A new play by Patricia Ione Lloyd is a must-see at the Public Theater.
“It’s an emotional experience, it’s a rollercoaster and you don’t know what’s going to happen,” says queer playwright Patricia Ione Lloyd of her new play Eve’s Song.
She’s right. I like to think I’m an old hand at navigating narrative forms and I didn’t guess anything about the play’s plot, its rising action, its complications, or its climax. The characters are fresh and real: they’re plucked from the headlines and the sidewalks of Anywhere America and yet they are perfectly suited to a night at the theater. I’ve been waiting for this a long time. I’ve been waiting for the curtains to rise on a queer black female writer who can reach back and hold hands with Lorraine Hansberry and speak to the crisis we find ourselves in today. Lloyd and her play more than deserve this production. As she says, “There are so many things that happen in one day to a queer woman of color.”
I have spent countless hours (and dollars) at the theater watching plays in which white men and women argue about love or money or power in plots about affairs or inheritances or long-buried family secrets. It occurs to me that theater is a spectacle of privilege, often right down to the audiences who can afford the price of a ticket. But I love the theater for other reasons. For me it is a secular congregation, an artform that musters and works through our great pleasures and our deepest concerns. And right now there are important stories to tell.
Eve’s Song is about a single-parent black family in America. Mom, Deborah (De’Adre Aziza), is trying to keep up appearances and hang onto her job as she comes to terms with her divorce. She is beautiful, civil, deals with discrimination on a daily basis and is terrified of failure. She keeps a nice house, with planned family meals, and instructs her children on the proper ways to conduct themselves in order to be successful. But outside, black folks are getting shot—just for being black. Maybe, though, if this family folds their napkins just right it won’t happen to them.
Meanwhile, daughter, 19-year-old Lauren (Kadijah Raquel), is coming out as queer and falling for a self-confident activist, Upendo (Ashley D. Kelley). The struggle to maintain domestic normalcy and familial harmony is juxtaposed with the specter of discrimination and violence. The house is visited by the spirits of the recent and distant past who have fallen victim to it. All the while, there’s a crack in the living room wall that gets wider, and wider…
Eve's Song is both symbolic and naturalistic in a way that is poetic and compelling. This is the visceral power of theater: to give flesh to issues that we often see relegated to "news." Here are characters we rarely get to meet on the main stage and we are at dinner, on a date, and even in bed with them. Eve's Song is autobiographical in a prismatic way. “There’s something that I love about myself and something that I hate about myself in every one of those characters,” says Lloyd.
For the first time in my life, I was in a theater where the audience was majority people of color. Lloyd, who identifies as queer, partnered with the Public Theater for this production—an experience she describes as akin to winning the lottery since the Public is one of the very few theatres to have a transparent commitment to new experimental work appealing to open-minded audiences who crave an expression of current times. The theater was committed to carrying out Lloyd’s vision and bringing in black audiences in a way few other companies do. “No one was really trying to do this play except the Public Theater,” she says.
Which is an oversight. “There should be plays everywhere about women of color and queer women,” she says. The struggle is real. Not just artistically, either. “There are so many times as a queer black woman when the smallest thing is a challenge—like people getting in front of me in line when I'm getting coffee like I'm invisible,” she says.
This is welcome change but Lloyd doesn’t see enough change across the board yet to feel convinced that the revolution is happening. “I wish I did. I think my whole life has been a political struggle and even if I wouldn’t have used those words in the past—I remember the first time I was truly afraid—it was the ‘90s and I had to stay home from school because the Klan was marching at the Capitol in Iowa.”
Lloyd grew up there, her father a janitor, her mother a factory worker. There was no clear roadmap to being a New York playwright but Lloyd took her family tradition of telling stories and making things to please each other and applied it to her own cognizance of the culture around her—the narrative tradition in Western art which has a fondness for stories about women and the bad things that happen to them. Those stories, realized Lloyd, were “not about the life of the woman. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, what is that doing to me when I continually consume that? I think I can come up with something better than that,’ ” she told herself. “I don’t really agree with the word political because if you care about humanity then you are clearly political. This play is very political only because it says black women are being killed. ‘Don’t kill us.’ It’s crazy to me that that is a political statement.”
“I used to fool myself and say that when I got a certain amount of financial security that it would give me some safety. That’s what I thought.” Lloyd has lived below the poverty level, and she’s been homeless. “I remember saying to myself I can't be black and poor and queer. That is too many things to jeopardize my safety.” She believes that waiting until she moved to a big city to then come out, and her “light-skin privilege” kept her safe. “I wish that I could've made different choices. Sometimes you have to make choices that feel wrong so that you can keep breathing.”
But during our conversation, Lloyd’s voice overflows with mirth and good, wry humor. And if you think this play sounds heavy, it is—but it’s also very funny. People have asked her “how are we crying one minute and laughing the next?” Her answer? “When your situation is so dire, you have to hold onto any lightness, any joy.” And she has.
One of the first places that gave Lloyd a boost was the legendary New York lesbian collective the WOW Cafe. “I ended up sweeping and taking tickets until I could have enough sweat equity to do my own show. I’ll always be grateful to that experience,” she says. She credits WOW and the Public Theater with helping her tell her stories. And she’ll keep going, too. “I will be learning until the day I die. That’s how I live my life.” It’s how I want to live my life, too. And that’s why we go to the theater—she and I and hopefully you, too: to connect with others, in one space, in real time. “We’re all coming from a different starting place to experience the same thing,” she says.
Eve’s Song by Patricia Ione Lloyd, directed by Jo Bonney, is running until December 9 at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street New York City.
Tickets: (212) 967-7555 and www.publictheater.org