KET Arts


Black Women Playwrights: Interviews

Regina Taylor

Playwright Regina Taylor

Regina Taylor

Regina Taylor has forged parallel careers in acting and playwriting. Her plays include Escape from Paradise; Watermelon Rinds; Inside the Belly of the Beast; Mudtrack; and Love Poem. As a performer, she is most widely known for her role as Lilly Harper in the television series I'll Fly Away, for which she received an Emmy nomination and the Golden Globe Award for Best Leading Dramatic Actress. She also starred in Cora Unashamed, a drama in the Masterpiece Theatre American Collection, and has many other credits in television, theater and films.  

Q: What is your earliest memory of writing?

REGINA TAYLOR: I remember writing as far back as I remember. It was always about books, about creating worlds. I pretty much lived in the world of imagination and knew the power of that form early on. I always wanted to be a writer.

Q: What kind of things did you write?

REGINA TAYLOR: I wrote poetry. With the help of my mom, we would illustrate them. I would invite friends over to the backyard and write plays, and we would do them.

Q: And what made you think you could be a writer?

REGINA TAYLOR: I never thought I couldn't be a writer. That was something that I always had and knew that was within me. And so I was seeking a way to express myself through pen and paper.

Q: Did you go to school for writing?

REGINA TAYLOR: When I was in college, I took some writing classes. I was writing all along. When I went to college I studied journalism and figured I would be a journalist, and figured that I would write the great American novel on my time off, on my vacation time. I always was writing, had paper with me, always had a pencil with me. Always, either in my room or some crowded space, always observing and dreaming and writing it down.

Q: What came first, acting or writing?

REGINA TAYLOR: What came first was my career as an actress. While I was still in school I took an acting class. I was drawn to the possibilities in acting in the same way I was drawn to writing. You could, through you imagination, channel these different lives, skip in time, both backward and forward. For a child who grew up in Dallas, Texas, who grew up in this little plot of land, to be able go out of these strictures, and to know I could be in England in the 7th century, or be in Africa, or be in Italy or China, and have conversations with the greatest minds and their books-it was an escape, in a way, and it challenged me to know that anything is possible outside this square that I grew up in. You are channeling these different lives. You are channeling these different experiences. You are finding the commonalities of human beings, no matter when they were born or where they were born, or what color they are. I found that with acting you can lend your instrument-your body or voice-to be possessed by these different lives and learn from that.

Q: How did you break into acting?

REGINA TAYLOR: While I was still in college, I was watching the filming of The Oldest Living Graduate. I was behind the curtain, just peeking in. And an agent said there is a show that is being produced. They are looking for some actors for this television movie called Crisis at Central High. It was about the first nine students who integrated the Arkansas school system. She asked me if I was an actor, and I said sure. I went to the audition and got the job. Joanne Woodard was starring in it. It was a wonderful experience. And after I graduated, I went to New York and starved for a while.

Q: How did you get the break for I'll Fly Away?

REGINA TAYLOR: I had been in New York for several years and worked my way to leading roles in various Broadway venues and in different regional theaters, and back in New York I was called for an audition for I'll Fly Away.

Q: Can you tell us about some of your earliest plays?

REGINA TAYLOR: One of my earliest plays was called Watermelon Rinds. It was one of my first pieces that was produced. It was about a family get-together on the occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday. It had all these people who started as a family but who have now parted ways. With that you sort of get a microcosm of what's happening to the black American experience with the death of Martin Luther King. It's different viewpoints.

Q: And where was that was produced?

REGINA TAYLOR: It was done at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Q: What came next?

REGINA TAYLOR: After that I was invited to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. They did that play as half of a two-part play. Then I did another play called Inside the Belly of the Beast. From there, I have been working at the Goodman Theatre and doing a show every year. I did a play called Escape from Paradise about a woman, a travelogue as she travels through Italy. As she is going along, she is going backward from where she comes from. As a traveler your mind wanders backwards and as you are gong through these different scapes you are reminded of, and reminded of, and she is constantly asking herself how did she get there. It's about the journey we are going through in life. What are we going toward? What are we running away from? We think we know where we're going. Once we get there, are we satisfied? Do we want to stay there? It's like, if you catch fireflies in a jar, you can enjoy that moment as a moment. And then what?

Q: Did you act in your early plays?

REGINA TAYLOR: I acted in Escape from Paradise, and I did a one-woman show commissioned by the Goodman Theatre. Kia Corthorn, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Adrienne Kennedy-I admire these writers so much. I wanted to put together an evening with these writers and have the privilege of speaking their words. So that was a wonderful experience. It was called The Millennium Mumbo when it was done at the Goodman. And it was called Urban Zulu Mambo when we did it in New York at the Signature Theatre.

Q: And it was you doing ...

REGINA TAYLOR: Four different parts, four different plays.

Q: When did Night in Tunisia come along?

REGINA TAYLOR: Night in Tunisia was a piece that was done at the Alabama Shakespeare Theater at first. It was a piece that was done with six actors, and it was recently done at the George Street Playhouse.

It's survival stories.You have four different women from different walks of life. You have one, Amanda, who is very successful, very career-driven. She is about to hit 40, and she realizes in her life that she hasn't felt anything in a long time. She has gone through a life avoiding feelings, and what is she going to do in this passage, trying to avoid some collision being 40 or being touched by someone?

You have a young girl who is going through a lot in her young years, including rape, including having a lot of her schoolmates shot in front of her. She is a young woman who has grown up too fast. She doesn't know how to deal with her emotions in an adult way and does not know what direction to go in.

You have a woman who defines herself by her body, and when she has an operation to remove both her breasts, she has to redefine herself. She has to find a new place to store her power.

Then you have a woman who is about 109 yrs old. She is waiting for death to knock on the door. Looks at it in terms of aliens coming down to take her home. You realize that she is talking about the alien being a black woman with a red head-rag on, and that is God to her. God is going to come down, and God is a black woman with a red hair-rag on. God is an alien because she feels like an alien. She feels like she has outlived her time. And she feels very strange in these times.

Q: Oblide?

REGINA TAYLOR: Oblide was before that. It was about a group of female jazz musicians, and it takes place right after World War II. You have this female jazz band going up to Chicago to get a record deal, and what you are exploring is what is happening. During the war years you did have a lot of female jazz bands. You had a female baseball league. They are going into a "male territory." They learn they are as good or as bad as men in these areas. After the war, the choice is "What do I do? Do I go back home and have children, or do I continue my career?" They have tasted a sort of freedom, and what are their choices now?

Q: How was that received?

REGINA TAYLOR: It was received very well. I had a wonderful time working on it because I had a chance to talk to a lot of female jazz musicians in their 70s and 80s. When I did it in Chicago, some of the women I interviewed there brought their children and grandchildren to the opening. And they said, "Yes, yes that is me."

Then at the opening party some of them got together and played, and that was one of the most wonderful things. The realization of it is a part of history that we know nothing about. But you have all of these women, and they felt kind of stigmatized because they are playing these instruments that they were not OK for women to play. It's OK to play a piano, but not to slobber all over a horn, or to be beating those drums-too masculine-or plucking between their legs. You cannot do that.

Q: Drowning Crow?

REGINA TAYLOR: Drowning Crow. The Seagull is one of my favorite plays. I tried to have a dialogue with Chekhov. Why does this play hit me in this way? So I started looking at it, and I saw a lot of parallels with his writing and his times.

Chekhov's grandparents were serfs. They were slaves. The world Chekhov is writing about is in change: people who fought very hard to leave the stigma of slavery and forge the middle class and forge the boundaries that they came from.You have people who are crossing over, those who are a part of their folk culture. People who have left that and come back and another generation not knowing what direction they should go in. The moral compass is off, and you look at the generations that got them to the point where they are, and they have sort of forgotten that. They are going this way, and they want the easy way.

I looked at that and said hmm. If you want to do an adaptation of Chekhov in this country, it makes sense that these characters would be black. And then, what time are we talking about? I first thought about the Harlem Renaissance, when things were really changing. Then I thought the next generation was about hope and still about a direction. I set it in present day. I set it on the Gullah Island on the coast of Georgia, because that was a place that in some ways has its ties in Africa very much in place. You have people who still carry on that tradition, still rooted in that past. You have a generation that left the island and have gone up north and come back. They know the history of that island where their grandparents were slaves, and now some live in those plantations. That middle class is fighting to hold on to that territory.

Then you have a generation who is MTV-driven, who really don't feel a part of this island, who are trapped on the island, who are angry, but don't know where to direct the anger, and who have kind of given up, in terms of how can you fight to make a change. It is something that is more self-destructive.

I think that is what Chekhov was writing about. I think it fits in how he was writing and the changes that were happening all around him in Russia and the world, and in what is happening in this country right now, not only in black America, but in this world.

Q: Crowns, your present work ...

REGINA TAYLOR: Cunningham and Marberry did the wonderful book called Crowns, about black women and their Sunday hats. I was asked to do an adaptation. I read the book, looked at the pictures, and read the narratives. I said "Wow! I know these women and their rich heritage of wearing hats." This is something that has been passed down and passed down. The idea of wearing hats and adorning oneself for worship is very African in nature. In looking at this book and looking at the narratives of these women, trying to figure out a way to theatricalize this, it has been a pleasure of finding those heightened moments of transcendence in the experience of church. It has been a real joy. The choreoghraphy of it and working with the music-a lot of gospel music throughout, and other types of music. It's not only with the tradition of wearing hats, but the tradition of the music of black church. And it's about passing down that tradition and legacy and finding the deeper meaning of it as well. I make them [the characters] into seven basic composites of the women in the book.

Q: Why is it important to have the voices of black women writers heard in the theaters?

REGINA TAYLOR: I think, as with any writer, they are interested in writing the truth. That's what is so powerful. To open you mouth and speak the truth, to be able to write it down on paper and speak the truth. To pass it on as evidence of the truth is very important for any writer.

Q: What are you writing now?

REGINA TAYLOR: I'm working on Madame C. J. Walker, who was one of the first self-made black millionaires in the U.S. She did it with black hair-care products for woman, a very colorful character. It's called Dreams of Sarah.

Q: Do you have any advice for younger black women writers?

REGINA TAYLOR: I think you know if you are a writer by the need to write. And it is basically to satisfy myself, to answer questions that I have. The things that I observe, collecting the different souls that pass through my life, and I find that satisfying to me.