Austin is fortunate to have new play festivals, higher education options with playwriting components, plus ScriptWorks, a local nonprofit devoted entirely to playwright support and development. ATX Theatre celebrates playwrights here so Austinites can follow them from readings and workshops to full productions. Austin is a theatre town; our playwrights help make it so.
Lisa B. Thompson, PhD
Writes the Plays She Wants To See
“I was planning to be a lawyer!” laughs Lisa B. Thompson, her gorgeous smile, keen eyes, and totally fabulous glasses all punctuating her words with glints. After spending the first minute in her company, it’s abundantly clear that she would have been one hell of a lawyer. Instead, this formidable thinker/doer — whose questions penetrate straight to the core, and whose observations draw effortlessly from both vast book knowledge and lived experience — felt the pull to write. “I followed Toni Morrison’s advice,” muses Lisa, “‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’” This award-winning scholar/writer inadvertently fell into playwriting with some measure of resistance. “But,” she beams, “I found the collaborative playfulness of theatre-making so deeply satisfying that now: If there’s a play I wish I could see, I’m driven to write it.”
Lucky for Austin, Lisa, who was born and raised in San Francisco and remained in California for much of her extensive education and research (BA in English and MA in African American Studies from UCLA; PhD in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford; post-doc in the English Department at UC-Davis), now holds the rank of full professor in UT Austin’s Department of African and African Diaspora Studies. Her refreshing, not-your-average-professorial tone explains why her classes are in high demand: she considers her students as genuine mentors and collaborators, and she encourages them to use creative approaches to organize their project ideas. A collegiate cross-trainer, Professor Thompson’s classes within the College of Liberal Arts are frequented by theatre students from the College of Fine Arts, and she teaches a graduate seminar called Performing Blackness co-listed through the Department of Theatre and Dance.
But Lisa (who prefers to be on a first-name basis in her art life since she is Professor or Dr. Thompson at school) doesn’t just handle full-time teaching plus the new administrative role as Advisor to the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts for Mentoring and Support. She is also a devoted Mom, a caring mentor, and a local theatre leader — creating time to help guide both The VORTEX and Austin Playhouse as a member of their boards. An active theatre-maker, her plays are produced all over the country (and internationally) but, she states warmly, “I’ve been embraced by the Austin theatre community. And I’m glad my life is built here where I can maintain a porous wall between the arts world and academia — as they do feed each other.”
Having stepped into the Austin theatre scene nearly 10 years ago, she’s observed its limitations and its whiteness, as well as its progress and potential. When asked how she would like to see Austin theatre grow, Lisa chooses her words carefully in a split second and speaks at lighting speed: “I’d like to see major support from wealthy individuals and theatres in our city for locally-written plays about Black life. And more plays by and about LatinX and Asian life, too — there has to be more than one token-check-the-diversity-box production per season to foster any understanding of the breadth and depth of cultural realities — there is not one monolithic Black (or Asian or LatinX) experience! Plus, I’d like to see more diverse theatrical styles. I’d like to see people of color have more physical spaces to do their work. I’d like to see the limited space that has been available become more vital through effective management...” She checks in with a flash of eagle-eye empathy to make sure her listener is keeping up: “I could keep going — should I keep going?”
The endearing self-awareness of her erupting ideas makes being with Lisa a complete delight. She lives in intellectual generosity and thoroughly explores conversational possibilities while also keeping on track. Getting to spend even a little bit of time with her is an energizing, playful ride.
What’s it like to inhabit a whole world of Lisa B. Thompson’s creation? Austin actor/writer Valoneecia Tolbert, who premiered the role of Beverly in The Mamalogues in 2019 directed by Rudy Ramirez (Color Arc Productions/The VORTEX) and who played SBF2 in Single Black Female at Ground Floor Theatre directed by Matrex Kilgore in early 2020, explains: “The Mamalogues was the first time in my acting career that I played a Black woman, written by a Black woman, who was successful and in my actual age group. The stories richly reflected the conversations that I’ve had with friends, family, and also my own thought processes for what I want for my future. A lot of people don’t know how rare this experience is. More than that, the way that Lisa remains accessible and relates to you as an actor, the way that she lets you play within the words of her script, and the fact that her writing so effortlessly gives you that ability is a testament to her talents. She is kind, brilliant and dedicated to art. I’m incredibly grateful for her talent and I’m more grateful for her humanity.”
Valoneecia’s cast mate from Single Black Female, Michelle Alexander, agrees: “Lisa is just a phenomenal woman! I have yet to work closely with a playwright who awakens the Black voice with such a fragrance I cannot describe! One of my favorite quotes was from Single Black Female when the ladies are talking about being with family over the holidays. SBF1 is simply trying to explain why she‘s not really into marriage: ‘Never give the feminist line to women who believe you better fix a man’s plate at any human gathering.’ I love her work because it’s almost always relatable, and being a Black woman, her representation matters to me.”
Michelle sums it up — for our whole city: “I‘m grateful that Austin, Texas has had a chance to experience such brilliance!”
Dr. Lisa B. Thompson, present and over her center!
Photo by Ricardo B. Brazziell
Exciting News From Lisa, Part 1*
Lisa recently received word that she and several collaborating theatre organizations will receive support from the Creation & Development Fund of the National Performance Network for workshops and rolling world premieres of her new project entitled: The Black Feminist Guide to the Human Body. Participating organizations include Austin’s own Fusebox and The VORTEX, in addition to The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in Lisa’s hometown of San Francisco, and the Pyramid Theatre in Des Moines, Iowa.
Through Lisa’s signature, playful, humorous, deeply touching approach, The Black Feminist Guide to the Human Body will grapple with what it’s like to live inside a Black female body in a way that presents both the joys and the challenges, especially as one ages. “The full range of human experience is not represented on our stages often enough through a lens of Blackness,” Lisa urges. “There are experiences embedded in our DNA that must be seen live and in person to be felt and understood, which is what makes theatre so right for this. I want to push out past what people usually see.”
When asked if she could tell us more about this show in development, Lisa held up a hand in protest, “I think it’s a three-character play — but don’t hold me to that! I’m dying to tell you what their three names are as of this moment, but NO!” She buttons her lips, then continues, “I will say I’m excited that this project will include music and movement — and will be created in some major part here in Austin, since two of our collaborating companies are here and my choreographer is here — and I’m usually here.” Select Austin audiences may gain admission to limited workshop phases of this show as early as 2023, but the project is slated to premiere in 2024 — probably at Fusebox Festival, though details are still in process.
“It’s an honor to receive this funding during such a turbulent and lean time, and I intend to make optimal use of it —,” she catches herself, “And stay fully present as we create it.” Her glinting smile returns again as she reveals, “I was just away at an artist’s retreat at MacDowell for two weeks in June working on this piece (in James Baldwin’s former studio which was Totally Amazing!), and a wise friend admonished me, ‘Don’t come back with a full draft, come back with a full you.’” Lisa nods, “Part of this aging thing is learning to treat yourself with the care you give freely to everyone else. I have always applied myself. It’s a lesson to keep relearning: To Bring Your Whole Self to this work, you don’t apply yourself so much as allow yourself space to be completely present. It is so important to take the time to establish boundaries and pause. So we don’t miss out on the important things.”
“Speaking of being present...” and she races full throttle into access versus merit — how working-class artists who lack financial padding can’t devote time to their craft with the same focus that those with means can. “They can’t land and be present for creation, can’t take the time to pursue the same opportunities.” Lisa insists, “Everyone does not have the same chances! Single mothers, for example — there are no breaks! I'd love to see a residency created specifically for single-parent artists.” Lisa keeps right on thinking and doing, so that residency is likely to happen!
*Keep an eye out for Exciting News From Lisa, Part 2! Yep. She’s got another project cooking — with another Austin theatre company. Are we lucky or what!?
Valoneecia Tolbert, Yvonne Oaks, Melody Fullylove and Lisa B. Thompson on the set of The Mamalogues.
Actors Valoneecia Tolbert and Michelle Alexander, rehearsing Single Black Female by Lisa B. Thompson. Photo by Dave Hawks.
In this video, Dr. Thompson describes her work. See more on her website.
Dr. Lisa B. Thompson, Artist/Scholar
As you can read all about on her beautiful website, Dr. Thompson is the author of three books, Beyond The Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class (University of Illinois Press, 2009), Single Black Female (Samuel French Inc. 2012), and Underground, Monroe, and The Mamalogues: Three Plays (Northwestern University Press, 2020).
Dr. Thompson’s plays, which have been produced off-Broadway, throughout the US and internationally, include Single Black Female (LA Weekly Theatre Award for Best Comedy nominee, Irma P. Hall Black Theatre Award Best Play winner), Underground, (Austin Critics Circle David Mark Cohen New Play Award winner, Broadway World Regional Awards Best Writing of an Original Work nominee), Monroe (Austin Playhouse Festival of New Texas Plays winner), The Mamalogues (Broadway World Regional Awards Best Writing of an Original Work winner), and Dinner (Crossroads Theatre Genesis New Play Festival).
Thompson has received teaching awards from the Texas Exes and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies. Her scholarly and creative work has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies; the University of Texas at Austin’s Humanities Institute; the W. E. B. DuBois Research Institute at Harvard University; the Michele R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research; the Five Colleges, the University of California’s Office of the President; Stanford University’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity; Hedgebrook; the Millay Colony for the Arts; and MacDowell.