The Artist’s Way: Aleshea Harris, Playwright & Whitney White, Director

In this special feature, T photographed and interviewed 34 artists from various disciplines about 24 hours in their creative lives.

Article by Noor Brara

Aleshea Harris & Whitney WhiteHarris (left) and White, photographed at Tacombi in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, on September 28, 2021. Photography by Jennifer Livingston.

Whitney White:

I first encountered Aleshea through her work; I’d read her script for “Is God Is” (2018), and I’d never seen anything so stunning, breathtaking, brutal and hyperfeminine. Someone from Harlem’s Movement Theatre Company called me and said, “We’re doing her next play,” and I was like, “Please let me talk to her; let me find a way to direct it.” I read “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” (2019), and she once again knocked my socks off, with just as much rigour and power. That was our first collaboration, and we’ve since moved on to our second: “On Sugarland” [about a Black community in America’s South, which finished its run at New York Theatre Workshop earlier this year].

Aleshea makes fully formed worlds. When she says something, she means it. When she wants something, she goes for it. It’s hard to have a bottom line in the world of theatre, to have boundaries and an aesthetic to which you commit yourself. But that’s what she does every day. As a director, I’m drawn to large visions of expression, and Aleshea helps the work stay honest. At the same time, I think ours is a tension that’s so delicious — between being grounded and wanting to shoot off into other worlds.

During “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] in 2020, we went to the taqueria Tacombi practically every day. Having a meal together builds community, sisterhood and family. And eating’s a theatrical tradition: one major practice of the French director Ariane Mnouchkine at La Cartoucherie in Paris is for the cast to feed the audience. I love having food with Aleshea — there’s something powerful about women coming together and being ravenous. That translates to the work, as well. With any creative practice, you have to go as deep as possible; you can’t lie to yourself. So I get greedy about the prep, gobble it all up and leave it onstage.

Aleshea Harris:

Whitney talks about being greedy a lot. It’s important, especially for Black women, because we’re often made to feel that we don’t deserve things. So I really love this politics of being greedy, with food and with work — this idea that I’m allowed to have whatever I want. Often, that’s time. I like to say that I’m good but slow. I’m meticulous and want to create something that’s extraordinary for my potential collaborators. I want them to feel a little afraid of it, just like I am, and that it’s a bit unwieldy.

I want to give Black actors and Black people a gift, a play they’ve never seen before. I want to give them the opportunity to feel expansive and challenged and loved and nurtured. So it goes from being a very solitary process — it’s just me for months, years — and then, suddenly, there’s an army of people with all these thoughts, ideas, questions and opinions. There’s a lot of nurturing my spirit that must happen in order to give away this baby that I’ve been holding on to for years. But it’s good to have a midwife in Whitney — the people queen to my boundary queen — a great intermediary to help with that baby, and to be a source of assurance that it’s going to be fine.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 76 of T Australia with the headline: “The Artist’s Way”