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Playwright returns to scene of giant honor

One year after accepting the Hermitage Greenfield Prize, Aleshea Harris returned to Sarasota. In that year, she's seen her work staged in New York and London.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. April 13, 2022
Andy Sandberg, right, of the Hermitage Artist Retreat engaged playwright Aleshea Harris in a moderated dicussion. (Photo: Spencer Fordin)
Andy Sandberg, right, of the Hermitage Artist Retreat engaged playwright Aleshea Harris in a moderated dicussion. (Photo: Spencer Fordin)
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The Aleshea Harris experience is pinned on full throttle and pointed toward the heavens.

Harris, an award-winning playwright, returned to the scene of a great triumph last weekend, when she held a speaking event at New College on behalf of the Hermitage Artist Retreat. Harris, the recipient of the 2021 Hermitage Greenfield Prize, was in town to speak about how her life has changed in the past year. And boy, did it change.

Harris has seen her plays staged in New York and London, and last week her work was nominated for five Lortel Awards.

At her core, Harris is still the same playwright she was last year when she arrived in Sarasota.

But now she’s armed with advice for anyone who wants to put their work into the world.

“You’re your own cheerleader. You have to absolutely feel like, ‘This must be in the world,’ in order to do it,” she said on Friday. “The most important thing is the love. Don’t try to write some stuff you don’t care about.”

Harris was speaking in a moderated discussion with Andy Sandberg, the artistic director and CEO of the Hermitage Artist Retreat, and she provided a generous window into her process.

Read more: Hermitage aims for national footprint nurturing artists

Harris said her main artistic influences growing up were novelists Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler, and she also said she looked up to playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Harris said she thinks in snapshot images, and she hopes to one day pen a graphic novel.

But for now, it’s her stage pieces that are in demand, and Harris is enjoying the ride.

Her play “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” showed at multiple venues in New York last year, and she also went to London for a performance of her work “Is God Is” at the Royal Court Theatre. The two works are very different, she says, in that one requires audience participation before it settles into a more familiar theatrical rhythm. "What to Send Up When It Goes Down,” says Harris, is a ritual response for when Black people are killed due to racial violence.

“It begins with a series of prompts: 'Have you ever heard anybody say anything racist about Black people?' If so, you self-identify,” she says. “'Are you yourself a Black person who has experienced racism?' And these prompts sort of escalate to talking about police violence, and then it moves into a more traditional piece of theater where the audience is seated, and they sort of play out these poetic riffs on these experiences.”

Aleshea Harris saw her work
Aleshea Harris saw her work "Is God Is" win three Obie Awards and she's excited to keep cranking out original plays. (Photo: Spencer Fordin)

Harris says that the greatest compliment to her work is when people say that her plays are all different because, she adds, she quite rightly recognizes that she could fall into the practice of taking her best work and then writing deviations on a theme.

There’s nothing stopping her, she muses, from writing 10 different plays about rituals. And the world is such that there’s no shortage of opportunities for her to write and comment publicly about race relations, but she says she comes to her work from a place of joy.

“I have to write from a place of need. What I need right now is to remind myself that I don’t have to write about race unless I want to,” she says pointedly. “I think people forget that it isn’t necessarily joyous for me to sit around and think about all the horrible things that happen to Black people because they’re Black people. The flip side of that is, of course, if I want to on my own terms — which aren’t going to be normative terms, because I’m not on page two of anti-Blackness; I’m on like page 2,022 — then I want to be able to do it.”

Harris said that her experience in London was notable in that the initial production of “Is God Is” had been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But while she was there, she felt out of place because she was the only one in the room wearing a mask.

From there, she came home and participated in another production of “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” at Off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons. All the while, her newest work, “On Sugarland,” is receiving its own kudos, and she revealed Friday that her newest work is actually her oldest. Harris said she began writing “On Sugarland” nine years ago.

And just a day before her Hermitage event, it was announced that the play had been nominated for five Lortel Awards, including Outstanding Play. Of course, she wasn’t working on it in a vacuum. All of her works have been composed in near proximity to each other.

“It would be a few months of this or a few months of that. 'What to Send Up When it Goes Down' went up first because I wrote and directed that myself,” she says. “There are super early versions that are different to what actually ended up in New York. That actually had a life in California, which is where I live, way before New York. A lot of people don’t know that, but it sort of got its teeth by being mounted in whatever shape it was in back in California.

“'Is God Is' won an award and went up at Soho Rep (on Off-Broadway). … People think that was my first one, but actually it’s newer than the others. 'On Sugarland,' it’s wild to think about having started that when I was nine years younger. I was a different person.”

Sandberg, at one point in the discussion, asked Harris about her relationship with director Whitney White, who has helped her bring both "What to Send Up When It Goes Down" and "On Sugarland" to the stage. At first, Harris says, it was nerve-wracking to think of having a collaborator because she is intensely individual and likes to have a lot of input into staging her work.

A sparse audience took in the moderated discussion on a beautiful day at New College. (Photo: Spencer Fordin)
A sparse audience took in the moderated discussion on a beautiful day at New College. (Photo: Spencer Fordin)

But after meeting and having conversations with White, they settled into a natural partnership.

"I was just really impressed by her enthusiasm, her intelligence and her readiness to get down and dirty with the play,” she says. “I was super excited that she was down to traipse in a land she hadn’t visited before. That’s how we met, and we had a really great time with that work. People responded really strongly to it, and I think she and I both learned some tremendous things from one another through that work. It made sense for us to work together on 'On Sugarland' and continue our collaborative relationship.”

Harris loves the way actors breathe life into the words she puts onto the printed page, but she also likes to make sure they're on the same page before they're cast.

Harris says that lots of actors aren't paid or nurtured the way they need to be and that their performances can often make or break a production.

But still, she says, she doesn't want to have a lot of back-and-forth about the dialogue as it's written.

“I’m very closed in my process,” Harris says of her creative state. “I think I’ve learned the hard way that it doesn’t work for me to be like: ‘Here’s my early draft. What do you think?’ Responses can be less than helpful. They can sort of stagnate me as an artist.

"I don’t want too many extraneous ideas in my brain. I know that other people can thrive on that. It just depends on who you are as an artist, but I find I want to protect the work until I’m ready to show it and believe enough in it that I can hear whatever people have to say. Even if someone trashes it, I’m just like, ‘OK, you just don’t like this play’ instead of internalizing it in this weird way.”


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