By Dan Polletta
Posted February 25th 2019
DR. MARY WEEMS
Black women have often had to fight battles on two fronts dealing both with racism and sexism. In her new play, “At Last: Celebrating the Lives of Black Women,” Cleveland Arts Prize-winning writer Dr. Mary Weems shares how 11 famous black women ranging from Zora Neale Hurston to Michelle Obama have challenged stereotypes, overcome discrimination and coped with personal struggles to achieve success.
Ashley Aquilla, who directs the production of “At Last” now onstage at Ensemble Theater in Cleveland Heights, talked to Weems about how she choose the women to showcase in her play.
“They are women that have inspired Dr. Weems throughout her career. She did a lot of research compiling their stories. She made them three-dimensional, giving them a history to explain their journey,” Aquilla said.
Christina Johnson, who appears as Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Etta James and Queen Latifah, says while each of the performers she portrays is unique she enjoyed finding the commonalities they shared.
“I feel like that all had very different, yet similar temperaments. I thought it was fun to find the similarities,” Johnson said.
The actress felt that Smith and Jackson in particular had something in common.
“They were very strong-minded, and that didn’t start as they became adults. These were people who were strong-minded as children.”
Through monologues, Weems brings forward what made these women special, but Aquilla notes that the play doesn’t shy away from the challenges the women faced in their lives, ranging from substance abuse to dealing with questions of sexual identity.
“We aren’t running from it or hiding from the truth. A lot of these women had a mental problem or history of abuse. We know that drug abuse is a coping mechanism, so that a lot of these women who weren’t only struggling with being black women but black entertainers in a predominantly white world, they faced a lot of tribulation, and there is no need to hide from it,” Aquilla said.
The legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, who is portrayed in “At Last,” is a prime example of a woman who had public success that came a great personal cost.
“She had some demons. With a lot of women, there is the ‘happy ending’ story. Billie didn’t get that, she passed in the middle of what probably was the brink of a breakthrough, which is unfortunate. Her story is quite compelling, from the conception of “Strange Fruit,” to everything she’s been through, the battles she’s overcome, as well as being a pioneer who stood up to racism.”
For Johnson, having the personal struggles be part of the narrative helps make these women’s stories complete.
“Those weaknesses are part of the strengths. A whole-rounded person has ups and downs, but it doesn’t take away from their brilliance or genius-work that any of these women did. There are many dynamics to women because we have many different compartments of compassion, as brilliance, so I hope that people can tap into that,” Johnson said.
‘At Last: Celebrating the Lives of Black Women’ is onstage at Ensemble Theater through March 3rd 2019
More information available here.