Thompson is the author of four books: Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class (University of Illinois Press, 2009), Single Black Female (Samuel French, 2012), Underground, Monroe, and The Mamalogues: Three Plays (Northwestern University Press, 2020), and The Mamalogues (Samuel French, 2021).
Photo by Gordon Lewis
Lisa B. Thompson’s satirical comedies, poignant dramas, and engaging scholarship examine stereotypes about Black life in the US, particularly the experiences of the Black middle class. The artist/scholar is the author of four books: Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class (University of Illinois Press, 2009), Single Black Female (Samuel French, 2012), Underground, Monroe, and The Mamalogues: Three Plays (Northwestern University Press, 2020), and The Mamalogues (Samuel French, 2021). She has published articles and reviews in Theatre Journal, Journal of American Drama, Theatre Survey, NPR, Criterion Collection, Clutch, Huffington Post and The Washington Post. Thompson’s plays have been produced Off-Broadway, throughout the US, and internationally by Crossroads Theatre, Theatre Rhinoceros, the Vortex, The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, Soul Rep Theatre Company, Austin Playhouse, Ensemble Theatre, Chiswick Playhouse, and The National Black Theatre Festival among others. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
A PDF version of Lisa B. Thompson's play "Watch" can be read here.
Published with author's permission.
Conducted via Zoom in November 2022 by Amanda Johnston. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What's your earliest memory of the theater?
I remember attending shows with my mother in San Francisco. She found free or low-cost artistic events at museums, cultural centers, Stern Grove, and the Opera House. It was just amazing. I also remember different theatre troupes visiting my elementary school to perform during assemblies. They blew me away.
Did you grow up in San Francisco? Is that where you were born?
Yes, I grew up in San Francisco. I was born there and grew up during the height of the Black population in the city. Gentrification has changed the landscape significantly since then.
Did you perform? Were you in the theatre?
Oh, yeah! I was in school plays and Sunday school productions. I remember doing a Christmas play in elementary school where I was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It was a good time. But in high school, the drama club did “Our Town” and I was The Stage Manager who served as the play’s narrator. It was a big role. That’s when I realized that I really preferred writing and being the one in the back working with a director on the show. I also like creating my own work. I believe that experience steered me into being a writer versus being a performer. I liked the power and the control behind the scenes.
Did you always know you wanted to be a playwright?
I knew I wanted to be a writer. As a child, my brother and I decided to write stories and I have been writing stories ever since. In third grade, I would tell people I wanted to be a writer and started writing a novel, I believe it was called The Mystery Gang. When I was in junior high school, I discovered the Black Arts Movement and began writing poetry and sharing it with my friends. So yeah, I always wanted to write. Didn't know what else would come of it.
This year, we saw you your directorial debut with “Dot” by Colman Domingo. Congratulations! What was it like to bring his work to life in this new role?
Thank you! For me, directing “Dot” was such a moment of narrative elegance. “Single Black Female” was the first play that I wrote that was produced. It was staged in San Francisco at Theatre Rhinoceros when I was a grad student at Stanford and the person who directed it was Colman Domingo. I believe it was the first play that he directed that wasn't his own work. That his play “Dot” was the first play I directed was just perfect. Lisa Scheps, who runs a Ground Floor Theatre, interviewed me for her radio show and she asked if I ever thought about directing and if I were going to direct anything, what would it be? And I just looked at her and said Colman Domingo's “Dot.” It just came out of me. “Dot” is a very special show because it's partly inspired by the story of my family and other friends of Colman Domingo’s who dealt with dementia in their families.
As a director, how did you make choices when it came to the emotional resonance of the piece?
We talked a lot about what was coming up emotionally for people. I really tried to create safe spaces for the cast to talk through just how challenging it is to deal with any kind of illness in the family. We also leaned into the comedy and joy in the show, too. I wanted to make sure it’s like life with all those things happening at once. It’s not all problems all the time. There are also a lot of funny and sweet moments as well.
What's your dream team? Can you name your dream team of directors and actors you would love to work with?
The folks that I have worked with and continue to work with are wonderful. People like Taji Senior who performed in the piece TORCH is publishing to accompany our interview. I have a new piece I'm working on right now called The Black Feminist Guide to the Human Body, which is a performance art piece with movement and music. I'm working with director Sally Jo Finney and composer Guthrie P. Ramsey. I collaborated with Ramsey on my first music. One of the songs debuted at an event at The New School in September 2022. I also love working with Sadé Jones, an amazing choreographer who's here in Austin. I'm looking forward to having movement involved in this new show. The Black Feminist Guide to the Human Body will open in Austin in April 2024 at the Fuse Box Festival. It will also go on for a couple more performances at The Vortex. The National Performance Network supported Rolling World Premiere will include a production at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco, and at the Phoenix Theatre in Des Moines Iowa.
I’d love to work with Jeffrey Wright, and Viola Davis, and be in the writers’ room with Donald Glover. I would love to work with Ava DuVernay, too. There are a lot of people I admire, a lot of Black artists, both in performance as well as Black scholars. I think it's an amazing time also to be a Black scholar and I feel fortunate to be able to have both of those worlds.
I've been fortunate to work with people I really like and admire and learn from and who are generous, caring, and kind and happened to have become superstars. “Monroe,” the first play I wrote as a graduate student starred Sterling K. Brown and Ryan Michelle Bathe. Colman Domingo directed my play Single Black Female in San Francisco, LA, and New York. But I hope people realize there are also many people that nobody knows about that are a dream to work with and have incredible talent. We should create opportunities to support all Black artists.
Do you feel like your scholarly work informs your creative work? Where do you find yourself between balancing your creative writing and your scholarly writing?
They definitely inform each other, and I love being able to contribute in both ways. I call myself an artist/scholar. And the line between the two things is porous and they definitely feed each other. I'm fortunate to be in a profession where I can bring all my selves and not have to worry about it. As I'm developing work, I often allow students to be part of that experience, be physically present, and “see how the gumbo is made” so to speak. I also work with former students, like Rudy Ramirez, who says I bury Easter eggs in the text of my work. If you know Black studies and know Black history and culture, you'll notice them whether it's an address, an important historical date, or the name of a character.
In January 2022 you launched Black Austin Matters on KUT with Richard Reddick. Tell us about what sparked this project and what you hope listeners will take away from it.
Richard Reddick posted a tweet about the fact that “Black Austin Matters” was painted on a street downtown. He wrote that we should have a talk about what it means to be Black in Austin. He then tagged a bunch of people including me and I sat on it all day. No one was responding so I decided to respond, and I tagged KUT and said let's really talk about it. I was adamant that we should not have a one-off special conversation about Blacks in a moment of trauma. Instead, I wanted to have a sustained conversation about Black life in Austin so people would hear from their neighbors, friends, and colleagues that are Black and live in Austin. It's true the Black population in Austin is diminishing, but Black people are still here. However, do people know who they are? The idea of Black Austin as monolithic is something we wanted to get away from as well. We didn't want it to be us responding in a moment of our despair. We wanted a consistent conversation about our life and the world. I'm happy we’re on the air twice a month during Moring Edition and in the afternoon during All Things Considered on Austin’s NPR station. I’m also glad that there are full podcast recordings people can go back and listen to. I'm proud of what we've done – we’ve created a time capsule, an archive of Black Austin with this podcast.
You have incredible guests on the show. Local artists, scholars, activists, and more. Can you tell us about an especially memorable or surprising guest?
We had so many great folks as guests for the podcast. A lot of people comment about hearing Joe Harper Jr., the barber, and people are also really smitten by our first interviewees, the Delcos, Wilhelmina Delco, and Dr. Exalton Delco. Mrs. Delco was the first Black person elected to the Austin ISD Board of Trustees and the first Black person elected to be a Travis County representative. Dr. Delco was the first Black person to receive a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Texas. We wanted to make sure we started with those pioneers in Austin. I also really loved having Riders Against the Storm because you see them pushing music and cultural politics in new ways. Their song “Holy Water” is our theme music for the first season. Our final interview of the season is the two of us [Thompson and Reddick] interviewing each other.
We're coming up on the holiday season. Do you have any traditions you're looking forward to?
Oh, yes! I love to make gumbo and pecan pie. I’m really looking forward to more rest this year. I also love writing down what I want to manifest for next year on slips of paper and keeping them in a jar and reading the ones from the past year on New Year's Eve.
Yams, greens, or mac-n-cheese. You can only pick one.
That's crazy! That’s violence! Well, if I'm cooking, they're all good, but I gotta do mac-n-cheese. I'm looking forward to that. I haven't made it in a while and I'm making it for my family.
The weather here in Austin is finally getting cooler. Are you a fan of sweater weather or are you trying to get to warmer climates?
I'm from California, the Bay area, so I'm used to layers. Right now, I’m wearing my Black cardigan with a turtleneck, and I love it. I love all the seasons.
How can people support you now?
Oh, that's a great question. I really appreciate what everyone does for me already. Those who can sponsor and greenlight projects should do so. Those who can see the work should come out. And when you do come out, social media posts are important. Many people don’t realize that. When other people see that Instagram or Facebook post, they're going to want to come out as well. Whether you are someone who's going to see the show or buy the book, just passing that information along to other people is helpful. I've been very blessed to be supported.
Name another Black woman writer people should read.
Alice Childress. Alice Childress’s play "Trouble in Mind" was supposed to be on Broadway before "A Raisin in the Sun." Everybody has focused on Lorraine Hansberry, and she deserves that, but Alice Childress’s play was not originally produced because they wanted her to change part of the show and she refused. It is an amazing show about racism in theatre, so it's funny that they tried to have her take out some of the parts that depicted racism. It’s important for people to know about who's come before so we can honor those folks and learn from their experiences and their work. There are so many Black women writers that are underappreciated. Jessie Fauset is another writer I love from Harlem Renaissance. Her novel Plum Bum is fantastic. I am happy we get to enjoy the fruits of the work others like Childress and Fauset have planted.
Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Colleen J. McElroy, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.