AAPEX Interview: Dr. Mary Weems — AAPEX Interview , Dr. Mary Weems — AAPEX

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

AAPEX Interview: Dr. Mary Weems

Dr. Mary Weems

One of the most compelling scripts to come across my desk in recent months is a play called MEAT by Dr. Mary Weems , Assistant Professor in the Department of Education and Allied Studies at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio.

MEAT, which received a reading at this year's National Black Theatre Festival, deals with the career of Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell who, over a three year period, claimed the lives of 11 women. The victims are evoked by a trio of women who reference the three witches in MACBETH, and the play's structure is intense and visceral.

On another note, Weems is also the author of AT LAST, a revue of monologues and songs recalling the lives of such American legends as Zora Neal Hurston, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Bessie Smith and others.

I asked Dr. Weems to tell us something about herself and her work and this is what she has to say:

What role did theatre and the arts play in your childhood and upbringing?
I first experienced plays as a reader. I only went to see live plays (for the most part at Karamu) when we went on a field trip at whatever school I was attending until I became an adult, but the arts have always been part of my life. I grew up po’ during segregation (then integration) and living in all Black neighborhoods back then meant visual art, live music, song and dance was part of what was happening—since we all had to live together this included artists, many who probably worked in the Black clubs, restaurants, and bars not far from where we lived. My grandfather used to belong to a band and played guitar, my grandmother and mother loved to draw, various relatives sang in the choir etc. Also, visits to the Cleveland Museum of Art were free.
Tell us about your own evolution as an artist.
I started writing in a Black and White composition notebook I kept in an Amazon puzzle box my grandmother gave me when I was thirteen to overcome low self-esteem and to get to know myself. For most of my young life I didn’t share what I wrote with anyone but my grandmother who used to tell me she didn’t understand it but knew it was good. This lack of exposure, study, guidance, etc. meant my work didn’t grow. When I was in my early 30s, I left a lower level corporate position when the company I’d worked for almost thirteen years reorganized, and got serious about college. I took a class with a native Irish poet and something in the vibe between us encouraged me to show her some of my poems. The following week she kept me in her office for over an hour discussing my work, pointing out that I had my own poetic voice and asking “Now what are you going to do with it?” This question led to a re-assessment of my life goals. I was on my way to law school, but when I considered the possibility of actually doing what I love (writing, performing, teaching) for a living I shifted gears and pursued a Masters in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing, followed by a Ph.D. in Education. My work began to grow as soon as I added the additional layers of pertinent college classes, workshops, editing, open mike readings in the community and publication to the extensive reading and writing I’d been doing almost twenty years by then. In terms of evolution much of my published and/or performed work has been as a poet and/or artist-scholar, but I think my recent work as a playwright reflects the most growth I’ve had in a relatively short period of time in my career. In terms of people I’ve worked with, I’d like to thank fellow playwright Sandra Perlman, the only instructor I had in this genre, my friend and favorite director Tony Sias, MFA, the Director of Theatre and Fine Arts for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Michael Oatman for encouraging me to get my plays out into the world and Black Poetic. Beyond what I’ve learned and continue to learn from each of them, don’t ask me to articulate the ‘why’ of this evolution, I have no idea—I just pray it keeps coming.
As a playwright, you tackle some pretty tough subjects in such plays as MEAT and DUNKING. Why do you go to these dark and disturbing places?
I don’t intentionally go anyplace. Places, personal experiences, incidents, tragedies, moments, lines take me and my job is to get what’s coming through me down on the page as quickly as possible. When I’m inspired to write I feel as if I’m filling up with words. What I write about usually involves the human condition or what happens to me and others I encounter or imagine between birth and goodbye and there’s usually a sense of the complexity involved in living day-to-day, which always includes drama of some kind. When you’ve lived through decades as an adult language artist, you have a lot to draw from in terms of both knowledge and experience, and I’ve always been most interested in writing about things that have some kind of social, cultural and/or political bent. Beyond that writing is a more spiritual, organic process for me.
What is your take on Cleveland as a theatre town?
I think regional, local and community theatres here are accomplishing small miracles given the economy and the declining audience for live theater nationally. As someone who thinks giving local artists places to do their work should be part of each theatre’s game plan, I’m especially excited by the Cleveland Public Theatre’s Ingenuity Festival, the Cleveland Playhouse’s FusionFest, Dobama Theatre's GYM, and Terrence Spivey, Artistic Director of Karamu’s commitment to featuring the work of local playwrights and other artists. Cleveland’s blessed to have a committed theatre community including (not trying to leave anyone out) The Beck Center, and the Ensemble and East Cleveland Theatres.

Interview by Jaz Dorsey.

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