This week’s playwright became a playwright while standing in line for the bathroom [seriously, check her interview] and her plays reflect that same slice-of-life milieu. Stacey A. Bryan hails from the US Virgin Islands, lives in the US Virgin Islands, loves the US Virgin Islands and writes stellar plays about the US Virgin Islands.
Did I mention the US Virgin Islands? For those who don’t know, the Virgin Islands are a US territory of a little over 100,000 people. As such, Virgin Islanders are American citizens but aren’t allowed to vote in presidential elections and their lone representative can’t vote in Congress. This is pretty much the opposite of democracy.
The islands tend to be portrayed like this:
That video forgets to mention that the Virgin Islands have the highest homicide rate in the US. Which could be expected since they were exploited by Denmark, who planted a lot of sugar cane and brought in a lot of slaves to work it.
One of my favorite parts of the islands’ history is when the slaves rebelled and totally took over the island of St. John in 1733, dramatized below:
Denmark sold the islands to the US in 1917 for $25 million in gold ($531 million or so in 2018 dollars). And with that eventually came tourist exploitation!
Despite Denmark ruling forever, the Danish language never caught on. English and Dutch-based creoles emerged. More on this later.
You may also remember that recently the Virgin Islands got trashed by a hurricane.
After said hurricane our
Glorious Leader Cheeto-in-chief president claimed to have met “the president of the Virgin Islands”
However, we’re here for theatre! Particularly the Stacey A. Bryan variety.
Bone is for Dog, Meat is for Man follows Layla Joseph, a single mom in her early thirties who must navigate raising an eight year old daughter, her daughter’s father marrying another woman, her paralegal job, her useless mother, her current boyfriend and her future boyfriend. AKA she must navigate the world and her place in it. Her grandmother is close with her and they help each other.
All of this takes place on the island of St. Thomas, adding the island’s unique local color to the play’s milieu.
The final twist is is that Layla is haunted by the spectre of Lalique, her more conventionally attractive alter-ego, Lalique. Did we mention that Layla is (according to the play) “chubby” and “voluptuous” ? Lalique is “beautiful, fit and provocative.” Personality-wise, Lalique is an alpha bitch who belittles Layla every chance she gets, especially about her body and about something from Layla’s past. Fortunately, Lalique lives in the mirror, because apparently Hell is full.
What could easily be a melodrama avoids that by incorporating location and Layla’s inner demons. As the author states in the intro, the daughter’s future is at stake:
“Although Layla is a wonderful mother, she is completely unaware of how Layla’s insecurities and anxieties about her appearance negatively impacts Tory’s growth to womanhood.”
So really, this plays out as a slice-of-life drama and a unique and well-written one at that.
The first strength that stands out is the characterization. Every character is full of life, as evidenced by the author’s descriptions.
Let’s see how this description bears out in the text…
This makes me so much more thankful for my mom, who never threatened to make me swallow my teeth. And these are supposedly two adults…but more like one and 2/7ths.
And then there’s Granny…Layla tries to make her go to the hospital.
Sorry that Ice Queen of the Virgin Islands showed up just now. She speaks “coldly” because that’s the only way she knows how.
Perhaps you noticed Granny’s dialect aka Virgin Islands Creole. Called “dialect” on the islands, it is a full-fledged language of its own and supplanted the Dutch-based Negerhollands as early as the first part of the 19th century.
There aren’t a whole lot of videos on Youtube about this unique language, but this video helps give a feel for it…
Again, using dialect adds to the honesty of the writing, much like Chestnutt’s use of it. However, condescending, perjorative or inaccurate/dishonest use of dialect is frowned upon. A good study of this is here.
But back to characterization — if that’s how Layla’s own mom treats her, then how about that alter ego?
So Lalique is really, really, really mean. But since she’s a figment of Layla’s mind, Layla is actually quite self-loathing. And this is one reason the writing is so honest – this is how some people feel about themselves at times.
There is a bit of a reveal at the end which I won’t reveal, but it makes sense and is worth a read.
One final thing I’d like to mention is that Bryan does little touches here and there that set off the play from the pack – the use of bold and/or color in the character names, for example. Also, each scene has a neat little heading, like chapters.
To conclude, Stacey A. Bryan’s play Bone is for Dog; Meat is for Man is recommendable on several fronts.
- Strong characters.
- Unique “local color”
- Good spin of using a character’s own demons and personifying said demons.
- Honest writing.
All of these elements elevate the script, which not surprisingly, headlined a local play festival.
And now for Bryan’s second play Sad Mangoes.
This play was produced before Bone is for Dog and though it trods similar territory, it has much to recommend in its own right.
The plot has adult Josephine still feeling guilty over her mother’s death when she was a child (something that wasn’t her fault). Through the course of the play we see Josephine’s struggle to move past this traumatic event and effects it has on her relationships. The reference to mangoes is because mother and daughter loved mangoes together but since her death Josephine abhors mangoes. The mother is seen in flashback.
We can’t list everything it has to recommend it, but:
The Granny character in this play could easily double as the same in the other play [after interviewing the playwright, this is indeed the case]. This is how a friend (Jasmine) of the main character describes Granny:
And here is the Granny we meet in the play interacting with the young Josephine:
This also shows what kind of person Josephine is, perhaps someone too kind for her own good.
2. Local color
You’ll note the dialogue involves dialect again (YAY!). This play also has a strong local flavor.
Both plays really emphasize family, so this would appeal to someone who wanted to see that universal story of family dynamics play out in a unique setting and a fresher perspective.
The flashbacks to Josephine’s childhood are touching, like this bit where Mommy tells her daughter what really makes Granny tick.
It’s that revelation when a child learns that a parent/grandparent/adult is actually human and not some superhero.
Now, let’s read an entire scene from the play – bear with me, this explains a lot. Mommy was “Ann” to her own mother AKA “Granny.” There are a few levels here, but it works. Julia is Josephine’s sister.
The innate theatricality and possibilities of the above scene just blow me away. Here we have it all, pretty much…that family dynamic – remembering the past, twice – Josephine is remembering Mommy’s passing, but Mommy is also reverting to Ann. it’s all so intense and wonderful. And that’s pretty much this play in a microcosm.
And I’m just gonna throw this in here:
Besides being hilariously insulting, I love how the actual font gets bigger the closer we are to the punchline.
But is Granny’s assessment of Josephine’s man/thing rooted in reality???
EVERYBODY KNOWS But it could just be hearsay, right????
We have video evidence, too.
At least Warren is good for something. One more scene…
Oh, do you see that Evan feller?? Let’s see what he’s about.
I bet, I bet, I bet —- Jospehine will totally realize Evan is the right dude for her and Warren is a DOG.
So Evan and Josephine end up going out – Evan coincidentally offers Josephine mangoes, which she can now eat because….
The ghost of Josephine’s past is finally free – and so is Josephine. And free of that Warren dude.
While these circumstances are quite common in our media/literature/pop culture (women dealing with wretched boyfriends, the unrecognized good guy, etc) what differentiates Bryan’s work is the setting, actual manifestation of Josephine’s past and letting go. It’s a pretty smooth tale from the Caribbean.
Neither play has been produced outside the US Virgin Islands. Let’s try to change that.
By the way, Pistarckle Theater (which produced the play) was recently featured in American Theatre magazine for their hurricane help.
Stacey kindly answered a few questions about herself and her work.
1. How did you start playwriting?
I kind of stumbled into it. It actually happened when I was standing in line for the bathroom at a restaurant. Some very unusual things have happened to me in these lines that I actually wrote a short story about my exploits of standing in line for the bathroom. I noticed a flyer on the wall looking for submissions to a playwright festival. I always enjoyed the theater; but, never thought of storytelling in that format. I had many stories and at the time I thought it would be “easy” to convert my favorite story, Sad Mangoes into a play. Au contraire. I quickly found out that writing a story (novel) and a play is so very different. Writing gives you the freedom to inform your reader exactly what you want them to know in the way you want them to receive it. Playwriting affords you very little time and words to do the same thing. There is also a level of trust in playwriting, trust in your director to take your play in the intended direction, trust in the actors to portray your beloved characters and trust your audience to “get it”. I am by nature very secretive about things I care about and this process put me in a very uncomfortable place; but, it caused me to grow in ways I didn’t expect.
2. What are your influences?
My influences would be my grandmother and great grandmother’s art of oral storytelling. They had such a great memory for details and they had “to get the story right.” Many of their stories were real-life situations told with a twinkle in their eyes, respect for the situation and the habit of always giving their own opinion of what happened.
3. What is your most memorable production and why?
I would have to say Sad Mangoes, as it was truly the only one fully produced. I guess what made it memorable was the reception I received. Having a full theater every night roaring in laughter at the right (and sometimes wrong) parts, the deafening silence of the tragic scene, and the enthusiastic applause that seemed to go on for eternity still stays with me. I guess I didn’t expect it, I couldn’t believe that the accolades I was receiving were for me, just me.
4. What is your least memorable production and why?
I don’t have a least memorable production; but, I do have a regret I was not able to be part of the Playwright Festival for my Bone is for Dog; Meat is for Man submission. I had a broken foot and my daughter was very ill that night for the performances.
5. What’s your funniest theatre story?
During one rehearsal for Sad Mangoes, I tried interjecting my opinion and was quickly dismissed by the director. Ok, I was yelled at by the director. I slunk down in my chair; but, the beautiful, talented actress of Young Josephine, stood up and pointed at the director and told him she couldn’t believe he would talk to the writer of this play like that! We calmed her down; but, I was secretly vindicated. Fast forward to a radio interview with some of the cast, the interviewer asked the Young Josephine if there was anything special she wanted to say, and wouldn’t you know it? She gave everyone ON AIR the rundown of how the director blasted the wonderful playwright and she couldn’t believe it etc. This time, I almost passed out in my chair. The director is actually pretty remarkable and amazing. He got my play to where it needed to be and I am grateful.
6. What are your writing habits like?
Habits? Oh gosh, I am all over the place. I write a lot of random things down on pieces of paper. I also type weird things in Notes on my iPhone and then struggle to remember what it means. When I do sit down to write, I write. I mean my legs are sleeping, my neck hurts and I keep going because I need to finish this feeling. It is a very cathartic process for me and having used balls of paper towel next to the computer is very normal for me. I am the person I am writing about, I actually hate the bad guy and I celebrate my character’s victories. I have actually almost hit the back of a car while driving because I was so involved in my mind about the life of one of my characters.
7. What advice do you have for new playwrights?
I guess I would tell new playwrights to let go. My issue has always been letting my story go; but, I forget that the audience is receiving something too. After the play one night, this woman came up to me and asked if I knew her. I said I didn’t think so and she said that my play was her life and something in her soul was released when she saw it. I didn’t ask her any questions, but we had a moment and we understood each other. Sometimes it’s hard to let the world in and be vulnerable. I would suggest to just go for it.
8. Who are some other writers you feel should get more attention?
Definitely, women and minority writers should get more attention. Their perspective is so valuable because it redefines and represents for a community the same experiences everyone has from a very different viewpoint. Also, there is a whole, delicious and entertaining world in the Caribbean and wonderful tales to be told.
9. What are common themes in your work?
A common theme in my work would be the love of the underdog. I love that my characters are flawed and messy. I like the comedy and drama you can take away from simple conversations. I like ordinary people with extraordinary experiences.
10. What is one thing you wished you knew now, that you didn’t know starting out?
One of the things I wished I knew was that as much as I was grateful to be chosen, how much I was in awe of production including the director, as much as I knew my body of work was not perfect, I Deserved to Be There. I let my gratitude diminish my voice. This is my work, it belongs to me and it’s alright to defend it.
11. How autobiographical are Bone is for Dog and Sad Mangoes?
I would say that Sad Mangoes is a little more autobiographical than Bone is for Dog; Meat is for Man. Both protagonists, Josephine and Layla are me in some regard. Sad Mangoes was the story loosely based on my life. I wanted to give homage to the women in my life that meant so much to me and it was important that the story was told right. Definitely, there are true life parts in both plays and the Granny character’s personality, speech and intonation is 100% my own grandmother.
12. Granny is a pretty cool character in both plays. Is she the same character in both?
Yes, she is. She was the audience’s favorite and the actor that played her was spot on phenomenal. The Granny in these plays is the epitome of Caribbean child rearing. Strong, unyielding, hardworking, relentless, yet your biggest protector and motivator. I have a list of “Grannyisms” that I carry around and I think you would really have to have some Caribbean experience to truly understand them. One of my grandmother’s favorite things to say was, “he/she thinks she so smart. He/she is so smart dey backward.” That would mean that an educated, “smart” person in all other regards would be considered smart; but, in real life experiences, things that matter, their education or intelligence is a hindrance that causes them to make poor choices or decisions. My grandmother passed away this year in July and I cannot begin to explain how much I miss her.
13. How do you determine when to use dialect in your plays?
I use dialect in my plays when it is appropriate for the character. In my first play, I wrote the play almost entirely in dialect and the actors had difficulty reading it, especially Granny. Everyone that was local was speaking without the dialect even though the script called for it. I went back and wrote everything in regular English and then strangely everyone started speaking in the dialect correctly. I guess for me dialect represents more than the words, it actually portrays a sentiment along with communication.
14. How’s the US Virgin Islands theatre scene?
We do have a very limited theatre scene; but, we do have is outstanding. In the US Virgin Islands, we have Pistarckle Theater, Little Theater at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas and Caribbean Community Theatre in St. Croix. There are traveling theater groups that perform in various locations such as the Reichold Center of the Arts. People enjoy great acts of work just like anywhere else and for small communities, it is difficult to make everyone happy and schedule performances that do not clash with other local events.
15. What’s a question you’d like to be asked? Go ahead and answer that question.
Question: Do I think that Caribbean plays have a place in the domestic United States theatre scene?
Answer: Yes, I do. People from the islands such as Dominica, Haiti, St. Lucia, Jamaica, etc. have moved to the continental U.S in great numbers and they enjoy and appreciate seeing a touch of their homelands. They are very giving audiences and they come out to support their culture. Also, I believe its very important that people of all walks of life get an opportunity to experience new cultures, new expressions of art and literature. We are not the center of the universe and its good to travel to other planets!
Here’s a list of our other playwrights.