Arts in Color recently had the opportunity to interview multi-talented playwright, librettist, lyricist, and screenwriter Cheryl L Davis, who impressively balances her day job as a partner in a law firm with her award-winning writing career. In 2005, she won the prestigious Kleban Prize in Musical Theater for her work as a librettist. The same year, her musical Barnstormer was recognized with a Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Award via the The Lark Play Development Center. More recently, a 2014 production of her play Maid’s Door was recognized with 7 Vivian Robinson/AUDELCO “VIV” Recognition Awards for Excellence in Black Theatre, including Best Playwright and Dramatic Production of the Year.
Davis’ broad and multifaceted canon of work includes several plays focusing on the lives of artists or activists of color, including South African leader Nelson Mandela, singer Ma Rainey, poet Phyllis Wheatley, and director and film producer Oscar Micheaux. She generously took the time to answer some questions about herself, her work, and her new musical Bridges which is currently running at the Berkeley Playhouse in Berkeley, California.
Arts in Color: Could you tell our readers a little about yourself? What drew you to theatre and to writing?
Cheryl L Davis: By day, I’m a mild-mannered midtown Manhattan attorney. By night, I’m a writer. It seems that I’ve always been drawn to the theater, ever since seeing my first play in elementary school. I remember nagging my parents to take me to the theater as a child, and as soon I could, I started auditioning for school plays. My musical theater education really started when I started taking part in Scarsdale Summer Music Theater in my teens. It was there I fell in love with the collaboration of putting on musicals and performing them in front of live audiences. But it was seeing the film An American in Paris that really sparked my desire to write. There’s a moment after an exuberant and colorful series of dances with Leslie Caron when we see Gene Kelly standing alone, dressed in black, and the camera closes in on a rose in his hand. It’s then that we realize that the world we had spent time in, been enthralled by – didn’t actually exist. This artist had created it from nothing. I realized then that I wanted to create worlds that enraptured people like that.
AIC: Can you tell our readers a little bit about Bridges?
CLD: To me, Bridges is a story about pursuing social justice and finding one’s identity, as told through the prism of a family.
AIC: What do you enjoy about writing musicals?
CLD: I love the way music is a hotline past the intellect and directly to emotion. Just putting words to music automatically gives them greater emotional resonance and allows an actor to convey so much more than mere text can.
AIC: What has the process of developing a new production for the Berkeley Playhouse been like for you?
CLD: It has been wonderfully supportive, and exciting! This is my first full-length musical written on commission, and a new and fascinating collaborative process for me.
AIC: What inspired you to set this play in 1965 and 2008?
CLD: The Founding Artistic Director of the Berkeley Playhouse wanted a musical dealing with the Selma March, but she also wanted it to relate to the Bay Area. After some discussion on topics that were of importance to the area, Prop8 naturally came up, and we realized that we could draw a connection between the two civil rights movements.
AIC: Was setting the play in two very different musical eras challenging at all for you and your composer? What is your collaborative songwriting process?
CLD: “Challenging” doesn’t do it justice. Making two different time periods and story-lines both clear and entertaining was like working on a really complicated (but very cool) puzzle. And it was definitely fun writing for the different musical eras and styles.
AIC: What do you enjoy most about writing historical plays?
CLD: I adore history. I think it’s a tremendous source of untold stories, especially about the African-American community. One of my first musicals was about Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman flyer, and in fact, simultaneously with Bridges‘ premiere in Berkeley, my play Tuxedo Junction (about Erskine Hawkins, author of the famous song) is being performed in Birmingham, Alabama.
AIC: Are there things you discovered in your research for this musical that surprised or inspired you?
CLD: While I had some familiarity with the Selma March, it was only after my research that I learned that Jimmie Lee Jackson (whose death was one of the catalysts for the March) had died as the result of a police beating and gunshot wounds. It seemed to draw an unfortunate connection between how more recent police deaths had given rise to a more recent Black civil rights movement.
AIC: Can you tell us about some of the other plays and musicals you’ve written?
CLD: I have a website: www.cldplay.com
AIC: Are there particular themes or topics that have resonated with you as a writer?
CLD: History of all kinds (my first play was about Anne Boleyn & Henry VIII), but especially stories about African-American history.
AIC: Do you have any other upcoming productions you’d like to tell us about (including outside of the Bay Area)?
CLD: Other than Tuxedo Junction (see above), nothing else has yet been scheduled. Stay tuned!
AIC: What does it mean to you to be an artist of color? Do you have any advice for those of our readers who are aspiring playwrights of color?
CLD: I follow in the footsteps of so many wonderful artists that it intimidates me at times. And I view it as one of my primary responsibilities to tell stories of people of color, and to give opportunities to performers of color. But I believe I can best do that by being the best artist I can, so I am always trying to hone and improve my craft – and that’s the advice I would give to other artists of color.