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THE POWER OF A NAME

 

picture - Eisa Angela DavisTheater Interview

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 of talent.

 

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 aunt.

 

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 mean?

 

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 life.

 

picture - Angela's MixtapeHow 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 Mixtape?

 

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?

 

picture - Angela's MixtapeEisa 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 play.

 

How did you go about casting this piece?

 

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.

 

picture - Angela's MixtapeIn 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

 

 
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