SPOTLIGHT INTERVIEW: NISSY AYA IN CONVERSATION WITH ERIKA DICKERSON-DESPENZA
Spotlight Interview: Nissy Aya in Conversation With Erika Dickerson-Despenza.
When you got something to say and can't find the words—everyone knows you call 28 Harper. The premier Black Love greeting card company finds its home in a building with an if-you-know-you-know "matchmaking" service, its sweet-tongued receptionist, and a ghostwriter who spends her days battling a menace. Nissy Aya’s Ugly asks us to enter their space to be unmade in the face of death, desirability, and disco.
Nissy recently spoke about this work-in-process with her friend and collaborator Erika Dickerson-Despenza. Earlier this season, Nissy was a dramaturg on the Public’s production of Erika’s play shadow/land. Here, Erika trains her dramaturgical gaze on Nissy’s generative work, leading a richly intertextual dialogue about desirability politics and the body—as first home, as central text, as territory for worship, and as liberation technology. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Erika Dickerson-Despenza (ED): How are you finding yourself and your work—all of your work, because you do so many things—amid the climate, health and political catastrophes of our current moment?
Nissy Aya (NA): I'm finding all of it by being very intentional about what it means to place myself in the center. That's a phrase that I use all the time, and I think we hear all the time, but I haven't felt it as much until this year. I write myself love letters now. I do it daily, sometimes. Sometimes I take a break, but I’m in constant conversation with myself. I feel like that’s the only way I’m able to move forward. Literally the only way.
ED: Word. I am so excited about Ugly, your play. I’m so excited any time I get access to anything you are writing, and to see what your process is. Before we delve into some questions about that play, the politics of that play, I’m curious, as I revisit Adrienne Kennedy’s People Who Led to My Plays: who are the people or inanimate objects that have led to Ugly or your work in general?
NA: That’s a long list. Process is so important to me. For Ugly in particular, I was really in conversation with a young version of myself. I think it was the first version of myself who thought that she could be a writer, who really started navigating what it means to search within yourself and construct something. Reflecting on the play recently, I talked about the 15-year-old me who read Their Eyes Were Watching God for the first time. There’s that passage of Janie realizing that she had put Jody on a shelf inside of herself. And when he harmed her, when he betrayed her, when he failed all his promises, it all came crashing down inside her. I feel like that started my role as a writer of, what does it mean to look inside myself, look at the people that I’ve put on shelves, and interrogate them—destroy them, if I have to—and then build them back up with a love that’s more sustaining for myself?
But in Ugly, there are so many people I’m pulling in. Like Saidiya Hartman, always, how we talk about flesh; how we talk about reconstructing flesh that is unloved, in a world that will not love you, that will not care for you. I’m looking at Da’Shaun L. Harrison and their work on the connections between fatphobia and anti-blackness. So, Belly of the Beast. I’m thinking of Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings. Those are folks that I’m really digging into. I’m really considering June Jordan and how June Jordan talks about herself. I’ve been in conversation with a lot of poets for this work, and reminding myself that I started my creative work as a poet.
ED: I didn’t know that!
NA: You know poets, one of the things they love to say is that if a poet loves you, you’ll live forever. So I’m really just considering those ways in which we shape and craft love for others. But instead of others, Ugly really is about me. This is the one play where I’m really like, I’m writing this for myself. I think some parts of it are super unproducible, and I love that about it. It’s just, this is mine. This is mine.
ED: Okay, so now I need the Nissy poet archives, because now I need to visit them. Thank you for that. I’m always looking for folks to read. And because process is so important to both you and me, I’m always interested in what your brain is doing, who you’re reading, who you’re in conversation with, who you are troubling, who is challenging you. So I’m gonna call some other people in there who, as I engaged with Ugly, came up for me. And the first is one of my loves, Tressie McMillan Cottom. (Holds up Cottom’s Thick: And Other Essays.)
NA: You know I had to reread the intro for this! I reread it like two days ago, the first essay.
ED: Exactly! Right? "In the Name of Beauty". I want to read this passage from the first essay of Tressie’s book, and then talk about how it is in conversation with your play, if that’s cool? It’s gonna be a little long, but it’s okay.
Beauty has an aesthetic, but it is not the same as aesthetics, not when it can be embodied, controlled by powerful interests, and when it can be commodified. Beauty can be manners, also a socially contingent set of traits. Whatever power decides that beauty is, it must always be more than reducible to a single thing. Beauty is a wonderful form of capital in a world in a world that organizes everything around gender and then requires a performance of gender that makes some of its members more equal than others.
Beauty would not be such a useful distinction were it not for the economic and political conditions. It is trite at this point to point out capitalism, which is precisely why it must be pointed out. Systems of exchange tend to generate the kind of ideas that work well as exchanges. Because it can be an idea and a good and a body, beauty serves many useful functions for our economic system. Even better, beauty can be political. It can exclude and include, one of the basic conditions of any politics. Beauty has it all. It can be political, economic, external, individualized, generalizing, exclusionary, and perhaps best of all a story that can be told. Our dominant story of beauty is that it is simultaneously a blessing, of genetics or gods, and a site of conversion. You can become beautiful if you accept the right prophets and their wisdoms with a side of products thrown in for good measure. Forget that these two ideas—unique blessing and earned reward—are antithetical to each other. That makes beauty all the more perfect for our (social and political) time, itself anchored in paradoxes like freedom and property, opportunity and equality.
I’m skipping ahead a little. For those who don't know, spoiler alert: Tressie makes the case that she is not beautiful in this essay, and had a lot of black women at her neck in talks and reading this. And so she says, “But if I believe that I can become beautiful, I become an economic subject. My desire becomes a market. And my faith becomes a salve for the white women who want to have the right politics while keeping the privilege of never having to live them.”
So I just wanna talk about—of course, Nissy, you’re familiar with the rest of the chapter and the book—but I think Ugly is bringing up, yes, body, yes, the economics of beauty; I'm also thinking about, of course, gender, the racist lens of beauty aesthetics. Can you talk a bit about desirability politics, how you're working with it in Ugly, and maybe how Tressie is in conversation with you, or you are in conversation with her around this?
NA: I think that’s exactly it, right? That’s one of the theses of this play. I’m so grateful to that book. Also Heavy by Kiese Laymon, as well as Hunger by Roxane Gay, which was one of the first texts where I really felt like I was dealing with, or in conversation with, fat Black people. Which is another very big lens that’s happening with Ugly. I think one of the biggest things that Ugly is telling us is that this world will kill me because I’m not beautiful. And Ugly also stands on the premise of me as playwright, as creator, as not a beautiful person. And I can do things to make myself beautiful, right? I can perform gender in a way that makes me beautiful. And I think one of the reasons why I present as femme, most of the time, is because I can see the realms in which it is beauty. But that does not mean that this world, this state, will not have me dead.
Another reflection I returned to throughout the process of creating the play was a catalog of the things that I don’t have access to. I don’t have access to towels in my size. Sitting on the train can be very violent most of the time. Romantic relationships are a site of violence all the time. And that’s what we’re trying to track with Ugly. It’s not about, Oh, do I look good? Do you look good? Or self-love. It’s more that there are systems in place; this whole world is constructed for me to want to make myself small. And if I refuse to make myself small, I may as well be dead. And I actually want to sit and talk about that. But because I’m a playwright, and I like story—and sometimes I don’t want people in my business!—I constructed a whole fantastical world around it. But I think there are some parts where we get very close to the heat of: You do not know how to love dark-skinned Black people. You do not know how to love fat, dark-skinned Black people. You do not know how to love queer, fat, dark-skinned Black people; and so on and so forth. And if you are saying that you do, the intention of it all must be so much greater than what you are doing. Right? Like, I need you to be a thin Black person—and I’m always talking to Black people—I need you to be a thin Black person who is going to bat for me all the time.
I think there’s also something that I’m trying to do where we try to separate beauty from the state. And actually, this is how I keep going. Having beautiful things, or building beauty within myself, within my flesh, in a world that has told me I’m ugly—and not just presently, but historically—that has built my figure as something that has to be on the outside of what is considered beautiful. I love being in conversation with Black feminists and Black womanists, because we know that the vision that we are against is the white woman, right? Like so many things around fatphobia, especially for femme bodies, is because they have to propel and lift the figure of the white woman. So I’m so concerned with the ways that we worship ourselves. I think worship is a big theme that comes up in Ugly. Especially for the Receptionist. It’s a big meditation and conversation on, how do you regard my flesh? How am I inviting you in to construct me? I love Eartha Kitt, she’s one of my everythings, and I think one of her interviewers asked her how she compromises in love. She was like, Compromise? Compromise? I love me, and then I ask you to share me, with me. Right? And I think that is one of the biggest things that I’m trying to figure out for a lot of these characters. How are they constructing themselves, and then allowing folks to share them?
ED: Thank you for that. And so folks know, just gonna go through some of the characters. There’s She, who operates both inside and outside of the play, and dies a lot. There’s Beneath, who is hunting something, a menace—and we will call it that so that folks who come to your reading don’t already know what it is—and is a ghostwriter for 28 Harper, a greeting card company on the first floor of a building. There’s Receptionist, who is the mouthpiece of this work, and runs a matchmaking service on the second floor—and you know, it’s a little hot up there, to say the least. And the receptionist is always talking to their best friend Pookie, who we do not see, but we hear conversations with. We have Her, who also works at 28 Harper, who is pretty, and is a part of this killing that She consistently undergoes. And then we have the Honey, a man who is also pretty, and works at 28 Harper, who is also harming She, killing She.
And so I am interested in what you’re calling a structural exploration of desirability politics, but I see it in the structure of the set. I would love for you to talk about your brilliance and how you are conceiving fluidity of time, yes—but also how insipid and smart and all-encompassing structural oppression is, even in this building that has these three floors, where we’re weaving in and out of as an audience and seeing these characters.
NA: Well, thank you for calling me smart. One is I was constructing these shelves within yourselves. There’s a big twist that happens. And I don't know if I’m going to reveal it or not. I’m going back and forth in the script on that. But one of the biggest things is that we start off with She calling this place their home. For all three of the main characters—which are She, Beneath, and the Receptionist—it’s a place where they both live and work in some way. And I’m considering the ways in which, when we think about desirability, we think about it in the simplest terms, which is like how do we flirt with one another? When we enter spaces, do people give their chair to you, or like, say hi to you and throw a big smile on their face. So that’s what happens at 28 Harper. They’re helping people dig into the messages they want to share with each other, but a lot of the time, we’re just watching these three coworkers flirt back and forth, with She being disregarded. And she’s basically dying a few times throughout the play, because her co-workers are using her. Because she is not the pretty one. And the Receptionist has always been so close to my heart, because, like Tressie was saying, when we actually start talking about beauty as a piece of capital, we actually do have to talk about the ways that we both sell and do not sell our bodies, which is something that comes up in a lot of organizing work. We have to be very clear on what we do with our bodies and the positions they hold in society. But also, because I’m nasty and I love sex work, how are you actually bending the desires of others towards yourself, even if you do not operate within the realm of beauty And also, how are folks desiring those who are not beautiful, because it allows them a place to place their burdens and their worries? As opposed to doing the actual work to love us outright, or out loud. So that’s what’s happening. That’s the deeper level, right? We don’t want to talk about these things, but the receptionist’s gonna talk about it.
And then the top floor, Beneath is always going to be a mystery, because I don’t think she actually talks. So that’s like the deepest part of yourself. I call Beneath an embodied perspective, of where you are not considered time and time again, but there are so many people who are sustained by you, who are sustained by your labor, who are sustained by the way you think and operate in this world, the way that you write. And so she’s really sustaining the building of 28 Harper with what she's doing by trying to attack the menace. The last menace to be defeated is undesirability, and I think that’s what Beneath is trying to attack—the awful ways she feels about herself because of the world she exists in. But she is not allowed a mouth. She's very quiet. She's just interrogating herself the whole time.
That’s a long-winded way of answering, but that is the structure that’s being set up. There are so many different parts to what it means to try to tackle desirability, and I’m trying to do it within those three characters who are more similar than they are different.
ED: No, thank you for that. And of course, like I just want people to be clear, it’s Beneath, not Beneatha. And don’t miss that “beneath” can mean a variety of things. You’re complicating how we understand “beneath,” especially as Beneath lives on floor three of this building. And so inversion is happening—just a lot of smart things, because it’s Nissy, that are useful in helping us navigate this world and our understanding of the work that Nissy’s doing with desirability politics.
So you mentioned the nasty, and sex work. And so then I have to insert Jennifer C. Nash.
NA: Oh my gosh, yes.
ED: (Holding up Nash's The Black Body in Ecstasy.) I don't know if you’re familiar with this book.
NA: Not that book. I’ve been using—
ED: You gotta read—I'll text you a picture. This one specifically.
NA: Okay, please. You know which one I’ve been reading, I’ve been reading Brown Sugar. I have to find the actual title, that’s not it. I love the cover of that book.
ED: I love this text. And on the book jacket, I just want to give you kind of a little overview of what brilliant work Nash was doing with this first book of hers, The Black Body in Ecstasy. And so essentially, she "moves beyond black feminism's preoccupation with injury and recovery to consider how racial fictions can create a space of agency and even pleasure for black female subjects." I would also say Insert Black femmes, Black nonbinary people there. But, “Nash's innovative readings of hardcore pornographic films from the 1970s and 1980s develop a new method of analyzing racialized pornography that focuses on black women's pleasures in blackness: delights in toying with and subverting blackness, moments of racialized excitement, deliberate enactments of hyperbolic blackness, and humorous performances of blackness that poke fun at the fantastical project of race." When I was reading the description of your play, particularly of the Receptionist, about although the receptionist is kind of facilitating some sex work, and the economy of material porn—sex toys and such like that—that you also say that the Receptionist is moving in time, and understands that moving in time with your body is a liberation technology. It immediately brought me back to this book, because that is the part of Black feminism that Jennifer C. Nash is troubling. That porn is inherently bad. Well, no, let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about why Black feminism is preoccupied with injury and recovery, and not so much the agency and freedom that we can find within forms that are historically considered oppressive or injurious to women and femmes.
NA: Okay, so the book I’ve been reading is A Taste of Brown Sugar, by Dr. Miller-Young. And where do I even start? Our body should feel as if it is the starting place of liberation. It is our first home. And a lot of that work comes from the work that I used to do as a survivor advocate, and as an educator. I worked for a rape crisis center for many years. And one of the things that I really learned, and I’m so grateful to my mentors, my Black-ass mentors, was the fact that we should not shy away from pleasure in dealing with our work. Our work to uplift or sustain survivors should not only be what happens after a violent act, but how we are allowing folks to truly understand the way that their bodies move, what it means to move in a healthy way, what it means to understand pleasure in such a huge way, such a multitudinal way that anything that we feel is outside of that, we know to speak about it, how to stop it, how to interrupt it, how to trouble it. This is something that we talked a lot about when we were going through shadow/land. How do we make tangible the love that folks feel for one another? Right? How do I look at all the ways that Black femmes—especially when they were not considered women, when they were considered property and not considered as having a gender—what did it mean that they were like, getting off on the river side with one another? What did that mean for liberation? Right? We’re not only considering manumission, or what it means to be freed from the state. If we’re constantly in these realms of violence, if we will always be in the afterlife of the transatlantic slave trade, what does it mean for me to take back and steal my body and say all the ways in which I could make it be, I will be? I can gorge myself, I can fill myself constantly. All the things that make me feel good, why would I not do that? Why would I not believe that that is a part of freeing myself and loving myself to the fullest?
ED: Yes, yes, preach, I’m not gonna hold you too much longer. But I really been in my bag about your play, and the things that it's bringing up for me. So I brought Jennifer C Nash into the conversation, yes, because of the receptionist, and the work that I know you do around liberatory politics regarding sex work and porn. But also, I was thinking about the fact that this play is set in the 70s. I would love for you to talk about that, because—and this is why I'm like, “Oh, you gotta read Jennifer’s book.” Because she’s looking at porn films from the 70s and 80s and studying them. Can you talk about why that era is important for this particular play?
NA: You know, the reason why it’s set in the 70s actually has nothing to do with the 70s. I was talking earlier about what it means to deal with the shattered pieces of self; I feel like my younger me has gathered all those shattered pieces and turned them into a disco ball. And so that’s why I think of disco a lot with this work, and pushing forward with it. I really hope the 70s comes through, but it may not be this draft, it may be draft two or three. But I just really love the ways in which conversations were a little different about what it means to explore yourself, explore community, explore one another. Wink wink.
ED: But you are doing some work, even though you have this disco ball metaphor, I think it is also very much materially and directly there as well, because you insert this Donna Summer song. Have you seen the Donna Summer documentary?
NA: No, I haven’t watched it.
ED: You gotta see it. She talks about creating this persona. It made me go back to this Jennifer Nash book in thinking about how she is creating this persona that people love, that was very pleasure-focused, that she asserts in this documentary was not who she was, but there was this hyperbolic sexiness that she was putting on. And just like these humorous performances, and she talks about really having wanted to be on Broadway as an actor and creating entire fantasies and worlds around this. And so it made perfect sense to me when I’m reading that part of the script that like yes, of course this is a Donna Summer song, because you’re also, whether you know it or not, in conversation with how she was talking about desirability. I can’t wait for you to watch it.
NA: But this is also what’s so great, right? Nothing that we do is new. One of the reasons why I haven’t watched it is because I didn’t want to be influenced by it, especially because her music is influencing so much of the script already. This comes up a lot in A Taste of Brown Sugar, too—I am so enamored with the way that Black femmes perform Black femininity and sexuality. A lot of my work is concerned with that. I think the way that I shape myself and my body is concerned with that. So the more that I’m thinking about what it even means for me to get onstage to introduce Ugly, which I will be doing, and the performance that I’ll be doing around that—everything is such a performance, so why not lean into it? And one of the things that I love about Ugly is that She breaks out of the performance constantly. One because she’s dying, but also because she’s just like, Y’all know that this is not real, right? Like, there’s some things that we’re talking about. But what does it mean that our performance actually allows you to listen to us a little bit deeper than if we were just being? And I want to trouble that too. I want folks to be aware of that as well.
ED: I was also thinking about the Combahee River Collective Statement in 1977. And, you know, there’s this part about the “smart-ugly.” And for those who are not familiar, I'll just read a bit. “We discovered that all of us, because we were ‘smart’ had also been considered ‘ugly,’ i.e., ‘smart-ugly.’ ‘Smart-ugly’ crystallized the way in which most of us had been forced to develop our intellects at great cost to our ‘social’ lives.” And that came up for me because you’re incredibly brilliant. And I’m thinking about all the shows that you were a part of this past season with Black women and femmes, particularly in New York and beyond. And I remember I think it was Diane Exavier, who wrote something on Twitter reflecting on her show, Bernada’s Daughters, about how it is very challenging—and Diane, excuse me, if I'm butchering this!—because this theater industry doesn't know how to regard Black femme’s stories, Black women’s stories, and interiority. And they don’t want you to be too smart. You know, don’t be too smart—which, a lot of these reviews have reflected back to us that [the critics] are not doing any critical reading, critical engagement. And because you are doing such heavy lifting in this play, I bring up the “smart-ugly,” because I wonder if that has been on your mind, or how you’re even hearing it today, remembering it again today, how you’re seeing that at play, in your writing, and in your being—but also, in the actual narrative work itself.
NA: You know, I’ve always really held that line, because I do think there’s something that happens where folks are like, you can’t be beautiful and smart, or they don’t want you to be. Especially if you are a Black femme, right? Especially if you are trying to dismantle gender. Those are things that are not supposed to coexist. So I think about that as well. I think I hold a lot of that really, as a dramaturg. I think I will always be doing heavy lifting, because that’s something that I learned early, that folks are not as concerned with the shape of my work as I am, or people who are also like me. So I think that’s always important to hold. I also think that that [Combahee River Collective] statement, while true, is also not true. I can create the realms for myself that I want to exist in. I think we can look at what time that statement was coming in and recognize why it needed to be said. But this is also one of the reasons why I’m so adamant with uplifting the nasty, the freaknik, sex work and all of that—that “social life” is not devoid of, or separate from, liberation work, of really deep cultural work, of really deep intellectual work. The only reason that all of these theories and political movements can exist is because we live it every day. And I am so concerned with what it means to teach folks how to be tender with me and my work, how to be tender with me and my peoples. And also to say that my body is always the first textbook; our bodies are always the first textbooks. So, I do think it’s a problem that folks do not regard the interiority of Black femme’s work, especially Black nonbinary femmes, especially femmes who may have been assigned male at birth. We just do not have the language for it on paper, but it exists in community all the time. I think a lot of that is being built in relationships, a lot of that is really being interrogated in the ways that we talk about what it means to both possess love and feel the structural absence of it.
ED: Thank you for actually troubling and challenging that 1977 statement. It’s interesting, because—I’m real regular today; all said, I’m real fine. I remember when people were first starting to get to know me in New York, at the Public and other places, they would say, “Oh, are you a dancer?” “Oh, are you an actor?” I’m like, “No, I'm a writer.” And they’re like, “Oh, why?” I was like, What the hell is that supposed to mean? Like, writers can’t be—you know, we don’t always look bookish or whatever you think a writer looks like. But it was that “smart-ugly” thing, in a very particular setting. And so I’m thinking about it now with what you’re saying, and how we subvert that, and how we turn that out. Right?
NA: I think it’s so important as a fat Black person, too. I use beauty a lot as an armor, right? If folks are obsessed with my hair, or my nails, or what outfit I got on, they won’t say the awful thing that they’re thinking about fat people all the time. That is also something that I’m always in conversation with, and I also want to trouble. I am in a lot of realms where I’m the person speaking on stage, or there are a bunch of people looking at me, as a facilitator, as a cultural worker. And this can be hard. So it is a point of safety, also, for me to be beautiful—to play as beautiful. And that is also something that I don’t think I should shy away from. And building a lot of texts that I hope will add to this conversation of desirability, of what it means to use our bodies as both liberation technologies, and also just as building blocks for a lot of sociology work around what it means to be a Black person in this world.
ED: Absolutely. And I just want to throw in the conjure aspect of that. We call it glamour work.
ED: That kind of armoring. I’m not gonna say too much more because that ain’t white people’s business, but it’s in the legacy.
NA: We’ve talked about this, and this is something I love about the community of people that I’ve really built with as facilitators. I’ve been able to say to them, I want you to know that this is my protection. I remember someone telling me, “I don't know how you can allow people to get so close, but it never affects your core.” I said, this is not my core. This is a performance. There will always be a performance. And I think that again, to wrap it back around, even as playwright I am performing. There is always distance between the real person who’s creating, and who you see/meet. Everything in between is fair game for us to put on stage.
ED: Thank you. So I want to close with Baby Suggs’ The Sermon in the Clearing. Because I know for you and me both it is just such a healing sermon, that Baby Suggs who was formerly enslaved is now free, and is kind of the people’s pastor, and gives sermons in this clearing to people who freed themselves, and who were freed. And so in this here place, I want to hear from you, in closing, in this here place of Ugly, what are we reclaiming? What love for our flesh, for dark-skinned, fat, Black women and femme and nonbinary people’s flesh, what is that sermon? What is that passage for your play?
NA: And you know it makes an appearance in the play too. I think Beneath says “in this beloved flesh,” but the way she says it, the way it’s written, it says “beloved” with the b, like, italicized, so you’d know that we always bringin’ in Mother Morrison. But I do think the biggest thing is—oh, gosh, that passage, it always makes me want to cry. I think that’s the biggest thing, that our emotions around these topics are still valid. We are reclaiming the fact that it sometimes sucks, it absolutely sucks to exist in this world as is, but that does not mean I’m not having a good time. I’m reclaiming the good time. I’m reclaiming that my flesh in its weight, in its substance—that it’s okay for me to be constructed to take up space. That we should push against all those notions that tell us to be small. Which is not something that is unique to fat folks. I think everyone who is outside of the dominant culture feels this, right? We must make ourselves small. We are saying we will not do that.
I think we’re reclaiming adornment with words. Like, I can put on jewelry for days, I can put on makeup for days; but the ways in which I shape my body with the way that I speak about myself, the way I speak about others, the way that I speak about those whom I love, that is such a sacred space. That is such a glorious space to create for another person. One of the things that I say all the time, and that has found its way into my play, is that our homes are a god-space simply because I lay my head here. I so wish for folks to create their god-space for themselves by experiencing this world—what parts of you do you hold for yourself that you only share [when you are full]. I don’t know how to say this. All that you know of me is because I have shared it freely. Right? You have not stolen or taken anything from me. To be so full and whole in yourself that everything you give away is because you know it will help another. Not because it’s something that can be taken. It’s something that will build a better world for you to exist in, to love in, to be tender in, to allow someone to touch you in. And that is what I hope that our clearing space can be. This here place is where you know the work of what it means to be whole, and that you share yourself freely, knowing that nothing of your creation will be taken from you, ever.
Nissy Aya (Nissy; she/ze/we) is a Black girl from the Bronx. She and all her younger selves tell stories and tall tales -- while helping others to do the same. As a cultural worker and writer, we believe in the transformative nature of storytelling, placing those most affected by oppressive systems in the center, and examining how we move forward/shape new worlds/end this world through healing justice, Afrofuturist frameworks, and practices of feeling good. Our creative work reflects those notions while exploring the lines between oral history, archives and memory, detailing both the absence and presence of love, and giving all the life (and then some) to Black Femmes.
Erika Dickerson-Despenza is a New Orleans-based Blk radical leftist writer, ecowomanist and cultural memory worker. She is the creator and inaugural resident of The Ntozake Shange Social Justice Playwriting Residency. Awards: PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award (2023), Kinfolk Award, The Awards (previously The Antonyo Awards) (2023), Edgerton Foundation New Play Award (2022, 2019), Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (2021), Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award (2020), Thom Thomas Award (2020), Lilly Award (2020), Barrie and Bernice Stavis Award (2020), Grist 50 Fixer (2020), Princess Grace Playwriting Award (2019). Residencies & Fellowships: Tow Playwright-in-Residence at The Public Theater (2019-2020), U.S. Water Alliance National Arts & Culture Delegate (2019), New York Stage and Film Fellow-in-Residence (2019), New Harmony Project Writer-in Residence (2019), Dramatists Guild Foundation Fellow (2018-2019), The Lark Van Lier New Voices Fellow (2018). Productions: shadow/land (The Public Theater, 2023), cullud wattah (The Public Theater, 2021), [hieroglyph] (San Francisco Playhouse/Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 2021).