Interview: Somebody Jones & Khadifa Wong Talk BLACK WOMEN DATING WHITE MEN

Somebody Jones’ BLACK WOMEN DATING WHITE MEN has just enjoyed a successful online run via the Hollywood Fringe and is set to return to live performance in 2021. A verbatim show which looks at interracial love and relationships in a complex world, BLACK WOMEN DATING WHITE MEN is a timely and important piece of new writing. I caught up with Jones and Director Khadifa Wong last week for a fantastic and insightful chat about their routes into the industry, their experience of working on a show which is entirely the creation of Black women and what the future holds for them and their work…

When and how did each of you fall for the theatre and what were your routes into the industry?

KW: I started when I was three so I think this is my 39th year of theatre. I was a little ballet brat before going into professional dancing and went to London Studio Centre. So I performed throughout my childhood, did professional dance training, got injured in my final year and was like ‘Christ, what do I do?’ Because I’d spent my entire life preparing for something that didn’t really take off. So I decided to spend a year trying every job I ever thought was remotely interesting and settled on acting. I realised pretty quickly that roles and opportunities for women of colour – for Black women in the UK (and we’re talking early 2000s here, we’re not talking now) – there was just nothing apart from The Lion King.

So I went and took myself off to America, studied a bit more, and that’s when I was like, actually, the way that people are in America – someone needs to bring that over to the UK. Where you can audition  for the role of ‘woman’, not ‘Black woman’ and be expected to stick to a stereotype of what they think is a Black woman, because if I’m told one more time that I’m ‘not Black enough’, I’m gonna go crazy! So I decided that I could do a lot more difference behind the scene than in front of it as an actress. There were plenty of actresses who were more talented than me and I just thought, ‘no, I’m gonna go into production and stuff.’

Plus, throughout this whole time, I was working as a Theatre Dresser as well, so that’s been my steady employment and I’ve dressed on loads of West End musicals, so the love never died, even when the performing side left me. So I’ve just been in and out of the West End and the Opera House since I was a little kid and I’ve just got into directing – this is my first piece of directing theatre. People always underestimate the role of the Dresser in theatre and I think that’s one of the key things. As dressers, we see everything. We see actors getting notes, so we see directors at work all the time without shadowing them and we often get to see the reactions to those notes. And then you get to spend the whole time in the wings, so you watch shows from every angle and more than any other department, you can see it as a whole.  So that’s been the best training, as opposed to going to theatre school to learn directing, Dressing is the best education I could have possibly had. It’s been the best journey possible and the best piece to start with because it’s so personal for me. So I was really happy, and I can’t thank SJ enough for taking a chance on me and bringing me into this work.

That’s such a great journey, it’s so varied.

People always underestimate the role of the Dresser in theatre and I think that’s one of the key things. As dressers, we see everything. We see actors getting notes, so we see directors at work all the time without shadowing them and we often get to see the reactions to those notes – you know, they’ll go to the director ‘sure! Okay, okay’ and then when the director leaves, they’ll be like ‘fuck you! Why are you..’ and you know, you’re the one that has to calm them down and we explain the notes in a way that is palatable. I’ve heard tales of Dressers hiding alcohol from actors to get them on stage; shows don’t happen without us. And then you get to spend the whole time in the wings, so you watch shows from every angle and more than any other department, you can see it as a whole. So that’s been the best training, as opposed to going to theatre school to learn directing, Dressing is the best education I could have possibly had.

And how about you, SJ, what was your route?

SJ: My theatre journey is not as varied and I think not as interesting as Khadifa’s – much shorter!  (laughs) It’s funny, because I forgot [to Khadifa] that you went to America and I think that’s interesting because when I started theatre – I mean I can’t tell you how old I was, because I only went to theatre schools. My elementary school was a theatre school, so I had been performing as a kid. My middle school was a theatre school – and when I was going to school as an arts kid in LA, it’s very serious – it’s almost like you’re making your life decision, which high school you pick. The Principal of my middle school created my high school because he felt like none of us had somewhere to go that was going to nurture our needs, so my high school was very different.

I’ve had some people say ‘oh, is it like Fame?’ and I was like… ‘no no no’ (laughs) – I mean it was the best, but it was not glamorous; we didn’t have a real campus, we were like sharing the campus of a church. But it was amazing because you got to wear whatever you wanted – I mean the dancers, ‘ran’ the school so they all wore leotards and tights. You knew who they were, they were walking around in their ballet shoes, they were walking to class en pointe – they were so obnoxious! And then there were the actors next, which were my group, and then there were the musicians, that nobody really cared about (laughs). So it was definitely a very interesting, but warm and loving arts high school.

So I though I was going to be an actor, I was certain of it, until… I had already applied for university and in my very last year of high school, we did this really cool festival where we broke into groups and some of us had to be actors and some of us directors and some of us writers. I was nominated as the writer and then we made this really weird, amazing script and I was like ‘oh no. I don’t wanna to be an actor, I just wanna be a writer’. But here I had already been accepted to a university for acting and I was like ‘great’. So I didn’t do any acting classes, I took the bare minimum and just tried to take as many writing courses as possible, so it worked out in that way.

And the reason why I got my pen name, I don’t know where ‘Somebody’ came from, it just popped into my head and I was like ‘sounds great’. But Jones was a little bit more deliberate. I wanted a last name that was American, because I have two last names, technically – I have Tessier, which is my mom’s last name, which is French, and then Sykes which was my dad’s last name, but being a Black last name, it’s a slave name. Of course, Sykes didn’t come from Africa, it came from, you know, the person who owned my family and so I obviously don’t like using that name and I didn’t want to use that name as my artist name because I didn’t want to carry a name that’s not ours, that doesn’t belong to me.

So I picked Jones, and then talking to my mentor, six/seven years ago, I was telling her about my name and I was so excited and she said ‘Rebecca, where do you think the name Jones comes from? Do you think that comes from Africa?’ And I was like ‘OH MY GOD.’ Here I was, trying to pick this proud Black American name and I just picked another slave name. So I was like ‘great. I’m keeping it’ so my sort of motto, if you will, is ‘the more you try to run from your past, the more you’ll run into it’.

That’s such a meaningful background – my first impression was something along the lines of Somebody Jones offering a kind of creative anonymity, but that’s so much deeper than I thought.

SJ: And that’s sort of the appeal, I’ve applied to competitions or whatever and I’ve had meetings with people where they’ve said ‘we chose you, we wanted to meet you because we had no idea who was gonna come through the door.’

It’s such a good creative choice – I love it.

KW: Yeah, I love the name, I love it.

So the play then – BLACK WOMEN DATING WHITE MEN is so packed and it’s so rich, I have to know how big the original draft was and how difficult I’m guessing it was to distil and cut down – am I right in thinking this?

SJ: Yes! And you know what, it was funny, I think Khadifa and I have briefly talked about it, but there was a moment when we had to cut really quickly and it was like cutting off pieces of you (laughs). I’ll say I probably did around four and half hours of interview, so just raw audio. I didn’t transcribe all of that – I probably transcribed half of that. Khadifa I don’t know if you remember how long the original script was?

KW: I think it was about fifty minutes/ sixty minutes and then we managed to speed it up and cut – I remember that day, just sitting in the rehearsal room and just going ‘okay, it’s running a little long’ and it was supposed to be half an hour and I’ve never felt so guilty because being on the outside, obviously I could see where we could make cuts, but knowing that you’re cutting someone’s work is really a shitty thing to do (laughs). I was like ‘we can get rid of this’ and every so often I’d just be like [to SJ] ‘are you okay? Are you okay? This is gonna be fine’ and eventually they sped it up and got it down and I think for this version, we added some more in, we were able to restore some back. So there’s legs there to kind of extend it and hopefully those little bits that we did cut can find their way back in.

SJ: I felt like that was such an important moment because I feel like sometimes as a writer you can be too attached to your writing and parts of the story that might not even be necessary. So I appreciated the fact that you were so supportive and so loving and asked me if I was okay and I was just like ‘I just need to do this’, because I think we had about twenty minutes left of rehearsal!

And when it came to writing this piece SJ, were you consciously writing specifically for Black women, or Black women and their partners, or neither?

SJ: Well I was writing it selfishly (laughs) – all this came out of a grad school assignment. So we had to do a verbatim piece and I was just like ‘what am I gonna write about?’ I found myself in a relationship with a white man – I don’t know if you realised, but I’m a character – so we were four months in [the relationship] and I was like ‘I don’t know anyone who’s like me, personally…okay, I’m gonna use this assignment as an opportunity to find people who are like me, to find a community but to also get advice’. Because obviously that’s a big part towards the end of the piece, you know, what advice would you give to someone? That was one of the most important things for me because I was just like I know we’re gonna have prickly conversations, difficult situations, you know, what do I do? So that’s where it stems from.

So Khadifa, you’ve adapted and directed, so talk to me a little bit about the main considerations in adapting it for screens.

KW: What was nice about putting it on the stage was how the words speak for themselves. So really, my job is not to do anything too crazy, you know, you could make it really chaotic, but really you want people to focus in on the words and only focus on what’s being said and what the actresses are doing. So when we were like ‘what else can we do with it?’ I was like ‘Zoom is where you normally allow people to have their moment to speak, it’s not as easy to overshoot someone and step over them, if we make it Zoom, we can still do everything that we wanted to do’.

I remember sort of going into this stage thinking ‘how am I going to do this with very minimal set with all these things that I wanted to put in?’ You couldn’t, because we just didn’t have the budget or the facility to do that, so we kept it very simple. I didn’t want to stray too much from what we did on stage because everyone listened when we did it on stage and I wanted the same thing. So the only thing I really did was go ‘okay, I think we can serve it in different places so that we get that sense of not just one conversation, because how else do you make it interesting on Zoom? Let’s just change the set, and that’s the quickest and easiest thing for everyone to do at home. Because you can’t really have group rehearsals, everyone’s just got to be with what’s around them so we were like ‘look, we can change tops, we can change hair and no one has to worry too much about props’, because again in lockdown, I didn’t want the actresses worrying too much about anything other than the dialogue. I thought ‘it’s easier for me to edit as well, if everyone is just in squares and that’s all that changes’. So I just imagined three or four scenarios as to where these conversations would happen throughout that time and my goal was to keep the words front and centre.

And in terms of logistics then, how was it put together – was this all filmed at the same time or was it filmed separately and then pieced together?

KW: So it was all done at the same time – we hid ourselves. I did it like a shooting script so it was like ‘alright everybody, we’re gonna do all of Day 1, all of the wine’ and that was all done out of sequence. And then sometimes we’d do the scenes with different scenarios like three or four times – I’d name them different things, like Day 1: the first time they all meet; Day 2: they’re comfortable with each other, wine is where they’re all happy and jokey. And then it was up to me to decide in the edit, this bit works better for here, this bit works better for this. We were limited I think to three takes – two takes and one for luck, just to make sure I always had three takes, and that was it because again we didn’t have a lot of time. We did one rehearsal that was three and a half hours, and one shoot, and took an hour’s break, so it took about five hours to do in total.

That’s a lot – Directing for Zoom eh, who knew that was coming?

KW: It was really funny because you realise none of us are on the same screen layout, so I’d be pointing at people going ‘can you just do this’ and then they would all be looking at each other because you’re not on the same figuration. So it was a lot of talking – I found it vocally very difficult because you had to make sure that you explained everything and I’m someone who relies on their hands and their body language a lot so by the end of it I was hoarse. But it was good- and then SJ was able to just watch and we could message each other and I’d be like ‘do you like this? How’s this working? What do you think?’ So we were getting things back and forth with each other, just sort of collaborating in person so that was brilliant. Then the two of us would just watch at the end of everything and we would be like ‘are you good? I’m good, let’s move on.’ And if not, we’d just do one more, and the actresses had time to be able to say I want to do one more as well.

So you had one new cast member coming in between the live version and the filmed version of the play – was that particularly challenging, to bring someone new in when the piece was already adapting in other ways?

SJ: I mean we haven’t asked her but what was interesting is when we did the workshop last September, after I think our final rehearsal, we had a three hour chat in a café just about the play and our lives so it was really cool being able to bond in that way. And I feel like Merryl of course missed out on that bonding but she was fantastic – she is fantastic. So whatever she missed in that bonding I feel like didn’t come through at all because she’s amazing.

It’s interesting because I didn’t really pick up on the idea that they were getting to know each other, to me it seemed they were pals from the start!

KW: Well I think they have such a chemistry. What I loved about it and what was interesting for me was this was a cast that I’d inherited. So my first day of rehearsal was the first time I met them so when we did the play, Merryl was the only person I’d known prior to working and it was like ‘okay so I have no idea what cast I’ve got, I just know I’ve got a great script’ and walked in and was like ‘okay guys, just read it for me, let me get to know a sense of who you are’. And they’re just a dream group of women – you couldn’t ask for a better cast, a more hardworking group of women to work with. Plus, they’re just, a decent group of humans, you know, so hungry and so enthusiastic and so ready to give their all. It was really nice and it could have been a hundred times the other way and that was I think one of the most satisfying things for me was just walking into a room just going ‘hey, this is brilliant!’

Well that chemistry definitely came across.

KW: Yeah – Somebody (SJ) had just found this amazing cast and was like ‘so I have the cast already’ and I was like ‘okay!’ She knew what she wanted from her characters and actually I think it’s a really good thing to sometimes allow the writer to cast who they want because they know what they’re looking for and she found the women that were in the story and everyone in the cast that I know of said they really saw themselves in the performances and things.

So what’s the reception been like for this play? It’s not an easy ride for anyone I think, there are some more controversial views in there so I’m wondering if you’ve had anyone take exception or if there’s been an influx of ‘I feel seen’ responses?

SJ: From my end, so positive, I’ve had so many different types of people respond to it. One thing I thought was interesting was when we did the workshop back in September, I was nervous that if you weren’t a Black woman or a white man, you wouldn’t understand. But we had a talk-back afterwards and the people who stayed for the talk-back were almost completely white and they loved it, so I was like ‘oh, okay, well other people can get something from this’. And since then, I mean I have friends who are lesbians, one’s white, the other is biracial; she’s half white, half Latina, and they loved it. I’ve had a man and a woman – both white, – they’ve loved it; I’ve had Black women who have dated and are dating white men – loved it. I’ve had people who are not white or Black – again, love it.

And I’ll say I have gotten one negative response to it about how it may be lacking in resources and not explaining things further. But I mean, I would say it’s a great conversation opener. Somebody asked me what do I want people to take away from this and I said conversations. I want people to watch it with someone, or get someone they know to watch it, you know, separately, and I want that conversation to happen. And I feel really proud to say that that’s happened. I had a friend who watched it and then I saw that her boyfriend bought a ticket and I said to her ‘oh, why did your boyfriend buy a ticket?’ And she said ‘because I really want someone to talk to about it’. And that’s amazing, that’s what I want – whether you hate my work or you love my work, I just want people to talk.

Your characters seem quite close in age and experience, so I’d be interested to know if you considered or maybe plan to include a much older or younger character to weigh in?

SJ: Well who Merryl replaced was a little bit older. I would say the age range of the characters was probably around 25-35 and I think it would be interesting to interview women in their fifties and even eighties – it would be super interesting if they had been together for forty years,  [asking] just how did you make that work? It would be an interesting piece for sure, but a very different piece.

Well I’ll just float the idea/ request for a return to this – it would be very interesting to see how things develop for the characters in terms of if kids did come into the mix and what that would mean for their experiences and so on – maybe in a few years or so?

SJ: If people keep chatting I’m sure I’m gonna be convinced! (laughs)

KW: I feel like that’s what attracted me to the piece in the first place, that it just doesn’t have an ending, in a good way – that those characters will continue, because they’re real people. It’s just an endless resource of what journeys add voices to the conversation and that was the thing when I read it, I was like this just has infinite possibilities and that’s so much more exciting, to be able to maybe drop in a few years from now.

And you’re set to tour BLACK WOMEN DATING WHITE MEN as a live piece again in 2021 – based on the adaptation of the piece for the online setting, will there be any changes as it heads back to the live version?

KW: Yeah, I think so – in the live setting when we were gonna go on tour, we were looking at maybe some dance and some movement and now we’ve done the Zoom, I’m like well can we maybe incorporate some screen work in there and some multimedia things. I think it depends on a) what our budget is and b) who we get and what we’re able to do. What I love though is that I don’t feel constricted by budget, so if we have a small budget I think it will be just as fantastic as if someone was to give us the main stage at the National, I’m like ‘fuck it, it’ll be great whatever we do! It’s an open book, which I love.

So you’re very proud of the fact that every single person involved in bringing this piece to audiences is a Black woman and I’m wondering if this is an element you want to pursue as a kind of defining feature of your work going forward?

SJ: As much as possible – I know for the tour we might bring in some movement directors who aren’t Black women but they still may be Black or part of a minority so I would say as much as possible our first choices are Black or mixed women and then we go from there.

KW: I think it’s from the working environment. Having spent a lot of my time in the West End and being sometimes the only Black woman or the only person of colour completely in a production, it’s just been so nice to kind of not have to be on guard the whole time, I can just be myself. And to say that after fourteen years in an industry is really quite shocking. For me, it’s more of a mental health thing, to be surrounded by people who are like you and understand you and you don’t have to explain yourself is something I’m really looking forward to being able to do. I started work on The Lion King last year and that’s where I met Merryl and that was the first time that it was an equal amount of people of different races and so once I experienced that I was like ‘well I can’t go back to how it used to be, because I’m just having too much fun and I’m just so relaxed’ (laughs). Now you add lockdown into it and I’ve been at home for six months and I’m like ‘oooh no, I have to keep going on this trajectory’.

And finally, is there anything else in the pipeline we should be keeping an eye out for?

KW: I think we just wanna keep working together anyway, so we had planned to do this with another play called PRESENT BLACK FATHERS and that was gonna be the whole night. So it would be from male and female perspectives but the goal was the dismantle stereotypes, you know, we often hear of this ‘absent Black father’ narrative being pushed in the media and so we thought that was a really good counter piece. So we’ll do that along with BLACK WOMEN DATING WHITE MEN. Then I think it was today that we were kind of like ‘ooh, maybe there’s a trilogy’ and were kind of starting to maybe find something else that will work as a trilogy and we can have a nice three part evening. And what’s nice is we have the time to kind of develop that and I think that would be a nice evening of Black verbatim theatre which is kind of what we wanted to do and seems to be at the heart of our working relationship.

So there you have it! You can keep up with Somebody Jones’ work via her Twitter and Instagram pages and with Khadifa Wong’s work via her Instagram and Website pages.

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