With the start of another season, the Tech School of Theatre and Dance’s latest production, “Black Girl, Interrupted,” is one that the playwright hopes will make people think.
LyaNisha Gonzalez, a doctoral student from New Jersey with concentrations in playwriting and arts administration, is the playwright for “Black Girl, Interrupted,” and has been working on the play for two years. The play is inspired by a real-life incident that happened to a private first class in the army named LaVena Johnson, who was raped and murdered when she was stationed in Iraq in 2005 on an American Military Base.
“I first learned about that story, interestingly enough, on Facebook, where I saw an ad for a documentary about the incident on there, and ever since, what I’ve learned about it is has stuck with me and taken hold of me,” she said.
It was a clear from the beginning that Gonzalez was going to fictionalize the story in order to giver herself more room to think creatively while also remaining respectful to Johnson and her family, she said. She used incidents detailing the injuries and what happened to Johnson in the play, so the research itself was difficult.
Ultimately, Gonzalez said she wants to bring attention to Johnson’s name in a way that is not only respectful but also honors her.
“I didn’t want to exploit this tragedy for myself, and so I felt that if I gave it some distance and fictionalized it, that it would help with that,” she said.
Gonzalez wrote the first draft of this play in her playwriting course two years ago and has been fine-tuning it ever since, she said. Although the topic of the play is heavy, some of the fun parts were working out the difficulties and seeing everything start to click in terms of the way characters were coming together.
“Obviously, sitting alone in my room writing this play, the characters started to tell me who they were while I was writing, and I’d just sort of shape it. I’d have an idea of how they’d speak and an idea of what their lives would look like offstage when we’re not seeing them,” she said. “I feel like some of my strongest writing is in this play and some of my strongest writing is in the crafting of certain character moments.”
Jesse Jou, assistant professor of directing in the School of Theatre and Dance and director of “Black Girl, Interrupted,” said when he first read the play, he really responded to the ways that Gonzalez was interested in talking about what “justice” means and how she tried to explore the humanity of a woman whose voice has been lost.
The story is told by a reporter named Riley Jones, played by Gonzalez, who is trying to find out the truth about what happened to another character, Sasha, who is based on Johnson, Jou said. As Jones is trying to find out the truth, she discovers that the story is much more complicated then what she originally thought.
“When you have this rich story, one of the challenges is that you don’t want to overcomplicate it because the play sort of does it for you,” Jou said. “One of the challenges and also the great joys of working with LyaNisha and with our company of actors and our creative team is telling the story and doing it in a way that sort of lets the play shine through and the strength of the characters’ shine through, and the strength of the storytelling really came through.”
With a topic as heavy as this one, Jou said he tries to create a very playful atmosphere during rehearsal because it is important that the actors know the work is not just about honoring the attention of the play, but honoring the humanity of the artists in the room, which cannot be done if the actors are in a dark place the whole time.
Gonzalez said because of the nature of this play, there was no way to lighten it up in a way that she felt would be responsible to the people who were actually touched by the real event. However, as an actor, it weighs down the performance and affects the play if the actors are constantly feeling low.
“I think we need light in order to see the dark parts,” Jou said. “It’s important to have a transitional period between real life and the rehearsal room where you’re there to live in a different world. We may be working on a serious topic, but we don’t have to be serious about ourselves.”
Both Jou and Gonzalez agreed that one of the greatest experiences of this process was seeing how the actors took the characters and turned them into their own.
Gonzalez said there were a lot of actor interpretations and discoveries being made from day one that completely surprised her and made her see the play in a way that she had not for two years. Jou agreed and said he thinks that is a testament to Gonzalez’s script because the play makes room for those actors to take those risks and the text supports them.
One of the great things of theatre is it becomes a collaborative process, Gonzalez said. It is about seeing if she has left enough room for those involved to be creative, fill out any holes with their own inspiration and be free enough to allow the process to happen and not be forced to adhere to her original ideas.
“Seeing those things happen and seeing some of the design aspects come together that might not have looked exactly what I envisioned happening is okay because it’s now got to have a different kind of life,” she said. “Plays weren’t written to be read, so I enjoy seeing the difference because it’s still facilitating the storytelling of what is going on inside of this world.”
Jou said he hopes audiences come away from the play thinking about what it means when people talk about honoring someone’s life.
“Everyone is rich and complex and has a deep life, and sometimes we gloss over that and see them in shallow ways,” he said. “If you are sort of understanding that this horrible thing happened to this person who had a whole life around them, then maybe we’ll have a little bit more compassion for each other.”
Gonzalez agreed and said she hopes people leave the show thinking about the ways in which they treat each other across all of their different identifying marks and start to think about who they are as a society and their part in that.
“Obviously, no one is going to love it as much as I do, but I also hope that the story moves them in some way and that they walk away feeling something,” she said. “That, as a playwright, means I did my job. I want them to think about the fact that there are real people behind these headlines.”