Welcome to KQED Arts’ Bay Brilliant, a series celebrating 10 local artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2018. Driven by passion for their own disciplines—music, dance, theater, visual art, performance, writing, illustration and more—these artists are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Although the prolific theatre artist Lisa Marie Rollins identifies primarily as a writer and director, her resume virtually bursts at the seams. She’s an academic, educator, activist, artist and poet. She’s been a Sundance Theatre Fellow, a Colorlines “Innovator to Watch,” and has an upcoming Djerassi residency for playwriting in September. A powerhouse in word and deed, she’s directed some of the Bay Area’s most thought-provoking and unique productions, including the 2017 West Coast premiere of Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies at Custom Made Theatre, and co-directing Crowded Fire’s 2016 production of The Shipment.
Adopted by white parents who refused to acknowledge her black and Filipino ancestry, race consciousness came to Rollins the hard way, by being persistently "othered" by her all-white, conservative Washington State community. Later in life, academia and activism helped develop her artistic imperative for telling not only her own story, but those of others—a key component to her work as a dramaturg and director. Currently an artist-in-residence at both Crowded Fire and Brava Theater, Rollins plans to eventually bring her talents on the road as a traveling director and playwright.
You’re about to head off to Djerassi to work on your play Token. What’s your elevator pitch or synopsis of it?
Because I grew up in Washington State, I pay attention to a lot of the adoption news from there. And there was a little girl and her brother adopted from Ethiopia into this very conservative, evangelical Christian family that followed this particular type of childrearing practice that includes physical punishment—more than just spankings. And they left her outside in the winter, and she died from a combination of starvation, and hypothermia, and drowning, because she fell with her face in a pool of water and didn’t have the strength to move herself.
So this play is based on that. Basically, there’s a little girl who haunts an adult adoptee, and the adult comes back to her hometown and the little girl is trying to get her attention and talk to her about how she died. It’s sort of a ghost story, sort of a spiritual declaration for the adult woman, and a comment on both the destruction of black families and how to find reconciliation when your ‘original’ family has been torn apart.
A lot of your writing and playwriting focuses on themes of transracial adoption and identity. Describe what these themes mean to you personally and how they drive you and your work.
I’d say some of my writing used to focus on themes of transracial adoption but now when I focus on that, whether in writing or directing, it’s expanded beyond that narrative specifically to examine the role government agencies play in denying women of color the right to parent. So it includes considerations of things like the current visibility of the crisis of child removal from detainees.
Transracial adoption is part of how I came into my racial consciousness and my understanding of the specific circumstances for black people in the United States. I was born in Washington state and raised with a very conservative, evangelical Christian, Republican family. Being a black and pinay little girl in an all-white setting is a very surreal experience. My parents had been told I ‘wasn’t black’ on the adoption papers, and thus moved me through my younger years with this sensibility.
Growing up as a black/brown body in an all-white world, with no mirrors or images that reflect you, can have an extraordinarily damaging impact on how you imagine yourself. But because I was a very smart little girl, I was able to understand when people were being unfair, or when someone was just outright racist, even if I didn’t have those words to identity what was happening.
Talk about your experiences with Solo Performance Workshop. Was that your entry into theatre, or a part of your development as a theatre artist?
I was there from the very beginning, at the very first class facilitated by W. Kamau Bell! I had already been inside the theatre, working backstage or producing, and I really took the Solo Performance Workshop because I wanted to experiment with writing for the stage. That turned into the development of my first play (Ungrateful Daughter).
Moving into directing...people just started asking me to direct their shows, because they knew me from assistant teaching at SPW, and it was just the perfect fit for my sensibility, and the way that I was interested in people developing and sharing their stories. At some point I was asked to dramaturg on larger ensemble pieces. Working with Kamau on the development of his show (The Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour) and learning from his years of experience performing on the comedy stage was also really invaluable to how I thought, and learned to think about audiences early on. So yes, SPW was definitely key to a lot of my artistic development.
How are you able to make a living as an artist given that we live in a very expensive region? What are some of the more creative ways you stay solvent?
I’ll be absolutely clear that if I didn’t have rent control I would be unable to live here in the Bay Area. Secondly, I’m also a woman who knows what I’m worth. I know what my peers make and I know what white men make and since I do that work—plus the work of supporting and forcing you to change the culture of your institution, not only by my presence but by my willingness to participate in the hard labor of that change—you need to pay me for that shit. Finally, I’ve been teaching on the University level for about 20 years as an adjunct, specifically because I never wanted a full time position. I found an educational home that respects me as an artist and understands that I sit comfortably inside both the academic world and the artist world, and that also helps.
What does your ideal future look like for artists in the Bay Area?
The thing about other countries is that the arts are subsidized by the government, and so being an artist is just as much of a profession as being anything else. So I would love to see the Bay Area become a place where theatrical institutions are just as supported, so that they can pay people equitable pay. And that, all the way down to the intern, people can actually afford to live here and be able to have the space and time to create rather than just doing a job to get by. It shouldn’t have to be a hustle.