Thursday, June 20, 2024

Creator Corner: An Interview with Writer and Performer Cheray O’Neal

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Creator Corner is my little passion project to create space for other creators to talk about their passion projects. It’s all about amplifying the voices of creators from marginalized communities who may not get a chance to share their work as part of mainstream media.

Earlier this week, I got the immense pleasure of talking with award winning writer and NAACP Image Award Nominee Performer Cheray O’Neal. Cheray’s solo play, “Journey This” premieres October 12th in Los Angeles and for not the first time, I wish I lived on the west coast. Hearing her heart and passion for what she’s created inspired me. So, take a minute to hear her talk about intergenerational connection, healing, and breaking down the stoic woman stereotype in African American communities. This might be the most moving interview I’ve ever done.

Gretchen: Thank you so much for talking with me! I’ve been reading up on “Journey This” and it sounds absolutely astounding. How long have you been writing? Is this your first foray into writing a play?

Cheray O’Neal: I’ve been writing for a while now. I’ve published two poetry books. I’m a recipient of Best Trade Feature in the USA for an article I wrote for Black Meetings and Tourism in 2009, I’ve written individual pieces for a theater company I’m a member of The LAByrinth Theater Company in New York city, but in terms of an actual full-length play this is my first stab at it.

In terms of writing this piece, there was a bit of a process to it because it began in bits and pieces. It didn’t’ really fully resonate until I lost my grandmother. She was an amazing woman, strong and willful and courageous. She was 92 so she was able to vote for an African American president, twice, which I’m sure she never thought would ever happen. When she died, I was left with this feeling of, “What’s going to be my legacy, how do I lay my footprints down on this world? Who and what do I want to surround myself with?” My grandmother had lost everybody, including my mom—this play is dedicated in both of their honor—so she lost everybody yet she was still able to get up every day with a smile. I was really fascinated with that, so I started reflecting on her impact on my life, which was the impetus for the show.

G: With so many people watching movies and TV shows, do you think there is anything specific stage plays can offer that other visual media can’t?

CO: It’s interesting that you say that because multi-generational shows is really what’s resonating with people right now. So we can talk about This Is Us, Red Table Talk, even Modern Family, Transparent, Shameless, we could go on. We’re living in an era of disconnect where our self-worth is monitored by the number of likes on a social media post. I feel like there’s a real need for connection, love, and truth. My grandmother’s generation had that. I want to connect all the generations and still maintain a position of self-identity. That’s part of what this play is about. It’s about breaking family cycles and finding your own place in the world, but it’s also a love letter to family and the power of forgiveness.

There are certain gems that are worth passing on; we know our parents and their parents—all the way back to the beginning of time—they resonate with us.  There are gems worth passing on and there are things we need to break. This play is in itself breaking that cycle, especially when you’re dealing with stoic womanism and the whole idea of women being superwomen and handling everything. There’s a line in the play, “I wonder what your mother and her mother and her mother passed on in the womb.” When was writing the play, there’s a dancer named Martha Graham who wrote this book called Blood Memory, and it deals with what mothers carry in the womb and what the child absorbs. We’re talking about generations of womb passing. There’s pain and love being passed on and you really have to honor what works for you right now and follow through with that.

In terms of live theater, I think audience members get a more immediate grasp and instant gratification from it. You’re actually involved in the journey of it; you’re not separate from it.

G: That really goes along with what you were saying about connection. You can be much more connected with someone in a stage play than you can with someone on TV.

CO: That’s right! And we have talk backs too, where you can ask me questions or talk about anything that resonate with you in the play. That’s really what we’re talking about. Theater is such a powerful medium in terms of critical thought and expression. When you tell on yourself, you realize that a lot of people are also dealing with certain things and it gives them permission to tell their truth, to live and find their truth and talk about it. Because that’s the whole point, you got to get it out to heal it.

G: Being in a stage play is a much more personal experience, both for you and the audience.

CO: Yes.

G: So, tell me about writing and acting in “Journey This.” What are the biggest challenges you’ve had to face? Benefits?

CO: Putting this together, the process of writing the material, was really exciting. I was constantly encouraged  to go really deep and be really honest. It was healing and scary. There’s a fine line when you’re doing a one person show, you don’t want it to be a therapy session. There’s a big difference, and for me the difference was that the main character takes responsibility for her circumstances and doesn’t look outside of herself for the answers. You’re more than your tragedies and the more you talk about it the less power it has over you.

So, you know, I had to get the kinks out. Performing it was the most amazing, loving…it was an act of self-love. Besides being a caregiver for my grandmother, it taught me on an experiential level the true value of patience and compassion and courage. I have been really fortunate to do that.

As for challenges, on an external level, finding the money to produce the play, getting people invested in something that’s not necessarily their own baby. I’m not a big household name, so it’s a risk I take to tell my truth. Some of the issues in the play—we talk about many different things, we talk about absent fatherhood, molestation—so there are certain things that are difficult to tackle. But like I said, the more I went into it and the more we did it, the less weight it had in terms of the trauma. It was impactful in that way.

Also, I thought everything I wrote was absolutely brilliant, and it wasn’t. So cutting things and really shaping the story to fit the end goal which is about breaking family cycles and how powerful forgiveness is in terms of your healing and how precious time is. Those are the things I really want people to walk away with, like this whole idea of, “Time is short and precious and it’s important, share your truth. That’s where the healing is and you’re not alone in this. You are part of something bigger than yourself and you can be a ripple, you can be a change, but it starts with you. The pain and the fear stops and starts with you, either one.” So, to support those themes, I had to cut certain pieces that I really loved to do but didn’t serve the story.

G: You are a woman of color, did your experiences as a Black woman shape the story in any specific way?

CO: Well yeah, I’m a Black woman so I walk and breath it, there’s no way I can separate that reality.

And there definitely is, first of all, an epidemic of cancer in the Black community, especially breast cancer. And, not to get woowoo about it, but honestly, when you’re dealing with Black women, a greater portion of our Black counterparts, which would be the men, are being murdered and put in jail, which leaves to Black women the responsibility to care for the child, raise the child, finance the child, and provide for the child. With that comes this whole stoic woman that I’m talking about, the Black superwoman who can handle anything and must continue to press on and move on and be stoic and “no time shed a fucking tear”—that’s one of the lines of the play. You push it down just so you can get through the next day. It’s not anything bad, it’s just how you do it. That’s not living though, that’s surviving.

That’s also the difference. I don’t want to just survive, I want to live and to do that, I need to change that stoicism. Which means I can cry, which means that I don’t have to have it all together, and which means that I can ask for help. That’s a big thing in the African American community for sure. You keep your secrets in the house. I’m sure that’s true across the board but since you’re speaking to an African American woman, you keep your secrets in the house. Nothing leaves this house. You got knocked down? Okay, so what? Get back up and keep it going. In one sense I really appreciate that type of rearing because I have a super resilient will. At the same time, I saw my mother cry one time in my whole life and it was on the phone where I heard her cry. That’s what it’s like. Not to get woowoo about it, but if you’re pushing everything down, it’s gotta go somewhere. Where is it going? It’s going right back inside and what does it manifest into? It’s health and stress and diabetes and high blood pressure. It’s an epidemic.

So yes, I am speaking from a Black woman’s point of view but this is a human story. It goes way beyond color and way beyond gender. This is a humanistic epidemic. People are seriously depressed, with no self-worth, they don’t know where they belong, they’re alone, they’re isolated. Everything is all about social media and film and tv, and everything’s a big woowoowoo. Meanwhile there are people who are dying because they can’t express themselves. There’s a lot going on, especially in the time we’re living now in this era of Trump. It’s really important that we speak our truth. With this complete disregard for women, there’s a need for women to be empowered and I believe that comes from self-love and self-worth. This play is about reclaiming that voice, about self-love and self-worth and speaking your truth

G: You include a lot of really difficult topics—mental illness, sexual abuse, grief, breaking family cycles—how do you balance the joy and humor with the darkness both in writing and performing?

CO: In the writing process, there’s  a lot of darkness and alone time. You’re digging and looking—you can’t lie to yourself. Truth is relentless, so it will come for you as long as it exists, which is forever. There’s a process in terms of things manifesting: you have to think about it, then maybe write about it, then you act on it. So I wrote about it, and it was painful, but I kept writing about it. I believe that was the first step in the healing process—getting out of the darkness and acknowledging what it is that’s blocking me from happiness. When I decided what the things were that were blocking me and called them by their names, then there’s a light on them and they can’t hide. Then I have to deal with it, and how I dealt with it was creating this piece about it.

When you perform it, that’s a whole other thing. I actually teach creative writing to kids, third graders. It’s what I tell them: when you write about it, it’s one thing, but when you say it, that’s another level. It’s so much more powerful. You’re actually putting it out there, it’s not staying secret. It’s the same with my writing process, once I perform it, that lessens its weight in terms of trauma. It just doesn’t have the hold on me that it did when it was hiding inside.

The more you do it, the more you’re able to have discussions about it and talk with other people, and you and they realize you’re not alone. There’s a lot of people going through a lot. When you see someone else talking about it, you see it’s okay to talk about it.

We’re all so powerful. Everybody’s story is really beautifully unique, so you have every right to say it and you should have a platform to say it as well.

G: “Journey This” deals a lot with disconnected and the balance of connectedness with self-identity, what led you in that direction and what makes this story so timely for today’s audiences?

CO: I’m very passionate about self-expression and expanding my heart and courage. Art is a form of healing for me, so really I had no other choice. Also I was in a place that I was very unhappy and depressed. After this beautiful experience being a caregiver for my grandmother I was really reflecting what this life was about. I wasn’t happy, and there was something very off. I wasn’t living to my full potential.

I also think this play is a hopeful commentary on self-love. Unhappiness for me comes from a place of not feeling worthy. We all are are worthy, it’s just a matter of how we’re all going to, as you say, step into our light. I hope this play gives people permission and freedom in their own lives to find their truth, talk about it, and to realize they’re not alone.

G: You play a lot of roles in “Journey This,” including those of different genders and ages. Tell me about that choice and what it’s like playing so many different characters in one show.

CO: I play ten different characters, men and women from ages 6 to 88 years old. For each character, I have to figure out how they walk, their voice, their body, and then once that’s established, the words that I wrote really come easy.

They all impact me and they all have a perspective of what I believe I’m trying to communicate, so I allowed these characters to be the voice for that response to issues like absent fatherhood, forgiveness, guilt, grief, mental illness, molestation, self love. There are three characters that I really love—well, I love them all but there are certain ones that really resonate with me. One is the molester. I play him, I don’t play the little girl, I play him. I really wanted to make him human and that helps me forgive because he is human.  That character makes people feel really uncomfortable, but it’s very empowering and super healing.

Also playing my grandmother is really beautiful. She’s one of my favorite characters, so full of life and she saw so much. She hung around with all the greats: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. She was a jazz singer so she hung out with all those people and playing her is really wonderful. not to mention what a trail blazer she was, she was actually the first black female buyer of Alexander’s department store.  The third is a little girl who drinks out of a ‘whites only’ water fountain. Just the beautiful innocence of having no idea that action is against the law. It’s just water, what’s the problem? The beauty of innocence of children who don’t know what’s ‘wrong.’ You’re taught to be racist, you’re not born that way.

So yeah, it was the same as the writing process: you have an opportunity to explore and imagine. You can create a scenario around these elements of characters and their environment, navigating how they relate to each other and what they gain from being in each other’s presence. Those are really exciting things to investigate because it’s human nature.

G: You got a unique opportunity that not a lot of writers get to not only write perspectives different from your own but to really embody them and live in them. That’s really unique and probably really powerful.

CO: Absolutely. For my process, I can’t fully flesh out a character until they’re really in my body. It’s very unique and beautiful in that sense.

G: The “Journey This” premiere in October is a philanthropic event associated the American Cancer Society and Lyrical Hair. Tell me more about the charity side of the event and why that was important to you.

CO: I’m so honored to be partnered with the American Cancer Society and Lyrical Hair, which is a wig manufacturing company. I lost my mom to breast cancer, so I know first-hand the impact of cancer on a family, the ‘survivor’ mentality. I really respect the American Cancer Society for their holistic approach to healing because it really takes a village, it takes family. Of course it takes the medical aspect, but there’s also a spiritual aspect to it, an emotional healing aspect to it, and the American Cancer Society tackles this disease on that holistic front. So I really am honored to work with them.

The wig company really believes in this project, so we’ve all come together to provide this beautiful experience, which is that with every ticket sold, a wig will be donated in your name to a woman coping with cancer. Not only that, 10% of the proceeds of the final run of the show will go right back into making strides against breast cancer in my mother’s name. So for me, it’s a truly full circle moment cause I’m able to take my craft and mix it in with activism, passion, and purpose to create this whole experience for people. They get to see this play and  be of service to someone else with intention and money.

We have free tickets too! Cancer survivors, volunteers with the American Cancer Society, as well as some young students of color who can’t afford a ticket will be able to take advantage of those.

G: My mom had breast cancer, she survived but it was still really difficult so I’m getting really emotional hearing you talk about giving back that way.

CO: It’s devastating, as you know. Just getting the diagnosis is like…oh my god. That’s what I’m saying, time is so precious. Whoever you love, tell them you love them right now. I might not be here tomorrow, so what are you getting up for every day? What are you contributing to the world? Why aren’t you doing what you love? Why are you wasting your time? I feel like people who lose someone really close to them have a different perspective on the preciousness of time. This play is here to remind you that time is precious. All those people who you can’t stand and have an argument with for whatever reason, that’s not important. It really isn’t.

G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?


CO: A writer friend of mine, Lenore Thomas Douglas  and I have written a short based on a subject matter in this play. It’s called “Leap,” and it’s about an adult woman confronting her molester as an adult. It’s so easy to make him the perpetrator and her the victim.  We want to expose human nature and the element of forgiveness and one taking their power back by looking the result right in its face. Everybody is doing the best they can with what they have in that moment. I know that’s a famous sentiment, but it’s really true and the more you embody that the better you’ll be.

I’ve also written a 17-episode webseries with Kimberly Greene Williams called “HOTmEsS” that’s in pre production.  I’m looking forward to working more so in film and television as I’m always open and willing to get involved in any project that’s substance-full and engaging.

G: Anything else you want to share with us before we go?

CO: I just want everybody to have permission to step into their own light and do what they love. Know that every little footprint you make contributes to a ripple and that ripple contributes to the world. Every individual person can be a part of something, there’s no size to what your impact can make.

G: Thank you so much for doing this, Cheray!

CO: You’re so welcome, thanks for having me!

Tickets for “Journey This” are available via Brown Paper Tickets. You can watch a trailer on YouTube, plus be sure to check it out on Instagram and Facebook.

To stay updated on Cheray O’Neal’s work, visit her website and follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Images Courtesy of ILDK Media

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