Swinging the Sledgehammer: Whose Names Are We Not Saying? An Interview With Ayodele Nzinga
Written by Hannah Meyer
“I think there is a very fine line between where people - if you hit them in the face with a sledgehammer then they might not hear the next four or five things you say, but if you can at least, swing the sledge hammer at them, and let them feel the whoosh of the wind.”
Ayodele Nzinga wants to talk about “what folks don’t talk about.” The West Oakland-based PhD scholar and multidisciplinary artist can conjure centuries in a single sentence, unearth the buried, and peel back layers with unflinching precision across artistic mediums. “I traffic in the business of making the invisible visible... I have normalized Blackness and I openly admit that is the lens from which I view the world. I unabashedly set my practice on what Wilson called the Grounds of Slave Quarters and so I have said that is enough,” describes Nzinga, referring to the infamous 1996 Theatre Communications Group conference when playwright, August Wilson called out the racist practices of American theatre.
Nzinga is a supernova of her own orbit and cites her artistic ignition to the constellation of Marvin X, a leader in the Black Arts and Black Power movements. Throughout her 30-year career, Nzinga remains “drunk on the power of words” and equally intoxicated by what happens when stories are left partially or wholly untold.
The names, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and George Floyd pass through the masked mouths of protesters across the United States. But there are thousands of names left unsaid at protests and uncirculated within the media. Among them is Natasha McKenna, a 38 year old woman living with schizophrenia in Fairfax County, Virginia. She was murdered while in custody at the county jail in February 2015. The Fairfax County Sheriff Department, led by Stacey Kincaid since 2013, conducted an internal investigation and ultimately filed no criminal charges against the officers involved in McKenna’s death. In July 2015, Nzinga joined with Cat Brooks, a Bay Area community organizer, actor, and 3GT playwright began developing ‘Tasha, a one-woman show based on McKenna’s life. The tightly woven piece explores the intersections between race, gender, mental illness, and policing, from the point of view of many characters, real and imagined: McKenna’s concerned mother; Sheriff Stacey Kincaid, the first woman elected to that office; and McKenna herself, who traverses from childhood to adulthood throughout the play. ‘Tasha was originally scheduled for its 3GT world premiere in July 2020 and its five-year development history occurs alongside a growing conversation about police brutality in the United States.
Brooks and Nzinga have been working on the play together through its many incarnations. In 2018, as part of winning the 3GT Festival Prize, the duo were sent to Fairfax to explore Natasha's roots. While Nzinga laughs, recalling how she and Brooks “got themselves in the most unlikely places”, she notes that Virginia had the markers of an America that “...held Black people in a particular way...you’re in a place where there are trees old enough that you know people hung from. It was like we were in a different world. I never saw so much law enforcement.” The trip was equally fruitful as it was challenging, Nzinga recalls the reticence she encountered when speaking to the leaders of social justice organizations. “[It was 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.’ I actually find that very scary. I felt existentially in danger the entire time we were there, because I felt like I had not been indoctrinated in the right context to be able to survive [...] if I should be challenged.” Nzinga also noticed a difference between the fervent activism of Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, and a city where, “You can't walk out and throw a rock and not hit four different activist groups,” in contrast to the unresolved and smothered grief of Fairfax. What particularly shocked Nzinga was, “The complexity of how their hopelessness is woven, the event of what [McKenna’s] death prompted for them, and then to look at the boundaries that were open to them to carry that in. It wasn't that people weren't hurt or didn't understand exactly what happened. But to be so steeped in a frame that actually sort of becomes the underpinning of what your range of emotion can be. How you can feel about a thing out loud. The amount of public unrest that they did not have. No one's saying her name right this moment, you know?”
Throughout the developmental process for ‘Tasha, Brooks and Nzinga honed the moments in which they would allow the audience to breathe, “I looked at the way audiences in talkbacks tried to negotiate the intensity. For some people, it was the language, which I thought was very interesting. You see a woman stripped naked like an animal and brutalized and murdered, and you're mad about the language? I think there is a very fine line between where people - if you hit them in the face with a sledgehammer, then they might not hear the next four or five things you say, but if you can at least, swing the sledge hammer at them, and let them feel the whoosh of the wind.” For Nzinga, personal and systemic violence are interlinked. The story of Natasha McKenna is not isolated to a particular time or place, rather it is connected to a larger conversation “about something that was invisible: the way that the mentally ill are treated inside the system, but also very specifically the way that Black women are demeaned inside that system.” To momentarily steal the breath of an audience is to transport them directly inside the pervasive violence of an unchecked system, and (hopefully) fundamentally alter how they perceive and respond to that violence outside of the theatre.
Like ‘Tasha, Nzinga’s current project, 3GT Investigates: Black, Missing, Murdered, Trafficked, resonates with historical echoes by exploring the reality of human trafficking of Black women and girls in Oakland, a city deemed, “one of the world hubs [for sex trafficking]” by the FBI. Again, in collaboration with Cat Brooks, Nzinga “opens the floodgates” on a larger conversation about “the value of Black life” and emphasizes that “it is so much more instructive as being part of a disenfranchised population to have the seeding of those conversations come from the eyes of the people that are trying to navigate whatever issue we're looking at.” Nzinga notes contrast between the widespread deaths of Black women and the fact that “people say that we are entering the age of the woman, and to have this be the condition of womanhood.” 2020 may be the one hundred year anniversary of when white women were granted the right to vote, but for the 2020 to be christened as the age of the woman, is to gild the systemic trampling of one demographic and the complicit silence of another and ignore past and current history.
The relationship between history and place has haunted Nzinga throughout her career. Known for stewarding West Oakland since 1999 with her site-specific, community-centric company, The Lower Bottom Playaz, Nzinga has made world history directing The Century Cycle — all ten of Wilson’s plays in chronological order. In the program, Nzinga notes, “Feel free to make connections to Oakland, CA,” but unlike the rest of her oeuvre of the company's work, Nzinga didn’t need to make the The Century Cycle site specific. Despite taking place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, The Century Cycle reverberates with universal themes that electrifies the heart of West Oakland in particular. “West Oakland is emblematic of all marginalized places across the world, it is like being in Johannesburg, it is like being in Cité Soleil, it is like being in Kingston...” emphasizes Nzinga, describing how the city of Oakland continues to chafe at the boundaries of gentrification and remains a site of resistance against larger smothering forces. Yet, language remains a revelatory tool in this ongoing resistance: “We gotta get real, like Shrek, we gotta keep peeling back the layers of the onion. And the beautiful thing about that metaphor, is that if you actually approach it like peeling back the layers of an onion, when you get through there won't be anything left. And that's real satisfying for me metaphorically, because we're talking about something that doesn't really exist in the first place.”
Ayodele Nzinga, MFA, Ph.D. , a 3GT Associate Artist, is the founding producing director of the Lower Bottom Playaz, Inc., founded in 1999, they are Oakland’s oldest North American Theater Company, currently in residence, at The Flight Deck in downtown Oakland. Described as a renaissance woman; Nzinga is considered a multi-disciplined creative force; she is a producing director, playwright, poet, dramaturg, actress, performance consultant, educator, and community advocate. She is the founder of Lower Bottom Playaz Summer Theater Day Camp, established in 2017, a performance-based literacy camp that serves youth 5-18 free of charge. She is the producer of BAMBDFEST a multi-venue month-long arts and cultural festival celebrating the Black Arts Movement and Business District in Oakland CA. Nzinga holds an MFA in Writing and Consciousness, and a Ph.D. in Transformative Learning. Work for the page includes The Horse Eaters published by Nomadic Press, A Narrative Inquiry into Performance Pedagogy, work in Vision Magazine, two volumes of the Journal of Pan African Studies, 14 Hills Journal, Magnolia Journal, and in the anthologies, Environmental Terrorist and Say it Loud. Nzinga’s work for the stage includes Mama at Twilight: Death by Love, Mack: A Gangsta’s Tale, Lifer, and Beyond the Bars: Growing Home. Film credits include The Everlasting Coconut Tree, So Beautiful, Protection Shields, and Tent City produced by 393 Film. Nzinga directed the longest-running African American play in North America, One Day in the Life, and is the only director to produce a fully-staged play in the iconic African American Museum and Library at Oakland, CA. Nzinga is a Cal-Shakes Artist Investigator Alumni, the founding Artistic Director of the original Recovery Theater, a Helen Crocker Russell Arts Leadership awardee, and a member of Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame, inducted for contributions to Arts and Culture. Ayodele is recognized by Theater Bay Area as one of the 40 faces in the Bay Area that changed the face of theater in the Bay Area, she is also recognized by the August Wilson House as the only director to direct the August Wilson Century Cycle in chronological order.
Hannah Meyer, 3GT’s Marketing Associate, is a director and dramaturg of new work with a background in marketing and public relations. In the Bay Area, she has worked with Magic Theatre, Playwrights Foundation, and SF Playhouse. Hannah is also a writer whose work has appeared in Points in Case, The Well Mannered Grump, The Baram House, The Haven and elsewhere. Her essay, which explores the politics of comedy in Rachel Bloom's banned song, "Period Sex," will be published later this year with Taylor & Francis. Hannah is passionate about the intersections between art, activism, and scholarship. She is overjoyed to be working with 3GT and supporting the work of queer and female-identifying artists!