A playwright and poet, Kathleen moved to California from Missouri to pursue her writing career. With a BA in Communication Studies and MA in Playwrighting and Dramaturgy she has taught creative writing, speech drama and debate in high school and community organizations in Kansas City, MO.
While living in California, she worked with the Robey Theatre Company’s Playwright’s Lab, with Phillip Hayes Dean. She completed her first Robey Theatre Company’s Playwright’s Lab in the Spring of 2003 with Kim Euell, climaxing with a rewrite of Whoa Men: A Female Buffalo Soldier, performed by Angela Bassett and CCH Pounder.
Kathleen was awarded a staged reading of Whoa Men: A Female Buffalo Soldier by the University of Louisville’s Department of Theatre －African American Theatre Program’s Juneteenth Celebration in June 2000. In addition, she has self-published three poetry books, Manifestations of Black Feminist Thought in Poetry and Drama, A Creative Light, and Continuum.
In her own words, Kathleen describes the inspiration behind and impetus for choosing to amplify the lives of diverse characters, real and imagined through her mind as a playwright and keen life observer. Lessons about American history and cultural complexities are examined through her exceptional lens. Moreover, she briefly shares the evolution of playwright Kathleen Shaw.
I think for me writing started when I was told to shut up. Writing became my refuge. A place where I can say what I want the way I want to say it. No one can cut me off.
When you are writing any kind of story it takes time to craft it. To find just the right word to paint the “write” picture. The best stories take you on a journey. The best ones take you to places you have never been. They make you see the world differently than your textbooks or your parents. I guess that is why I love the library so much. If I ever get rich I will donate one to a library, or maybe someone will name one after me with a section on performing arts.
I wrote Slave Mommas because when I was a young girl I watched Roots, with the rest of America. The scene when the woman has to take her daughter to the overseer for the night scared the piss out of me. The girl was so young, 13 or 14. The overseer told the mother earlier in the day to bring the girl to him that night. I felt that if I lived in those times that would have been my life, too.
I wrote Slave Mommas imagining what happened to that girl, when forced by her slave mother, to go to the room. When I wrote the rape scene, I added an element of dance, and a dash of voodoo. I added a chorus of witnesses and victims, and blood that moves like a bullet. I wanted to go into that room. Interestingly, in the black women’s history class I learned that black women had methods of resistance. Such as, starting businesses instead of being domestics a minute longer than necessary.
Although rape of slave women was commonplace at the time they still had their ways to resist. For example, groups of light skinned black women were kept as sex slaves of sorts all together so the white men could come and have sex with them anytime they wanted. However, because these mulatto women looked white the white men didn’t have to worry about getting some black on them. The men started to wonder why none of them ever became pregnant. As the story goes, the women were helping each other abort the pregnancies so they would not have any children with the white men who kept them as sex slaves.
Later in my development as a writer; especially, while going to college I had to deeply study history. As I sat in history classes I always thought, “I wonder what the black people are doing.” In Roots, they did not show the scene of what happened to the girl after she went into the room, but I always wondered. Through classes in black women’s history and other black history classes, I learned there were elements of resistance to slavery. There were also elements of mysticism and magic.
I wrote about Emily Fisher because she was from Missouri. Her name is on a statue dedicated to Pioneer women at a local history museum in Missouri. She was known for having the cleanest hotel in town in Independence, MO before the Civil War. After the war had torn through the town, she made an ointment which was given to her in a dream when she was visited by a big black man.
Upon awakening, she made this ointment and sold it. Emily Fisher was very dedicated to her church and donated money to help build it. I thought her story was quite impressive. Typically, we look to celebrities for images of success. However, as I matured and heard many stories my definition of success changed. Money and fame are no automatic tickets to happiness. Really, just living your life on purpose, in purpose brings joy. The journey is the thing.
Emily Fisher was a local woman in history who achieved success under much duress to be sure. She made a way out of no way, in Missouri.
Somewhere in Kansas I found Cathay Williams, a female Buffalo Soldier when I saw a U. S. Civil War reenactment. When I walked around to look at the display, there was a table for the Buffalo Soldiers. They had a drawing of her image or what the artist thought she looked like. I was surprised, of course. I went to the reenactment because I saw Beloved starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, and written by Toni Morrison. These reenactments involve actors dramatizing stories from history in costumes with equipment, and all. There were nurses, bayonets, and cannons in one area. In another area, townspeople were doing things like baking or children were playing games of the times － this is living history.
Again, I asked myself what were the black people doing at this time? Black women writers answer these questions for me. I like black men writers, too. No doubt. However, I have been inspired by black women writers because their stories resonate with my black woman’s heart. Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni have written poems about loneliness, black power, and fashion. Same things I deal with today.
They have all written about the many faces women have worn in American society. Cathay Williams wore the face of a man while she served with the 34th infantry in 1835. She wore the uniform for three years. Not until she became ill and had to go to the doctor did anyone learn about her secret. Cathay Williams died in poverty and alone. She was denied her military pension because she was a woman, even though her paperwork proved that she served. Since going down that road, I have discovered many women dressed as men to serve in various military battles, or for other reasons.
Women have long been soldiers and warriors, and had to learn how to fight for their lives, and the lives of their families. Alice Walker states, “The life you save may be your own.” I think Michael Jackson used the phrase in a song, too. With that life, what will you do? What will I do?
Madam CJ Walker
I wrote about Madam CJ Walker because when I came across her story in history, I thought how awesome is this? The first African American woman to earn a million dollars through hard work. She was born into a sharecropping family. She was the first in her family to be born not a slave. That is pretty powerful motivation to make changes in your life. Then she had a child to raise and that was more motivation to work hard and earn money. She used funds from the sales of her hair care products to support many causes which helped black people; such as, the anti-lynching campaign and promoting women as business owners. There are so many types of hair care products in the stores now that I almost don’t know which kind to buy. Any woman or man can have any hairstyle they want now.
Walker also participated in politics and related meetings. She was a very strong education advocate going so far as to build her own schools to teach the Walker Beauty System. Walker also made financial donations to support black educational institutions. She not only had to deal with discrimination from whites but also discrimination from black business men. Madam CJ Walker became a very driven woman. Her daughter, as an adult, supported and participated in events related to the Harlem Renaissance hosting many of the events at their villa.
In Life Lines Roger and Olivia have been married four years. They have been together longer. It is only when Jay Jay shows up that a secret from her husband’s past is revealed. In Life Lines’ original version the wife was pregnant. In the final version, she had a miscarriage (due to creative differences). Her man is temporarily out of work and she is feeling stressed about it. Now this strange dude is tripping in her home!
Many of us make mistakes; then we have to live with the consequences. However, as any good self- help writer will tell you you can’t live in the past and expect to have a happy future. We need to look at our past collectively and individually for many reasons. When we start to ask why this or why that, there has to be an answer. Then you realize or learn that you were not the first one who asked that question. You won’t be the last. It is part of the journey of humanity and spirit. What are you going to do with your life? Who will testify for you, your life, the how’s and the whys of then and now. We are each other’s lifelines. Who shall we let break us apart?
I took a collection of stories based on the stories written to go with quilt squares for a community project facilitated by international textile artist NedRa Bonds, and the UMKC Women’s Center. Of course I added a dancer. I can’t help that I love dance. Maybe I was a dancer in another life. These quilt stories inspired the collection Stitches.
The title I chose for the script was adopted for the whole project and art display for the program in February 2013. The play was directed by Dr. Jennifer Martin of the UMKC Theatre Department. I always planned to write a few more scenes. For all the ways people are different, we are the same in many ways. We know them: food, clothing, shelter, a home, love, God, education, a safe place for our children to play. Access to healthcare for all our family members and friends.
I have also had the experience of being told to make my writing more universal, which really means take all the black out. Then, any actor can be in your plays, I’ve been advised. We won’t have to do any special casting. We’ll just work with what we have. Good thing Zora Neale Hurston was proud of her black culture. She was an anthropologist who studied black people in Eatonville, FL where she was from. She went to Haiti to collect stories and traveled many other places. The stories she wrote were in the language of the people she recorded, poor blacks, people who lived off the land, sharecroppers, folks who built the all black town of Eatonville, where she grew up.
Hurston didn’t think black people where less than white people. She felt their culture, our culture, was just as good as theirs, including the language she used for her characters, their own natural cadence. De’s and dats for these and that. Hurston studied voodoo in such detail that when Alice Walker wanted to write about voodoo for a story she had to read through all the white writers’ research only to find Zora’s name in a footnote.
The name intrigued her so much that she had to find out who she was. One thing led to another and Alice Walker found Zora’s gravesite unmarked and unkempt. She had the area cleaned up and had a headstone placed. This journey in Alice Walker’s life to find Zora Neale Hurston showed how black women writers thought of their characters.
In Their Eyes were Watching God, Zora’s main character, Janie finds love at the end of her life. After two previous loveless marriages. This writing is a model for black women writers characters which has been passed to others. We have been labeled everything but a child of God from the mouths of our enemies. Out of the mouths of some musicians we have been looked at without love. So these are some of the stories I wanted to tell. The story of victimization and victory. That is the transition of every hero’s journey and every good story.
Goin’ Back in Time
Goin’ Back in Time is the story of a family dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. I wrote this story years ago when my step-grandfather Roland Tyler was diagnosed with the disease. I was just a kid, but I heard bits and pieces about his declining health and behavior. There was a time when all the kids where in the back behind the house in Atchison, KS. Behind the house was a common place for all the kids to play and hangout when everyone was gathered at Grandmother’s house and the parents started saying, “Go outside.” Anyway, the time came for all the adults to move the cars and grandfather Tyler was in one of the cars. I was standing behind the car. I thought a good enough distance. I remember my father telling me to move away and I did, much farther. When Grandfather Roland was given the signal to back up, he gunned the engine and the car jerked and went really fast. I can’t remember if he hit the wall or slammed on the brakes. The thing that really got me later upon reflection was that if I hadn’t moved I could have been run over by that car.
Although this was a sign that I was being cared for, it was also a sign that Grandfather Tyler was losing his hearing and I don’t know what else. He eventually died from the disease. I didn’t know what to say, so I wrote a play about the essential elements of living with Alzheimer’s disease. All the characters are black. There are only four. The older ones are about 70-something for the mother and father, and two 30-something adult children.
There were some other portions of the story inspired by true life as well. In the play, I write that the wife, Sable, has to pull a spoon out of her husband’s hand. She being 70 and he being pretty much the same age. They have been married forever. This tug of war really scares Sable. “It was a spoon this time but what about next time, when it’s not a spoon?” She goes on to tell her daughter and son the story relayed to her by one of the ladies she plays bridge with about a lady who had a male relative who had been placed in some sort of institution because of Alzheimer’s disease.
Sometimes the patients have dementia and bouts of anger and various stages of memory loss. Well, in real life my grandmother, Vearl Tyler told the story of the man in the mental institution begging the lady to let him come home for Thanksgiving. He begged and begged the poor lady so much that she let him come home for the holiday. During his visit home, the man took a butcher knife and killed her with it. He had some sort of mental break. So, all those things conspired for the development of the one-act script Going Back in Time.
Back in the late eighties in Kansas City Missouri, the script was picked up by the Heartland Chapter of the National Alzheimer’s Association. The lady who was in charge of the program licensed the script to introduce education workshops about the disease in the black community. I had actors read the script. We didn’t have props and sets, just scripts and the actors were all professional. When I moved to California I stopped doing that project. My focus turned to working with larger art communities to see how it’s done, so to speak.
The Shoe Wizard Brings a Brand New Dance
The Shoe Wizard Brings a Brand New Dance is part Black Fantasy Island, part Black Disney princessesque with Cinderella, Dorothy from Kansas, and Matilda, the cashier with a bad leg who has been in therapy for years, and a switcheroo attitude…Sharlene the sista’ looking for a new pair of combat boots to keep her moving.
The Store owner of the specialty boutique has shoes for every size foot. Sharlene wears a size twelve, wide. There are no male characters in this piece. At the time of the initial writing of this script I felt under attack by some men, directly and indirectly. I had a writing assignment due for a workshop and this script is what I created. They told me to stay in reality. In The Shoe Wizard, I wanted women to realize that there is a lot of beauty in individuality. There is much strength in community as well. Also at this specialty shoe store you can get any kind of shoe. Sharlene looking for combat boots reflected my feeling to stomp those men attacking me—I couldn’t say what I felt. So, I wrote it. I needed a place to feel safe-a place with no men. In my life at that time, I was wishing I could buy some new shoes. This community of women in the shoe store represent class as well.
I set up the characters as African American business women. Dorothy owns a farm with the boys and one of their crops is corn. She made lots of money and was there to get a new pair of ruby red slippers. Her last pair had broken because she kept wearing them around on the farm.
Cinderella was there because it was her anniversary of her marriage to the prince. She needed a new pair of glass slippers to celebrate. She could afford a new pair of glass slippers because of all her experience cleaning and the prince’s hook-ups, Cinderella had her own cleaning business which employed 500 employees. Sharlene was not one of the fancy girls. Mathilda was limping and sucking up to Cinderella and Dorothy and ignoring Sharlene until she tries to give the fancy girls a flyer about a fundraiser for shoes for children. Mathilda snatches the flyer out of her hand and Sharlene reprimands her about customer service. Glenda, the store owner comes from the back after finishing a call to work her magic. In this place it is safe to be a female. It is safe to feel what you feel. I again added dance to this script. Each characters has her own shoes and her own dance. At the end, Glenda, choreographs all their dances into one soul-searing power dance, even Mathilda. In the place of this story I was safe. Safe enough to dance. Not be attacked or dismissed, but taken care of even. Something that I did not feel at the time, from any direction.
Recovering the Sky
I wrote this play because initially I read an article in the New York Times and other publications about two women in a village in Afghanistan picking up cluster bombs with their hands and shovels. These larger bombs opened up and smaller bomblets dropped out. They were curiously similar in shape, size and color to some food packages that had been dropped over there by Americans. Anyway, children were picking them up and getting injured and in some cases dying. The men of the village told them to not touch them, but the women did anyway and cleaned up their village. They felt that after seeing the children die they needed to do something.
During the time I was writing this script the dramaturg kept telling me I was writing about myself. I was so amazed by these women. I think he wanted to know what attracted me to this story. I said it was basically me sitting in my home feeling angry and depressed about my struggle in life. I was a single parent living in California with financial struggles all the time. I had a full time job an hour away, and I was trying to participate in art activities, and take care of home with my son. So, I felt like this story about the women in Afghanistan who were picking up bombs. I felt like I had personal bombs in my life which had left me feeling devastated, like another bad relationship down the tubes right in the middle of my MA program.
Today, I am finally past the anger. However, the place where I found a common ground was the sky between the women in Afghanistan and Vikki Brown a radio reporter who reports the story of the women. She is a single parent because her husband of fifteen years died. I added a large window to the scene design and as we go through the story with all the characters we see the sky reflect the emotions of what is going on onstage with the characters. The window shows all variations of weather, fireworks, and finally blue skies. Vikki Brown feels inspired by the fear and courage of the women in Afghanistan to move on with her life for herself, her son and her family. Even the lingering spirit of her husband has to move on.
The inspiration for writing Voodoo Women occurred after I heard a story in theatre history class about a writer who wrote a play about some people in Haiti a long time ago. The townspeople liked the play, but a critic did not, and said so. Some Haitian voodoo folks chanted all night and the critic was dead the next day.
In Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby the trees in the rainforest were described as old wispy women of the swamp who came down in the fog. They even had conversations about what was happening on the swamp floor. So do trees talk? Are they inhabited by spirits? They are alive. They grow. They die and transform into a table or chair. Does their energy die then? I combined all this in slave mommas to show slave mothers and other women, combined their energy and blood to make a potion to take back to the slave master to put in his drink. He wouldn’t notice anyway, a little at a time. The potion and the energy of the dance chorus combine to drive him mad in his dreams. In the final scene the voodoo woman enters and dances on the slavemaster, Frank’s bed on top of him until he dies screaming. For those who read this and wonder why the slave mothers didn’t do this sooner to prevent the rape, my answer is this: during this time these types of rapes could not be prevented. My wanting was to see and explore was the rape in the room in Roots. I think the night after I watched that episode I dreamed I was in that room. Very scary.
The thoughts about Frank going insane and being a drinker were exploring how slavery affected the slave master or the overseer, or whoever. We speak a lot about how slavery affected black people. But slavery and all its accoutrements have affected the people who benefited from its labor. Those who enforced the rules of the day. I imagine many of them have been haunted by their acts. Teaching their philosophies to their children.