Supporting creative work by women
Tanya Everett is a Masschusetts-born, Brooklyn-bred actor and writer. You may have seen her on stage opposite Ron Cephas Jones in The Classical Theatre of Harlem‘s Tempest. The New York Times raved about her “ferocity” in the role. Her full-length play, A Slow Boil, will be presented on January 31st as part of the eighth edition of The Fire This Time Festival, which provides a platform for talented early-career playwrights of African and African American descent to explore challenging new directions for 21st century theater.
Works by Women spoke with Tanya about her play, the festival and the roles she’s dying to write and/or perform.
WBW: Tell me about A Slow Boil. What was the spark for this play?
TANYA EVERETT: I usually get the “spark” from an image or series of images. This story began as an image of a family, grotesquely eating “lobstah.” I wanted to see that family on stage.
I grew up in a family of unrest. My biological father passed when I was young. I was raised by my grandmother, and my adoptive father, John, in a quaint colonial New England suburb, where kids were able to say things like “we don’t think of you as black.” Conversely, I felt incredibly loved and supported. My family suffered from substance abuse and poverty, and somehow raised a black woman who went to an Ivy League college! This is our story.
At its core: A Slow Boil is chemical. Water transforms from solid to liquid to gas. It’s a series of chain reactions. When molecules in water are heated, they move so fast they can no longer stick together. They go flying apart! In this way, I’m looking at how family transforms over time, and eventually flies away.
When John lost his long battle with cancer, he left a considerable hole in all of our lives. I became curious about John’s journey as a youth: a white male, living in South Boston, raised by an alcoholic, distant father, and how that influenced him in his role as father figure for a young black woman and a disabled boy. In the final sequence, John’s character, James, or Pa, has passed and the family celebrates their first holiday without him.
I started writing this play as a one act, called Lobstah Pot through the Amoralists’ Wright Club, a year-long development program. Lobstah Pot become the final act of the play, and the culmination of the dreams that are established in Act I and II. I’m excited to keep playing and sculpting, especially with my lovely new addition of Lizan Mitchell to the cast!
WBW: Your work has been a part of The Fire This Time Festival before. What makes this festival so vibrant? What do you love about having your work presented in the festival?
TE: This festival is a total gift. I am increasingly impressed with all that the festival offers, in the name of James Baldwin, and his groundbreaking book, The Fire Next Time. We have to keep honoring black voices, now more than ever. The FTTF offers a fresh perspective on playwrights of color, and it PACKS it in! In 2015, I starred in Nathan Yungerberg’s play, (who is working with the Cherry Lane’s Mentor Project this year). Then last year I had a short play in the Ten Minute Plays, which really is their signature event. The playwrights are buzzing with new work, producing a wide variety of juicy dramatic ideas.
I’m most excited about the opportunity to share work in a supportive and professional environment. The Artistic staff–Kevin R. Free, A.J. Muhammad and Kelley Nicole Girod–are the most kick ass group of folks anyone could be blessed to work with. They even publicly supported me through John’s illness, and donated the proceeds of one evening to his Gofundme.
I love being among black playwrights whom I admire. This year’s festival features my fellow Amoralist She-ro, Stacey Rose, Keelay Gipson, Korde Tuttle, Nia Witherspoon and Roger Q. Mason. Each of these artists are brilliant and humble. I believe you are the sum of those around you, so the festival creates an atmosphere of healthy camaraderie while promoting tremendous work ethic and quality art work.
WBW: Why theater? What first inspired you to be a theater artist?
TE: I was definitely brought into the theater by my grandmother, who is a musical theater buff and a drama queen. But the reason I stayed is simple: community. I thrive with the artists I love. We support each other. We show up!! There is a heartbeat in the theatrical community that is strong, and I am thrilled to share my he(art) with others. (I just started using that, and….awesome!)
Moreover, I’m continuously reminded that artists are revolutionaries. James Baldwin was a pioneer in black thought, and one of my personal favorite authors. I am inspired by the courage to perform and be vulnerable in direct contrast to all the shaming, silencing noise. I am inspired to share what I know to be true, especially in the face of lies and bigotry. I will not be silenced. Not in the next four years! Not ever. I am committed to supporting under-served voices in my community.
WBW: You’ve written a lot of short plays as well as full length plays and screenplays. How do you know an idea is destined for one form or another? What is your writing process like?
TE: The simplest answer: instinct plus trial and error. I am currently adapting another play to film, feeling out the modalities. I’m also writing my first comic, for graphic novelist Pat Shand. I’m taking on challenging and inspiring projects to push myself out of my comfort zone.
It’s interesting when you’re learning a new genre: it feels like the first time I took a skiing lesson. The instructor showed me how to bend my knees and glide. And with his help, I felt super confident. But when I got on the slope I kept belly flopping down the hill. It was thrilling; it was ridiculous. I’m learning to be free and messy, on a first draft, then scale back to form with the help of my directors and dramaturgs.
Pictured: Ron Cephas Jones and Tanya Everett in The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Tempest. Photo Credit: Jill Jones
WBW: You’re also an accomplished actor. How does your acting work inform your playwriting and vice versa.
TE: Because I come into this medium as an actor, I “perform” every part. I live the roles over and over, so that they feel fully realized. I love to create roles that are challenging to actors, but also that offer complexity and subtly. Recently, an actress said to me, “I just wanna do it again, because there’s so much more there. It looks simple. But it isn’t.” I took that as a tremendous compliment.
I feel blessed to know the behind-the-scenes work of any production as it has opened up a new world to me. I know that as an actor, I am part of a living organism that the playwright and/or screenwriter may have been living with for years. So to honor and serve the work is the only goal. I feel like I am more thoughtful actor with this knowledge, and it has freed my need to please.
WBW: Are there any roles you’re dying to play or write? And why?
TE: The roles that I’m dying to play are those that push the envelope of what it means to be a woman of color. And those are few and far between. Which is why I am determined to get in the room with women like Shonda Rhimes, Issa Rae, Ava DuVernay, or Mama O (Ms. Oprah Winfrey), with whom I share an upcoming birthday (January 29th)! I will continue to produce more of my work and collaborate with like-minded, soul-enriching folks.
WBW: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
TE: From my grandmother: “If you’re a tree, be the best tree you can be.” My take away: no matter what role in life you’re cast in, do it full out!
The Fire This Time Festival presents a reading of Tanya Everett’s A Slow Boil on January 31st at 7:30 pm at The Kraine Theater in the East Village (NYC). For tickets, which are free, click HERE.