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Building a Paradise

An interview with Paradise Blue Director Stori Ayers

Director Stori Ayers has been collaborating with playwright Dominique Morisseau for years, directing and performing in numerous plays of Dominique’s—including multiple plays in “The Detroit Project,” the trilogy that includes Paradise Blue. During the early days of rehearsal, Director of New Play Development Rachel Wiegardt-Egel asked Stori to share some words about what directing this play in this specific moment means to her.

Rachel Wiegardt-Egel: What has artistic work looked like for you over the last year and a half, and what does it mean to be coming back to in-person theater with this particular play?

Stori Ayers: This past year I had the opportunity to work in the American theatre on the other side of the table. Meaning I wasn't freelancing as an actor or director because the theatre was shut down. But rather working inside of White American Theatre in a way that I had never done before. The pandemic provided me with opportunities to serve my industry in a new and exciting way that I hadn't really considered. I was offered and accepted two positions. I was the Artistic Directing Fellow at Cleveland Playhouse and the new Associate Artistic Director at Chautauqua Theatre Company. And I accepted these positions during a time when our world, our country, and our industry was under great distress and in need of re-imagining and re-envisioning a new culture for us all to live and work in equally and equitably. A culture void of white supremacy. And I had answered the call.

While in these positions, that I no longer hold, there was not a day that went by where I did not suffer the extreme consequences of being the only black woman in these spaces. Where I felt the full weight of white supremacy culture. Where my understanding of just how deep the roots of racism are embedded within our culture left me heart-broken, disenchanted, and bordering on hopeless. Not a day went by where I didn't ask myself, "What's the point?" and "Why am I spending so much energy fighting to be accepted fully into this space?" and I had to honestly ask myself if I believed it was even possible to truly dismantle white supremacy. I heard phrases and words like "burn it down" and "defund" and "anti-racist" and I tried to fathom and imagine what life could look like on the other side of those calls to action.

And then one day I saw on the news a story that stole my breath. While I was elbows deep in White American Theatre, I read a story about 19 black families who had purchased 97 acres of land in Georgia. They called it the Freedom Georgia Initiative. It was led by two black women—no surprise there—and they purchased this land out of an extreme sense of urgency to create a thriving safe haven for black families in the midst of racial trauma, a global pandemic, and economic instabilities across the U.S. They aim to build a new city for black families and they want to call it Freedom, GA.

I have never seen a place like this in my lifetime. I couldn't even really conceive of it. I had heard of Tulsa and read about the flooding and drowning of black towns in America over the years. But it all happened before I was born. And over the years, black folks seemed to learn that communities like this would not be allowed. So the attempt to build our own cities and safe havens ceased. Until now.

I understood so deeply what these black families in Georgia longed for and what they wanted. I wanted it too. And I want it now. I desire a place where I can self-actualize as an artist and human being. Where I can reach my highest potential and become the most that I can be, live out my purpose without being thwarted by systems designed to kill and destroy me and my family. I desire a place to work that doesn't treat me like a burden to be tolerated and tokenized. I desire a Paradise. And I don't want to have to die to get it in heaven. I want it now.

Paradise Blue is about a place just like the one I desire. It tells the story of a black community, known for its freedom and the liberation of black people, at the cusp of being destroyed by a system of white supremacy rooted in racism. And the communities fight with the city and itself to hold onto the place they call home. As I continue to pray for those families in Georgia. Pray for their success and longevity. Pray that their efforts to build a city where the basic physiological needs (breath, food, water, shelter, clothing, sleep) of black people are provided. And the safety and security needs (health, employment, property) are actually met. I also honor the ground that the vision of this community stands on. I honor Blackbottom and Paradise Valley in Detroit, Michigan.

Telling this story now, in the fall of 2021, after the year I just had with White American Theatre, is about shining a light on the American History that has consistently robbed black Americans of their constitutional rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Rights that they have only truly obtained in the communities that they have built for themselves. My hope is that, as black Americans witness this story, they are encouraged to continue fighting for their own spaces. Encouraged to build spaces together and resist the system that teaches us to value white spaces over our own. This story is about a black woman, much like the two who founded the Freedom Georgia Initiative, who understands the value of Paradise to the survival of the black community in Detroit. We embark on a journey with her as she finds the strength to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the most valuable asset for the black American: ownership.

RW: For those not working in the theater, it can be hard to know exactly how a director brings a play from page to stage. What does the role of a director mean to you?

SA: The playwright writes the play. The director writes the production. The audience writes the story. Directing is about vision first, leadership second, and bridging the gap between playwright and audience third.

I'm responsible for honoring the playwright's intentions with a clear vision of how we will tell the story. The vision is the creative element that I bring to the table. It's my job to understand the play as the playwright intended and develop a controlling idea that guides the storytelling. I decide the tone, the style, and how we will execute the genre the play is written in. I lay the train tracks that each designer and actor will build their design element or performance on top of. It's my job to assemble a team that can also honor the playwright's intentions while executing the vision I have set for the production. Then I lead the team down the train tracks I have set. My father taught me that a good leader leads from the back, pushing everyone forward. I am responsible for creating an environment where everyone serving the story feels equipped with the information and resources needed to execute their area of expertise. I do that by listening, being proactive, learning how to speak their language to communicate effectively and articulating the vision in a way that they can receive it. By opening, my hope is that the audiences that will experience the play will walk away with a clear understanding of the story, the controlling idea, and a call to action. All my work as a director asks something of the audience by the end of the play. I just pray they answer.

RW: You and playwright Dominique Morisseau have a longstanding artistic relationship. What is it about her work that draws you in?

SA: Before we had an artistic relationship, we had a personal one. One where she invested in my development as a student first. Then prioritized my growth as a woman over my artistic career. I am drawn to her as a leader, mentor, and friend first. And I would not be the woman I am today without the investment that she has made into me. As I continue to grow under Dominique's mentorship and friendship, my mother is made even more proud of the woman I am becoming. I could not ask for anything more. Dominique's consciousness, activism, passion for Detroit, love of black people, and deep admiration and respect for her family is the foundation on which her stories are built. I'm drawn to her work because I'm able to live out my own purpose through her plays.

Paradise Blue

NOV 9 – NOV 22, 2021
Written by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Stori Ayers
Featuring Tyla Abercrumbie, Wendell B. Franklin, Alani iLongwe, John Earl Jelks & Shayna Small

Welcome to the sultry, jazz-filled Paradise Club. It’s 1949 in Detroit, and trumpet-playing club owner Blue has a tough decision to make. Should he sell his jazz joint as gentrification is banging on the door? The house band is desperate to stay, Blue’s demons are tempting him to leave, and the arrival of a seductive stranger turns everything upside down. In Tony Award-nominated playwright Dominique Morisseau’s (Ain’t Too Proud, Skeleton Crew) powerful noir-inspired drama, a makeshift family and their troubled bandleader find themselves fighting for the future of Paradise.


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