‘Asylum’ playwright wants art to inspire action

‘Asylum’ playwright wants art to inspire action

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Cheril N. Clarke is a prolific and innovative writer whose repertoire includes novels, erotic vignettes, books for children of LGBT families and the thought-provoking play “Intimate Chaos,” based on her novel of the same name — “an emotional whirlwind [where] two women struggle to learn lessons from past mistakes and apply them to future attempts at making things right.” Clarke’s second play, “Asylum,” featuring the attempted honor killing of a young lesbian from Uganda by her father, world-premiered in New York with great success, winning the Audience Award of the 2012 Downtown Urban Theater Festival. “Asylum,” now directed by Kash Goins with Philadelphia actors, will premier at The Stagecrafters Theater in Chestnut Hill July 24-26.

PGN: Quite a few of your earlier novels and stories deal with sexy characters and scenes. What made you stop writing erotic works?

CC: It’s important for me to stimulate myself with different genres every few years. That is not to say I wouldn’t revisit a particular genre after I’ve taken a departure — I might. My works move in tandem with the ebb and flow of my life and, at this time, there are many other things inspiring the stories I want to tell.

PGN: You married the love of your life. What’s the secret of your successful marriage?

CC: Yes, I’m grateful every day to know that I was lucky enough to marry my best friend. Monica and I have been together for over a decade now and my love for her rivals my need for breathing. She has helped me grow into the woman I’ve become and continues to inspire me, every day, to be my greatest self. The secret to our marriage is compatibility, respect, honest communication on a daily basis. It’s the fact that we were engaged for about a year-and-a-half before getting married, and during that time we got to know each other thoroughly and made sure that we were willing to do whatever it required for us to have a healthy, lasting and loving relationship. We set goals with timelines and achieved all of them on time if not early. We understand and respect what’s important to each other and on the rare occasions where our desires don’t align, we talk until we solve the dilemma and find solutions. We leave no room for guessing at what each other wants. This is all by design and intention. Our marriage today is standing on the foundation we started building almost 12 years ago.

PGN: You and Monica, your wife, have co-authored books, too.

CC: She and I have co-authored books, but more than that, we co-own the Dodi Press Company that publishes our works and the works of authors around the world. We also own the parent company, which focuses on producing positive, multi-cultural depictions of the LGBT community, including a stock photo company (which is in the works) — www.gaystockmedia.com — to fill the void of images that positively reflect the diversity within our community. 

PGN: What’s your secret of blending a marriage with your creative publishing enterprise?

CC: We work better together than with anyone else. That’s one thing we’ve learned over the years with many of our ventures, including our marriage: communication, planning, enacting those plans, revising when needed, etc. We run our marriage like we’d run a family business — with passion, love, courage, sacrifice and commitment to experience quality over the long haul.

PGN: Many of your earlier novels are erotic. Yet, you also have authored moving children’s books for LGBT families. Were eyebrows raised when first you published such contrasting works?

CC: Good question. I stopped focusing on erotic novels many years before writing children’s books, so, fortunately, there were no questions raised. The novels were for adults and the kids’ books were for children. Our lives are multi-faceted and I really don’t think writers should be restricted to one medium or a single target audience for the bulk of their careers. That could get very boring, and I don’t like boring. My work has evolved with me, from a single young teenager to a family woman, business owner, adventure seeker and beyond.

PGN: What inspired you to write “Asylum,” based on a true story about a young woman who has to flee Uganda to avoid getting “honor killed” because her sexuality does not conform to her family’s heterosexist norms? Unfortunately, so-called honor killings of LGBT people take place not only in Africa, but on all continents to this day.

CC: I first heard about this story while doing freelance work for Out IN Jersey magazine. There was a petition going around to help this woman, Prossy Kakooza, appeal her case for asylum. Though we are exposed to terrible news stories every day, this one truly stuck with me. It wouldn’t let me go. So, I asked my editor if he knew of a way I could speak with her. Through a series of connections, I was able to do just that. I was blown away by the calm and courage of this woman who had endured so much.

PGN: How did you communicate with the young lesbian who fled Uganda?

CC: We corresponded quite a bit in the beginning. I’d initially written her just to ask if there was anything else I could do to help her case and to offer sisterhood, despite the distance between us. Over time, we spoke more and more about everyday things as well as what she’d survived and, at some point, I became inspired to tell her story. We spoke primarily through email for years as I carefully crafted “Asylum.” Sometimes we used Skype, but the time difference made that challenging. I didn’t want to be like other writers about whom she’d told me, those who stuck a tape recorder in her face, hoping to “get her story” after just having met. I just wanted to be a friend and, with that approach, came her trust in me with her life story. This began a friendship that stands to this day. My wife and I did meet her and her partner, Leah, when we went to Manchester, U.K., last fall. It happened to be gay Pride weekend, which made it all the more surreal. It was one of the most amazing moments of our lives to be in their presence — two women who looked like us and loved like us, but who had almost paid the ultimate price for their love. Their courage and strength made an indelible impression on us, and we’re grateful to have crossed paths with them and be able to tell their story.

PGN: Black women have been marginalized for a long time, black lesbians even more so. It has been said that you are “passionate about bringing to life the stories of black gays and lesbians,” especially as they have “often been left out of the mainstream when it comes to realistic portrayals and genuine life experience.” You even violate an old unwritten rule that African-American writers are not supposed to share with the rest of the world the “many layers, including domestic violence and vigilance, religion and oppression” within the black community as portrayed in “Asylum” — a play that has been considered “absorbing as much as it is shocking.”

CC: I should include bisexuals in that quote because they are a segment that is often left out and misunderstood, even within the LGBTQ community. I’m a strong advocate for bisexual people, too. I think there may have been a time of having an unwritten rule that African-Americans, in general, should not share with the rest of the world the many layers of our being. If anyone could break those rules, however, I think it would be writers and other artists — those who regularly walk the tightrope of societal pressure and freedom of expression. Unwritten rules are of no matter to me. Silence has rarely protected anyone. Lack of communication and unwillingness to explore the things that make us more alike than unalike stall progress and equality. In my works, I’m specifically seeking exposure that cannot be ignored, cannot be denied and cannot be forgotten. I am pushing for a perspective beyond traditional, safe and even proper. I want my art to inspire action, and honesty is the best way for me to accomplish that. 

PGN: Soon Philadelphia will see your moving play. Tell us about this new production of “Asylum,” directed by Kash Goins.

CC: The new production is my best work to date and, with Kash at the helm, I’m more excited than I could ever be about presenting it in Philadelphia. New scenes have been added since its first showing in New York City and the returning cast members, as well as myself, have all grown as artists. “Asylum” is just as delicate as it is strong because it recounts some of the most horrific events that happened to real people who had done nothing but fallen in love in a place where their love was illegal — punishable by prison and death. This play has been nurtured for years to reach a palpable point of maturity, and it is ripe for presentation to the Philadelphia theater community.

PGN: Much of your work brings attention to women’s rights and human rights as they cross paths with gay rights, sometimes even within the context of the African diaspora. How do you keep readers interested in such important, but complex subjects?

CC: I make sure there is balance in the presentation. It would be too intense to have such hard topics driven at full speed from beginning to end, and it wouldn’t be an accurate reflection of humanity. Even the persons who are deemed the bad characters by the majority have redeeming qualities about them. They have to have layers. I work to keep audiences interested by using a combination of poetic prose, crisp comedy, and providing honest portrayals of universal themes. Everyone can relate to hope, fear, guilt, the need for love and a craving for dignity.

PGN: Any chance of bringing the young woman from Uganda and her wife to the United States to see your play?

CC: Prossy has actually seen a video-recorded version of “Asylum” after the NYC world premiere, but it took her time to view it. While we [audience members] are watching it live in the United States, we have to remember that “Asylum” is based on a true story. All of the horrific events portrayed happened to these women. Rape. Torture. Ridicule. Abandonment. Loss of family. All of this is theater to us but very real to them, as is the post-traumatic stress syndrome. Seeing the play live dramatizes it even more than watching a recording. Of course, I’d be happy for Prossy to see a live performance when that perfect time has come.

PGN: Given the violence against people of color and members of the LGBT community — from hiring and firing at will in the United States to witch hunts in Africa — what do you think might help to reach fundamentalists in the United States and overseas who are responsible for a great deal of discrimination and hateful actions, and perhaps engage them in a dialogue to see that we all have much more in common with each other than anything that might separate us?

CC: Reaching fundamentalists is one of the toughest tasks oppressed people face, but on an individual basis, a first step would be to try and understand them first before trying to get them to understand us. A favorite quote of mine is “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care … about them” by Zig Ziglar. We cannot assume we know why they feel what they feel so we must create opportunities where we can ask questions. Asking specific questions automatically gives them a chance to start thinking about why they believe what they believe. It challenges them, particularly when you decrypt their religious-speak into relatable language and modern-day examples. And when it’s our turn to speak, we must find a way to demonstrate that agreeing with freedom for all who are not harming or endangering others will not dismantle their faith. Fundamentalists are entitled to their beliefs that their religion doesn’t condone homosexuality, but what does that have to do with fair housing, access to medical care, fair taxes, employment practices, protection from bullying, torture and death? We must show fundamentalists that one’s fighting for these things has absolutely no bearing on their personal faith — that homosexuality is not a communicable disease that will wipe out the world. After all, most of us were born to heterosexual parents! And we must personalize our conversation. My wife and I have been together for more than a decade and I do not see any way our union has infringed on the rights of others. Most don’t even know we’re married unless we tell them. Our relationship could be invisible if we wanted it to be but we choose not to. There is no inspiration or strength in being silent or invisible. 

PGN: What would you say to the new generation of young LGBT poets, story writers, novelists and playwrights to move forward as creative artists and build an audience?

CC: Don’t be afraid to tell your truths, but study those who were great at their crafts so that you can tell your story in the most riveting way possible. Technique is equally as important as content. Be bold, be daring and be exceptional in all that you do.

PGN: What are your next plans?

CC: I am going to continue bringing “Asylum” to new audiences while I work on a brand-new play that delves into the lives of murdered members of the American LGBT community, particularly black trans women.

For more information on “Asylum,” visit www.asylumtheplay.com.


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