Photo by Ross Zetner/ Bronzeville Arts Ensemble

Based on the shooting of a 10-year-old boy in 1973, “The Mojo and the Sayso” is a play about a family coping and coming together in the aftermath of a tragedy. The topic is as resonant today as it was when playwright Aishah Rahman first created the work in 1980. Two Wisconsin-based organizations have partnered to bring this play to Madison this week: Theatre LILA of Madison and Bronzeville Arts Ensemble of Milwaukee.

I had the chance to interview producer Malkia Stampley, who collaborated on The Mojo and the Sayso with director Jessica Lanius of Theatre LILA. She shares her insights as both a producer and an actor, on their message and what it means to give presence to this story on a local level for the greater, national conversation that Madison is a part of.

Jenie Gao: Tell me a little about Bronzeville Arts Ensemble.

Malkia Stampley: Bronzeville was founded in 2013. There were 8 of us who founded it when we saw a lack of representation of African Americans/people of color on the theatre scene in Milwaukee, which isn’t representative of the large population of people of color we have in this city. Most of us who’ve started Bronzeville have had successful careers elsewhere, so it was a chance to give back and also give a voice to the community.

JG: The Mojo and the Sayso is a play from the 80s by Aishah Rahman, based on the shooting of a 10-year-old boy in 1973. When did you first become familiar with the work? How did you come to collaborate with Theatre LILA on this?

Malkia Stampley
Malkia Stampley

MS: Jessica (Lanius) was the one who found the story, “The Mojo and the Sayso. It just seemed like the perfect time and perfect piece after Ferguson, the perfect chance for two companies to collaborate.

It wasn’t just the fact that this event happened. There are many other stories that deal with this subject matter as well. But what stood out to me about this piece is it was a chance for the audience to connect with the family’s experience. I think a lot of the time with this kind of work it can become political very quickly. It becomes about who was right and who was wrong. It becomes this chess match. But in this piece, it’s about the family and what they need to do to pick up the pieces. The boy who’s shot isn’t in the story; he’s in the backdrop of what this family needs to do, who are left behind to digest what has happened, to look at each other, look at your spouse, look at your remaining children, and figure out what you need to do together. It’s not simple, it’s not easy, it’s a process, and the focus on that is definitely what drew me to the story.

JG: What role do you believe the arts play in our culture?

The arts can be a mirror to what’s happening. I grew up doing musicals. I grew up doing “Anything Goes” and “Grease” and that’s a mirror to our culture as well, pop culture, fashion, style…But as I got older, I realized that that wasn’t enough for me. The kind of art that is showing you the problems, the issues, and the challenges that are facing our community, I feel like that kind of art is most important. Sometimes the problems aren’t so extreme. It’s, “Who am I as a woman? Where do I fit in as an African American?” These big questions, these broad strokes; art is a great way to ask those questions. What I love about theatre, music, and dance, is that when you step into a room, when you are the audience, you agree to listen. You can disagree, you can have your own opinion afterwards, but when you’re there, you agree to listen. It’s easy to interrupt or disrupt a panel discussion and many other platforms, and so that willingness to listen is one of the beauties of theatre that few other art forms have.

JG: What role do you believe the arts play for those who participate in them?

MS: We get a lot of questions from the audience, “What can I do?” And as an actor first, those of us who do it are asking a lot of the same questions. I think any of us, from the designers to the actors to the directors, we’re willing to step forward; our job is to be the vessel for the story. We can’t bring our own political baggage to this. We have to be true to the story. Being that vessel for this kind of story is such an honor. That’s probably the best way, as an artist, to participate in these kinds of stories.

JG: Who do you want to see this performance, and what do you want their takeaway to be?

MS: I want everyone to see this story. It’s not just for “White America” to be exposed to what African American families are going through. It’s not just for African American families either. It’s a national issue. And it’s a story that everyone needs to see. We’ve had a very diverse audience, Asian, Latino, black, white, all different types of people with different lives who’ve come and seen this story and could identify with one of the characters.

You get a glimpse of someone like Trayvon Martin’s mom in the news and you can form one opinion or another, but to see a story like this one is to see what everyday life is in the aftermath of this story. It’s equally important for those who are privileged, in any race, to see and acknowledge this story.

That’s a long way of saying, “Everybody.”

But to give you an example of another writer, August Wilson once said that his obligation was not to write for one community or another. His obligation was to write about the black experience for whoever was interested in listening, and I feel much the same way about this work.

JG: As I haven’t seen the play yet, I can only pull from what I’ve read online. Jim Beckman of News Tribune described it as “a mythological monster,” with the “head of a tragedy, the torso of a comedy, and the wings of a fantasy.” The reviews I’ve read in general focus on the play as a focus on one family’s way of coping with grief and the play is described as moving and inspirational.

That’s what I’ve read. You’re someone who’s worked on the production. In your words, how would you describe the tone of the play?

MS: Jessica mainly directed it. As the producer, I recognize that there’s definitely a backdrop of tragedy, knowing what happened. It does have a fantastical element. It’s very musical. One of the reviewers described it as a jazz piece, and I would agree with that. You’ve got these different performers using various devices to express and communicate with one another. In a way, they’re battling, but they’re also coming together. It’s a difficult thing. I do think the story resolves happily, with sweet and tender moments, all with the backdrop of this tragedy.

JG: In the current tension surrounding race in politics and in our culture, what role do you believe this play takes on? What impact do you want it to have as an artist and an activist? And how do you balance having a voice with giving a voice to the stories that you present?

Marvette Knight and Gavin Lawrence. Photo by Ross Zentner.
Marvette Knight and Gavin Lawrence. Photo by Ross Zentner.

MS: It is a balancing act. The activism part of me grows the older I get and the more I’m exposed to pieces like this one. The producer decides what works get performed, and ultimately determines the voice and message of the piece. It’s in that decision where you can end up bringing your political baggage, and that’s where we have to be very conscious which pieces we select. We have to think about the message we’re delivering and the community we’re bringing it to. I love all those traditional pieces, “Romeo and Juliet,” pieces that are done over and over again, but there’s something wonderful about bringing something to light, bringing something that maybe makes people uncomfortable. It’s easy to be afraid, but it’s really important, to talk about topics like mass incarceration, police brutality, etc. I don’t want to invite an international debate that I may not be equipped to address, to invite negativity or risk to my company, but there are risks that we need to be willing to take on, fears we need to set aside, to be willing to talk about these topics through these performances.

I think it can be a little challenging for some people to have Jessica and Theatre LILA directing the piece. Jessica is white, Theatre LILA is a primarily white organization, and that becomes a part of the dialogue, too, to ask why would people have a problem with her directing it? I think it’s a statement, also, for us to partner in this work.

JG: I read your interview with JSOnline when you returned to Milwaukee and became a part of Bronzeville. You’re someone who had to leave Milwaukee to find opportunities in the arts and then came back. So I’d like to know, what differences do you see between the arts scene you were a part of in New York and the scene you are a part of now in Milwaukee?

MS: I feel like Wisconsin—Madison and Milwaukee—has a long way to go. At the same time, it’s a lot better than it was ten years ago. There are a lot of great, established and emerging African American playwrights and performers. August Wilson was one of them whose plays have received a lot of recognition and accolades and have been performed widely. What places like Chicago and New York have are the organizations to ensure that these productions are being done. There’s a lack of that here, locally, and in Wisconsin as a whole.

It’s complicated. If you can’t connect with stories like Rahman’s, if this kind of work makes you uncomfortable, that means you probably haven’t access to those kinds of stories. If you don’t have that diversity in your community or organization, you’re locked into a particular market. I think these bigger organizations are trying—and it’s hard for them because you have to be more strategic if you’re already locked in to catering to an existing audience and you have a bottom line.

So then as a person of color, you only have one opportunity in a while, then, to perform on those bigger stages. That’s not a slam on those theatres. They’re trying and they are open to the material. It’s a matter of introducing it and getting the culture here comfortable with it, which takes time.

I really love Madison. My brother went to college here and I’ve visited several times. I love getting to bring this story to Madison. I hope that this becomes a part of a continued dialogue with the community.

JG: If you could summarize, what is the overarching voice and message of Bronzeville Arts Ensemble?

MS: Our goal is to illuminate the black experience in America and to give a voice to artists of color. We need to be at the table deciding what productions and educational programming is brought to the community. Our goal is to make sure we know what is happening in our culture. That requires having us at the table, not just as the actors or the teachers, but the creators of the material, to be the ones who can tell this story. That’s been our mission from day one.

JG: Following this performance, what comes next for you?

MS: We’re featuring a play, “Say Something,” in April with an Asian American playwright and African American playwright. We’re working on our summer programming. We’re leading a social change residency at a school and we plan to expand on that by partnering with a few other community organizations and high schools to get this programming out there.

Performances of The Mojo and the Sayso at the Overture Center will run from Thursday, February 18, to Sunday, February 21. Theatre LILA will also host free storytelling workshops in conjunction with this production over the weekend.