Women Center Stage – An Interview With Dominique Fishback

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Dominique Fishback performs Subverted, a one-woman show of spoken word, by the poet and first time playwright. Subverted portrays the destruction of Black identity through the eyes of Eden. As Eden, who is considered the exception, goes outside of what she knows, she realizes that the promise of “equal opportunity” still, to this day, does not lend itself fairly to everyone.

Subverted is performed July 19 at 8 PM.

What inspired you to write this play?

For one, I was the only black person in many of my classes at Pace University. That in itself meant that there were a lot of voices that were not being heard. Two, there was one time in particular, where a white boy in my sociology class stated, “that if black men in low income communities dressed normally, they would not be stopped by the police.” Initially I was furious and sharply asked, “Well, what is dressing normally?”

It took me some time, but I soon realized that he just didn’t know any better. I also realized that a lot of times, growing up in “the hood,” you are accustomed to certain learned behaviors and you only learn that they are “wrong” or “classless” when you leave, if you ever get that chance. If you do get the chance to leave, you see that the “outside world” doesn’t dress, talk, or live the way you have your whole entire life. If you do finally leave, you are told to assimilate and in addition, you are forced to be tolerant of the larger world’s ignorance about where you come from, but the larger world is never forced to be tolerance of yours or assimilate to your lifestyle.

And that is because “the hood” is not a place they ever have to go in order to improve their lives or reach their America dream. Many people Black, White, or other, often believe that if one person from the ghetto can prosper, then everyone could, but Subverted shows that although people may come from the same place, not everyone lives under the same circumstances. I wanted to write this play and perform it at Pace University especially, because like Eden (the main character of Subverted) I believed that I was the liaison, the link between two different worlds.

When deciding whether to go into such a large amount of debt to get a Pace University education, I never really considered community college as an option. Not that there is anything wrong with those colleges, but because I knew that the kids I attended school with my whole entire life in Brooklyn would be there too, and I was going to college to get a broader education and meet and learn about people that did not look like me. So when people asked what inspired Subverted, and why I choose to do such a race heavy play at Pace, I say because if I had shied away from the topic and my truths because the majority of the students there were white, I would be doing those students an injustice, along with the people back home who’s stories are never genuinely told. I wrote this play for Brooklyn East New York and “hoods” like it.

I also wrote this play for the people who only know my neighborhood, and neighborhoods like it, from news clips and reality TV. I felt that if I was blessed to be the exception it was my responsibility to be the voice of the people, who in this lifetime could not attend a private university, but in another life could have, and could have been my voice when I didn’t have one.

How did you get involved in Women Center Stage?

In February I was a part of the poetic license youth night where I met Alex Mallory. I was trying to find a space to do my one woman show, Subverted, as a thesis to graduate with honors from Pace. At the time she wasn’t able to help me find an affordable space but after seeing audience reviews of Subverted, offered me a night in the Women Center stage festival. I am a 22 year old, African American, Brooklyn native, female, so naturally, sometimes I feel powerless in many variations of the word, but when I wrote this play and then performed, I realized I was not. I am much more and I am so thankful for WCS and Culture Project for giving me the opportunity to do it again OFF BROADWAY!

What drew you to the subject of your play?

Aside from the boy in my class, I had been assigned to read Judith Bulter’s “Gender Trouble and the Subversion of Identity.” The points she brought up about gender being a performance rather than a natural fact of being born a certain sex, and “acting like a lady” and “being a man” being ideas created by social forces, ignited a fire in me. My mind kept circling back to how being black had become a negative performance of a race rather than a natural fact of being born to an ethnicity.

Not to mention that, just like “acting like a lady” and “being a man”, being Black was being described in that same regard. Why else would rapper Eminem say, “they think I’m some wigga, who just tries to be Black cause I talk with an accent and grab on my balls.” Why else would speaking with poor grammar be considered talking black. I ended the semester with an essay called “Ghetto Troubles and the Subversion of Black identity,” and I knew I had the topic for my first play and one woman show.

I wrote some drafts starting in May of 2012 but it didn’t portray the message I envisioned, so I put the pen down to read and do more research. Books like “Brainwashed” by Tom Burrell, “Aren’t I a woman, female slaves on the Plantation South” by Deborah Gray White, documentaries like “Slavery and the making of America”, and “Crips and Bloods made in America,” to name a few, helped bring the idea of “Subverted” to life. I knew I did not want to show how Black identity was subverted but more of how it came to be this way as a whole. That was when I came up with the idea to have juxtaposing scenes of the slave and modern eras to show the comparisons.

Please share your thoughts on “equal opportunity” in today’s culture.

I come from Brooklyn East New York, a place that is considered “the ghetto” or a “low income community”. It is a place where many of its residents remain stuck, for some reason or other. Because of this, I do not believe that equal opportunity truly exist. If places in urban cities, such as Brownsville Brooklyn, the south Bronx, Southside Chicago, Detroit Michigan, and North Philly—places considered the ghetto—can exist then there is no such thing as equal opportunity. The ghetto by definition means, “a densely populated slum area of a city inhabited by a socially and economically deprived minority”, so to be born and raised in these ghettos means that one is already disadvantage. They come from the “slums” and they are socially and economically deprived, which explains why these school systems have lower values and standards and why they lack enough textbooks, computers, and SAT prep courses. It explains why they do not have swimming, gymnastics, piano, singing, or dancing lessons, and very little theater opportunities. So when I think of “equal opportunity”, I think of the fact that while there are no physical chains or masters saying certain people cannot learn or reach the American Dream, there are still these “slums areas” that are not given the same tools that other communities have so easily accessible to their residence.

Please tell me your thoughts on activism vs. passive acceptance of prejudice and restriction of rights today.

I think that artists and politicians are learning—more and more every day — that we all need each other to help the world become a better place. I learned that in order to help an audience digest or understand what is going on in the human rights fight; there is no better tool to use than theater.

Theater is live and it consists of music, dance, poetry, projections, and art, of us which connect with the human soul. As far as activism vs. passive acceptance, I can’t say that being an activist is better or worse because it all depends on what you’re advocating for, whereas acceptance of prejudices can sometimes be seen as allowing injustice to take place, or simply knowing how to pick your battles, I suppose.

This is a one-woman show; how do you approach performing different characters?

Originally my director and I were going to give specific props to a large number of the 19 characters I am playing, but that stopped before it even started. I told him that I thought it took away from the acting and we decided to go with having only one costume prop, a fitted hat. For the slave time I took lessons with Lester Shane, who sat with me for two, one hour sessions and created the dialogue by researching actual slave recordings. A lot of them were so old that it was hard to tell what was being said and so we made artistic choices. My director and I worked with the physicality and the different eras are shown through a division of the two worlds down the center of the stage.

So many plays and stories are told by men. What do you think prevents women from telling their
stories?

The status of women in countries outside of the U.S. could possibly have an effect on why women don’t tell their stories as much as men. It could also be the fact that, just like African Americans, women had to fight for suffrage as well. So we’re all just a little delayed and it will take us more time to reach the same status, in many mediums, as African Americans and as women of all races in the free world.

If more women could tell their stories, what do you think would change?

I think that it would change how young girls and women valued themselves one another. I think we are made to be against each other but if more women told their stories we would see that we weren’t that different from one another. We would see that we have the same fears, insecurities, aspirations, and desires.

Two women just won Best Director at the Tony Awards – only the second time a woman has won Best Director of a Musical. Why do you think that is the current state of things?

Men are the one writing the plays therefore, they are more likely to put faith in the direction of another man.

We see so many more plays written by men than by women onstage. Why do you think that is the current state of things?

I think we are really just coming out of a place where women stayed quiet and were talk to keep their opinions to themselves. Sometimes I hear my mom and aunts say things like “I would have never said that”. “I wasn’t allowed to do that or even talk about that”, and this reality is so foreign to me and the generation that follows, but as a result of being raised in that time less women are writing their stories now.

How do you think the current state of things can continue to change?

With festivals like women center stage and theater groups like “Girl Be Heard”. Places that are giving women and girls platforms for their voices and stories to matter. By not retracting back to a time when something like The Vagina Monologues was taboo.

Please tell me anything else about your play or women in theatre that you would like to share.

Subverted opens with the main character, Eden, being accepted into a private university as below average, despite graduating her high school as class valedictorian. This part comes from my personal experience because I too, graduated valedictorian, and was then put into a program at Pace for students who “needed” more academic attention from the university. This is an important part to Subverted because it shows that the best in the low income communities, many are born into, are not properly preparing them to succeed outside of their subverted niches. Eden is able to overcome the things in her neighborhood that has kept and continues to keep a majority of the Black people there down.

I have lived in Brooklyn, East New York and have witnessed many people stay “prisoner to the block.” However like Eden, I have overcome and I am still in the process of doing so. In an hour and ten minutes with no intermission, the play touches on the idea that equal opportunity does not lend its fairly to everyone. Eden explains that there are social forces—bigger than us— that have contributed to the destruction of black identity in America. Race and slavery is a hard thing to talk about, and the characters in “Subverted” are so raw about it, which doesn’t make things any easier. However, I stayed honest to how I felt and wrote from my heart. I stayed true to how many black males in my neighborhood feel and I spoke from their hearts. I stayed true to the voices of parents, grandparents and women I have heard and I stayed true to their hearts. And in the process of doing so, I was able to touch people and I am hoping I can touch 220 more hearts and minds on July 19th.

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