Bridgette Kelly and René Johnson, who play the titular character in and direct Rachel, respectively, discuss their personal connections to the show as well as the connections they discovered between the play and its playwright, Angelina Weld Grimké.
So Bridgette, you’re playing the titular character, Rachel. When you first read the play, did you find any personal resonance or connection?
Bridgette: Absolutely. Rachel is a character that’s really palpable for me. Also because she goes through different parts of her life in the play, I see all the different progressions she goes through, I’ve also gone through, from naive innocence to having knowledge to despair, and then to finding a solution
Rachel is the season opener, setting the stage for exploring mixed-race identities throughout history. How would you say Rachel connects to the modern conception and experience of life as a mixed-race person?
Bridgette: I can only speak from my own experience as a mixed-race person, but I have always identified as a bit of a chameleon (that’s the nicest way to put it.) There’s no way to feel like you fit in any particular part of society. I grew up with mostly white people, but I spent my summers in southern Indiana, going to the boys and girls club in South Bend. I was around peers who were black, and to them, I was never “black enough”, I was like, “country”. But around my white friends, I never felt like I fit in, but I was always trying to. As a young person, I was just trying to fit, trying to fit, trying to fit. When I got older, I tried to find more things I enjoy, not necessarily trying to fit in anymore.
In terms of the play, one of the scenes, when Rachel is really young, she talks about loving black babies most because they’re, I think the word is, “pitiful”. Rachel, as a mixed person, she sees how vulnerable black children are, and wants to do something about it, she sees the injustice. That’s what I identify with most, taking a side, even though there are two sides within you. That’s how I reconcile the two sides, by focusing on POC voices.
René, you've done a lot of research on Angelina's life- what do you see her adding from her own experiences in writing Rachel?
René: I believe Grimké deployed maternalism in an effort to arouse white women's empathy for black women, because of her first hand experience, being a black child to a white mother, and being raised by white aunts. Nine months before the eradication of the 19th Amendment Grimké wrote about her personal thoughts on white women-
“Although they are beginning to awaken from one of the most conservative elements of society white women… are about the worst enemies with which the colored race has to contend. My belief was, then, that if the vulnerable point in their armor could be found, if their hearts could be active or passive enemies, they might become, at least, less inimical and possibly friendly. Did they have a vulnerable point and if so what was it? I believe it to be motherhood. Certainly all the noblest, finest, most sacred things in their lives converge about this. If anything can make all women sisters underneath their skin it is motherhood."
With Rachel, Grimké depicts tender, fully realized African American children who counter dehumanizing representations of black children. A fully human, thinking, and feeling child is ironically, in the face of racism, the greatest source of pain and vulnerability to African American families. I think she is talking about herself, and er experience of being shuffled around as the unwanted other.
Rachel was first submitted to and sponsored by the NAACP (making Grimké the first woman of color to have a play publicly performed.) Political and social commentary theatre has made huge strides thanks to various grants and commissions dedicated to highlighting writers with marginalized identities. Today, arts funding is in great danger- what do you think that means for the future of theatre like this?
Bridgette: I think it depends on who gets to see it. This type of theatre will never go away. There will always be these stories, these voices.
René: Honestly, I am not sure. For the black, brown, tan, minority, and disadvantaged communities, the fight for social and racial justice and equity is life or death. The fight will not stop because there is no funding. Social and racial equity depends on ALL understanding the importance of inclusion and representation in the arts and in our everyday communities and activities. If funding takes a nose dive I feel it is the responsibility of those who have the platforms and financial power, to tirelessly offer resources and support to those who have none of those privileges, as we tirelessly fight for our freedoms.
Rachel will run January 11th-21st with select pay-what-you-can nights at the Portland Stage Studio Theatre.
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