How can someone be born when they are old? Nicodemus asked. How, he must have wondered, can that which is old—a sort of “has-been”—be made new? How, too, can innovation occur—ever, in anything?—when beauty lays itself out in the sky each morning, as a soft sunray creeps through our windows, when all we can do is write or perform, as if attempting to reach the steeple, and then, once deeper, the core of the bell in the steeple? How can we, as artists, make new that which has already been made, in our case, magical theater? How can we be “reborn,” since, “there is nothing new under the sun?” Arguably, all we can hope for is that the legacy of those who have gone before us, their courage and genius, will sustain us as we “do new” our way, as we model what is innovative from our unique artist view and subject-position. If we waited for the absolute new, we would be waiting forever. I call upon an oft-repeated refrain: there will never be another Michael Jordan. BUT there is a LeBron James, of whom I am not a fan, but admire in a way that forces me to accept he is a kind of Jordan, not so much because he is trying to be, but because he understands he cannot and therein, is free to decide the level of brightness of his unique star, to slaughter rims and nets and co-stars of the league like they were invented for that precise purpose. I seek to investigate and uncover some concept about how the legacy of artists we have admired (and by “admire,” I mean sort of worship) impacts and/or hinders our work. How do we pay homage to the “legends,” those heroes whose work we have slept with and loved, who have paved a way where there was no way, and not freeze in fear over whether we measure up, if we will ever be great? After all, we have the bridges they have built over which to cross, their daring over which to lay ours, their belief in the power of their work—its ingenuity and uniqueness—on which to allow our voices to rise and rise.
One answer: forget the legends and write as if we are the only ones to have ever arrived, though this is unrealistic, naïve, and ill-advised, especially if we hope to be part of a lineage, or want to be informed, as we need to be, lest we believe we are the proverbial first and be swiftly pulled aside to hear, “No. Uh uh. Not. Even. Close. To. First.”
Best answer: we do it, scared or not.
When I wrote my first play, Testimony, I hoped to spark conversations about violence in urban communities around the United States, including Pittsburgh, where I reside, about Black men dying at the hands of each other, at the hands of cops, or being carried off to jail while still in adolescence. My literary career began as a poet, and I remain a poet. But I sensed poetry had its limitations for this particular, critical work. Certainly, I could have written poems about Black boys and men dying untimely, tragic deaths and read them aloud to friends, strangers, and supporters. But to get people invested, I felt I had to give them something tangible and visual, to stir and revive, to make people care about what they had forgotten, no longer (or never) cared about—the legacy of Black male death in these United States. Though I had never written a play, I believed I could and that it would have potential. As a writer who pens across genres, I felt this was the perfect medium. I have long believed in theatre as a transformative art form—arguably the most transformative, most similar and reminiscent to the feeling before I walked into my small, storefront Southern Baptist church as a girl and after. I was certain, then, three years ago, that if a life in the audience of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, where the play was produced during my Fellowship from 2010-11, was impacted, if one young man of color (or any person, frankly), heard, felt, or saw something on the stage that compelled him or her to think, “What I am witnessing is part of me,” or “I know this story, because it is mine,” I had succeeded. And in this, I know I am not alone. As artists, we hope our audiences will laugh, weep, shiver, think differently, think more critically, be overwhelmed and be grabbed, be moved and moved again by our work…the way I feel when I walk away from an August Wilson play…that feeling that something in my spirit has transcended, that I have been washed as Citizen sought to be washed by Aunt Ester. But it is not a two hundred year old prophet-seer-woman who has washed me, but some spirit I cannot name, some form of holy that Wilson can conjure in that way he does, all blues and butter, lust and repentance, hope cracked against a broken pavement in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. In that place, I swell first, as a fan, but, if I am not careful, I can soon stiffen and stall until I stop and scream, from some hollow, waterless well inside—that has nothing to do with me and everything to do with me:
“Will/I/ever/be/this/good/ever/in/my/life?” Though part of me—of us—believes we must be that good, or close, or some kind of good, otherwise, why would we do it at all, there is another part that can cause us to falter. And that is the part that does not trust our vision: what we see without seeing, what we know is there, even when we have no proof of its existence.
Enter Lorraine Hansberry, one of the greatest thinkers, writers and playwrights to have ever lived. I strive to do it like she did it: to see and foresee, to know the coming of the wind and it’s changing and it’s steady. Recently, I participated in a staged reading of A Raisin in the Sun as part of Bricolage Production Company’s “In the Raw” series, playing the part of “Mrs. Johnson,” that evil-hearted, vindictive, jealous woman who is so funny; you really can’t hate her, though she deserves no less. I have read and taught the play several times, yet, standing with a group of actors doing it justice, I felt it anew. I dropped the stones I’d long held in my hands, ready to wound Walter Lee where he stood and discovered an ache for him, his hope to be great and important, with no clear path of how to arrive at that “American Dream” of a destination, no map of Black men who, then, had overcome socio-economic depravity. No Black man on Wall Street or in the White House, only his father’s legacy, made up of diligence and sweat and hard work and toil and bloodshot eyes and only a $10,000 check to show for a life spent breaking his body in two. I wept and swayed with Ruth, a young, beautiful woman who feels so deep-down-worn-ought that the desire for prettiness has long given way to the desire to survive, just one more day, amidst the roaches and no-light of the sun. There is much to fill my mouth with how much I love this play—its anticipation of the womanist/feminist movement, the Black arts and power movement, Black nationalist ideology and Black folk questioning religion in a way that would make our “tent revival” ancestors tremble first, before, maybe, they slapped our mouth with some kind of love, some kind of fury, a mother and daughter caught between ideals and faith.
Lorraine Hansberry died at age 35. I have been alive one more year than she. I am still learning that this means there is no time to waste; who knows how long we have to do a life’s work? She wrote a masterpiece, and it keeps burning glorious in the way it has impacted theater and art. Though I cannot be Hansberry, I can utilize her tools: how can I see now as she saw then? How can I look to the hills and see the formation of lightning, then write the imprint of the lightning when and after and before it strikes the hill? I am writing, here, of being a visionary. It is what sustains us, what tucks us in, when weary from long hours at our computers, when weary from the stage, when weary from grant applications and crossed fingers, we stagger, worn out, to bed. We hope. We do our best. Then, we rise, and do it all again. We do it because we are called. We do it because we must. We do it because we love and know love and when we read, see, and study what moves us, our love grows roots and our love grows wings and we sort of forget about being afraid, because as Michael Jordan teaches us, it really is about flying.
So much of what you just read felt too good. And I know it’s not that easy. I know because I struggle. When I sit to write, I am choked and pulled in various directions, at all times: confidence or clumsiness, fear of being powerful and fear of being redundant and unimportant. Can I live up to them, who I admire and cherish? Do I have the courage—once I see the way—to pursue it? I do. I know, because I have.
In the way of innovation: we need the freedom to write, perform, and produce as if no one is watching, even as we embrace the truth: we want everyone to watch, including our heroes, those gone and departed, and those, still here, who watch from the front row, cheering us like children holding their breath for grace. The new “new,” arguably, is the self, that great beast that says, “I am super-great, super-talented, super-able to be incredible, beyond my imagination and dreams.” I expect to write nothing new, but I do expect to be unique, to floss a fresh voice, to be proverbially “nice with mine,” to let the words that ring out speak not in one tongue only, but many, to be sacred. And I want to join with other voices, too. And, therein, be joined.
Tameka Cage Conley, PhD, is a professional literary artist who writes plays, poetry, and fiction. In 2010, she received the August Wilson Center Fellowship in literary arts. Her first play, Testimony, was produced at the Center in May 2011.She has also received a full Advancing the Black Arts Grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and Heinz Endowments to create a community-based theater project, of which her plays, “I Don’t Remember Happy Stories” and “Let There Be Grass,” were produced with students enrolled in the Light House after school arts program. In 2012, she became a Cave Canem Poetry Fellow and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for poetry. She was also nominated for the inaugural Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Award, sponsored by The Pittsburgh Foundation and Heinz Endowments. She will attend the Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference for Fiction in July and begin a three-week residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in August.