The Soul of Baby Eyes - A Conversation with Donald Jolly

Usually, I write an introduction to these interviews, contextualizing the artist, how I might have encountered them, and my reasons for sitting down with them to dig in and talk about their work. However, with this interview, playwright Donald Jolly and I laid it all out on the coffeehouse table. Donald, his work, his ideas about theatre, and the context/content of our conversation speak for itself. Donald's play Baby Eyes is receiving its world premiere at Playwrights' Arena. It runs through November 5. Go see it. GO. SEE. IT!
More information at playwrightsarena.org/theater/baby-eyes
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): Baby Eyes. Donald Jolly. Let's get into it. What's the play about?
Donald Jolly (DJ): It's a cautionary tale told by a gaggle of male harpies about lust and taboo and, as I like to say, one tragic boy's search for manhood.
RQM: You are gonna have to break this down. We got a chorus of boys?
DJ: Harpies.
RQM: What is a harpy, for those who did not get that deep into it with the Greek mythology?
DJ: The harpies were birdlike women who would tear unsuspecting men to shreds - sirens.
RQM: One of the protagonists is an older man, as I recall.
DJ: Right, older than this boy for sure.
RQM: So, are we talking about pederasty in this piece?
DJ: Well -
RQM: I know we can't spill all the tea, but just a little bit for the kids.
DJ: Yes, that is one way of looking at this relationship: Plato and Aristotle, Batman and Robin, Huck and Jim. Those man-boy relationships.
RQM: Uh oh, look at what you're serving to these kids!
DJ: Oh, and don't forget Zeus and Ganymede.
RQM: Is that particular myth the impetus for this piece?
DJ: Yes.
RQM: So tell me, how did this piece start? What happened? What happened to you, Donald?
(We both laugh to dizziness).
DJ: I started writing this play in grad school and it was around the time of when To Catch a Predator was on TV. Like millions of Americans, I kept watching this show. It was people enjoying watching folks get caught meeting up with whom they suspected were teenagers. I remember seeing a lot of the times there would be 18,20, 25 year old virgins going to meet up with a 14, 16 year old. They were on that show, so I am pretty sure they will remain virgins because they were on that show. So that was one thing. I was also very attached to these memories of…the first time I met up with a guy I was 17. I was drawn to older men. Nothing ever happened, but I was drawn to these older guys. These situations could have been less innocent than they were. I was reaching out for attention from these older guys. They never really went anywhere other than great places in my imaginations. I revisited these situations years later -
RQM: - with baby eyes! Oh lord, this is not a family show.
DJ: Nope, not a family show.
RQM: That's alright, honey. Oh my goodness. There are so many taboos now. Let me ask you this: what is the current day legacy of Greek pederasty?
DJ: I think our society would like to say that there is no real legacy from the Greeks and the Romans. We want to get rid of it, particularly in this Judeo-Christian moment. But, a lot of younger boys look up to older males now in ways that society at large wouldn't necessarily want to discuss. I remember being a little kid and being obsessed with superheroes because of their muscles. I would see guys on the street with big muscles and want to be around them because I liked their muscles.
RQM: There's something aspirational.
DJ: Yes, perhaps even mildly erotic. But, it's a completely different conversation if you're talking about whether teenagers know what's erotic or can identify what's erotic to them. But I do know that I experienced a sort of feeling when I was that age.
RQM: You can only live in your truth.
DJ: Right. Then, I came to find out that there were some friends of mine who shared similar stories. Some of the things they experienced as youngsters definitely blurred the lines between what was good/bad, legal/illegal, healthy/unhealthy...
(We both laugh knowing what possibilities fit between these slashes).
RQM: Did any of those stories inform the play?
DJ: Initially.
RQM: So you're out here outing all your friends.
DJ: Initially. But here's the deal: this play has undergone so many drafts.
RQM: Yes, talk to us about dramaturgy.
DJ: The play that I originally started writing is not what's being produced. Some of those questions I had…it was like opening Pandora's Box. It was a bit toomuch. I worked with Luis Alfaro in class with the play. At that time, I was challenged to write the scariest things that I could imagine.
RQM: One of them classic Luis exercises, yes!! Love it.
DJ: Right. Exactly. I was going to a scary place. I had all those scenes. And now none of them are in the play. Absolutely none of them. But, in doing that, I had to go through, I realized: this is the story that I told; this is the story that I could tell; this is the story that I need to tell. I had to work through all of those areas. I am much older now that when I originally started writing it. I have had so many more experiences since them.
RQM: Yes, she lived. She lived, honey!
DJ: She lived. And those things have come to inform the play. Also, I returned to the idea of manhood - what is masculinity, what are these rites of passages for manhood?
RQM: And see, this is why I said I needed to sit down with you. I need to give you a hand praise. What people don't know is that silently, but not so silently, you and your work have been a tremendous inspiration to me. I am going to say it right here, right now. I hold Donald Jolly and his body of work to be a type of parent text for the questions I ask in the theatre. You are, to me, a pioneering figure of black queer visibility and the exploration of the fragility of masculine identity. One of my most enduring LA theatre moments was watching your play bonded. It was an Easter Sunday. I will never forget it. And I feel that I was touched by the spirit that day and I have never been the same - in a beautiful way. It was a turning point for me. After seeing that show, my entire approach, reason and purpose for playwriting was finally validated. That piece gave me permission to start exploring the themes and framing mechanisms that I was afraid to before. So, let's take a slight detour and talk a bit about bonded.
DJ: bonded is a drama that is set in 1820 Virginia on a very dilapidated tobacco farm. It's dying, and there are four slaves. Two of the male slaves, Sonny and Asa fall in love. Asa is a city male servant, a body servant from New York, who is inherited by some white people in Virginia. He meets Sonny. All these old memories come back.
RQM: And as I recall, the black overseer got into it too. Everybody was gay on that farm.
DJ: Jack, the overseer, was the master's favorite. We don't see any of the white people that are discussed. They do not appear onstage. We hear about them and their lives. But we never see them. And Jack - they say he is older than Methuselah and he survived the Middle Passage. He had a wife many years prior. And Jack's master's farm is very unprofitable, and he has a gambling problems. So there were a lot of slaves to come and go from this farm because of debts. There is this sequence where Jack remembers his long, lost wife who
is never named. He has some “action” with Asa in this sequence. I looked at it more as an instance of reclaiming power.
RQM: Yes! Now let's talk about lineage. The world begot Donald Jolly, and Donald Jolly midwifed me (as a writer). After seeing bonded, I adopted this constellation of ideas - sex as an agent of power; power as expressed through sexuality; the magic and the “untold” of slavery. From there my piece Softer was born. It was a short play. I couldn't do two hours like you did, honey. I had to do ten minutes because it was too hot. In that piece, the couple was a body servant and his master, and it was all about their breakup on Emancipation Day. Now, from mentee to mentor, I have some exciting news: I have turned that play into a film. It's being submitted around now. And I'm trying to explore other long-form possibilities for it. So, I want to thank you. Because of you, I am finding my way. You are a forebearer to me. You got out here 10 years ago talking this stuff and it just set little queer playwrights like me on fire. Do you think the world was ready for you then?
DJ: I'm not the first person to think about sexuality as it related to the antebellum South or the bellum South and the postbellum South.
RQM: Right, because you and I are BOTH living under Mother Robert O'Hara's roof.
DJ: Yes, and at that time, I hadn't yet read Insurrection: Holding History. But my young head was filled with lots of ideas. And for me, sitting down to write this play, it was the first time I had ever seen anybody create this particular story in earnest.
RQM: And to fully articulate it as you did.
DJ: Not a satire, not a fantasy.
RQM: Not fetishizing or eroticizing.
DJ: And I say, I didn't write bonded. The characters came to me.
RQM: Alright, come on now, Mr. Avant Guard.
DJ: They talked to me.
RQM: Yes!
DJ: I was inspired a lot by narratives: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Harriet Jacobs' master taught her how to read and write so he could write elicit things to her and then she chose a white husband so the master would leave her alone. There was someone reclaiming their sexuality. And Frederick Douglass discussed the men on his plantation and Olaudah Equiano's writings - there are hints of queerness there as well. But these characters in bonded came to me because I was trying to communicate with my ancestors. I was thinking that I knew I was not the first one who felt this way. There's not a lot of LGBTQ history discussing people of color. We say these were human beings who were enslaved. That means they had all of the feelings and thoughts and all of the dimensions involved with being human. They are rarely given that. We only see them in one lens: being oppressed.
RQM: Do you think that respectability politics has something to do with how we
see our history?
DJ: If you read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he is very careful to follow the tropes of the adventure story, the travelogue, and those sorts of things. He needed to come across as human in every sense of the word, but to also eliminate all of the stereotypes of African Americans of that period. He doesn't talk about romantic relationships. Black men were regarded as over-sexed. So he omits those details. Harriet Jacobs did it too. As a woman in the nineteenth century, she had to adhere to the cult of domesticity. She is writing
in those same tropes to appeal to her readers as a Christian woman.
RQM: What I'm noticing is that there is a de-sexualization.
DJ: Absolutely. It was very intentional. Fortunately, for me, I come in a time when that doesn't need to be done. That said, bonded was still controversial.
RQM: Spill the tea!
DJ: Well, some African Americans are tired of slave stories. They want to say that slavery is not their only history. I personally am fascinated with stories of my ancestors who were enslaved. We are talking about centuries of history. To assume that every possible story about these people has been told is absolutely ludicrous. I was also interested in stories of black people in relationship to other black people. I am curious about how my ancestors found ways to endure, to resist, to fall in love, to fight, to have friends, to have enemies with other black people.
RQM: One of the things I've always tried to understand is why bonded has not become part of the canon in the way I think it should be. I'm going out on a limb and speculate for you. I think this was an issue of regionalism. bonded was a play that opened in Los Angeles, the Far West. Now had you opened in New York City….
DJ: You read my mind. The truth of the matter is that I don't live in New York, and in the arts, sometimes it's about who you know and the right timing for things.
RQM: bonded was before its time.
DJ: I'm grateful for the publicity that it did get: an LA Times review, GLAAD Media Award nomination, some celebrities came.
RQM: Has it been published?
DJ: Not yet.
RQM: Have you considered a remount?
DJ: Absolutely. And I must say to my better known “siblings,” I went into Moonlight a bit begrudgingly, but I left feeling like it was a beautiful piece. To see the critical reception of that movie cannot be overstated particularly for artists of color who are telling unconventional stories or telling stories in unconventional ways.
RQM: Let's talk about form. The foundation of your plays is theoretical, cerebral. Clearly, you are coming from an interdisciplinary, liberal arts educational background. Then, you activate and motivate those ideas towards dramatic action. What are ways in which queer artists of color should continue to queer form as well as content?
DJ: That's a heavy question. In one sense, a significant number of us want to make it, be seen and be recognized -
RQM: You are going in, and I'm going to have to jump in here. You are talking about sacrifice. What do we have to do to make it? What do we have to put away, water down, omit? How do we need to sound or make people feel to get green lights from decision-makers for our projects?
DJ: I think of someone like Suzan-Lori Parks. Her early stuff is out there, and I love it. Venus, her play about the so-called Hottentot Venus was one of the best plays I've ever read. But she didn't get the Pulitzer until she did more conventional things like Topdog/Underdog that has a more linear plot. So, one of the questions is: are we doing things to get accepted or what? For a long time, there was this notion that, to be accepted, don't be too gay. Actually, I had someone tell me that bonded would be a great play if it didn't have all that homosexuality in it.
(I stare off out of disdain for Donald's myopic critic, then smile at Donald, respecting his resilience).
DJ: There's more. So if then, if I were to say, I'm going to do this artistic piece with a lot of silence and poetry and no white people, that's asking a lot of an audience - if it were a mainstream audience.
RQM: Who is telling mainstream audiences what they can and cannot handle? Are they telling themselves or are programmers programming the public?
DJ: I think it's a little bit of both. When bonded came out, I was really excited about it. Prop 8 was still being debated, but we had Obama. Then the Supreme Court struck down Prop 8, granting marriage equality throughout the nation, and I began thinking that maybe there was no longer a need for this kind of story. I am probably like a lot of people who were caught off-guard in the election of 2016 when “the deplorables” came out in full force, and reminded us that they were here and not going anywhere.
RQM: I remember a commentator after the election asserted that there is always backlash to radical change. But ultimately the changes made and the paradigm shifts achieved will outlast these cries against forward movement. It's kind of like a gout attack. Your joints become irritated when you accumulate acid crystals in your joins and you get a flare up as the crystals are flushed out. The space left behind by the crystals is inflamed by the change. We are experiencing a cultural gout attack right now. We need to drink our tart cherry juice - in this case, the juice is transformative playwriting. Change is happening, and it's causing inflammation, but the balm - I believe - is artists commenting on culture, keeping us honest, warning us when we stray from our principles, and ultimately bringing us back together again.
DJ: Absolutely, it is important for LGBTQ artists of colors to tell our stories in any way that makes sense for us. So, yes for the big commercial mainstream audiences but also, to paraphrase W.E.B. DuBois, we need theatre, ways to tell stories that are “for us, by us, near us.”
RQM: I love it! And on that note, let's get back to Baby Eyes.
DJ: You know, this is a very different play. bonded was a spiritual exercise; it is something that I hold dear to my heart and I do hope people get to experience that story again.
RQM: Producers, open up your pocket books. This man needs a remount of his play bonded.
DJ: Production, agent, manager, anything.
RQM: We will take what we can get in this world.
(Donald nods in agreement because we both know the struggle is real for the living queer playwright of color).
RQM: So how did you come back around to Baby Eyes?
DJ: That was a play that I wrote, worked through, and submitted to many contests. It was a quarter-finalist and finalist but nobody took it. After the last rejection, I said, “I don't want to tell this story anymore.” In the time between when I wrote the original draft and now, my father passed away quite unexpectedly to me. This was a play that I decided not to do anything with ever again because of the controversial subject matter and particularly because of all of the painful father-son issues. Then one day, I got a phone call from my mentor and friend Jon Lawrence Rivera. He asked about the latest draft. Jon actually worked with me on a staged reading of Baby Eyes as my culminating experience at USC's MFA in Dramatic Writing. Ten years later, he remembered that play. I sent him the script. He read it and called me back. He said, “Oh my god, I'm shaking. We're doing this.” It was fortuitous for me. It was not something I planned on.
RQM: Revisiting the piece 10 years later, how was the re-write process? So have you done a lot of re-writes?
DJ: Rapid. Challenging on every level - thematically and structurally. The set-up is that the piece is narrated by this gaggle of harpies. So the storytelling is very poetic in that sense. The play is almost linear, but then it is not. It harkens back to Greek storytelling. The main character Gio is 14 years old. He becomes enamored with this black guy in his 30s-40s in 1955 Baltimore. We are talking about taboo-ism with regard to sexuality, race, age, class - to me I'm talking about gender. I call the gaggle the “Gaggle of Sissies”. I am reclaiming the term as a self-identified sissy.
RQM: Okay honey, yes!
DJ: Yes, I'm a sissy, so I have a story for the sissies.
RQM: Yes, yes, for the legendary children.
DJ: Right!
RQM: So, writing a play like that, the casting must have been challenging.
DJ: Amazingly, many actors are quite prudish. People talk a great talk about diversity, inclusion, body positivity, and all the rest, but once you ask somebody to actually take the leap and do something - even if it is simulated or insinuated through monologue - they become very squeamish. I thought more of us had reached a point where we are willing to take risk, but there are a lot of actors out there who are not. They are okay if it is implied that the character is gay, but they will not show you a gay character. But, I will say this: the same people who say, “I am not willing to kiss another man on stage,” would do it if the pay check was high enough or if it was on T.V.
RQM: Your work and mine are similar in that they require actors from a smaller, more risk-taking, self-selecting group that are unapologetic and unafraid.
DJ: I treasure the experience of working with LGBTQ people of color and really be of the mindset that we are telling our own stories. I'm tired of straight people, cis-gender straight people getting awards for telling the stories or acting in roles of LGBTQ people when our lived experiences are still being devalued, marginalized, and oppressed on a daily basis. When we write our own stories and when we try to tell them on stage, on the screen, on the page, we are told to tone it down.
RQM: Amen!
DJ: You don't ask anybody's sexuality when they are auditioning for a role. We ask what people are comfortable with. But I am not about to start re-writing things to make a cishet actor comfortable -
RQM: Or audience member, or board of directors member, or producer -
DJ: Yes, yes -
RQM: You all have to take us as we are and invest in THAT. The public can handle it. Don't worry - you won't lose your investment. In fact, this is how you re-invest and build the audience of the future: by dreaming the culture forward, challenging people, and building new forms of storytelling while breaking down old cultural and aesthetic walls. Oh lord, look at me go. Let me get off my high horse. Baby Eyes. This show is getting it's world premiere. Every writer has a wish, a dramaturgical wish for that maiden voyage of a play. What are you hoping will come of this production of your play?
DJ: I want everyone from the cast to the crew behind the scenes to unite and tell this story with…, leading with the heart. The heart and the soul. Soul can mean so many things, and I want us to explore every meaning of that word - Soul.