When a.k. Payne ’19 first read “Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War” by Princeton University professor of history and African-American studies Tera Hunter during her first year at Yale, she began writing a play based on the book almost immediately.
She debuted the script at a staged reading in Pittsburgh while home for winter break. The following year, Payne produced the show as part of the 2017 Yale Playwrights Festival. And on Thursday, “Filling Basins” will open the 2018–2019 season of the Dramat.
“I’d say this play is one of the best descriptions of the black female experience that I have ever seen on stage, or even in writing,” said Rayo Oyeyemi ’20, who will play one of six roles in this weekend’s production of “Filling Basins.”
The play, which tells the story of the 1881 Washerwomen Strike in Atlanta, GA, comprises of a cast of six black women and a crew of mostly women of color.
Payne will produce the show again, but this time will be joined by co-producer Alexus Coney ’20. Coney said that co-producing has worked well because Payne contributes the director and actor perspective and Coney adds her stage manager background.
Anita Norman ’19, who also directed the Playwrights Festival production, returns as director for this weekend’s productions at Yale. Norman emphasized how topical the script is, despite its setting in 1881. Her vision, she said, is to establish the show in a “surreal plane” between Heaven and Earth. Norman’s concept explores Heaven as a place where nothing bad happens and Earth as the chaotic space in which we live. Norman said the play takes place in a dimension somewhere between the two.
“Look around you,” Norman said. “There are women around you. There are stories around you. There is warmth and there is life. And there is hurt, but there is also triumph in acknowledging what’s happened and grabbing arms with those around you.”
The show comments on the power of sisterhood and solidarity. Payne said that the cast and crew have found a similar community in the production process.
Payne and Norman prioritized making the audition and rehearsal processes accessible to all Yale students, regardless of theater background. They made clear from the beginning that they would be accommodating and understanding of the busy lives of their actors and crew and made sure to prioritize self-care. “Filling Basins” will be the Yale theater debut for two of the actors.
“Some people have access to knowing about theater when they come into Yale” explained Payne. “It’s not always easy to be able to commit 100 percent to something like theater.”
Oyeyemi, who is a neuroscience major on the pre-med track, said that she has not had the time for much other theater involvement at Yale but that she prioritized “Filling Basins” because the themes of the show are important to her.
Even the set-building process was simpler and more efficient than that of other productions. Coney said this was due to an effort to “be aware of the people, bodies, labor that go into creating these things.”
“My dream is for them to know how spectacular [these actors] are,” Norman said. “What a blessing [it is] that they get to bring body and voice to so many nameless women who walk the trails of history — who fought so we could stand on that very stage at this very institution.”
Performances of “Filling Basins” will occur in the Yale Repertory Theatre on Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tera Hunter will participate in a talkback after the Saturday evening show.
Lindsay Daugherty | firstname.lastname@example.org