SPOTLIGHT INTERVIEW: FRANCISCA DA SILVEIRA IN CONVERSATION WITH MFONISO UDOFIA
Spotlight Interview: Francisca Da Silveira in conversation with Mfoniso Udofia.
With the arrival of newcomer Jesuína, the Count now has a wife for every day of the week! But her rebellious personality causes dissent among the other wives, shaking up their routine and causing some to finally see the inequity of this unorthodox polygamous marriage. When Jesuína makes a bold proposal, the women in Francisca Da Silveira’s The Merry Wives of Grenoble are forced to reevaluate their relationships to one another, to themselves, and to their home.
Fran recently connected with playwright Mfoniso Udofia for a wide-ranging, generous dialogue about integrating diasporic identity, the care-ethics of rehearsing difficult work, colorism, and the expansive power of writing plays in cycles. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length, and contains some spoilers.
Mfoniso Udofia (MU): I’m happy to meet you, and to meet another African playwright.
Francisca Da Silveira (FD): I’m excited to talk about what that means!
MU: Maybe we should start there. I said, nice to meet another African playwright. How is that for you? Is that true? What would you say of yourself?
FD: I would totally say that that is true. And I think that that’s something I’m trying to own more and more. Both as personal identity, and then also writer-identity as well.
MU: Is there a struggle there?
FD: Well, I put in my bio, “Cape Verdean American playwright,” which is both true and false. I was born in Cape Verde and moved to the U.S. when I was four, and didn’t get my American citizenship until I was sixteen, because that’s when my parents got it. And so I have always identified with being Cape Verdean, always identified with being African, but knowing that I grew up in America. I think it was the American identity that I’ve always sort of struggled with.
MU: What parts of it feel tough?
FD: I think it’s really, what are the connotations of it? I’ve lived abroad, and it’s like, what do people know about Americans? What do people think about Americans? And then also having grown up in a very concentrated Cape Verdean community, and being steeped in the food and the language. But, the educational life was all super American, and the cultural life—in terms of music, for example—was mostly American. And now in my adulthood, and as I’m exploring my art more, I’m like, Why don’t I know more about Cape Verdean theater? Why isn’t that something that I was taught growing up? I know food. I know church. I know all of the other aspects. But sort of trying to mash those things together. I don’t know if that makes sense.
MU: It does. When growing up, it felt like, inside, private, was Nigerian, and outside, public, was American, and I lived easy in that kind of separated space. And then it’s when I went to college that I was like, Well, what is integration? And how do I do that? There was a lot of learning how to braid those things together.
I think that’s also a part of what I’m hearing you articulating around, What is Cape Verdean theater? I am deciding that I want to be an artist—or, it has chosen me, it’s calling me—and I want to write from there. Have you done any research into what Cape Verdean theater is?
FD: During the pandemic, I started digging into Cape Verdean theater, and reading about theater festivals that happen every year, and it sort of being tied to the church. Another piece of it is that Cape Verde is ten separate islands, and each island has their own identity, and this big festival that happens every year does not happen on my island. And so I’ve been like, This is something that I want to go to! This is something that I want to be a part of! It’s called Mindelact. It’s an international festival. And I have become close with a dramaturg and theater teacher in Boston who wrote her dissertation on Cape Verdean theater. I read her dissertation, and we’re going to work on some projects together.
MU: Oh that’s wonderful! You have found yourself a mentor of some sort, too.
FD: Yeah, and really excited, and really putting myself in the shoes of, I am learning. I am by no means attempting to be an expert, or to speak for my culture, but trying to figure out, where do my stories and where does my identity fit?
MU: Can I ask a couple questions about The Merry Wives of Grenoble? Because I read the play. It is a gorgeous piece—
FD: —thank you—
MU: —and I would love for people to hear from you what the inspiration behind this piece was.
FD: The Merry Wives of Grenoble is based on the myth that is my great great, great grandfather, who was a white French count, who came from Grenoble, France, traveled around the Cape Verde Islands and then chose to settle on my island and basically like, populate it. I say “myth” because there’s a lot of mystery around him, and why exactly he left France. Some say that he was running away, and was on his way to Brazil.
MU: Something I loved, reading it, was that I never got to see his face. I thought it was a wonderful theatrical device that we didn’t see this thing that was propelling the action.
FD: Yeah, that was very intentional—but still wanting to retain his presence. And he is someone that I’ve heard about my whole life. The Montrond name is very popular, it’s one of those last names in Cape Verde like, you know, “Johnson” or whatever. And there’s sort of an air about it.
This is on my dad’s side of the family. And I discovered that there was a documentary about him. And when I was googling online—Ancestry.com—there were so many people that were also trying to find the same man, the same ancestor. He has a nickname, and this is what the documentary is called—his nickname was Odjo Branco.
MU: What does that mean?
FD: It means White Eyes. And there’s an image of him online, a very old photograph, that’s very imposing looking. Angelic, but also imposing looking. It’s an image that I’ve grown up with. During the pandemic, as I was exploring my genealogy, and reading about him…I found an article that listed the names of these women who were his wives. And seeing those names, I was like, oh, there needs to be something about them. And it needs to be only them.
And obviously there’s a lot of fictionalizing that occurred. They did not all live together, as they do in the play—
MU: —it kind of leads into my next question. Did you make up their personalities? Did you know, for example, that Guilhermina was an alcoholic?
FD: No. All I had were the names of the women. I also didn't know, and still don’t know, which one of them is my great, great, great grandmother. I say to myself, if this play ever gets produced, I want my sister to write the name on a letter and give it to me on opening night. I didn’t want to know because I didn’t want to treat her—whoever that person was—any differently.
MU: What a beautiful way to look at it though. So not to privilege one woman over the others.
So all of this came from your imagination. I’m interested in the impulses that created these women, if you can remember what they are, because they are so singular. I will tell you when I was reading it, I was like, okay, am I going to be able to keep up with who all of the women are? And I was! Thank you very much for writing so brilliantly! But it made me wonder how you knew who they were. Do you remember what some of those impulses were?
FD: I think, because I knew I wanted it to be an ensemble piece, I knew that they each needed to have very specific personalities, something that would drive each of them in those scenes in which they are all together. And so I think, starting large—and I know this is a bad word to use, but a little bit, in caricature—and then sort of complicating and adding nuance. So, like, Antónia specifically is “the pious one”. I was also thinking about how each of these personalities sort of ties into a theme, or into a question that I had about this man and what he represented. With Clementina, who starts the wine business, that is a nod to the fact that there is this specific area at the base of the volcano, a town there called Chã de Caldeiras, where there’s a really thriving wine business. And he is meant to have been the one who brought the grapes—that part of the story, or the myth, is true. But sort of turning it on its head—he was just doing it for himself, and here is this woman who has seen an opportunity, it’s really her endeavor that makes it thrive.
MU: I find it so interesting, also, when you’re talking about a white interloper into this predominantly black space, that these black women were really exploding and finding ways to thrive in an unenviable situation. It was very resourceful.
FD: Thank you. That was one of the impulses for writing this play in this series, the Volcano series that it is part of—and also the piece of it that scares me the most. Because a piece of what I wanted to explore, with tracking my genealogy, is where do the elements of my color come from? And how within my family, among my siblings—I have two sisters, and eight brothers—I am the lightest in my family. And when we are all together, it is something that is pointed out and sort of made fun of. And so I was trying to figure out—DNA and genes are really interesting!
MU: They are. They are.
FD: And it is partly because of this man that I have come out the way that I have come out, and on my dad’s side of the family, why certain people look the way that they do. I was just really interested in sort of tracking that back. And going, what are the consequences of that? Both for me, and also for the other characters and the other plays within the series. So there’s that piece of it. And there’s also—while I was doing research, this article named specifically that these seven women were chosen to be “à la française.” Which I interpreted to mean light skin. And so what does that mean? How did they feel about it? What did that look like? What could that have looked like? Because I’m assuming that it was different shades of light skin as well. And how did they feel about that for one another, and sort of making that distinction?
MU: What you're talking about with genes also helps me—I mean, it was already painful when I was reading it, but it makes it double, triple painful thinking about, when the genes erupted in a way that the count did not like inside his children. I don’t think it was ever explicitly said, but you seem to be tackling that we are disappearing the black babies and keeping the lighter skinned ones. Am I interpreting that correctly?
FD: You are. It’s sort of the horror underneath.
MU: Yes, it was a horror underneath. I’m always interested in the emotional river a play runs on, and yours has the bright face of comedy that is running on a horror. It was quite painful.
FD: There is a specific moment in the play in which all the women come together. And it was the most difficult part to write.
MU: And also really satisfying, because—is that the moment where they come together, and they realize that they are basically truly sisters, and they decide to start working together? Deeply satisfying.
FD: Thank you. It’s a moment that I am extremely excited for, and kind of preparing myself for in the rehearsal room. And I’m gonna have to try to work hard not to apologize to the actors.
MU: Can I ask, what is the fear?
FD: I think it’s just a deeply emotional, personal place to go into, and I’ve sort of put myself in the place of each of those characters to go there. And now with tasking an actor, who I am sure has gone through their own individual process of grappling with their identity, their skin color, their relationship to blackness. And as light-skinned women, what does that mean? Everyone’s process is different. But I’m a big believer that in order to tackle the contents of a play or of a piece of art and what it is asking you to do, you have to do that for yourself.
MU: It’s true. Parts of my work will make black women really take a look at what it is to sit inside themselves in ways that, you know—it’s a lot of labor. And people are really talking about, what is care inside of process? I know that it hasn’t been produced yet, but I think that this is a piece that one day will be produced a lot. Have you thought about what that care is for the actors?
FD: Textually I hope that there is catharsis within that moment, specifically, and also in what these women choose to do in the play. And then in terms of process, I think it’s choosing the right people to work with, and naming these conversations, and having transparency about everything that went into creating it [on the page], and everything that’s going to go into creating it [in production].
MU: I’m so happy that you said that, because I think that conversation helps people inside of the production not to feel so isolated and alone, like they’re going through this struggle singularly for somebody else to consume. I think it’s important to tell these sorts of stories while also having that eye toward care.
MU: I’m going to pivot hard away from this into language. Because—1881. I feel like the people in 1881 are not talking with the language in which you are writing. Could you talk to me about your choices around the vernacular language style you chose?
FD: Yes. I’m smiling really hard, because I love talking about language.
One of my inspirations, while I was writing this, I was also watching the second season of The Great, the show on Hulu, which is about Catherine the Great. And the language is very anachronistic and crude, and just filled with humor, because it is in contrast to the time period. So there’s that element of it. And then there’s also, what does translation look like? Because these women are not speaking English. We’re hearing English, but they are not speaking English. And so, what does colloquialism sound like? I wanted them to sound colloquial, and I wanted them to sound conversational, and crude, because in certain moments, that’s where they go! I wanted it to feel alive in that way, as opposed to sounding like I’m trying to mimic the language of a time. But there is a moment in which the language does become more heightened. And that is meant to reflect the gravity of what they are talking about. And that is something that I want to play with during the rehearsal process. How do we slip in and out of that?
MU: That’s going to be really fun. I think that’s a really interesting tool that you use, and one that jumped out to me right away.
FD: I’m especially excited to see the language in relation to the physicality. Both in terms of where we are, which is very earthy, bare kind of place—
MU: This is actually a thing that I wanted to talk about, because in my head, I’m seeing a shack and a volcano. How do you see it in your mind?
FD: I can show it to you, because it’s a very real place. When I saw this place, I became very excited, it was something that sat with me. It wasn’t until later that I said, this is the place that I’m going to write a play about. But I knew at that moment, this is a place I’m going to return to. At the base of this volcano, there is this little shack. My dad took this photo of me, actually, sitting on the roof.
MU: Oh, I see. Okay, so in that background behind it, is that the volcano?
FD: That’s the volcano.
MU: And that’s you sitting on the roof.
FD: That's me sitting on the roof.
MU: Okay. Wonderful. That’s great. To have it in my mind. I definitely put your house somewhere on the way to the top of the volcano, and I thought, Well, that can’t be good!
FD: No but you’re so right. This town is very special. They are very resilient people. The volcano is a very real threat. In 2014, it actually erupted and completely destroyed so many of the houses, and yet there were people who did not leave.
MU: Because that’s their home. Actually—because this is so helpful in seeing the world of your play—could you describe for everyone what that shack is?
FD: Oh, I can try. It’s a circular house. And it has a conical roof. The circular body of the house is made out of stone. And the roof of this one is made out of cement, but traditionally, there is a specific plant that’s kind of like a cactus plant, it’s called karapati, and it has very long leaves that are very sturdy, and people will chop that, and then dry it, and use that to cover the roof.
MU: When you wrote “love shack,” my mind went to so many other places. And then I saw this very beautiful picture. I’m happy that people will get to see that beautiful stonework into that peak, that concrete peak. And then also how a woman can sit easily on top of that.
MU: I’m really interested in your ending. I want to understand your impulses behind it. One woman stays, and the rest leave. Talk about why? And then also, if you can future-portend for these women, what would you portend for them?
FD: Whew. I’m going to give you the answer that is in my heart, even though I don’t know if—
MU: —I think that’s why I’m asking—you gave such an outlet of hope at the end. And I would love to know what your heart-space is saying. Knowing that it might not be the Real.
MU: Probably isn’t the Real.
FD: Yeah. One woman stays. And I think it’s because I do not want to abandon my home. You know, me, Francisca, as a Cape Verdean woman, what would I be saying if all of them left? So she is left to steward the land.
And then with the other woman, I would love to believe that they make it to France. I would love to believe that they take over this estate, and that their children—that there is a long lineage in Grenoble that comes from these women. But I don’t know if they make it.
MU: I think it’s wonderful to stay in the hope, because that’s where you left the play. You didn’t track them all the way. You didn’t give us a coda as to what happened to the women. And so really, the question was to hear what was inside your heart for what became of them. Especially as we’ve been unpacking—because I didn't know if any of this was steeped in history. You’ve done such great work in braiding the strands [of facts] that you had with the imagined-that-could-be. So it’s wonderful to hear what you imagine could be for those women.
FD: I think that’s why—I’m gonna get sentimental. That’s why, in the character descriptions, they are described by what they could have been. If they had been given everything they needed. I did that as a very specific nod to my mom. Because she raised a lot of children. And when she came to America, both my parents never learned English. My dad learned Spanish, he worked at a Spanish florist, but they never learned English. But my mom has the sharpest mind when it comes to numbers. I’m like, dear god, woman, if you had had an education! Because she didn’t have any schooling. Both of her parents died when she was very young, and she was left to raise her siblings. At twelve years old, she became a mom raising her siblings. I think about the extreme education privilege that I had, growing up in America, and I’m like, If you had had that, what could you have been? Because you’re already so much. I love to live in that space, because it brings me back from the places of frustration [with her], which I think a lot of immigrant kids do when the two cultures are not meshing. I’m trying not to live in that space of, Why can't you be more like this?
MU: I’m happy to hear what your could-be’s were, and that you left us inside the hope. And I can leave your play and go, They made it to France. Or. maybe they stopped off along the way and had another adventure. You know? And I love your answer on not all of them left the island, because what am I saying about abandoning where I come from? One of them stayed, and the island is hers. I think that's a profound way to end a play with a history that has still been submerged. You have imagined the way it could be.
My time is starting to wrap up. But I want to ask: What is something you wish that I had asked you, that I did not ask you?
FD: Oh, my gosh! I think I wish you had asked me a question that I would want to hear your answer to. What does it mean to think of a work in relation to a cycle?
MU: That is a brilliant question that I should have asked you, because we are both cycle writers! What does it mean to think of a work in relation to cycle building? Before I answer it, you gotta answer it.
FD: I think that what’s really interesting about thinking of Merry Wives and this Volcano series, or cycle, is the idea of not being written chronologically. And what is the work of finding the connective tissue between these different plays? Because that connective tissue can be genealogy—like these characters in these plays are related to one another, which you’re very familiar with [in your own work]. And then there’s also the thematic connective tissue. Thinking about, what are the questions that each of these characters in these separate plays, in separate worlds, are grappling with? And reading them in different orders—or quote unquote, chronologically—it doesn’t matter how you read them, you will get some kind of answer. And maybe a different answer each time, but it will support the overall [project].
MU: Your answer, for me, is a part of why I write inside of cycle. I like that. I too write cycles that are non-chronological. I mean, there is a decade order, if you choose to follow it, but it does nothing for the viewing order, how you juggle it. I think that’s exciting.
I think what you are undertaking, then, is also very hard to do.
I also chose to write in cycle because I could grow characters over space and time, which sometimes is not afforded certain bodies, that kind of growth.
I also don’t believe that when a play ends, the play ends. So why can I not keep going? It’s one of the reasons why cycles and clusters work for me.
And then, the way that I can track growth in character is different. I can actually slow down the growth, because sometimes we don’t all grow that fast. And a play is very demanding that I get from A to Z. And sometimes I don’t grow that way! Sometimes I take a step forward, I take a step back. I leap forward in my growth, and then I regress all the way back. And a cycle gives us the ability, I think, to see something that looks a little bit, to me, more human. Especially if you’re tracking people across space and time.
And, you know, just to get a little political, I think it is important to track black people, African people, people of the Diaspora over space and time, and to do that lovingly. I want us to have cycles, too.
Francisca Da Silveira .
Francisca Da Silveira is a Cape Verdean-American playwright and Boston native who holds a BFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and an MSc in Playwriting from the University of Edinburgh. She has been featured in ArtsBoston, The LA Times, The Boston Globe and American Theatre Magazine. Her plays have been developed with Theatre503 (London), The Traverse Theatre (Edinburgh), Company One Theatre (Boston); La Jolla Playhouse (San Diego) and The Playwrights’ Center (Minneapolis). New York development: The Fire This Time Festival, The Playwrights Realm, The Public Theater, The New Group, and Colt Coeur. Fran’s play’s include: Not-For-Profit (Or The Equity, Diversity And Inclusion Play), featured in The Playwrights’ Realm’s INK’D Festival in April 2021 and in La Jolla Playhouse’s DNA New Works Series in July 2021; Can I Touch It?, featured in the National New Play Network’s 2020 National Showcase of New Plays and currently receiving a 2022-2023 Rolling World Premiere at Company One Theatre (Boston), Rogue Machine Theatre (Los Angeles) and Cleveland Public Theatre (Cleveland); Pay No Worship, a finalist for the 2023 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and receiving a World Premiere production at InterAct Theatre Company (Philadelphia) in Spring 2023; Minor·ity, commissioned and developed by Colt Coeur; and The Merry Wives Of Grenoble, featuring in The Public Theater’s upcoming 2023 Spotlight Series.
Fran was a 2020-2021 Playwrights Realm Writing Fellow and is currently a member of The Public Theater’s 2020-2023 Emerging Writers Group, a 2022-2023 Jerome Fellow with the Playwrights’ Center, and member of The Apollo Theater’s New Works initiative 2023 Cohort.
Mfoniso Udofia .
Mfoniso Udofia is a first-generation Nigerian American storyteller and educator. She attended Wellesley College, obtained her MFA from the American Conservatory Theater [A.C.T]. While at A.C.T, she co-pioneered, The Nia Project, which provided artistic outlets for youth residing in Bayview/Huntspoint, San Francisco.
Productions of her plays Sojourners, runboyrun, Her Portmanteau and In Old Age have been seen at New York Theatre Workshop, American Conservatory Theater, Playwrights Realm, Magic Theater, National Black Theatre, Strand Theater Company, Boston Court and more. She’s the recipient of the 2021 Horton Foote Award, the 2017 Helen Merrill Playwright Award, and is a member of the 2023 Class at New Dramatists.
Mfoniso’s currently commissioned by Hartford Stage, A.C.T., Roundhouse and South Coast Repertory. Her plays have been developed by Manhattan Theatre Club, A.C.T., McCarter Theatre, OSF, New Dramatists, PCS’s JAW Festival, Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor, The OCC, Hedgebrook, Sundance Theatre Lab, Space on Ryder Farm, Page 73, New Black Fest, Rising Circle and more. She has also worked in television as a writer on 13 Reasons Why, Little America, Pachinko and A League of Their Own and she can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @mfudofia.
- Photo Captions:
Sign leading to Chã das Caldeiras, the town at the base of the volcano.
- Red wine from Chã and local grapes.
- Fran sitting on the “love shack.”
All photos by Francesca Da Silveira.