An Interview with J. Lois Diamond

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Playwright J. Lois Diamond discusses her play MOUNTAIN DEW, part of the HERSTORY Festival this weekend, April 29th and 30th, 8pm, at the Silk Road Art Gallery in New Haven, CT.

Q: How did you hear about 365 Women a Year?

A: I believe I first saw it listed on the NYC Playwrights website, but I was initially reticent about participating. Jessica had put a limit on the number of Caucasian women one could write about. I was intimidated about the prospect of writing about a woman of color and felt that not only would I get it wrong, but also that somehow I didn’t have the right to do it. That all changed when I went to a reading of 365 Plays at The Sheen Center last April (2015). I saw a lot of great work but was especially impressed with two plays about African Americans that were written by White women. I came away feeling, if they could do it, I could too. But I didn’t know who to write about.

Q: Why did you choose Hannah Reynolds as one of your historical woman? What drew you to her?

A: The very next day I heard a story on NPR. It was the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Appomattox, which led to Lee’s surrender and the end of The Civil War. There was an interview with a minister who had written a eulogy about Hannah Reynolds, a slave and the only civilian casualty of this battle. I don’t wish to give away what he discovered, but it was extraordinary.  I had been thinking a lot about racism and other forms of bigotry. And all this was a week before Passover, which celebrates social justice and specifically, freedom from slavery.  I was very moved, and knew I had to write about her.

Q: Can you walk me through the process of adapting a persons life for the stage? What were some of the challenges? What parts really clicked together?

A: One of the challenges was capturing the setting.

I haven’t spent much time in the south but my boyfriend and I had planned a road trip to North Carolina with over night stops in Virginia.  While I had done some research and made notes, I didn’t actually start writing the play until I had returned from the trip. I wanted the speech and manner of Southerners to wash over me. I had known a Black woman from Virginia when I was young. As I listened to Southerners, her voice came back into my head, and it helped me to write the part of Hannah.

There is always a danger of preaching when you address moral issues like basic human rights.

I was very fortunate in the fact that there was a little bit of information known about her but also a lot of unanswered questions for me to explore. One of these was why she stayed behind when her master had fled. It was known that she was married. I put myself in her place, and felt in my gut that the only reason she would have stayed would have been to be with her husband.

Q: In the play, the character of Hannah Reynolds returns from beyond the grave in order to speak with a young, contemporary, girl. What made you choose this route? 

A: I decided from the beginning that she would be a ghost. I had her visit Tanya, a teenager who was bored with the history she was being taught in school, because it was fundamentally flawed, and because it didn’t have any relevance to her own life.

As I worked on revisions, it dawned on me that I needed to clarify why Hannah was haunting her. I realized Hannah was disturbed because she felt misunderstood and needed to tell her life’s story the way it really happened. Once she was able to convey her truth to Tanya, Tanya, in turn became empowered. Only then was Hannah free to go in peace.

Q: What are you most excited about for the reading on the 29th and 30th? What are you most nervous about?

A: I’m excited to see my work read for an audience of people who aren’t familiar with my work, but am always nervous when I haven’t had any prior contact with the director or actors.

Q: Are there any playwrights that inspired you while you were working on this piece, or who inspire you in general? 

A: I don’t recall having been consciously influenced by other playwrights while I wrote this specific play, but I adore Tina Howe’s work and had the incredible opportunity to study with her briefly. I have also been inspired by Wendy Wasserstein’s early work, Lanford Wilson, Elaine May and Tennessee Williams.

Q: What has been your favorite aspect of working with 365 Women a Year? 

A: Being part of a community of like- minded theatre artists and making people aware of important women in history. It has really changed the way I approach new subject matter.

Q: Do you have any advice for the playwrights joining 365 Women a Year for the first time? 

A: Go out and see some plays that are part of this project. Then don’t be afraid to take the plunge and write one yourself. You never know whom you might inspire!

J.Lois Diamond is a playwright, poet and performer. Her full length, one-act, and ten-minute plays have been performed at various off-off Broadway venues, including Theater for the New City, The West Bank Cafe and The Hudson Guild.  Her work has been produced regionally and as part of The InspiraTO Festival in Toronto. She has been a featured poet at The Cornelia St. Cafe. She is a member of Polaris North and The Dramatists Guild.

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