Audrey Kelley, writer of I’d Never Say This in Public and Audrey & Dre, is watching her star rise. Not only has this Second City product’s webisode been picked up for distribution, but her play, Supernatural, is coming to NY after a successful run in LA. MN talked to Audrey about capturing the individual hair stories of seven women in her new project, and about knowing how to care for her own *4C (adjective: tightly coiled) hair.
Zahra: First, congratulations on being a part of such a culturally relevant play. You sound so gracious, so excited. That’s great to hear. Supernatural features seven women who “confront” their hair using a series of monologues. How did these personas emerge?
Audrey: In the process of writing the play, we tried several different characters to see which way the story works best. There were six, but another person was added, which helps set up the story for people who aren’t aware of the African-American experience in this country.
Zahra: Yes, certain demographics require a bit of history. Tell me about the seventh persona.
Audrey: Dr. Jenkins is a sociologist who lays out how we got to the point of so many people perming their hair. She talks about our history in this country, and how the institution of slavery influenced where many people are today, mentally. She gives a timeline from slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, civil rights, to desegregation. She’s setting up the atmosphere in that we are in a nation that took everything from the black community and dehumanized us so that they would be comfortable having slaves.
Zahra: Whoa! I’m glad to hear that the play has genuine dialogue, that’s special. Isn’t this a matter of beauty standards?
Audrey: Yes. A part of dehumanizing us was characterizing everything that was black as ugly: bigger lips, darker skin. When slavery was over and the black community tried to assimilate, millions of people were set free to go figure it out in an atmosphere that wasn’t for them.
Zahra: I would describe what you’re saying as political, but that’s me. What’s your word? By the way, I was going to save the tough questions for the end. No need to warm you up, though.
Audrey: In the play, Dr. Jenkins does say that our image is tied up in politics when we wear our hair natural. Let me get the script. She says, “women who reject relaxers are really all political activists.” Unfortunately, our hair and our politics are intertwined. Historically, when women are trying to make a statement, they have done so with their hair.
Zahra: And today?
Audrey: Even though we are nowhere near where we should be in terms of being equal in America, we cannot deny that there has been progress. Women today who wear their natural hair are not seen as much as making a big statement. Women today probably won’t get fired from their jobs. So there is some progress in the American community on this topic, including whites and blacks.
Zahra: Thanks for saying that. I am thanking you for being a thinker, I suppose. I also think it’s cool that you have a background in comedy. Why did you want to direct a play that our modern-day vernacular might deem “conscious”?
Audrey: We are a writing and producing team, the three of us (including Candace Kelley and Gilda Rogers). I am the one bringing the theatrical background, the dramaturge. I’m collecting information from people, so this naturally falls in my lap. It’s my contribution.
Zahra: Kim Coles, a comedienne, is the lead. Are you trying to bring humor to a potentially sensitive topic?
Audrey: The character that Kim Coles plays is Keekee [sic], and she is our MC. Her character has her own hair company, and is based on Candace Kelley, whose natural hair products sell in Whole Foods. In the play, Keekee is doing a hair show in Brooklyn. Basically, she tells the story of women she meets at shows, and we are listening to these women testify.
Zahra: Testify, that’s a word I like better than “confront.” So is there are a thread to the black church?
Audrey: All of the characters tell their own story. One is a preacher’s wife. Through the Jewish woman’s story, you learn that she is a Black Jew. So many facets of the Diaspora are represented: mixed, lesbian, etc.