Making Art & Revolution: An Interview with Cat Brooks
“When I took my first breath, God whispered in my left ear, “Make art,” and in my right ear, “Make revolution.’” -Cat Brooks
“My mom taught me to fight. She taught me about dedicating your life to making the world a better place at any cost. She taught me about morality. She was the first person who talked to me about white supremacy and Black oppression. She was white, I wouldn’t have the moral compass, or probably be who I am, without her not only talking to me, but living by example.” Cat Brooks takes a breath as she describes standing next to her late mother at an anti-nuclear energy protest while growing up in Las Vegas. “I was always political,” Brooks says, but it wasn’t until she was working as an actor at the Creative Artists Agency, “which sucked the life out of me,” that her career in activism took root. “I pitched a guerilla theatre program to [now Congresswoman] Karen Bass at the Community Coalition. [Bass said] ‘We don’t have that, but we like you.’ I’d never done anything except act and be an administrative assistant, and I was even new with that.” Brook’s foray into the political communications world provided her with an intensive grounding as a political organizer and ignited a spiritual awakening. “It was like my eyes and soul were opened. The head and the heart were able to connect through strategy, tactical analysis, and political education in a way that I hadn't experienced before. And that changed my life forever.”
After moving to Oakland, Brooks became known locally and nationally as a progressive trailblazer. She founded the Anti-Police Terror Project, a coalition that supports families affected by police violence. She continues to be a leading voice in the Black Lives Matter movement and is currently the executive director of the Justice Teams Network, a grassroots organization dedicated to eradicating state violence against prisoners. In an interview with KQED, Brooks describes being “laughed out of rooms' ' when she and the APTP called to “Defund OPD” in 2015. That same year, Brooks challenged Libby Shaff’s curfew and led protestors onto the Oakland Bridge. After getting arrested, Brooks ran against the heavily criticized incumbent in the Oakland Mayoral Election in 2018.
Brooks is not known for backpedaling as an artist either. In 2015, the #SayHerName movement sparked conversations about Black women victimized by police brutality and anti-Black violence in the United States. Brooks began conceiving a play that drew upon the stories of the many Black women subjected to state violence, but awoke at 3AM one morning to the reverberations of a single voice, Natasha McKenna, a thirty-seven year old Black woman who was tased to death in Fairfax County, Virginia while in police custody. Over the next three years, Brooks developed a one-woman show, ‘TASHA, with the help of her longtime collaborator, Dr. Ayodele Nzinga, and 3GT’s Salon Series program, where Brooks’ script won the 2018 New Works Festival prize. As part of that prize, 3GT flew Brooks and Nzinga to Fairfax, Virginia to conduct interviews for ‘TASHA. Nzinga notes that the city felt like, “a Groundhog Day reenactment of something that’s insidious...and is right there in broad open daylight, but is not discussed. It would be common, I think, for both sides of the railroad tracks to say, ‘We don’t really have a race problem. We know how things work, and you know, as long as they work that way, everything is fine.” Brooks and Nzinga were similarly met with silence when it came to interviewing McKenna’s family. Brooks remarks, “I've never encountered a family, a victim, you know, a victim, a victim's family that would not talk to the media.”
Brooks took the details gleaned from the police report and accounts about who Natasha was from those who knew her to conjure her own rendering of McKenna, while remaining loyal to the known details of the event. “It had to be accurate, how many times she was tased. There’s a moment where she says, ‘You promised you wouldn’t kill me,’ Well if you watch what I call a fifteen-minute snuff film of her murder, that’s one of the first things you can hear her say.”
Brooks describes her spirituality as a kind of ghostlight in her creative process. “I deeply believe in spirit and ancestors. I feel like Tasha chose me. And this was a story that for whatever reason, I was the vessel to tell it. And I feel like I know her. I know, I never met her. I'm also glad that it's been running so long, and to do so many iterations of it because I forget her name, and recognize that she is one of so many Black women that are murdered by law enforcement that we never hear about or talk about. And particularly in this moment, when there's this rallying cry across the country for alternatives responses to mental health crises, I think ‘TASHA is is one of the stories that we need to be telling, you know, screaming at the top of our lungs as evidence of why we shouldn't be sending guns and badges to people who need care and compassion.” When it comes to activism, Brooks says, “I walk with ancestors every day, whether I acknowledge they are there or not...If I didn't think that God had his hand on what's happening, or that God had a plan, or that God wasn't part of this. I don't think I could do the work.”
When she’s not writing plays, Brooks is the co-host of UpfrontKPFA, a radio show that delivers local, state, and international coverage through challenging interviews. She’s also working on outlining a book and conceptualizing her next project. On top of all that, in July of 2020, Brooks was appointed Program Director for 3GT Investigates, where she is the lead artist on an exploration of Oakland’s crisis of missing and trafficked Black girls, BLACK MISSING MURDERED TRAFFICKED; and assembling a team of Indigenous women writers to dramatically explore issues close to that community. What Cat is most proud of, however, is raising her Black daughter and the next generation of activists, “...My job was to break in another revolutionary. And I feel pretty secure in the fact that I've done that. And our generation, whose job was to develop and support younger organizers and activists, that is an important platform so that they can connect to leadership. We've done that. so that excites me, and I look forward to retiring.”
CAT BROOKS Actor, playwright, poet, political activist. . . the multitalented CAT BROOKS began her theater career at the age of 8 and later obtained her B.A. in theater with an emphasis on classical works. After graduation, she studied at the Royal National Theater Studio in London. Cat has performed across the world including playing Lady Macbeth at the Edinburgh Theater Festival in Scotland. In July 2016, Cat starred in 3GT’s production of Robin Bradford’s LOW HANGING FRUIT, for which she received a BATCC Best Actress nomination.
Cat was named a 3GT Playwright in 2017 and Program Director of 3GT Investigates in 2020. Her one-woman show, ‘TASHA, based on the in-custody death of Natasha McKenna in Fairfax County, VA, was selected as a 2017-2018 Salon Series Finalist and the winner of the 2018 Festival Prize. 3GT originally planned to produce the world premiere of ‘TASHA at Z Below in July 2020; it will be rescheduled for 2022. She lives in West Oakland with her daughter.
HANNAH MEYER, 3GT’s Communications Director, is a writer and director with a background in marketing and PR. In the Bay Area, she has worked with Magic Theatre, Playwrights Foundation, and SF Playhouse. She also is the host of Chasing the Ghostlight, a podcast that explores the singular moments and stories that haunt writers artistically. Her writing has appeared in PULP Magazine, Points in Case, The Well Mannered Grump, The Baram House, The Haven and the Comedy Studies Journal via Taylor & Francis.