By Shawn(ta) Smith
It took me three years to turn thirty. During that time, I asked thirty queer women of color to tell me about their experience of entering their Saturn Return, coming into their own realized selves, essentially, turning thirty. During this time, I interviewed women at conferences, online, in person, and as lovers. Their stories have come to shape my life. Now that I’m here, the big 3-0, I decided to write a play. Saturnistas (which I’m toying with naming Her Saturn Returns – The Play) has come to light after a blog and a call for submissions led me to understand the dynamic intricacies of queer woman of color Saturn Return experiences.
In the debut moment of sharing the first act of the play, I have the honor of sharing a stage this Saturday, December 14 at 6pm in the WOW Café Theatre with two other black lesbian writers. Alternative Realities: Staged Readings by Three Black Lesbian Writers, produced by Mimi McGirl, will feature the first acts of three works in progress by Erica Cardwell, Zahra Patterson, and myself, Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz. All proceeds will go to Fire & Ink, recognized as the most influential supporter and advocate for GLBT writers of African descent.
This past Sunday, December 8, we had a rehearsal with black lesbian actors Dondrie Burnham, Nefertiti Martin, Joi Sanchez, Gaelle Voltaire, and T. Sacred Walker. Below is a conversation I had with some of the women in the room, about the process of writing, Saturn, the anticipation of words that were once on your computer screen now put to voice affront a theater, and, of course, how community is the best thing that happened to being a lesbian!
Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz: So, Zahra, tell me why you decided to write this play, Sappho’s Last Supper?
Zahra Patterson: Well, I had a dream actually. And somebody in my dream was telling me about a live theater dinner party that was happening for women in Chelsea and I don’t really remember the dream very well; I didn’t remember it that well when I woke up, but I do remember kind of being at this underground space in Chelsea and there were women on the stage eating dinner performing for an audience. I also remember it was all lesbians [and] noting that all the women [were] white. When I woke up, Sappho’s Last Supper started to form itself in my mind.
Shawn: So it was important that there was the dinner party and also the women of color?
Shawn: So, why is it a farce, or this satirical, hilarious play?
Zahra: Oh, that’s just how my brain works.
Shawn: Sounds good. How do you want it to manifest, or how do you feel it is going to live in the world?
Zahra: Well, I plan to continue working on it. I started it because I was taking a playwriting class last summer, and… I’m really appreciative of the positive feedback that I had today and that inspires me to continue to work on it. And yeah, it’s become kind of important to me. It’s the first play I’ve ever written, so I want to finish it.
Shawn: Well, thank you, for participating!
Zahra: Thank you, for doing this Shawn!
Shawn: Thank you, and thank you Mimi.
Zahra: Yes, thank you Mimi for producing it.
Shawn: Yes, so Mimi how did you come to produce the Alternative Realities: Staged Readings by Three Black Lesbian Writers?
Mimi McGirl: Well Shawn, I do believe we had a conversation at the [WOW Cafe Theatre annual retreat] in July, and you said you had written a play and you didn’t know what the next step would be. And since I’m a director, I thought, well, we should do a reading at WOW. And then we actually got a date and you said you had a couple of playwriting friends who might want to participate, and I said, fantastic, it’s a great opportunity for people to hear their words for the first time, and for actors to meet each other, and for directors and playwrights to meet other actors so you kind of know who’s out there in the community, and I love WOW and I love you, and I wanted to do it.
Shawn: My heart is so full right now! Did you hear her? It’s like she was reading off a cue card.
[Laughter throughout the room.]
Gaelle Voltaire: Yes, that’s why she’s in the business!
Shawn: And Gaelle, I want you to play Joey, who is a stand-in for my wife (as I’m sure you figured that out, based on the description). So how do you feel performing in three plays written by three black lesbians and walking in on the spot?
Gaelle: I’m excited that these writers are getting their voices out there and getting their voices heard. I wasn’t expecting to do this, so this was a pleasant surprise. I was going to look up tires all day for my dad’s business – I was going to have a really dismal day today, and now you guys came in and gave me this really nice surprise.
Shawn: Thank you for seeing it that way, that’s awesome.
Gaelle: Yeah, I’m really excited. The play that I’ve seen so far is amazing. And I’m really excited for this one, Saturnistas, just because I worked with you on transcribing everything about Saturn.
Shawn: Yes, that’s so true! Everyone, Gaelle transcribed every audio interview that I did in DC and all other Saturn Returns interviews.
Gaelle: Yes, it was awesome. I didn’t know anything about it before. But now whenever anyone tells me their age, I say, it’s your Saturn! It was awesome to hear all of their stories. And I wonder what’s going to happen in my Saturn. I wonder if it will be full of success and not like, terrible things.
Shawn: It will be both. And out of terrible things comes success. And Joi, you were my first Her Saturn Returns interview.
Joi Sanchez: Let me tell you this, Shawn is probably the person who started my Saturn!
Shawn: Well, let’s redirect this question. So you were just saying how you felt about Zahra’s play, about Sappho’s Last Supper.
Joi: I thought it was so funny, and very witty. Interesting. I thought it was ironic because at the last page, you all said, “Joi, stand in for the jewelry designer.” Then I read what happens with the jewelry designer, and I’m like, “Oh! That’s just perfect!” Because I’m the person that has kids, and a lot of people always question my sexuality because of my children, so I found it very ironic. Overall, well-rounded. It made me excited to see where it goes – the starting of the conversations, and where they are going. I’m really excited about it.
And I have a secret reality TV junk need. This is possibly the best alternate reality situation that I could watch. And I would really love to watch this as an actual TV show…
Zahra: Like a decade long reality TV show.
Joi: Yes! Why not! If Love and Hip Hop can happen for ten seasons, and Real Housewives can happen for ten spin-offs, then why not?! Why can’t there be a next lesbian of color superstar contest on TV? I don’t see why it’s not out there. I think that would be great to see.
Shawn: Now Erica, tell me about Prints. Tell me what you were thinking about when you wrote it.
Erica Cardwell: It was originally called Ducks Crossing, based on a story from my life that is told in the first few scenes. The title was appropriate for me at the time, but needed relevance for now. I wrote this screenplay when I was 25. It was written at Cat’art, an artist residency in France and is one of the longest pieces that I have ever committed to finishing. At that time, writing it felt important. I wrote it because the people in the community of the screenplay were things that I wanted for myself that I didn’t have. I had a close network of friends, but I didn’t have the kinship that I was trying to convey within the script. I didn’t have enough of these women in my life. Now I do. But when I picked up the script to look at it again, almost seven years later, it really felt like there was something hindering it. It felt like there was a wall. So the past few months have been kind of interesting to revisit it, to write more and to upgrade it seven years later.
I mean, speaking of Saturn Returns, it’s a very interesting experience to look at it, sort of pre-Saturn and then post-Saturn. It’s been interesting to look at that and attempt to make it fit my current life, but I also enjoy that it’s still based in 2006. Cause I’m usually outdated or a late bloomer so, the piece has that “frozen in time” feel. Ready for an upgrade! Or perhaps a retrograde…
Shawn: How does it feel like doing a screenplay in theater format?
Erica: I’m concerned about clarity with the visual element. I feel like my script is going to need a little bit more staging to make things clearer. I’m just concerned about conveying the visual on stage. My vision has always been for this to be on screen in some way. Right now, I would like to create a web series out of this project. Originally, I was going to adapt it for theater given the format of the reading, but I wanted to honor how it was intended. It was written as a screenplay deliberately.
Shawn: How do you feel being grouped or named with black lesbian writers?
Erica: I feel excited about it. I’m also really excited about the fact that it’s a fundraiser for Fire & Ink. I think that half of the donations are going to Fire & Ink. It feels cool and affirming, actually. I also feel really special and happy to be included with you, Shawn and Zahra because you are both talented women and dear friends. It kind of makes me feel old too. Because I’m 32 soon, so it’s like, oh, okay, it’s time! It’s making me want to step my game up a bit as a woman that “feels older.” Older in the sense that I am “old enough to take myself seriously.” It’s been a weird few weeks in my life, so it’s making me want to work a little more…using my creativity to center myself amidst the chaos. It is already starting to feel good to be sharing my work in this way.
Alternative Realities: Staged Readings by Three Black Lesbians Writers will be at the WOW Café Theatre, 59-61 East 4th Street, 4th floor, New York, NY this Saturday, December 14 at 6:30pm. We hope to have a room filled with community to provide feedback and drink all of the free wine! Hope to see you there.
Synopsis of Prints by Erica Cardwell
PRINTS: what we leave behind
Brown skin, coiled hair.
Dark skin, woven locks.
Freckles, fades, moles.
Wavy edges and babyhairs.
Jawlines and breasts.
Large hands, fingerprints.
This isn’t the house that love built, but it is the house where love lives.
There are many different kinds of women. There are many different kinds of love. It’s Brooklyn. It’s 2006. Celia’s tiny house is a temporary weigh station for a crew of women with complicated secrets and delicious sexualities. Love is the theme and these women have created a place of safety to just kick it. Celia is our beloved matriarch in her unchosen house of misfits, transplants, and deliberate outcasts. There’s Glo, the rapid fire MD. Kamille, Celia’s overzealous baby sister. Rachel, the well intentioned nurse. Tina, the mouthy gossip queen. Pat, the meek upholder of the “law”. The secrets of these women reproduce like fingerprints; identities that persist throughout time. Often, our prints are dismissed as shadows– leaving a mark within pain, duty, and competition. When we lend these prints to the air, allow them to evaporate as memories and then inhale, we own our stories. Women of color are not drama; we exist boldly within true stories of love and kinship.
Often imitated, never duplicated.
Synopsis of Saturnistas by Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz
Pass the wine, Diane is turning thirty!
“We’ve been in community together for years, but this may be the first time we’re having a real conversation,” opens the original play of the Her Saturn Returns project.
While Diane experiences the tumultuous journey of her Saturn Return, she tries to get pregnant with her life partner Joey while maintaining their poly lifestyle of alternate lovers. She finds guidance through ancestral spiritual connections, and interviews with other queer women of color somewhere in outer space over coffee. There will be sex, community, music, cabaret, and of course, the inner workings of Saturn.
Synopsis of Sappho’s Last Supper by Zahra Patterson:
In an alternate universe, where walled ghettos contain subversive populations. One lesbian of color creates a competition to bring a second lesbian artist of color from the ghetto to the world of the rich and famous. The competition lasts a decade and the play opens on the final night. The last test for the competitors is a live theater dinner party. Which artist will become rich and famous and who will return to the ghetto? The plot thickens when two activists from our reality find themselves on a mission to provoke a revolution in this universe. The dinner party gets underway but is disrupted by a bomb blast before the winner is declared. Outside, the walls of the ghetto have come down and the police are slaughtering the community. What will the contestants do, escape to the world of rich and famous or stay to fight for their community?