies and pay close attention to how Jazz musicians traditionally Define the work instead. Of course, we use some of that language when we talked about ourselves in the work, but I'm the work is generative improvisation individuality syncopation deep listening. These are some of the things that are assumed when we talked about it. It's about transformation transgression blues-based the audience participates as Witnesses. So their presence requires that they work and that they contribute to what is going on.

05:15 It's very rigorous. And so again the work is about the process but the process is your daily life. So the life in the Arden. Separate and it's expensive and I think that more than anything what we are really trying to do is hear deeply so that we can examine time and space in a different way so that we can step into something differently. And I think all of that is probably why poets spoken word artists and Hip-Hop people hip hop people that are working in Hip Hop as a traditional aesthetic. That is our people that I tend to be in the dialogue with cuz I think that they too are working from the heart working towards articulation.

06:12 Of something new documenting the times you no excetera, so

06:19 So in your work you talk about slavery you're talking about on memory you're talking about in your work Delta Dandy. You're talkin about Collective healing and in pain. Is that how you phrase it or how you know again the pieces so new it's hard to have specific language and I really am grateful to Freedom Train for the opportunity to get this piece out and try it, you know and and learn what it's about and how to talk about it. But I initially I originally wanted to write a piece that was a celebration of black culture and spirit and my initial idea was that I would fashion something in the way that Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams head with their sacred concerts and it just wasn't quite what wanted to happen. I do believe that that peace will come to me but

07:18 Think that I first had to examine what I called Collective grief and Trauma for us as and specifically I'm I'm looking at Black Americans but the thing about jazz is that it's about spirit. So the more specific you are the more individual your voices the more universally you're able to touch and speak and connect. So the goal is to speak from a place of spirit, but I have to speak from my deeply personal place first. So I say that he know I'm looking at African-Americans, but I'm I'm aware that were people of the world right? So I have two questions. Can you talk about Duke Ellington sacred concert and what that what what yeah just talked about that and then also sell your work deals with like Collective.

08:18 Trauma and grief slavery and memory like how do you feel that? The static that you're using is best able to like capture those themes jazz is about breaking open time. And one of the reasons that dr. Jones is using a Yoruba cosmology to look at jazz is that it is

08:44 An African concept that the past present and future coexist and so for us as African-Americans innovators of this form Jazz, which comes from Blue's when comes from gospel with comes from field hollers and shouts which comes from I believe ritual write the idea of time is circular and fluid. It's not a European sense of time at all. So usually am at my work is used this the Delta 10 is very different in many ways some ways that I can't even talk about yet because I don't know how to talk about it yet, but I always in all of my work I am very much. I feel someone trying to record The ancestral voices and doing that in a way that uses the exist the coexistence of the past the present the future the living the den The Unborn

09:40 So in that

09:43 Being the structure is the Jazz of it. So so an ounce of course, I forgot in your original question. But what I want to say is that with all of my work in Delta Dandy included. It's like the way structurally with the text. The Jazz of it is in its construction of time there many things happening at the same time many existences many lifetimes many spirits and many rhythms. And so what I hope to do is using words as a as music is to weave a rhythmic Journey that takes people on an experience so I don't I'm not so interested in engaging people's intellect. I really want people to have an experience and contribute to the experience in the room and feel something. I think that

10:43 Are spirits our souls are much smarter than our mind and there are things that we know that we do not have language for and so one of the reasons I love working in the theatrical Jazz aesthetic is it's a it's a collaborative process that includes the audience it weaves, you know, the story telling aspect Dance Movement breath visual art, like it weaves all of the art forms together to tell the story which to me means that I'm we can go deeper than words, but it's an experience that we're going to be in your audience to to take I have a journey with language as music. Yeah, but not pay attention to the words and using there and now I'm expecting them to pay attention. But the way into it is to be open to the experience in the present moment.

11:43 So it's a lot of work right for everybody including the audience. How do you how do you in your past. Have? You gotten your how have you found the Iranians to be best prepared to be engaged in the moment of your work?

12:02 I don't know that.

12:05 Or if that's not even I mean that's not even your responsibility or you know, I don't think that's my responsibility and one of the things I've learned is to not I cannot worry about what people think about the work but one of the things that I do feel very responsible for is using art as a vehicle for Community organizing and building community. So one of the things that I am very active in and then I encourage is that different groups of people come together to make the work happen to publicize the work and to bring their different communities into the room and I think that's where the magic happens.

12:45 So, can you talk about Duke Ellington sacred concert? I think the only thing to say is that you have to hear it. I just don't really know what to say about it. I think that you know, he was one of the most prolific composers of all time one of the most brilliant Geniuses that that we've had and certainly an innovator in jazz itself. But his reach was far beyond that and later in his life. He created these sacred concerts. He did the first one at Carnegie Hall and I think it was in 1945, but I'm not sure of the exact year, but I do know that he was so ahead of his time that it wasn't received as well as some of his other work and he was very from my understanding that leases that he was very disappointed by that and he kind of after that kept it.

13:42 A little more private but there are ironically on Netflix. You can actually find a documentary which features clips of him doing the sacred concert tap dancers. He had it was just it was profound because he used everything that is a black aesthetic, you know from the drummer to the to the tapping to

14:10 To create this disk espiritual explosion.

14:14 Which was sacred? Yes.

14:22 What was it to you to see the most experience for you and seeing the

14:26 It was inspiring it was deeply moving. It was breathtaking and it was confirmation. It was confirmation that

14:39 On many levels that our lives matter that we can each make a difference that it's important to fully be yourself into reach further than you think you can I think that's what he did with that piece. I think the vision of it was huge and even for him who was a very big man, it was huge and he did it and he risked everything I think risk is important and jazz is very much about

15:12 The process of risking so that you can get to something that doesn't exist. And so

15:20 All of that in in just like 30 minutes was what that meant to me and it was it was beautiful to see it and they were so dignified and so elegant and so beautiful.

15:33 And I think that he opened those kinds of doors for us uniquely. And so it was beautiful to see him and all of those black musicians and dancers and singers in their Elegance long before it was okay.

15:52 Can you describe some of what you saw in that? I mean like for me who hasn't seen that or somebody else? I haven't seen it. You just talked about some of the performers in their elegant sigh means. Can you describe a little bit of what you might expect to see in it? I'm not really interested in talking too much about that. I think people need to just see it. You need to you need to know about Duke Ellington. You need to know who he is in the world. He deserves it. And I think it's part of I guess what I'm trying to say is it's indescribable.

16:26 What what I know this was really excited when we did your reading afterwards was that just has you talked about experiencing the sacred concert the your actors all who experiences experience of reading they immediately got it, you know, and they felt validated, you know, I turn to who is the woman who sitting next to me. Was it Denise or my niece? Who? Yeah, she immediately got it. She felt it. What was that like for you to kind of have to do you have a non-traditional kind of casting Choice casting process to the ones that like to see that you're a casting process be validated by the fact that these are the right people you kind of selected for your performance to read and then was that like to experience them getting it it was so

17:26 Huge for many reasons why one reason being that I you know, like Duke Ellington worked with the same musicians basically his entire career every now and then somebody with switch out but the the band was his instrument and so what happens is when you work with especially in this aesthetic where what you're really trying to do is build.

17:51 On something that creates an opening so that something new can happen very often we end up working with the same people because where we we can start at a higher pitch together. We already have a basic understanding of what it is there were seeking to do and we have experiences that we can build on as we try to do that. And so I am spoiled in that way and that I've been able to collaborate with some amazing and brilliant people and work with them a lot Helga Davis Lord, Carlos Daniel Alexander Jones Sonia Perryman Sanjay Parks, you know, I could go Jolla branner, you know, I could go on and on Renita Martin coming here and and I wanted to do this on purpose to disrupt my comfort zone and also cuz I can feel that Delta Danny's something new for me. So I wanted to

18:51 Support and kind of provoke it it being itself. So I didn't know any of them. I mean one cast member who wasn't there that day. So I used to know her very well and we've worked together when she wasn't there that day. So I didn't know any of these cast members and I also because the script was so fresh and it still is so fresh as I now have three more. I've done three drafts since you heard it and I expected I'll do at least one more before our first rehearsal and then I expect they'll probably take another year before I feel that the pieces really finished. But because you learn from being in the room from the information you get from doing it, you know, but anyway, I didn't know if it worked. I didn't know if they would get it. I didn't know the people in the room and so it was a great.

19:51 It meant a lot to me and it was quite inspiring and uplifting for me personally that they got it. They committed to it immediately. They loved it and they in their conversation with me helped me to move it forward. So that was pretty cool.

20:11 And looking at your script. You don't have you don't have Cactus. I mean, yeah, you have a whole new aesthetic in one kind of way that has realize is that you don't have characters that delineate like who who's going to read these lines? Who's going to read that line? I'm how do you when you're going through the process of time before the read-through? You were going through the process of giving each actors lines. How do you decide is that or I mean when I think about jazz, I think about being organic and you know Roofing how do you decide on who reads with lines? And then how do you allow for improvisation as well too and your work? Yeah my workout, you know in my heart. I'm a poet and I started writing from the place of identifying as a poet and then later I realized that I was writing for performance in the way that For Colored Girls Who considered to

21:11 Play When the rainbow is enuf his aquarium pump. So but it took years before I understood that because I didn't grow up going to theater, you know, all of that stuff and I didn't find For Colored Girls until I was an adult but so I it's all about playing for me. It's about the process of plain and deep listening. So I structured the words on the page to me. I hear it as music. So it's a rhythmic it is the Rhythm and it's intuition that helps me get from place to place as I'm writing it and then with the with the performers because we had I had the opportunity to be present during the casting. I just really paid attention and then just it was

22:02 I just feel like I was playing and I'm also using my intuition and deep listening skills. And you know, we probably you know, we could we could have we could never have enough time to play like it is the life. It's the work. It's the process will come to some kind of solid decisions before the stage reading but I expect that much of rehearsal will be about playing and when the pieces actually produced fully there would you know, I expect that there will be layers of other things happening like movement if Lori were directing that I know it what are Daniel we're directing that I know it would have gestural language and it would have a lot of movement. I'm not sure who the director is going to be. So I don't know what they're going to add to it. But what I'm saying is is I expect that the other collaborators will come in and Will putting layers on in concert with the text. So

23:02 It will it will build sonically and then I'm visually and physically as as we go on but the great thing about this stage meeting with Freedom Train is I get to hear it kind of raw and kind of stripped of a lot of that stuff which is really important because then I can make sure that the text is what it's supposed to be. So when I'm building the text, I I am assuming and trying to leave space for collaborators come in and add their vision. And so I don't use stage directions. I I don't assign voices or anything like that. I'm I need for the collaborators to come in and put their Vision on it. But I do hope that the quilting of the rhythm of the story is clear. So one of the things I'm most excited about is that I'll go

24:02 To build on that from the state reading so when the director comes in do they do they work? I like how do they work within your process and not like just like pick pick my so you're going to go this late. So you just kind of promote like a organic process with them and so far. I've worked with the actors that work in this when I work with the director, I'd give it to them and I just step off already trust was total trust. I want to see what everybody's going to do. Like that's the exciting thing to me is to see what happens when they get ahold of it and then I can always one I can tell what I need to continue to do as a writer as a result of that but to then they tell me to so it becomes also away from me to continue to deepen the building of the text.

24:59 And I have directed the work myself. I had a theater company the root women Theater Company. We were touring company black women women's touring company from 93 to 99 and I I work in a very collaborative process with the performers. And so for most of the time that we toured I worked with Sandra Parks doing one woman shows because just is the mechanics and the physical labor of touring with one person was so much easier than a larger cast which initially did but then it was just too much cuz we didn't have an infrastructure for that and then was signed you. I mean, I've known her so long we worked so deeply together so well together and she is so brilliant. She's now living in Minneapolis and is one of the big players out there in terms of in actor performing Worden and riding work at

25:59 Directing now, but I could just hand signs of the script and say okay. Well, what do you think and then she would show me something and say what do you think? You know show me something as in render the text to me, you know perform and yeah, that's how we worked and then we would bring in people like dr. Jones Michelle Parker son, you know, we had some other people that came in and did insensitive workshops with us or observed what we were doing and give us feedback nothing else to say.

26:37 I'm very excited about the festival very honored to be working in the Freedom Train community and with the other playwrights as well felt. Thank you. Thank you.

26:53 We still have like about 15 minutes or 14 minutes, which we don't have to use all of if you guys are done. That's fine, but I might have a couple questions for you. If you don't mind. I don't mind. I'm just curious for you, you know.

27:10 Where are your interests in in playwriting started?

27:17 I am

27:22 Let me start over. Yeah, interesting all this began. I started writing when I was fifteen just as a way to kind of save myself cuz I I was probably depressed and I didn't really have a lot of language for what I was experiencing but I grew up in La I read a lot and kind of just trout you. No looking back. I probably was struggling with gender and sexuality issues. And then also just living in an urban environment that didn't really support my community basically living in the city that really just had no regard for people of color the LA that I grew up in was very segregated much more so than it is now and so I lived in South Central LA. It was all it was almost

28:22 Not only black Americans but black Americans that have migrated from the south. And so it was a very much a Southern Village or Southern Community. My mother is from Memphis. So she's Southern to and I used to go to Memphis a lot and

28:40 When I initially started writing I was just kind of trying to breathe. So it was something that was very private and very much about me trying to understand life and trying to you know, trying to survive and then later I actually got a ba in creative writing it from Cal State LA. It was a special major and I took every writing class at they had but I I just couldn't the the forms in the structures that they were demanding that we use just didn't work for me. So I just stopped trying to work inside of those forms and I just went back to to my own personal voice, which I call my grandmother's voice. So I went back to being a thinking about being a kid in the kitchen and you know, people are cooking and dancing and laughing and lying and you know, they're eating and they're singing and there.

29:40 Telling the stories of our family history of our people of our struggle and so many things it's the Jazz of it a lot of things happening all at the same time multiple realities coexist a very what we might call interdisciplinary if it was theater and I just really want it to use language as good as they did cuz they were masterful storytellers. And as a reader by that time I was also deeply influenced by Langston Hughes and James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni and Toni Morrison and audre Lorde and you know all of those great writers. So also Langston Hughes particularly with his profound ability to use the language of Blues to celebrate us was something that really struck a deep chord in me because I recognize that

30:40 As as as my people as my family as me. So that's how I kind of came to it. And then later as an adult in the seventies. I saw four colored girl. That was the first theater piece. I saw I thought in San Francisco and that just changed my whole life very good. And then I saw, you know got a hold of the book and later years later in 98. I worked with Lori

31:05 So how did writing go from being like a private thing for you to something more public? And what was that experience like with like starting out?

31:18 I only had suitcases of work literally when I look through it now. I do a lot of it away but I still have some of it and it was just awful. It was just you know, not very good writing that all but it was important to me and it helped me to be able to move through my life. So I had suitcases of work that I kept private and when I move to Texas to Austin, Texas from Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to because Austin is a small City and people are very accessible and there are a lot of artists lots of Actavis. Lots of queer folks, you know, lots of awesome academics, you know, it's just a really great community and you can access people so I fell into organizations and I fell in with individuals that were using artists.

32:18 Vehicle for social justice and they welcome to me in and so I got the opportunity to have a one-woman show produced and I thought they were a collection of poems. And so I handed them over to someone and they said oh we're going to produce your one-woman show and I was like, oh that's what that is, you know, cuz I didn't know before that and that experience changed my whole life because that's when everything fell together. So I was able to be in the room with Starla Benford who's a phenomenal actor who now lives here and I was in the room as the writer watching this great actor in this wonderful director.

32:58 Handled work and then I understood what I was doing. And so then from there on then I just started doing it. I just kept trying stuff and producing myself and falling down my face many times.