THE POWER OF A NAME
by William Gooch
published May 1, 2009
Interview with Eisa Angela Davis
author of Angela’s Mixtape
now playing Off Broadway at the Ohio Theater
through May 2
Celebrity can have an exacting price on the children of movie stars and famous athletes. We know all too well the stories of
progeny that can never live up to the brilliance of their parents. Most fade into obscurity or are made infamous by their foibles or lack
In Angela’s Mixtape, Eisa Angela Davis has created a true-to-life character that is not
only plagued by the legacy of an iconic, political activist aunt, but also by the expectations of the surrounding, eclectic intelligentsia
of the San Francisco Bay Area. By cleverly mixing in rap and house tunes from the 80s and 90s,
Davis brings relevancy and humor to a script that could have easily been weighted with lofty Black Power and socialistic rhetoric from a decade
that is a distant past to most young audiences.
Davis also succeeds in bringing human complexity to the characters of
her childhood. They are conflicted, courageous, stalwart, unsure, loving, and didactic all at the same time, never content to rest on their
laurels but embracing change and the evolutionary process of existence.
Eisa Angela Davis took a little time of our her busy schedule to talk about her life, her creative process and her iconic
Could you tell me a little
about your childhood and educational background?
Eisa Davis: When I was young, I spent quite a lot of time with
my grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama. My grandmother taught me to read and write by the time I was two years old. Later, I went to public
schools in the Bay Area. I did my undergraduate work at Harvard University and I completed my master’s in acting and playwriting from the
Actor’s Studio Program at New School University.
What does the name Eisa
Eisa Davis: My mom thought it meant little star. But, it turns
that my name phonetically is very common in Arabic, Hindi, and Japanese, so there are different meanings for my name. In Swahili it means
blessed one, and in Japanese it means cup of tea. The particular spelling of my name comes from
the spelling of the daughter of a friend of my mom.
Is civil rights and political
activist icon Angela Davis really your aunt?
Eisa Davis: (Laughing) As far as I know, I am indeed the niece of Angela Davis. I have known her all my
How did Angela’s Mixtape come about?
Eisa Davis: As a playwright you don’t always know what you need
to write. Sometimes, there is story begging to come out that you must write in a fictional format, but Angela’s Mixtape was different. I thought it would be fun to replicate the type of plays I put on with my
cousins and neighborhood playmates when I was a child. I also wanted to develop a form that was different than anything I had worked in
before. I wanted to create a play the way a mixed tape works. I have been an advocate for hip-hop theatre for over ten years, so Angela’ Mixtape is a reflection of that aesthetic. The Hip-Hop Theatre Festival asked me to contribute
something to their festival in 2003 and this is the play that came out.
So Angela’s Mixtape was performed in another incarnation prior to this festival?
Eisa Davis`: It was originally done as a reading in 2003 and
over the next five years we did more readings and then developed it into a workshop. Angela’s
Mixtape had a joint world premiere in Atlanta in 2008. Most of the cast in Atlanta was different from the New York City cast with the
exception of Ayesha Ngaujah. We revised the play for the 2009 Hip-Hop Festival with different actors, and designers.
How did you decide where to
place certain cultural references from your life and Angela Davis’s life in Angela’s
Eisa Davis: Some of the placement and ordering of key elements
was unconscious. I write what seems right to me. Then I hear from directors, actors and audience members about what works and what doesn’t
work. I order things in the play to make certain statements.
Are all the characters based
on real people or fictionalized in some way?
Eisa Davis: I try in Angela’s Mixtape to be as true to my memories as I recall the
characters and that particular time. There are a few conversations that were altered for effect. Some things are condensed and not
chronological, but the play is 95% true to my memory. I just finished a play on Broadway called Passing Strange, which Stew called autobiographical fiction.
[Stew is the writer, lyricist and star of the 2006 Broadway hit, Passing Strange.] But in this case, Angela’s Mixtape is more of a memory
How did you go about casting
Eisa Davis: We worked with Paul Davis, a casting agent, and we
wanted to make sure that people who had worked on the readings and workshops were considered for parts in the New York production. We also
wanted to be sure that people would be available to work with us for seven weeks for not a lot of money. (Laughing)
There is a reference to Alma
Powell, the wife of former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in Angela’s Mixtape. How did their
daughter, Linda Powell, come to be in this production?
Eisa Davis: That reference was written in before we cast Linda
Powell in the production. Alma Powell’s family and my mother’s family knew each other from Birmingham, Alabama. Linda came to be in the
current production after being in one of our workshops.
Did you have the same type of
uneasy relationship with your mother as your character in Angela’s Mixtape?
Eisa Davis: Yes,
there was time where we really weren’t talking to each other. But like in the play, we got past that. We are now very close. Even though there
was lots of angst, we always loved and respected each other.
In Angela’s Mixtape, your mother has her own spiritual quest that is threaded
throughout the production. Could you talk about that?
Eisa Davis: Spirituality has always been a big part of my
mother’s life. It is also one in the same with work she has done in the world for over 30 years as a civil rights attorney. She has tried to
find a way to integrate indigenous forms of conflict resolution and move away from adversarial justice to restorative justice. That is in line
with her spiritual life and finds expression in her work.
Where are you performing
Angela’s Mixtape next and what’s next for Eisa Davis?
Eisa Davis: We don’t have any plans to perform this work after
the 2009 Hip-Hop Festival. But, in this business you never know. Once we close on May 2, I will be working with Liesel Tommy on a playwriting
project in West Virginia.
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com