Valoneecia Tolbert has been honing her skills as a playwright during the pandemic, with the dramaturgical support of Florinda Bryant and the mentorship of Sarah Saltwick (MFA Playwriting, Michener Fellow, UT Austin) and Performance Platform Austin. This award-winning artist has extensive professional experience as an actor, voice-over artist, and dancer. Most recently, her new work, Tales of Blerd Ballerina received the B Iden Payne Award nomination for Best New Play and achieved the honor of Best New Comedy. Valoneecia, herself. received a B Iden Payne award for Best Lead in a Comedy. You can view her website to keep up with her most recent works Arts. Valoneecia is an Austin homegrown stage, film, and voice actor with a BFA from Texas State University. She is represented by Collier Talent Agency. Visit her website and follow her on Instagram.
Excerpt from Tales of a Blerd Ballerina
James Bowie High School 16 years old
He always smelled like Jack and weed.
Taller fuller than boys I had seen before, he was
His forefinger had the slightest callous that only a demon on the string possessed.
His ripped Jenko pants exposed a perfect scarred caramel latte knee cap and that faded Metallica tee popped.
And as he pushed kicked his way onto school grounds, his shoulder-length twists would move like a crown of flames. I would watch the sun shine its decorative bolts around him like the gods welcoming their son home. My own caramel Jordan Catalano.
Not just a boy
Not just a skater
He was THE Black Unicorn
A Black Metal skater boy.
And every time that he pressed his foot down at the base of that skateboard
Pop Twists Cradle it into his long and sinewy arms, I imagined myself to be that board.
Fingers gently guiding down my side and safely carried with a certain firm delicacy that could only be described as
He lived a loud life. He skated LOUD
He Laughed LOUD
He would blast Nine Inch Nails: “You can't have my absence of faith! “(sing it)
“Hey! Hi! Why are you listening to this Devil Music?”
Why did I say that? I didn't really think that?
He would let out a deep sigh- lock his deep chocolate eyes onto mine- then without looking at his CD player switch the sound to Tool's “Stinkfist”
I liked it.
He could see I liked it
My breath would catch
My chest would rise. Lips parted. Moist and soft like a freshly glazed Cinnabon at the mall.
When he leaned in- I could smell the swag weed he had just smoked in the parking lot.
“Yeah” I whispered (oh my god it's happening!)
(him) “You're in front of my locker”
Oh. OH! Ok. right on. Cool”
(him) “You're still here”
... “right” ...
I pictured him playing my strings like the bass he loved so. The love we would create would be his own private Ode to Primus’* funk and rhythm. Remembering his head throw back in wild abandon as his long-tapered fingers slip up and down the neck... Stan.
“Are you gonna come to my show”?
(him) “The lack of passion you have for Life shows itself in the art you create”
My 16-year-old heart that had so carefully learned to be stone, cracked. Doctor Manhattan style, I could feel my eye crinkle.
My head only so slightly nodded.
My heart exploded
willed my eyes to hold back the burn
[shift into slam poetry style]
“When I see your eyes
the world in my head is a less dark place where
swirl around you like a gold incandescent fire
encasing our bodies to the rhythm of wind rising
earth shuddering and fingers entwined and blended smiles.
When I look at you, I see black majesty
Panthro strength ingenuity
you and me rising to the top of the cat lair. Royalty
And with the blessed speed of my Cheetara made a whole new breed of babies that the world would bow down to worship because they blossomed from you.”
We give little pieces of ourselves.
We slide and we say it's okay and give again.
Is it really cruelty if you never tell them they're taking too much?
“I wish I could get away with my hair that?” Take
“y'all saw sister Wilson’s baby shaved her head, right? you know what that might means.” Take
“You’re so articulate.” Take
And you try to adjust!
Ain’t that some mess? Being so concerned with adjusting myself to fit into norms that weren't made for me.
Like taking the elements away from Storm.
Or peasant skirts from Winifred.
Being so concerned with making others comfortable that I forgot to comfort myself.
People take quiet for acceptance.
Sometimes they don't understand that you don't know how to echo the screams that are howling inside of your head.
Sometimes they don't understand the silence covers the fact that you are so disappointed in so many ways with people that you should be able to love and trust.
Sometimes... the silence Masks that you are in the back kitchen// cooking up your own witch's brew...
It really isn't anybody's business but here we are: live and in front of an audience so f*** it I'll say it.
Sometimes the quiet is because it's expected.
Sometimes the quiet comes because you were waiting
Because Passion is seen as confrontation.
Because Passion is seen as difficult.
Because passion is seen as angry.
Sometimes the quiet comes from knowledge that
no matter how open and alive
no matter how loving
Our power. Our oddity, our mystery our beauty will be seen as a weapon.
As a threat.
And we will be chased down the streets and rounded up X-men: Night of the Sentinel Style.
Mystique had it right. “Clothes are just an extension of my body. I'm always naked.”
So, what do we do?
What do we do?
What did I do?
I buried that "special" that “unique” under layers of “appropriate” facial movement
perfect student Jodie outfits/ still couldn't get the hair right
Practicing my urban dialect into a tape recorder
dead of night to
practice the white out while
balancing just the right amount of vocal inflection to put my white counterparts at ease
but still letting them know I was black.
“Your lack of passion shows itself in your art.”
That's what shows itself in my art.
Screen pops: [Dramatic light shift] Cartoon strip appears
Conducted in March of 2023 with Amanda Johnston via email.
As both a playwright and an actor, you get to create on the page and stage. Do you feel drawn to one more than the other?
I’ve always felt most alive and grounded in the realm of acting, but I’ve been excited and terrified to dive into writing. You can hide and re-create yourself when acting. When it’s your writing, especially when writing about yourself you are very naked. In a time that I've really been exploring myself and wanted to see more characters that I feel reflect my journey I've really fallen in love with writing.
In your one-woman play, Blerd, the audience is transported back to a complex childhood in the ‘80s. Can you tell us about the moments that influenced this play, and the stories you chose to include and leave out?
I chose to frame these stories about moments that most of us can relate to. Most of us were told we weren't enough by people that looked just like us, but didn't know why- most of us had a boy we liked who clowned us or just moments where we went along to get along. We were seen but not present. Most of the “uncool crowd” has had the moments. Heck- most of the “cool” crowd had these moments. Very few people who didn't peak in high school would count those as the glory days. I just tried to tell stories of when I was living as my most authentic young self and what that meant to the outside world looking in and more importantly, what happened to change that authenticity into something else.
The play is full of laugh-out-loud moments while addressing some very vulnerable subjects. What’s your approach to including humor in your writing?
Oof. That’s a tricky one. I don't write with the intent to be funny. I feel like all humor has a truth at its core. It involves a person being emotionally naked and being honest and the humor really comes from how we, as adults, reflect on those moments. I also think that we, as a people, tend to translate trauma and tragedy into humor as our coping mechanism.
Your work is also very much centered in the body and incorporates a lot of movement. Is this a choice that begins when writing or does it develop in collaboration with the director?
I am an actor that dances. Being a piece about my life, the piece incorporates a lot of movement and dance positions. Dance breaks are literally written into the script. My brain is wired to always be moving (maybe blame the ADHD). I was lucky that I always had a specific director in mind, Florinda Bryant, who also loves to play with movement and flow. Her own background as an actress and her love of movement and her strong background in the jazz aesthetic made her the perfect choice.
How do you approach the relationship between you as an actor and playwright working with a production team? How much do you let go of when it’s time to step on stage?
Lol! Asking my team and asking me may yield two very different answers. I think I let go as much as I can. You hire a team you trust for a reason. You have to be able to leave your writers at the door. You have everyone add their flavor to the production so it’s not just yours but everyone’s. “Everybody adds their spice to the gumbo,” a Flo-ism I have now stolen and use as my own. Everyone was committed to making this reflection of our lives and I walked away incredibly proud, humbled, and honored. I’ll be interested to see other productions and what their take on the work is.
You recently moved to Atlanta from Austin. Do you feel this move was necessary for your career or was it a lifestyle change?
Good question! It was both. While I love the performance community in Austin, I wanted to be able to perform more roles centered on the black experience (especially in film). Also, having lived in Brooklyn for so long, I missed being surrounded by a multitude of diversity. Atlanta has its own energy. It has the perfect balance between Austin’s laid-back vibe and New York City’s diversity and hype. I do come back into town often. I was born and raised here and it will always be home.
Can you tell us about any new projects you’re working on?
Sure thing! I am so thrilled to share the film Premonition, directed by Mahalia Jackson-Butler. It starts streaming soon. I'll have a great new character coming out in the DCUO Wonderverse soon! I cannot reveal too much, but the game will be fire! And an animation as well as live-action series coming up with Wingster & Philibert Studios. This is all while I am working on part 2 of the Tales of a Blerd Ballerina story and developing a new film short. I've been booked and blessed.
As a new Atlanta resident, what advice would you give to those considering making the move?
Planning, planning, planning! As a new Atlanta resident, I would encourage you to visit a few times during different parts of the year. Figure out where you want to be. Each area has its own unique flavor. There are lots of groups on Facebook that let you meet new like-minded people. Take advantage of that. Build your village. I also want to give a heads up that Austin traffic's got nothing on ATL traffic, lol. It’s crazy!
Tell us about your artistic practice. When and where do you write?
Well.. it really depends. I plan out times to sit at my work desk and write bi-weekly when a project has been tinkering around in my mind, but really it can be anywhere. If there is a lot that pushes me forward in a rush, I use word-to-text while driving or talking, or cleaning. I rarely have an intended outcome - I just let the words fall out as they will and move forward from there.
What will you miss most about Austin?
I am never gone long enough to truly miss it, LOL. On an everyday, I will say a huge variety of good Tex Mex and barbecue.
What is your go-to self-care practice?
It depends on the week but the perfect circle consists of:
Vegging out to a favorite series or movie
A tasty meal with a glass of wine
How can people support you now?
Please check out my work, Pass on the word of the production to your favorite local theatres, and Please Please Please go to see plays from new black female artists. We are all connected.
Name another Black women writer people should read.
I'm currently reading Jelani Wilson’s Space Wizard: The Ballad of the Bladeslingers and Ruha Benjamin’s Virtual Justice.
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 Toi Derricotte, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.