Writer. Director. Producer. Actor. Activist. Mother. Jesse Bliss does it all. I first met Jesse when we were both taking a writing course at UCLA under the tutelage of famed writer/instructor Leon Martell. What impressed me about her was how she USED theatre as a vehicle of social transformation and civic action. The nexus of some of this work is her theatre company The Roots and Wings Project (RAW Project). Through March 10, RAW Project will be presenting an evening of song, dance and language called MATRIARCH centering on the complexities of mothers and motherhood.
For more information on this show, visit: facebook.com/events/2197437173856678
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): How did Matriarch begin?
Jesse Bliss (JB): I had come to a place in my life where I was at peace with being an artist over having a family. I had always wanted to be a mother, however the lifestyle of an artist and the choices I'd always made to put my work above all else, made it perfectly clear I could only be with a partner who understood my needs as an artist so that I could do both and do them each well. I realized that context may never exist and finally, after praying to the spirit of my child, released the idea of motherhood for this life unless the universe showed me otherwise, and came to peace with the fact that because of my deep commitment to my art, it may never happen that I'd find a partner who could understand how to have a cornerstone of equity while raising a family and creating work, all the while sharing the responsibilities of love and care for the child, household work, plus finances.
Low and behold I fell madly in love, seeming to have found this context much to my surprise. It all happened very fast. We had a big wedding. I'm remaining silent about the details, but what I will say is that the equity I'd firmly believed was there, was not. I'd been working as an artist literally up until I gave birth having directed my play TREE OF FIRE at The Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts. However, I had a very challenging pregnancy with many medical complications and thus a difficult birth. It left me needing to heal and recover. During that time, I was very much alone. I was more thrilled to be a mother than any role I'd ever been given in this life, however, my fantasy of partnership was shattered. In the countless hours of breastfeeding, I'd have pieces of paper and notebooks with pens lying around the house so if I was suddenly breastfeeding somewhere unable to move, there was accessible paper. I'd stare out the windows at my passing neighbors and up at the palm trees, loving my baby and having the epiphany of all epiphanies about womanhood, understanding it all differently and more clearly than ever before---women have historically been put in the home and our advancement into the workforce only doubled our work load. Here I was working full time running a theatre department at a private school plus teaching on the side at The Geffen while nursing all night and struggling to find places to pump in the day.
Seated in my living room, while breastfeeding: I got struck like lightening with both the title and idea at once. MATRIARCH would allow women to speak out about the oppression we've been living, allow me to work in an ensemble without having to be away from my baby for endless hours like in a traditional play, and bring light and awareness around the hidden truths of motherhood and the oppression of women.
The first writer I thought of was Patricia Zamorano. I'd played the lead in her play YOU DON'T KNOW ME. I wanted to know more about the story, particularly the dynamic about her and her mother. When I hit her up she let me know that she wasn't a mother and seemed surprised I'd considered her for this work. I reminded her that she'd become her mother's mother when her mother was severely burned (and later blinded) in a fire.
She was stunned and in turn found great healing in writing that riveting story. I began tapping other writers I knew had something profound to share and a perspective to offer that would alter perception and give piercing truth.
Our first reading was at a bar at Union Station. People were laughing and crying on both sides of the stage. Passersby were stopping, arrested by the work. It was then and there we collectively knew there was something very powerful that needed further life.
I was suddenly less alone and able to share space and time with potent artists and engage dialogue around the work. I found this entirely healing and necessary in a world where women are objectified and silenced. My baby was on my hip through it all as being with her has, and remains to be, my number one objective. I embody all things wild and completely domestic at once.
RQM: You've done the show many times within the last few years. How has the show grown and changed over the different iterations?
JB: It became clear we needed to include our male allies. Because someone is a woman does not make them an ally and because someone is a man doesn't make them an enemy.
So many women completely sign on to the poison of patriarchy and also there are men who are strong allies. For example, in the case of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her work didn't happen because of him, but she was able to navigate and break boundaries because he had her back and believed in her to such a degree that she was able to be an unstoppable force. He moved cities for her work. He sacrificed whenever necessary to ensure her rise.
This type of ally promotes our advancement and enforces our voices. Throughout history, oppression has been overcome by those being oppressed joining forces with allies to create a movement. Angela Davis' book WOMEN RACE & CLASS does a great job of exemplifying this point as does her entire body of life's work.
Women have only been legal citizens a short time, previously owned by men on paper through marriage. We've barely been allowed to vote or enter the work force or college and still make so much less than men, yet have the responsibility of the home and suffer enormous condemnation. Is there equity? Sure, it's somewhere, but it's hard to find. The voice of the ally is in Tamar Halpern's piece, GABRIEL, and brings so much to the overall message.
MATRIARCH is much about the shaming of the feminine. All feminine energy has been subjected to shame. It can be embodied by a woman or a man and yet still experience the same level of condemnation, thus it became crystal clear that it enhances and emphasizes the work to include that voice. Your piece (Roger Q. Mason) embodies this and it is a critical aspect of the work. In his piece, AGE SEX LOCATION, the character is being shamed for his femininity by the very women he looks up to---his own mother! This shows how the feminine is degraded and humiliated in all shapes and forms…a critical point to explore on our journey to respect and equity…the very definition of the word feminism has *no* female implication. It refers to equity for all human beings.
Also, since the inception of MATRIARCH, I have become a single mother. This role is shrouded in stigma and has been an entirely new awakening, once again, about the roles women have been subjugated to in our quest for freedom and to live outside the walls of oppression. My new perspective has changed the way I see the value of this show and the role it plays in voicing what we don't usually hear, thus moving more toward justice.
Raised by a single mother myself who endured abusive relationships, it has been an awakening to trans-generational trauma and a strong desire to break the cycles. I have stepped into a role I never wanted and am determined to not only make it work, but to live in joy---something society has attempted to keep from women.
The Roots and Wings Project also has a program now in the women's prison California Institution for Women (CIW) in Chino. Those women are survivors of abuse and so many of them are in there because of Domestic Violence. They have gifted me so much and working with them is an honor. It has greatly enhanced my understanding of how the dynamics of patriarchy in the United States are costing women their lives both inside and outside the walls. I don't see the separation. My collaboration on MATRIARCH exists in both places. The women behind the walls are great keepers of knowledge and testaments to the strength of the human spirit. Their voices are stifled because their truth threatens the structure of patriarchy. We do this work out here for them as well. All artists on both sides of the walls are company members of The Roots and Wings Project and by bridging this gap we are helping people to understand the truth about who is in prison and why. Though I've been doing prison work for over 15 years, this is the first Roots and Wings Project program in a woman's prison. We are grateful for the support and collaboration from Poets and Writers and Luis Rodriguez and Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural.
It's been exciting rotating in new voices like Diane Rodriguez whose piece speaks to the story we *never* heard about: a proud and peaceful single mother with 5 kids and 5 kid's fathers and Dancers like Nicole Mae Martin (held the vision for popping and locking interlude for years for this show) whose piece explores Domestic Violence, a topic society doesn't understand that is not publicly expressed thus perpetuating. It's equally exciting continuing on the journey with the MATRIARCH OG's like the talented Sigrid Gilmer who has been running the show since "the get" with a piece about a dying mother and her last taboo advice to her children.
We did a short run of the piece in 2017 at Casa 0101 to much success. Though the venue is no longer being rented by them and we are running the show in the space again, we honor and appreciate the legacy of that space and all the incredible work that has been built in there by so many stellar artists.
RQM: You make an appearance in the show. Tell us a little bit about Jesse Bliss the writer and performer.
JB: My first lens is that of an actor. I have written literally my entire life, but as a young child, always envisioned becoming a professional actress and started doing radio commercial work and plays at a very young age. I moved to San Francisco at 20 years old and met my acting teacher, Linda Lowry, walking up the street near my place in the dangerous Tenderloin District. I trained very hard with her. She was a prodigy of Bobby Lewis who founded the Original Actor's Studio and he was a prodigy of Constantine Stanislavski. I was so incredibly frustrated by the lack of good material written for women and Linda saw the writer in me. She challenged me to write my own work. Thus was born my life as a playwright. However, I am a multidisciplinary artist, truly, and all parts equal my whole. Each is an integral part of my being. Performing makes me happy and keeps me connected to all aspects of the work and is something I am meant to do while in this life. I love directing, producing and writing just as much. I find acting makes me better at them all, eliciting my vulnerability, embodying a character and keeping me connected in a way I'm built for. There are works I never do step inside of as a performer and approach the work only as a director and producer.
In the context of MATRIARCH, the piece I do is very important to me as it explores a mother being shamed in public by a passerby for breastfeeding which I, and many others, experienced not just once but often. It's so ludicrous to me and makes a critical point about where we are at the world in the treatment of women. It's an honor to perform the piece. I was afraid in this iteration it wouldn't connect for me now as I've got so many other critical matters on my mind and in my heart, but it does remain to be a piece that I find deeply important and stepping inside of MATRIARCH to perform is a gift I so deeply appreciate.
I have a background in women's theatre as a writer and performer. I came to Los Angeles with an all-female troupe out of New York City, The Angry Jellow Bubbles. At 21 years old I moved to New York City and it was my first exposure to a powerful, young female director and a group of very talented female writer/performers. It brought me so much healing. We did a lot of shows together on the East and West Coasts and in Europe. All 9 of us moved to LA then quickly disbanded, but that time together greatly influenced my artistry and opened me up to the capabilities of women as content creators. Being there was so little good work for women, it feels empowering to create my own---to write it then step inside to embody it. That has always been healing for me---to write work I believe in and physically embody it. I love telling other people's stories as a writer as well as an actor. There is a collective consciousness at work in this story telling.
I connected with Josefina Lopez when I first came to Los Angeles. She has been a dear friend, ally and inspiration. It felt good to connect with someone, so soon after arriving in LA with the Bubbles show, who was working in multiple contexts and capacities creating content as a woman.
Overall, I look forward to continuing my journey as a performer yet acknowledge fully that I am also a playwright, director and producer and that work is a critical part of my being and must be exercised in order to grow.
RQM: Outside of your work in theatre, you are an educator, radio personality, and prison reform activist. What do you bring from your other lives in to the work you make for theatre?
JB: The immediate healing that theatre offers is life-saving and I experienced it as such on my own journey and am a conduit for helping it do the same for others in these mentioned contexts. The entertainment industry can be difficult and I find sometimes artists forget the healing power of the work or the core reasons why we do it. It's interesting going from a prison environment with men at Lancaster or women at CIW for example where the work literally allows them to come alive and breathe, to a public theatre where artists approach the work in a different way due to the structure of the entertainment industry. I find the best actors in the world are also the kindest, most empathic and I see in them the same traits as the people behind the walls. A criminal mind is a creative mind and the Prison Industrial Complex has been built by Patriarchy and greed.
RQM: One thing that has always excited me about you is your supreme belief in the transformative power of theatre in our everyday lives. What can theatre do to help us in tumultuous times like now?
JB: Theatre can allow us to overcome. The power of the human spirit is magnificent and ominous. We forget because that's the design. Oppression is there to keep us disconnected from each other and ourselves. When we examine a story, its' structure and the intricacies of a precious human life, we are called to an ancient an honorable task that takes us outside of time and into the realm of possibilities. It's the highest healing modality on the planet for it offers an unparalleled transcendence for both the artist and the audience. The silence is broken. We now know we are not alone. We can process what is otherwise impossible to digest. In this we can digest, calm and take proper action.
We are called into the universal realm and metaphysical forces become more apparent.
We stand on the backs of giants in this work and call forth the legacy when we commit to participating. Ancestors come around, we connect in a different way with each other dictated by measure of trust and love and in this we are more than the circumstances of our lives, more than the haters, more than the challenges. It brings our capabilities to light and ignite what is dormant, calling upon our power to voice truth, rise up, and take no prisoners.
For tickets and more information on MATRIARCH go to Eventbrite.com/e/matriarch-tickets-54959799239
Featured photo: Jesse Bliss Photographer: Angela L. Torres