"Attending a school of competitive artists puts quite a strain on unity. We’re always competing and comparing our talents, and sometimes we lose sight of what unity really means.
I realize that even in my small class of 59, I barely communicate with all my classmates. We seem to exist in the same space, frequent the same hallways and classrooms, but share no real connection.
But in the spirit of the recent presidential inauguration, we all came together. Literally. After a bit of technical difficulty, the entire school gathered in the theater to witness Barack Obama become our 44th president.
Students at the Alabama School of Fine Arts are diverse in many ways: political standpoints, ethnicity, religion and family backgrounds. But we all were Americans as we quietly watched in amazement as the declarations of American equality manifested themselves for the first time in many of lives.
I think this election was so monumental to my classmates because it represented their first votes. Their votes helped elect America’s first black president. Watching the interest that students took in government was an empowering experience.
When we all dispersed into our various classes, back into the seclusion of own lives, our unity lingered. Whether it was new friendships forged during those three hours or shared dreams of our future democracy, we all left the theater as one."
Eight years ago, I wrote the above article and published it in The Birmingham News. In eight years, a lot has changed, including my long-term memory, but when I close my eyes, I can see myself sitting in that auditorium, as if it happened yesterday. Our entire school gathered in the auditorium, and even then, I knew the importance of this inauguration. Still, I don’t think I realized the impact it would have on me and all of my classmates eight years later.
The reason people were devastated and in some of your opinions, “dramatic” about the most recent election is because of what the election of Barack Obama meant at the time. Eight years ago, we were in a recession. Even at 17 years old, I knew we were struggling. Gas prices had risen so much, people were walking to work in Birmingham, a city that advertises for car sales as much as Los Angeles.
Groceries stores that sold decently fresh produce were closing, creating food deserts in their wakes. And to be honest, the millennials who don’t care about anything were shaped by an environment whose government seemed not to care about them. We read Harry Potter books to escape from foreclosed houses, broken families and systematic racism that was sneaky enough to be undetected but deadly enough to still be felt.
When we watched a man who ran his campaign on hope; the audacity to change your circumstances; and standing with each other despite differences in opinion, we could kind of relate. We were reading fantasy novels about people who were divided based off their talents uniting to destroy evil. That’s a corny comparison, but were we not? We watched reality shows that found singing gems in corn patches; young hoodlums being saved by gracious families in the O.C.; and, raise your hand if you can’t help but think of Jimmy every time Drake gets in his feelings. Everything we consumed prepared us for a world where Barack Obama could succeed. Those of us that were already 18 lined up at the polls like Bath and Body works was having a sale. Those who weren’t watched in envy, but we were all rooting for our real-life Harry to take the office and make some difference.
Obama’s campaign was Yes We Can, and yes he did. Say what you want, but we’ve come a long way in the past eight years. Entertainers are going to the White House, incorporating causes in their work. The trend is to be “woke” and work in the community rather than just tweet about things that piss you off. The list of my friends that are getting engaged and married before me is finally inclusive to those that are LGBTQ!
To keep this short and sweet, when I re-read the article I wrote when President Obama was first elected, I smiled at the hope that seeped through each line. Little E.Wade didn’t know that she would witness not only one, but two terms of the greatest U.S. President she’d ever seen. A president that would go on talk shows to show his humanity. A president that was hilarious, and didn’t mind making jokes about himself. A president that would work for the black community, even though we openly doubted him as much as non-minorities, and one that would preside with grace and dignity even if the people he vowed to protect and serve didn’t reciprocate.
Thank you, President Obama. Thank you for all you have done, and for all you will continue to do. Thank you for providing an America I actually want to fight for. Thank you for allowing me to wrap my fingers around the American Dream for the first time in my life.
I want to repay you by doing more than reminiscing on your legacy, and upholding it no matter who your successor is. You have vowed to not give up when you step down, and I won’t either. I will have the audacity to hope, and the will to change so my children can know making a difference involves just as much emotion as it does action. There is still much work that needs to be done, so now is not the time to become complacent in the future that’s ahead of us.
I’m not saying farewell yet. I’m saying, good looking out. We got it from here.
What’s happening to Leslie Jones is not an isolated incident. It’s a brutal attack on a time she should be celebrating. She broke through. Her hard work is being acknowledged by more than the industry, but by the general public now. I love Leslie Jones. Now just because she’s going through hell now, but because I respect her work, and more importantly, because I know how she’ll respond.
These childish attacks are not new. It’s not just because she’s black. Oh, no. It’s also because she’s a woman. Black women have been trying to open the door to our struggles for ages, but maybe now that people will listen. It’s not enough to be a reminder of regret, of intimidation, of resentment--the black woman also the target of repressed energy from men across the board.
I’m so happy celebrities are calling this what it is. Leslie Jones starred in a retelling of a cult classic. Let’s be honest about why she’s being targeted from the entire cast of phenomenal and outspoken women: she not only happened to be a woman, but happened to be a black woman. So, it was ok to call her disgusting names--she can take it. It was ok to criticize her ability and talent--she’s used to that. And, it was definitely ok to expose her body--that’s all black women are good for, anyway.
Even with all of this negativity surrounded her, I know Leslie will rise. She will create. She will be unstoppable, and furthermore, she will not stoop to the level of those cowardly nerds who love to attack things that go against the grain. Let me break it to you: being a nerd with a valued opinion is going against the grain. Y’all need to grow up, and learn to accept an entertainment industry that is trying to embrace representation of the culture it reflects. Just because you “can” express your feelings, doesn’t mean you should. Especially if you’re a racist, sexist, idiot.
I love you Leslie. You are strong. That’s not the point. You shouldn’t have to be. You should be allowed to be vulnerable, and to be excited about your successful year. If it helps, you can always lean on me. In spirit, I follow you. I push a little harder. I believe on the behalf of black women in comedy, because you’re out there hustlin’, gettin’ it.
Take your time before you come back to public eye. We got you, Queen.
I allow myself a good cry, at least once a month. Before you judge—hear me out. All at once, I have to juggle being a strong support system for my family and friends, a very vocal do-gooder, relentless creator, and a sensitive human being who wants to hug it out every now and then. It’s cool to put up a front that we don’t get discouraged and stressed out, but anyone who has ever pursued a creative career knows the rollercoaster your life can be until you “make it.” Unfortunately, we teach ourselves to be so down with life-on-the go that stress can be a celebratory marker of successfulness. Have you ever been told, “you know you’ve made it when you’re grey by 30?” Well, maybe not exactly like that, but I’m sure you’ve encountered people who instead of telling you to be emotional about situations, say have faith. Yes. I know that. I know I have tremendous faith that I was created to do incredible things. I’ve been writing for 12 years, and I’m only 25. That means I committed to this career in the 8th grade. I was an intense ass 8th grader; I know. Still, I’m glad I found something I was really good at, made me happy, and could turn into a career at such a young age.
If this was you too, you’ve also experienced an embarrassing mountain of rejection. Les’ be honest: I was a shitty writer in the 8th grade. So bad, in fact, that when I was accepted into fine arts high school for creative writing, I had to pretty much start from the bottom. The very bottom. I didn’t know proper grammar or sentence structure. Most of my peer critiques—yes, we had writer’s workshops in high school—focused on how many run-ons, made up words, and incomplete thoughts riddled a 10-page story. By the time my classmates got to the content, well, I couldn’t hear anything else. I just wanted to cry. That’s exactly what I did. I went home and I cried to my mother. She listened, patiently, but she also taught me the best lesson as a writer: you wanted this, so figure out a way to prove you can do it.
Eventually, I stopped crying and bucked up. I checked out every manual of style, every canonized ole fart, and every self-help book on taking criticism I could find in the school library. I read them all in a week. Went back, and did that until I could identify what was wrong with my composition and how to fix it. Then, I became any other know-it-all high school writer. I wrote beautiful, but empty prose. My poetry was correct form, but had no spirit. I made it through critiques, but that’s just it: I made it through them. No one remembered my style, because it could’ve been anyone’s. I’d just copied it from cummings, or Plath. I even copied Virginia Wolfe. Now, what in the world did I have in common with Virginia Wolfe? Not a thing. I hated everything I wrote, and if you ask to see any of my work from that period, I’ll side-eye you to filth.
What did you do, Erika? How did you fix it? I’m glad you asked. I revisited my mother’s words. You wanted this, so prove you can do it. She wasn’t telling me to prove I could imitate other people—that would come in handy when I got into comedy. She was telling me to prove I could do it. Me. The girl who came from a hometown that now has under $900 in their bank account. The girl who came from a family that couldn’t afford creative careers, but worked hard so I could be the one to break out. I changed what I was reading. Why couldn’t Zora Neale Hurston, Kevin Young, Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton be my canon? Why couldn’t I make up words? Why couldn’t I run the world and cry at the same time? I could. No one was going to stop me. I might be little, but if you know me, you know I’m scrappy.
That’s when I started hustlin’. No, good liberals, I don’t mean conning people out of money. I mean working twice as hard as everyone else so I could do things my way. Hustlin’ meant learning the rules, figuring out why I wanted to break them, and breaking them well. It’s not enough to stand out. If your writing is soulless, you won’t move anyone. Move them to passion. Move them to anger. Move them to sexiness. Move them to laughter. Move them somewhere, and one day, they’ll move you into their own personal canon.
I hustled until senior year, I was the one to watch. When I spoke in critiques, I had all the power and the sass to make people cry. I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t indulge, at first. But, I did think about those days I went home broken-spirited and hopeless. Two things you can’t be if you want to work in this industry. If your spirit is broken, you’ll try to fix yourself until you don’t have a voice. If you’re hopeless, you’ll give up. We can’t do either of those things. Not today. The world needs creators. They need to see people make light out of the dark. So if you feel like you’re down, don’t stay there. Hustle.
I hustled my way through undergrad, and when I decided to write things that were meant to be performed, I hustled my way through grad school. If I thought that last hustle was hard, boy did I underestimate the “big move” to LA. I had such high hopes. I knew I’d been working hard most of my life to get here. I knew I had the chops, and could take criticism with a smile and a good comeback. I did not know, you ain’t a hustler if you’ve never lost a game. I’ll say that again. You ain’t a hustler if you’ve never lost a game.
Yeah. I’ve had a great deal of rejection, but I thought that was all in the past. Surely, everyone wants to hire me, with my shiny MFA and my rags to…better rags story. They will. In time. But today, I cried it out. I’ve been stressing, and fell back in that “never let ‘em see you sweat” mentality. Chile, people sweat. If they don’t, they die. The key is to never let ‘em see you stop moving. If you sweat, or cry, keep it movin’. Keep hustlin’. Change your approach. Be patient. Like I said, it took 12 years for me to become the writer I am today. It might take a few more for other people to see that writer. Even though I allow myself those monthly cries, I’m not sad. Not at all. I’m human. I know myself. I’m the best hustler when I’ve gotten all negativity out of my way.
If you’re like me, it’s probably time for you to pull up that emo iTunes playlist and have yourself a little ugly cry. Get it all out. When you’re done, get back to the hustle. If you need a reminder of your inner hustler, holla at ya girl.
Write Your Feelings
"Writing my feelings didn’t just help me heal; it helped me add my voice to issues that affected people who typically don’t get a chance at the mic."
Post from 31 Plays in 31 Days
2016 has been a rough year—and it’s just August. As a carefree black girl and conscious writer, I’ve had to channel a lot of conflicted feelings into creativity. Police shootings, skirting the myth of the angry black woman, and annoying people that try and pet my fro are not the ideal sources of inspiration, but what do you do when your muse wants to fight the power?
Let’s be clear—this is not one of those blog posts intended to make white people uncomfortable. It will, however charge artists to create work that is not easy, but will change lives. This is about my process of translating my frustration into action.
Writers are often told to use the craft to heal. We all know that binge writing after a breakup or a major trauma helps lighten the emotional load. Most of that writing is stored in a dark, dark place under our mattresses until we can muster up the courage to look at it again. Here’s the question: when do you decide to show it to other people? How soon is too soon to revise and rework until the piece is ready for others to read, or even perform?
I was told it’s better to wait than to release material I’m too emotionally attached to. I took this to heart, waiting years before I released hate poems I wrote for high school boyfriends, before I shared a short story about a little girl who called stray bullets “monsters,” and before I performed a semi-autobiographical solo show about taking the blows life deals and turning them into wins for your future. Do you see a theme, here? Still, writing my feelings didn’t just help me heal; it helped me add my voice to issues that affected people who typically don’t get a chance at the mic.
Ok. So, you looked at that monologue, and you decided to turn it into a brilliant play. How the hell do you pitch this play as something other people want to read or see on the stage? First, remember you want people to see your message, so don’t alienate them from the story. Well, in the case of police brutality, I had to remind myself that the object is not to paint the picture of the evil police officer against the unarmed black child. That story is obvious. What is the most universal but emotionally poignant part of that story? To me, it was this: how are we supposed to get to the truth if one half of the story will never be told? When police shootings happen, it’s easy to point the fingers at victims, because you will never get a chance to hear their sides of the story. They are gone to us forever. They cannot control the way they are portrayed to strangers who were only introduced to their lives because of their deaths.
I felt hopeless, but I didn’t stay that way for long. I transformed those feelings into a play called Justifiable Force. I wrote a One Act play from the perspective of white police officer, charged with shooting an unarmed police officer. Why from his perspective? Because protagonist don’t always have to be crowd pleasers. The story needed to be told from the shooter’s perspective; therefore, when the decision of who was wrong and who was right was made, the audience felt just as conflicted and compelled to move as I did. Two years ago, in the very beginning of a MFA Dramatic Writing program, I wrote my feelings. Then, I did not know it would be a work that not only gave me the only little notoriety I have to date—a Kennedy Center MFA Playwrights Workshop Finalist—but that it would be a work that would haunt me until I got it right. It took me two years to realize that maybe the question wasn’t how soon should I wait before letting the play be seen by other people, but, how long would I fight for people to see the play.
This year, while participating in 31 Plays, I was motivated to start that fight again. What does this mean to me, two years later? What does it mean to the world two years later? My inspiration was Mike Brown, and two years later, there is Koryn Gaines, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling. The issue is still very relevant.
Writing is about 10% composition, 80% revision, and the last 10% can go to caffeine, rejection, eating ice cream for dinner, and writer’s workshops. It took two more years of frustration, two more years of social media posts, two more years of calls for gun reform, pictures of people who are no longer with us, and a lot of coming to grips with my own humanity to realize that play I wrote two years ago was just the frame for a larger project. And here we are. In the midst of a playwriting challenge, and I’m thinking about taking over the world, once again.
Writers don’t create worlds; we just interpret the world most people rush past in a way that causes them to stop. Don’t be afraid to create works that speak out on societal issues. Don’t be afraid to share works that came from difficult emotions. No one remembers writers that are afraid of causing trouble.
E.E. Wade is a 25 year old award-wining writer from Birmingham, Alabama.
Her works have been published in Hanging Loose Magazine of New York, Skirt magazine, Birmingham Arts Journal, and won the Birmingham Public Library’s Word-Up poetry slam for two consecutive years. Most recently, she was honored as a 2016 finalist for The Kennedy Center’s MFA Playwrights Workshop.
Her premier publication, eyestodewhulrd, was written during her senior year in high school. Since then, she has had numerous plays produced, and wrote, performed and produced a solo show for her MFA thesis at Savannah College of Art and Design.
Currently, she lives in Los Angeles, California, performing and pursuing a career as a television writer
Ice Age: Collision Course