The 24th Annual Seabury Quinn, Jr. Playwrights’ Festival is almost here! The featured, Thesis Productions of our Third Year MFA Playwrights debut this weekend in Kantner Hall on the Elizabeth Evans Baker Stage. To celebrate the opening of the featured productions, and leading up to the festival staged readings on the 26th, 27th, and 28th, we will be featuring daily interviews with the current playwrights about their work.
Third Year MFA Philana Imade Omorotionmwan (pictured below!) was interviewed by First Year MFA Jordan Ramirez Puckett about her play, The Defiance of Dandelions.
Jordan Ramirez Puckett: What inspired you to write The Defiance of Dandelions?
Philana Imade Omorotionmwan: A lot of different things. Prior to grad school, I spent several years working in secondary education. I came to feel that a lot of the practices in the public system were designed to break students (and prepare them for prison) rather than empower them. So I applied to grad school knowing that I wanted to write one of my plays about what I saw. Initially, I intended to write a play about a black boy at three different ages (a la Albee’s Three Tall Women) as he moves through the school-to-prison pipeline. However, the acting pool here couldn’t accommodate that. Around the time my ideas for a thesis were taking shape, Moonlight came out. The film did three ages so well that I knew whatever I came up with wouldn’t be very good in comparison. Shortly thereafter, I attended a talk by Dr. Akil Houston in which he said that the way to get justice for everyone is to center people at the margins. Because we live in a patriarchal society, black girls and women are often ignored in conversations about the systemic problems in this country. Once I began to focus on the experiences of black girls specifically, the research I found discussed the way gender intersects with race to impact decisions about discipline. (Black girls are 5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white girls. In comparison, black boys are 3 times more likely than white boys.) All of this combined with an interest I had in having a space in which a significant number of the black women in the department could share a rehearsal process and stage together. And now, here we are.
Jordan: The Defiance of Dandelions is full of beautiful and poetic imagery. What draws you to write this story for the stage as opposed to another medium?
Philana: First, thank you for saying that. Now as for what draws me other than being in an MFA Playwriting program… Well, there’s what Lorca said — “A play is a poem standing up.” So I suppose I chose the stage because this story felt like it needed to stand up and be embodied. In addition to that, as I wrote, I figured out that one of the final images of the play is something that can only happen onstage. Or rather it was something that I wanted to see happen onstage.
Jordan: Each character in The Defiance of Dandelions has a movement that is specific to them. Is that something that you dictated in the script or did the director and actors discover the movement in the rehearsal?
Philana: I indicated in the script that I wanted each character to have her own phrase of movement. However, I’m not a dancer (nothing from my ballet classes stuck), so I’m extremely grateful that everyone was willing to go on this journey and figure out movement (and a lot of other things) together. The actors developed the specific movements, as well as all of the other movement that happens in the play, in conversation with one another and the director during rehearsals. Rebecca has also gone in to work with them in some of the rehearsals.
Jordan: Is there one thing that you hope the audience walks away feeling at the end of your play?
Philana: Yes! Thank you for asking me what I want them to feel, as opposed to what I want them to think. I want the audience to walk away feeling two things simultaneously: really happy and really sad. I’m sure there’s a more poetic way to say that, but I’m going to keep it simple.
Jordan: What kind of art excites you? Is there something you’d like to see more of on stage?
Philana: I like work that’s interdisciplinary and blurs the lines between genres (of theatre, dance, music, poetry, and so on). I just read …And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi by Marcus Gardley for the first time, and now I really want to see a production. The script begins with Lorca’s “A play is a poem standing up” as an epigraph. The images that Gardley creates are so strikingly beautiful and interesting and poetic and can only happen onstage. One of the characters takes the moon down from the sky and puts it on as her hat. Another describes the way she’s looked at by someone as “her eyes walked into my eyes.” I want to see (and figure out how to write) plays like that.
Jordan: Is there one lesson that you will take away from your time at Ohio University after graduation?
Philana: About grad school, playwriting, or life? I suppose a lesson that applies to all of them is the Audre Lorde quote the characters in my play repeat — to be “deliberate and afraid of nothing.” And no one.
Philana Imade Omorotionmwan (o-more-o-tune-wha) is originally from Baton Rouge, LA and completed a BA in English at Stanford University. Her writing frequently considers how the processes by which we are “othered” can often lead to our bodies feeling like prisons. Her plays include Before Evening Comes (Relentless Award Semifinalist, Princess Grace Finalist, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Br!nk New Play Festival, La MaMa Experiments Series), Fireflies (TDPS New Play Reading Series, Tantrum Rising Voices Series, Women Works Runner-Up), and Strong Face (Athena Project Festival, Scratchpad Series Finalist, KCACTF Region II NPAT Finalist, Landing Theatre NAV Finalist). Philana has been a two-time finalist for the Heideman Award (“Fireflies” and “Dis Da Hood”), and her produced short plays include “The Settlement” (Ensemble Studio Theatre), “Black Boys Don’t Dance” (Manhattan Theatre Source), and “Mama Moon” (20% Theatre Company Chicago). When she isn’t writing, Philana enjoys biking, practicing yoga, and perfecting her RBF. philanaplays.weebly.com
The Defiance of Dandelions
by Philana Imade Omorotionmwan, directed by Jeanette L. Buck
8:00 pm – April 19th, 21st & 27th, Elizabeth Baker Theater, Kantner Hall
Do not speak too loudly or too little or too much.
Do not get out of the place you’ve been assigned.
Do not give birth to a meadow of dandelions.
For as long as they can remember, The Strongness, The Queerness, The Boisterousness, The Brazenness, The Thickness, and The Softness have been trapped in the In-School Shading Room. While they wait for a release that seems like it may never come, a bouquet is born and they begin to remember the selves and the world that they forgot.
Tickets for the Featured Productions are $5 general admission or FREE for OU Students (with valid student ID) through Arts for Ohio; available at the Templeton–Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium box office.