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Sexy Bitches, Notes to God, and Unicorns: An Interview with Patricia Ione Lloyd

BY Virginia Grise AND Patricia Ione Loyd

Virginia Grise: Where are you from?

Patricia Ione Lloyd: I’m from Iowa, which hopefully does not negate my street cred. Being a black lesbian from Iowa should give me more street cred.

Virginia: Was that on your OKCupid profile?

Ione: It was. I think that was the problem.

Virginia: A little too much street cred?

Ione: That and I used to send Rumi poetry.

Virginia: You grew up in Iowa and went to school in Chicago?

Ione: I went to DePaul, as an actor. I wasn’t around the mentality that women could do much more than be nurses, teachers, and mothers. And at that time, I didn’t want to do any of those things. I teach now. I think one day I’ll be a mom. I still don’t want to be a nurse. Anything else, especially writing, wasn’t something that was feasible for women, so I went into acting instead. But there was always something wrong with the script. Then I decided to write.

Virginia: How does your training as an actor influence your writing?

Ione: I think I have a lot of respect for the craft of acting. To some degree I know what I am asking someone to do. I am not asking them to pretend they are a character, I am asking someone to live as this character, in their biggest moment of vulnerability, in front of a whole bunch of people they don’t know—so I adore actors. Also, from my experience in acting, I want to write roles for women and women of color that they are proud of doing. That doesn’t mean that they are not flawed characters, because I think everyone is flawed and I think some flaws, depending on what they are, are incredibly sexy and interesting. But there’s a balance no matter what.

Virginia: I think anybody writing for theater should take at least one acting class or act in a play. It’s a valuable lesson. When did the shift from actor to writer happen for you?

Ione: Everyone was pretty much aware that I was a writer before I was. It’s kind of like when I came out, no one was surprised. And I thought, “Thank you for having this conversation with me years ago.” I was always writing as a child. I used to write notes to God because I wanted to test to see if God was real. I used to write notes for God in places where I thought only God would find them, like under the dining room table. But then my mother would find them and she would be really pissed and, you know, not discuss why I was writing notes to God. They were actually not notes, it was poetry.

And then when I started acting professionally, the roles that I got didn’t make me feel good. So there’s a choice you can make—you can be bitter or you can do something about it. I have found so much fulfillment in writing. It is what I was meant to do.

Virginia: Why do you write for theater?

Ione: One of the reasons I do theater is because it’s so intimate. Even if you have a big house of people, if the stars align, you forget you are sitting next to someone, you forget that there’s a stage. If the work is good enough you begin to breathe with the actors. There’s a connection of breath and emotion that you can’t get in film and television.

Virginia: What is your process for creating work?

Ione: Writing is more of an experience than a process for me. I love to eavesdrop. If you eavesdrop on the people walking by, you hear the cars and the subway—to me it’s all music. It has a rhythm and it can be a play.

Virginia: Just walking here, to this café from my house, the movement of people, the sound of the streets, tells a story about this neighborhood, about Brooklyn.

Ione: I’m really blessed that I can look out the window for five minutes and then pick up a pen. After that I ask, “What is this?” Pictures, sounds, feelings all are a part of it. After the first draft, the process comes in—heavy editing and figuring out “what is the story?” The characters rarely do what I tell them to do, so there’s a lot of negotiation that happens.

Virginia: What else influences your work?

Ione: Definitely being a black woman with a white mother. Being a lesbian definitely has a major influence on my work. Christianity and its relationship to homosexuality is a major theme in my work. As is incarceration. And not just incarceration by the state or the government, but specifically how we women create our own prisons with the ideas we have about ourselves, or the ideas that people have about us. On the flipside of that, freedom and, of course, love. I mean everyone loves a good love story. I am from Iowa.

I used to struggle with people wanting to compartmentalize my work as black work, or gay work, or womanist work, or feminist work. I’m not saying that none of those things are true, but many things are true. So if I was, for example, in a black space, sometimes there wasn’t room for me to let in the other parts of myself. It’s not that any of that has stopped, but now I refuse to have that fragmented experience.

Virginia: So then how do you identify yourself as an artist?

Ione: That’s a good question. I think it changes day by day. Today I am good with black lesbian playwright who believes in unicorns.

Virginia: Unicorns?

Ione: Yeah unicorns. Today that’s good.

Virginia: I think we should coauthor an essay called “Towards a Theater of Unicorns.”

Ione: Yes! There’s no room for anything else but unicorns.

Virginia: Absolutely not. The unicorns are dying. Someone has to save them… What other stories are you interested in?

Ione: I used to think, when people would ask me that question, I am interested in stories about women; I am interested in stories about race; I am interested in stories about class. I am still really interested in all of those things, but that’s not a true answer. It’s a really easy answer. Actually, the stories I am interested in are what happens when people are vulnerable together. And in my opinion, I think women of color are some of the most vulnerable people, women in general, so that is what I gravitate to.

Virginia: Tell me about your play Dirty Little Black Girls.

Ione: I’ve been developing the play since 2009. The title is obviously sexual, but the title is also about perception, about oversexualization and ownership of sexuality. And it’s about cleanliness in all shapes and forms. It’s about women being called girls at any age, when that’s a term of endearment and when that’s a slur, and how race plays into it. It’s really a play for everyone.

I adore this play. People have a lot of feelings about it. As a playwright, for me at least, every play is like a little piece of my soul. Dirty Little Black Girls is not the cleanest piece of my soul, although it’s interesting.

It’s set in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in three brownstones very close to each other. In one there is a fifty-year-old Jamaican housekeeper [Song]. In another is a sixteen-year-old Nigerian modern-day slave [Shanara]—she was brought over to work here and did not go to school and is very much treated like a slave. Then the third one is SB—she is a nanny who is keeping a secret from the family that she works for—she’s getting a PhD in chemistry. SB stands for Sexy Bitch. She got shot in the breast, and then to reclaim that part of her, she got a tattoo that says Sexy Bitch. The three women go through the same kind of thing emotionally throughout their day, but are disconnected domestic workers. Also there is Song’s lover, the lady of the house, who is a very sad, closeted white woman who is having an affair with Song but is married to a man.

Then we have the little black devil. The devil in this piece is not like a traditional American or Western Christian devil. He’s more like a trickster. He pushes the women toward making a decision or pushes the women toward a breaking point where something has to happen instead of staying stagnant. He is a shapeshifter and inhabits many memories for each woman, so that they can make choices for their future by dealing with their past.

The devil character is in white face. I was in Africa this summer, and I passed by a group of young men who were doing a rite of passage ceremony and they had on white faces—painted white face. As I understand it, It helps you transition into your new self. I think it’s really interesting—that African tradition, and the tradition of white face in America, as a slur, as a joke, but also an art form that is very loaded. I wanted to combine those two ideas so that the devil could move in this world.

Virginia: What are you working on now?

Ione: The Re-occurring Resurrection of Sweet Leticia Jesus Brown. It also takes place in Brooklyn, in an apartment building in the projects. It’s about a little girl who believes she is the second coming of Christ. She is twelve. She is being raised by her sexy, young, chain-smoking grandmother. Her mother is dead and her father is in Riker’s. She has a toy bunny rabbit who is her guardian angel. The play also includes various other characters in the building: Naomi and Ruth are the lesbian couple upstairs; Adam and Lilith are the couple upstairs that break up; Judith, her best-friend, is also her age, and is a little gay boy. Something for everyone!

Virginia: Are all your plays set in Brooklyn?

Ione: Not all of them, but recently, yeah. I love Brooklyn. Brooklyn is rich and layered and destitute, all within a one-block radius.

Virginia: What are some of the challenges you think you face as a theater artist?

Ione: One thing that is a challenge for me, as a black woman and as a lesbian, is that I always feel like I have to be at my best 150 percent of the time. Otherwise I am not going to be taken seriously and I’m not going to get the same opportunities as men or people who are not of color. I would love to be proven wrong. Sometimes I feel like I cannot have a bad day because there is no grace for women, for playwrights of color, at this moment in time. That can be very tiring. Because of that, I feel have a responsibility not only to myself, but also to my community, which is a lot. It’s a joy but it also can be a lot.

Virginia: How would you identify your community?

Ione: Definitely lesbians, but also people of color. I make it a point to have a diverse audience. I don’t ever want to have a show where I only see white people in the seats. I want to have people represented that are on the stage in the audience. It’s very, very important to me. It’s a big part of my work.

Virginia: Who are some of your artistic influences?

Ione: The first play I ever read by a woman was Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery [by Shay Youngblood]. I love that play.

Virginia: I love her.

Ione: It just split me open. So definitely Shay Youngblood, and also Toni Morrison, and even Alice Walker, though I don’t know if we would get a long, because some things are really troubling to me in her work. But there is something that is so tangible in a sort of Technicolor emotional way about the work of those three women. Whether or not I agree or like it, it leaves an imprint.

Virginia: In Dirty Little Black Girls one of the characters says: “The key to life: knowing what you are not suppose to remember and never forget what you are always suppose to know.” For you, what are you not supposed to remember and what is it that you’re not supposed to forget?

Ione: Something I’m not supposed to remember—some of the difficulties I faced being a lesbian of color in the Midwest. I think I don’t need to remember those memories as vividly as I do. And something I shouldn’t forget is my strength. And, of course, they both feed into each other.

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One thought on “Sexy Bitches, Notes to God, and Unicorns: An Interview with Patricia Ione Lloyd

  1. Pingback: Theatre News Worth Reading « Works by Women

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