MARY WEEMS – Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud

Marie-Léontine Tsibinda Bilombo

MARY WEEMS – Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud

Dr Mary Weems was born on the East side of Cleveland, during segregation and was from a poor, working class background. Her Mama got pregnant when she was 16, had her right after she turned 17 and by the time, she was 21, had her brother and two sisters. As the oldest, Mary Weems was often left at home with her siblings which helped her become independent at an early age. Today, she is a great playwright. Crack the Door for Some Air, her latest play was directed by India Burton on february 11, 2021. In her play, all of the relationships between the characters are strong and supportive. Mary Weems is also the author of Blackeyed: Plays and Monologues.

Do you think that writing, painting, basket-balling, leading or other skills begin at home?

I think everyone is born with God-given gifts to do one or more things better than most. Some realize this and pursue whatever it is as their life’s work, others get caught up in the crucial importance of earning a living for their families and put their gifts on a forever backburner. Several people in my family, including my mother who is an amazing visual artist and once wrote poetry too, fall into that category, but thanks in part to my late grandmother Mary Isabel Lacy, I’m not one of them. She always encouraged me to write, would read and praise my poems beginning at the age of thirteen when I wrote my first poem titled “Death,” and she would always send me to the huge dictionary she kept in the dining room, when I asked her what a word meant.

While a child, did you know that one day, you’ll be writing plays? When do you realize that that was what you really want to do?

No. I didn’t write my first play until I took the ‘only’ playwriting course I’ve ever taken with Sandra Perlman at Cleveland State. I recall vividly telling her I would never write another play once I wrote the required one for my final in her class. Since she later became my mentor and friend, we often laugh about this since, to date I’ve written more plays than I can recall without looking at them.

You’ve written and directed so many plays! But “Crack the Door for Some Air” looks special: a tragedy you build on a true story during pandemic panic in America. Is this wright?

While I have on occasion ‘directed’ plays, it’s not something I enjoy doing, but I have written a lot of plays and “Crack the Door for some Air” is especially important to me because when a Black man is killed by police it gets lots of media attention, public outrage, etc. but the same is not true when a Black woman is killed. What upset me so much about what happened to Atatiana Jefferson is that her only ‘crime’ was leaving the front door to her house open. Something my grandmother used to do all the time, something I learned from her to do all the time, to let fresh air in the house. Her Black male neighbor noticed this and trying to help, called the non-emergency number of the po-lice department, resulting in her being shot through the back ‘window’ of her home while she was playing video games with her nephew. Later the po-lice officer whose body camera revealed what really happened, claimed he shot because he felt ‘threatened.’ Jefferson’s murder coupled with the killing of Breanna Taylor and others inspired this piece, but the bulk of the story is a figment of my imagination. My intent was to create an amazing life, filled with family, hope and love, tragically cut short on a bullshit humble by a racist po-lice officer.

How did you choose your actors for the reading of the play?

I didn’t. Casting is the director’s job and once I chose India Burton, she took over and cast the piece with the exception of Nina Domingue who played Tamara—I’d sent her the script intending to offer her the director’s role, but once she read it, she wanted the lead.

Family among other subjects is a profound question: how can you explain Mama and Tamara’s love? Is Mama the rock of the family despite the fact that her cancer is causing a great despair in the family?

I was raised in a family of matriarchs. My grandmother had 7 sisters and three brothers and the women almost without exception ran the house. Loving and supporting our mother’s is part of our DNA and our entire branch of the family definitely grew farther apart when we lost my grandmother in 1988. I think about her every day—she was my rock. No, the men were present, they just didn’t run the house.

How would you explain the place of memories, when you speak of Tamara and Mummy’s boxes?

Objects are an integral part of my work. “Things” we choose to keep tell bits and pieces of the stories of our lives. It’s true about me, and most people I know.

Are the family secrets a burden or a way to protect the beloved ones : for instance the life of Mummy’s mother is not known till the day that Mummy, by accident, discovers that his mother was not dead.

I think both. Most families have them, and I’ve never seen anything good come out of having them revealed ‘unless’ it has something to do with incest, rape, etc.

It was such a shock that Mummy decides to run away from home and unfortunately is kidnapped!

Remember, he at first, wanted to run away from home, then his girlfriend Kayla convinces him not to. This is not how I originally wrote this part. At first, I had Mummy call Kayla, ask her to contact B-Roll about joining the D-Dogs and she did. But my mentee Ashley Aquilla, another director I’ve worked with and my original choice for this play before I considered Nina, told me Mummy was too smart and had too much to look forward to, to join the D-Dogs. Plus, his dad would have whooped his butt. I agreed and changed it to what you witnessed.

Can we think that HABO and Jeff’s friendship is a great story of fidelity?

Yes, we can. Jeff started HABO because he met brother outside of the grocery store he shops at and once he offered a helping hand their relationship began and grew stronger as time passed.

What does you teach us about youth and love in this play?

I recall my first time being in love. While I didn’t let mama, granny or other adults in my life know, it was a very serious, wonderful time in my young life and back then, no one could have convinced me that the boy wasn’t the person I was going to spend the rest of my life with. I hope the lesson interpreted here, is to encourage grown folks to get their young people to trust them enough to let them know what’s going on, rather than forbid something they ‘know’ is probably going to happen anyway.

Can we consider that race and age discrimination will remain a great debate in America?

Unfortunately, yes. Until at least the majority of us can get real about racism, ageism, etc. and oppression and begin to have the kind of open, honest conversations which will eventually (with a lot of focus and hard work) lead to real change. We’re doomed. Plays and all other artistic mediums are a wonderful way to potentially get these conversations started.

How can we understand the existence of violent gangs and members such as D-Dogs and B-Roll?

I compare gangs to fraternities/sororities. Except frats and sorors are legal and accepted. Most people need to feel they belong to something that cares about them. Something they can depend on in times of strife/need. Gangs are especially important to people with a low opinion of themselves, without one or both parents in their lives, young people who feel abandoned. I think gangs target young folks like this and prey on their need to belong.

What do you think of “Thomas Jefferson is not a hero. Time to change our name” in the mouth of a child?

Some of our children are taught our history beginning at a young age. Since Mama was an activist long before Mummy (named after Mumia Abu Jamal, one of my heroes, by the way) was born, it makes sense that he would know the real story of Jefferson.

Can you give us some examples of activists who change America and lead to great opportunities in America and their impact on people today?

I can’t speak for how other people have been impacted by the activists I admire, but to name a few who I consider important: James Brown: James Brown was always outspoken about racism and proud to be Black and his music and the way he lived his life reflected that pride. His song “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” which came out during a time when being called “Black” was considered an insult, changed the way I saw myself from Colored/Negro to “Black and Proud,” something I still feel and live today. Ida B. Wells: Black Journalist, and women’s rights activist who lived during the suffragist movement, offered to organize Black women to march ‘with’ Susan B. Anthony, but when Anthony told her Black women would have to march behind the white women, Wells refused. Wells also, wrote passionately against racism and for Women’s Rights. Malcolm X: As noted in his Autobiography, Malcolm X started his adult life as a street hustler, but a stint in jail where he educated himself about the Black experience and his conversion to Islam changed his outlook on life. During a time when Black people were being treated horribly (like now too but worse) he said we should fight for our freedom for oppression “By Any Means Necessary.”

Can we imagine that the title “Crack the Door for Some Air” is a call for liberty?

Yes! You can. Like all of my work, once I share it with the public, I’m open to any and all reasonable interpretations and Lord knows the door of opportunity needs to be cracked open in this country the ‘freeing air’ to make room for people to escape systemic racism and oppression and pursue a better day/life.

Do you think that God and music are important forces to escape from despair in African American’s families?

Absolutely. Not sure where I’d be without Black music. One life changing song which immediately comes to mind is James’ Brown’s “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” I was in high school when that song came out and I remember when calling someone “Black” was considered an insult. After that song came out, it was immediately followed by “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and the rest is history.

Speaking of music, why do you, in the play choose to speak of Aretha Franklin (Respect), instead of Nina Simone or Mahalia Jackson’s music?

It wasn’t a conscious choice. Writing is a spiritual process for me. I wrote what came.

Is suicide a sad loss family faces in American’s families?

Yes. My only, my daughter Michelle Elise Weems (33), was bi-polar and homeless (her choice) when she went behind the Dave’s Supermarket not far from the Homeless Shelter she was staying in on January 3, 2017 and put a revolver to her head…taking her life. She carried no ID but she had our house phone number in her pocket.

Do you have a wish for humanity in these terrible times?

Yes. My one wish is for everybody to begin to follow the Golden Rule with empathy and love. Just treat everyone the way you’d like to be treated. The whole world will become light.

Propos recueillis par Marie-Léontine Tsibinda Bilombo