Daniel Alexander Jones and Eisa Davis spoke in person on March 9, 2012 and chatted online March 14 and 15. The following is a mashup of those conversations.
I must begin with Adrienne Kennedy. She is one of my mothers, but in a very particular way. The polaroid shot of me meeting her is me in long microbraids, probably wearing a black coverall and Doc Martens, bright red lipstick and hoop earrings. Somewhere between Rhythm Nation Janet Jackson and Apache's “Gangsta Bitch.” Her class exercises were about bringing dreams into plays, bringing fully formed characters into our work. I wrote a short family play under her, and she said "this is a gold mine." I loved sitting and eating soup with her and telling her about ideas for stories....When I came to New York I wanted to be closer to her, but this was difficult given that she is a recluse. Then I was cast in June and Jean in Concert, her family play, her adaptation of her scrapbook "biography" People Who Led To My Plays. It was a dream come true, playing her as a young girl, a twin. I got my Equity card and gained a mentor. She doesn't read people's plays anymore because it tires her out. But she was kind enough to support me with all these early morning phone calls and then was the one who said "you've written three full lengths already, you can write about Angela." She adores Angela. So between her and the Hip Hop Theater Fest giving me a reading slot, I wrote Angela's Mixtape. In a lot of ways it's for her, through her, her aesthetic of never lying, that I was able to have the strength to write the play.
Does Kennedy’s legendary reclusiveness speak to you about an artist's life, the blend of solitude and public engagement?
There's part of me that's [also] a recluse who only wants to come out of the cave when it's time. But I'm also trying to be much more transparent and generous with my truth these days, turning the vagina inside out if you would.
Kennedy’s landmark People Who Led to My Plays has influenced so many of us. Are there particular resonances in your relationship with her and her work having to do with her charged relationship with blackness? Belonging, not belonging; inside, outside...
I feel a twinship with Adrienne. We have so much in common—and it's definitely around trying to make sense of/celebrate/destroy a racist version of blackness--and Cleveland, Ohio.
What's the next Polaroid?
So many Polaroids. There are all kinds of influences--the ones who teach you craft, the ones who teach you to imagine, and the ones who love you enough to let you bloom.
Yes, love is key!
I want to give props to New Dramatists, Hip Hop Theater Festival and Cave Canem . These are non-hierarchical systems of people communing with each other’s work and each other as people. The kind of artist that I need to be flourishes in these places, and without these organizations, I couldn’t have become the artist that I am. You’re a part of this community that keeps on growing, and then someone in it has some success, and these triumphs that are happening all over the place are yours because you’re in community with them.
I'm gonna throw down a list and we can bounce from there: Anna Deavere Smith, Queen Latifah, Ai, ntozake shange, Hazel Scott, Dorothy Dandridge, Majora Carter, Paul Robeson, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Claude Debussy, Elvis Costello, Prince, Michael Jackson, Joni Mitchell, Prince, Guy Debord, Edward Albee (who was Adrienne's mentor), Lynn Nottage, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Marlon Brando, Spike Lee, Frida Kahlo, Rumi, Kanye West, HIP HOP!, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, Franny and Zooey, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Mendocino, my grandmother and all the Davises. Stew and my Passing Strange and my Angela’s Mixtape families. All my teachers, especially at music school. All my teachers in the Gelukpa Tibetan Buddhist lineage. Everything is my teacher; even this glass of orange juice in front of me. We have to begin with lineage because we have to begin with gratitude.
I read a quote earlier today: "Fortune favors the bold". Let's chat for a bit about the number of bold musicians who populate your list. Each found distinction through their pursuit of truth in expression--creating singular sounds and also daring to go beyond styles or approaches which may have brought them initial success. Music is central to your practice. How were you energized or changed through contact with them and their work?
Audacity. I’m a shy, introverted girl, so I lean toward the bold. The first time I met Prince I just collapsed because he is pure sex. Nothing but a walking pheromone. And no one can figure it out. It can't be figured out! No algorithm applies. He just made himself pure, pulsing dance music sex romance. He is also his lineage embodied--Sly, James Brown, Jimi...
So the embodiment of lineage is key for you.
It’s crucial to me—has been—and at the same time the only way to fully embody is to move out of their house! There's a requirement involved in individuation, in becoming an artist, in evolving—and you have to kill your parents, metaphorically. The Oedipus/Electra complex isn't just a myth, it's a real process.
What about Toni Morrison... the literary folk? Your writing is marked by extraordinary attention to the nuances of language...
My mother, aunt, and my father are very meticulous and gifted writers so I had no choice.
Speak on a few of the books? Who was the Eisa who read those books...what was she seeking? What did she find? How was she different afterward?
Polaroid: me on the rose colored carpet of my mother's house, in a shaft of light, having just finished Franny and Zooey. I couldn't bear its ending—that it ended at all. I didn't understand what it meant—that everyone is the fat lady—until later, but it gave me something beyond what I was looking for...I didn't know that you could find whole pathways into spirit, a trance that lasted longer than the reading of the book. Words and characters and imaginary places could literally lift you into that "queer, divine dissatisfaction" Martha Graham talks of. Books, books, glorious magic carpet ride books...
"Something beyond what I was looking for"—this is evident in your work. You seem to structure things completely, but leave a window open in the house you build to draw our eye out and away from what we've just experienced toward something new. It's a consistent, beautiful aspect of your compositions.
That's just what I want to do! I always want to get to the moon and beyond the pointing at it. And yet, the pointing, the elaboration of a Toni or a Colson Whitehead—this pointing is the moon itself…
Do you perceive yourself as extending legacy?
If I'm not extending the legacy, then my teachers and forebears haven't done their job. And they have. We all leave and extend legacy, we just get to choose which legacy we leave.