Local playwright celebrates exploration of gender with new play

Pillsbury House Theatre’s (PHT) world premiere of Sharon Bridgforth’s dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/The Show is the latest triumph for successfully innovative voices.

Bridgforth has been at PHT since 2005 and figure in Twin Cities theatre since 1995. An abridged list of her accomplishments includes being published in love conjure/blues, the Lambda Literary Award-winning The Bull-Jean Stories, and Experiments in a Jazz Aesthetic: Art, Activism, Academia and the Austin Project.

Bridgforth’s artistry has been produced by Links Hall, The New Black Festival, the New York SummerStage Festival, and the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies.

She describes Mermaid as “performance processional that celebrates multiple ways of embodying gender. The characters HoneyPot, Miss Kitty and dat Black Mermaid man lady, work with Oya, Osun and Yemaya — Yoruba deities — to train a next generation healer, as they lift communal prayers to the Light.”

“[The audience is] invited to make offerings to this world of womanizing, piano playing, knife carrying she’roes and old people that fly,” according to press materials. Suffice to say, conventional expectations are to be left at the door.

Personable, thoughtfully reflective, wearing a tee-shirt with “Gully” scrawled across it, Bridgforth relaxed in the PHT lobby to discuss her craft with the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR). An excerpt of our conversation appears below.

Dat Black Mermaid

MSR: The poetry of Mermaid puts me in mind of, say, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf.

Sharon Bridgforth: Yes. I feel informed and inspired by Ntozake Shange, the people who came through in that time and broke ground. In fact, Laurie Carlos, who was the “Woman in Blue” [in the Broadway version of for colored girls] mentored me. So, I totally come from all of that.

When I saw for colored girls, in the ’70s in San Francisco, it was the first theatre I’d ever been to. The way they used language [and the way] their bodies moved in the space, the way music was part of everything, spoke to me in a deep way. I sought the book out and that became instruction. Later, I got to work with Laurie.

MSR: How was that experience?
SB: Life-changing. In many ways, she saved my life  I had no language. I didn’t come from a theatre background. Sonja Parks — who was a very trained actor — and I just played together which shaped a lot of my ideas of what I was doing.

Laurie came to Austin to direct one of my shows and I got to literally sit next to her. Laurie looked at me and decided I was one of hers. Took me in. That was when it all started to make sense.

MSR: What prompted this piece?
SB: It’s borne out of my heart’s desire to celebrate the Black wisdom, experience of home, and family my parents gave me.

MSR: Clearly, you’re a believer in those who’ve helped you come along. Who’re you helping?
SB: Again I have to credit Laurie. One time, back in the day, I was complaining. What am I gonna do?  I need to make more money; nobody’s hiring me. She just looked at me and said, “You need to go help somebody!” and walked away.

That hit me in such a deep place. I didn’t know how, but I figured out how to facilitate creative process for others, how to walk with them as they grow. Three of the cast members are in that [group]: Mankwe Ndosi [and] Florinda Bryant [who] I’ve worked with since she was 18.

PaviElle French is someone I’ve worked with for a while. Kenyai [O’Neal] is new to me but I’ve now snatched him up. Honestly, [they’re] countless names and I owe it to the people who taught me that.

MSR: Anything to add?
SB: The thing I would say [to readers] is please come. We’re gonna party! The audience will be involved. It won’t be one of these [shows] where you just sit there separate from what’s happening. Those that don’t want to engage, it’ll be fine. But, there’ll be times when we invite people to dance with us. And it’s going to be a living celebration.

Sharon Bridgforth’s dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/The Show runs June 1- 24 at Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis.

For more info, visit http://pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org or datblackmermaidmanlady.com.