"In Her Words": Q&A with Khadijah Ali-Coleman
Q: “In Her Words,” is a theatrical musical presentation celebrating the lives of five inspirational African American women; Lucille Clifton, Zora Neale Hurston, Lena Horne, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, from each woman’s perspective and in their own words through original poems, songs, and interviews. What inspired you to create this piece?
A: I was inspired one evening last year as I was driving home and an interview came on 89.3 WPFW that I had never heard before. It was a Pacifica radio interview with Lena Horne from the 60's where she was talking about her life before she became a movie star and renowned entertainer. I was totally engrossed, so much so that I parked in my driveway in front of my house and listened to the interview in its entirety before getting out. Lena Horne's story was one I had no idea about. I knew of her as the jazz singer and all, but her story, her own struggles with racism, a father who was a numbers runner and her confrontation with racism in our country was totally out of my field of knowledge. I was enraptured. That night, I spent time researching and reading more about her and from her story, I was inspired to dig deeper in the lives of other great creatives I admired who were no longer with us. From there, I read the autobiography of Nina Simone, essays from Zora Neale Hurston and poems by Lucille Clifton in succession, spending weeks just reading and reflecting. During this time, I was taking my daughter to the library every day after school and, so, while she was doing her homework and then going off to use a computer, I was researching and reading until the library literally closed. These women served as muses for this piece that is in tribute to them.
Q: What information did you know about these historical figures before you began to put this production together?
A: I always loved certain songs by Nina Simone, but the depth of her activism through song was not something I knew firsthand. Finding interviews with her and reading her autobiography were so enlightening and gave me such a broader sense of understanding about who she was as a person, not just an artist. Zora Neale Hurston's fiction books are staples for any student like me who has an undergraduate degree in African-American Studies, but her essays that are in her voice and reflect her own personal, and unapologetic views are such eye-opening looks into who she was, during a time when such heinous things were taking place against black people.
In regards to Lucille Clifton, I knew very little about her life, but loved her poetry. Learning about her history and how she lived only a short distance from me before she died recently made her seem accessible and living again to me, really. In the production, she is one of the main characters who actually is the one who takes the audience through history to meet the other women and her voice, a more contemporary one, is the one that resonated with me the loudest when writing and constructing this piece.
Q: Did anything in your research surprise or shock you about any of them?
A: I don't know if I was shocked, but I was definitely surprised to find the little tidbits I did, like the reason Billie Holiday wrote "God Bless the Child" and the story behind her hit "Strange Fruit". I didn't know that Lena Horne was blacklisted either during McCarthyism.
Q: Which woman do you feel you can relate to the most? Why?
A: Lucille Clifton and Nina Simone stand out for me the most as idols and what they did through their art, but, all of the women are inspiring.
Q: With Black History Month approaching, why is it important that stories such as this one be told?
It's important that people know, not just during Black History Month, that the lives of Black people in the US are representative of the resiliency of humanity. Black people have continued to live through laws that demanded that we are not human and should not be treated as human. We've survived a legacy of lynching, of slavery and heinous injustice that is evidenced in our prison statistics and communities of disenfranchisement. But, through such ugly, beauty has always existed and thrived through our use of the arts and the stories we have been able to pass on to our children. I think that as a collective-- not just a Black community, but a human collective, we can find understanding about what is most important and begin to heal our society when we take a look at this country's treatment of Black people and the diverse ways that we have managed to survive despite inequality.
Q: These women used their art to address the political and social issues of their time; do you think that African American artists of today still do that?
A: Yes. I think there are many African-American artists today who use their art for the greater good, but, unfortunately, many of those artists are not financially backed to bring their messages to larger audiences and counter the barrage of images and messages that keep us trained to behave as consumers and not thinkers or change agents. Locally, there are numerous Black artists who are addressing social issues through their art; Maimouna Youssef, Asheru, Sonya Renee, The Saartjie Project, the list is extensive.
Q: What do you hope the audience will take away from “In Her Words?”
A: I just want folks to see the dimension of these women. They weren't just celebrities. They had vision, ideas and stories that were very similar to the lives many of us live. I hope it is not lost on the audience either that these women existed during times of significant unrest in our country as well. Finally, I look forward to the audience's reaction to the women who are playing the main characters-- Quineice, Anisha Newbill, Colie Williams, Naomi Rose and Tracy McGhee. My cast is an incredible group of performers that will literally stun the audience.
Q: Congratulations on being recognized this year as one of The Forty Under 40 Prince George’s County Arts & Humanities honorees. How does it feel being recognized in the first class of talented individuals on the list?
A: Thank you! It feels great to be recognized and honored for doing something I love. It means so much and I am grateful to even be recognized with so many other talented folks.
Q: Do you have any other projects in the works right now?
I recently produced my play "Running: AMOK" last year and I'm getting requests to run the play again, which makes me smile. I am working on another play that I hope to debut as a reading this year in the DC Black Theater Fest and hopefully get backing to produce a full production in 2013. I promise my spouse and daughter every year I'm going to rest and stay still, but, since 2008, it hasn't happened yet.
"In Her Words" opens this Saturday February 4 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Learn more about the production here.
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