At The Edge of Your Seat: How Lenelle Moïse Takes a Poet’s Approach to Playwriting Tuesday 21 August, 2012
Eyes wide, spines straight, brows furrowed. Poet, playwright, and performance artist Lenelle Moïse enjoys when the audience is at the “edge of their seats.” Whether she’s bonding with the audience in her autobiographical one-woman show Womb Words, Thirsting or exploring the friendship of platonic soulmates in Expatriate, this 2012 Ruby Prize winner models openness, curiosity, [...]
Eyes wide, spines straight, brows furrowed. Poet, playwright, and performance artist Lenelle Moïse enjoys when the audience is at the “edge of their seats.” Whether she’s bonding with the audience in her autobiographical one-woman show Womb Words, Thirsting or exploring the friendship of platonic soulmates in Expatriate, this 2012 Ruby Prize winner models openness, curiosity, and flexibility in every work she produces. Her brevity and poignant ability to tell stories have audiences participating, even when their mutual laughter lightens the seriousness of her plays’ subject matter.
On stage, Lenelle Moïse is her “most bold, inviting, alert self,” making it easy for audiences to join her on the fantastically captivating, joyously entertaining journey of her characters. Her performances allow audience members to engage in the life of a stranger, while still being challenged in their own lives. Lenelle, the “black woman immigrant lesbian artist with working class roots,” allows her identity to shape her heart, and her heart to shape her art, saturating her work with the drama of real-life. In this interview highlighting Lenelle’s work, we discuss her desire to celebrate her “free body” and to the present “well-told stories about complex characters of color.”
Can you tell us more about your upcoming plays Expatriate and Ache What Make?
Expatriate is a fantastical full-length drama about Claudie and Alphine, two African-American musicians who are painfully platonic soul mates. I wrote the play with a poet’s ear. In one scene, the character Alphine sings:
“I’ve got the makings of a Lady,
I drink but don’t
miss a beat.
Smoke but my eyes
Blow but the music
You learn a lot about her in a few short lines: she’s talented, arrogant, addicted, clever, sensuous and sad.
I feel the tools I employ to describe the world as a poet are the same tools I use to create a world as a playwright. I’m watchful and sensitive to body language, speech patterns and tone. These traits serve me well in the theatre.
In Expatriate, there’s a scene where Alphine shows up on Claudie’s Parisian doorstep, totally out of the blue. They haven’t seen or spoken to each other in a year. They have a passive-aggressive exchange, there’s an awkward pause, then Claudie bursts it with, “You ever notice how we don’t hug?” It’s a sucker-punch of a line. It shifts the scene. Her question is about the immediate situation but it’s also about their entire relationship. Both playwriting and poetry encourage concision. You have to share a lot of information without sacrificing momentum.
I’m currently developing Ache What Make, a new solo performance. The script is made up of 18 poems and songs, many of which were written after the January 2010 earthquake that shook my birthplace, Haiti. The poems are strong on the page, but I love to perform them. In rehearsal, I’m finding a physical vocabulary and soundscape to compliment the text.
What has been your favorite work to complete to date?
That’s a tough question…I love all my babies! I do enjoy performing my one-woman show Womb-Words, Thirsting. It’s about growing up politicized, working class and queer. It’s an evening full of laughter and I get to bond with my audiences. On stage, I am my most bold, inviting, alert self. Off stage, I’m a bit of a recluse, always sorting the past or thinking ahead.
What’s one thing that you want the audience to walk away with after seeing one of your plays or performances?
I want to empower my audiences to talk to strangers. I want us to celebrate our similarities and to practice loving each other for our differences. Through solo performance, I want to model openness, curiosity and flexibility. I want to help people balance their private, deep epiphanies with public, bubbling laughter.
Most of my work confronts racism, sexism and xenophobia. I want my audience to feel good about having “gone there” with me. Even when the truth-telling hits hard, there has to be some pleasure in the theatrical experience. As an artist, I am always interested in beauty—in creating a positive spectacle on stage. It’s nice to see eyes widen and spines straighten and furrowed brows melt. I want you at the edge of your seat.
Congratulations on winning the 2012 Ruby Prize for your play Merit. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Thank you! Merit is a comedic drama in two acts. It follows African-American fiction writer, Mona, into her prestigious and predominantly white MFA program. She’s a lioness of a character. Mighty, naughty, searching and troubled. She has an affair with her professor, Dr. Sive, the only other person of color in their department. They attempt to strike a balance between power and affection. They teach each other humility. In some ways, the play is my black feminist response to David Mamet’s Oleanna. But mostly, it’s about one woman writer’s creative process. Dr. Sive is an intellectual, he writes from his head. Mona is whip smart, too, but she’s writing with her entire body.
How has being a black female artist contributed to your work? Has it
inspired your work or posed any particular challenges in the reception of it?
My identity shapes my heart and my heart shapes my art. I get to experience the world as a black woman immigrant lesbian artist with working class roots! It’s a deep, fascinating and lovely journey. My goal as a playwright is to create leading roles for women and people of color. I want to give voice to the range of our experiences. With my pen, I can steer marginalized narratives to the center of the stage. And I find that audiences—across race, gender, sexuality, class and culture—are ready to embrace well-told stories about complex women characters of color.
What does “living unchained” mean to you?
The first Haitian Independence Day was January 1, 1804. With faith, wit, desperation, and a whole lot of nerve, the slaves of Haiti overthrew their French slave captors. It was the only successful slave revolt ever recorded in history. I think about it every single day. In the face of brutality and injustice, my ancestors imagined and fought for my freedom.
I owe it to them not to be owned. I owe it to them to feel free—to love who moves me, to make what moves me. So “living unchained” means taking good care of my free body. It means feeding myself vegetables, long walks, good music and divine orgasms. It means letting my body be hugged by true friends. It means advocating for the freedom of others.
If you are interested in Lenelle’s work, the Theater Offensive will bring Expatriate to Boston from October 4-6, 2012. You can also stream/embed the music from the show for free here: http://music.lenellemoise.com/album/the-expatriate-amplification-project
Written by Cera Smith