Stacey Rose: Untangling America’s Blood Knot Through Playwriting

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I first met playwright Stacey Rose through NYU’s Department of Dramatic Writing. In this beautiful interview, she shares some of her obstacles to recovery and self-fulfillment, as well as her perspective on the Black movement in America during this critical time.

It’s been less than a year since you graduated from NYU. How would you describe post-grad in the general sense?
You’re at this weird disadvantage when you’re from a poor family. You come in with all this stuff to write that’s distinctive, but you can’t allot the time to do it. You can get a lot of awards, but unless you’re nailing down the big fish, they aren’t offering [the money].

Talk to me about your recent fellowships and awards, as they can be time-consuming.
Up until now, it was easy to navigate the waters of being a respiratory therapist and an artist. As all these opportunities come along—the Dramatist Guild fellowship being one—I have to give them time to prepare. But I still have to work. I have a car note, I have insurance, I have a 17-year-old son who’s graduating high school next year.

There are all these really, really great opportunities, and yet they’re starting to interfere with my ability to make a living in a way I’m used to. Initially, I have to admit I was panicked. What was funny was I was already working when all this started happening. It was easier then to get my employers on-board with taking time off for a project. But trying to get into a job with people not knowing who I am does play a role in whether or not they’ll be accommodating.

Once my former contract ended I applied for unemployment, and it’s not easy. Unemployment is giving me a run for my money and I probably won’t see a dime until I get another job. It’s this paperwork back-and-forth that if I didn’t have some level of education, can understand getting frustrated and doing God knows what for money. This shit is not easy to access.

So what can I do with this MFA that I have? Teaching artist, right? I’m figuring that out now and possibly transitioning out of healthcare. The main thing that’s scary for me is the money because I’m so used to having an ironclad paycheck. But I can’t let it immobilize me. I’m looking at it as a lull before I pick up again.

When did you first get into writing? What about respiratory therapy?
I was severely asthmatic as a kid. I could watch people run on television and get an attack. I was always at the hospital. That shifted me into an isolating phase where I read a lot and watched television, but I never thought about writing seriously until I was around 30.

Hospitals become like a familiar second home for kids who stay there a lot. I understood being in the hospital so I was drawn to that world anyway. As I got older, I fell into the void of being a teenager. Then everything just happened really fast; I hadn’t really made plans for college. When my mother retired to North Carolina, I went with her at 20, and was really crazy for a while. I ended up getting pregnant with [my son] and applied to this respiratory program. That was my life for a while.

In my late-20’s, I got married. It was a very tumultuous deal, but in the middle of all that he did help me rediscover my love for reading and writing. He always encouraged me to write. We divorced. I ended up going back to undergrad again for a second degree in theater and fell into playwriting organically.

Was it difficult going through the theater program at a later point in life than your cohorts?
[Laughs] UNC Charlotte was the liliest of the lilies. It was very white but it was another thing that pushed me to do my own thing. What show was I going to be in? I think I was the Good Angel in “Faustus” or something.

So that was more of a preoccupation than age difference.
Yes. [Laughs] It was a magical time. I legitimately loved everyone I went to UNC Charlotte with to death.

What was your experience at NYU and what has been your time like in the city?
I didn’t expect to go to grad school at all. I expected to come out of UNC Charlotte, make theater in the city and that’d be it. But my friend kept telling me to apply. I got a rejection from Tisch New York, went to Tisch Asia and then the program closed. That’s the messy story of how I got to [the Department of Dramatic Writing]. Again, what was confounding for me was that I was the only Black person in my class. When I got in, I went to as many departments as possible, looking for Black people.

Did your experience of being “the other” also affect how well people understood your work, which predominantly focused on the Black identity?
It did. By the time I started my thesis, however, I knew what kind of notes I should take. If it wasn’t about the direction I was headed, I let it pass. If you’re different in any way, nobody else in the room can tell you how that is. They might mean well, but it’s not their walk. Tisch taught me a lot about evaluating work.

My time at Tisch had less to do with the institution itself than timing and how I think my life was ready to unfold. Things just happened without my permission. I ran into Spike Lee on the street and he ended up being one of my mentors. You don’t come to Tisch planning for that because it’s not under your control. I went into the program feeling really insecure, like I didn’t belong. I left feeling like, I love this place.

New York has also been this wonderful realization that nothing is as big as it seems. I have met and even studied from the great majority of my playwriting idols. Knowing that they’re human and none of this shit is personal has been refreshing. I’d listen to how they got started and they’d sound just like me. It helped curb some of the anxiety. The process of figuring out who my tribe is and what kind of theater I want to make has been wonderful.

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What’s your favorite part about writing and what do you hate about writing?
What sucks is sitting down and doing it. I get so caught up in research I could drown in it. I love the process of prepping the work and putting it up. The writing in between is hard and what I hear from seasoned vets is it doesn’t go away. I’m constantly battling myself as I’m getting words on the page. Now I do what Suzan-Lori Parks does at “Watch Me Work.” Set a timer, write for 45 minutes and whatever happens in that time is what I’ve written. That is loosely what my practice is right now because I can’t spend six to eight hours a day writing.

I love hearing it out loud for the first time with actors. It’s usually so much better than I think and it is why I love theater. It’s an opportunity to collaborate with wonderfully gifted people to create something that germinated from your head. It’s wonderful to have artists put their seasoning on it and push the project forward.

What’s the hardest part about self-care for you?
I am a writer who’s always concerned with self-care. I am six years clean and in recovery.

Congratulations!
Thank you. Getting clean was the foundation of how I stayed sane over the course of grad school.

Why did you decide to become sober?
My life was shit. You hit bottom and either you get your shit together or you die. I was pretty certain I would kill myself if I didn’t stop drinking. I was that miserable. I made that decision Nov. 10 of 2009 and things just escalated in terms of writing from there. If you’re a recovery baby, your addiction immediately shifts to something else. Mine was theater. I became obsessed and produced a lot.

What has helped you stay sober?
Meetings and step work. It’s a journey of self-discovery, however that has to happen. As a using addict, I was ruled by fear. I was never good enough for anything and would’ve never applied to grad school and come to New York.

I’ve struggled in recovery; it’s not a happily ever after at all. You have to work your ass off for it. I still struggle with going to meetings, but I maintain a spiritual practice. Right now I’m revisiting Step 1, which is admitting powerlessness. Step 2 is admitting that you can’t do it by yourself and Step 3 is letting a higher power take it, whatever that means to you. I’m going through that because I have this anxiety about not being able to land a respiratory job.

So it’s really important to go over these things during times of stress.
It’s actually easier for me to grab onto when things are bad. When things are good, I tend to coast. I want to get to a point where my spiritual practice is a little more consistent. I’m leaning towards yoga. There are a lot of things I have to do to ground myself to become the writer I’m supposed to be.

I’ve learned about working myself through the stuff, the awards and all that. It is maddening and it can make you absolutely miserable. There’s a recovery slogan that is one of my favorites: surrender to win. Surrendering yourself to a spiritual path is more important than anything else you can be doing. I have no power over who they’re going to select for New Dramatist next year. I have no power over whether or not I’m getting into Sundance. But I find myself wondering about it and those thoughts can take over.

Chasing awards was not the reason I was intended to be a writer. I’ve done a lot of shit but I can’t see it if I’m looking for the next thing. There’s this concept called the hungry ghost. That’s what I feel like—this insatiable ghost who gets the stuff but can’t get enough of the stuff. You never feel like you’re full.

When did you start practicing yoga?
That goes back to UNC Charlotte. My voice teacher Kelly Mizell-Ryan taught voice and movement, and we would take mats and do sun salutations. I was like, “What the fuck is she making me do at 330 pounds?” But after a while, I started looking forward to class. Then I started wanting to know more about it. So it was actually acting training that got me into yoga.

I fell into yoga because I couldn’t really connect with gym culture. Yoga made me feel healthy in a holistic way.
Yes! That’s where I am now, actually. I had gastric bypass and I gained a bunch of the weight back. This year is definitely about rediscovering a connection with my body. I had an extensive sex abuse history for about seven years. It was between when I was three and 11. Between that and being asthmatic, my relationship with my body is a very difficult one. I feel a lot of things are coming my way in the zeitgeist about food in my body and writing and reconnecting. All of that is conspiring to be something, but I don’t know what it is yet.

I get on the mat and I do my best, and I feel that is the way back to me. This body has carried me for almost 40 years, bore my son, broken some bones, survived drug abuse and food addiction. It’s time for me to be good to it.

Before yoga, I didn’t know things outside of diet and exercise could affect my weight, like emotional health and digestion.
The body is so amazing. It’s its own universe. And you still think about the way it looks, but you recognize when you’re beating yourself up and you stop. The biggest benefit of yoga has been shifting my perspective on how I feel about how I look.

Knowing how vibrant and assertive you are, I think some people might be surprised to hear about all of your struggles.
I had to work to get here. Although I’m not sure if this is necessarily where I want to be, what’s important to me is liking who I am, and slowly but surely that is happening. It’s not easy. Everybody has their own emotional pain tolerance. Some people can tolerate a whole lot and keep going. I think a lot of my tolerance comes from my mom. “It’s one degree outside, the car won’t start, I’m getting on the bus and going to work.” I come from a lot of women who just don’t stop.

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The overthinking didn’t stop your family.
No, and I think it’s cultural. My great-great-grandmother sharecropped after her husband died at 36. He got pneumonia and she had eight kids, so she just did it. There’s this strength that’s instilled from my family, so sometimes it’s not even a person’s fault if they can’t push past something. Sometimes the shit is just too much to bear, though it’s not to say they won’t at some point.

My pain tolerance has changed over time, so maybe it’s part of natural progression as well.
It really is.

But writing helps you through the pain?
Writing helps me tremendously. The first part of my spiritual practice when I began recovery was getting up in the morning, reading my text and writing in my journal. I’ve got years of journals stacked up. Look back at your old shit and you would be amazed at how much you’ve grown. Whatever form it takes, whether it’s “The Artist’s Way” or recovery, I think it’s essential to journal. For me, I have talked myself through a story through journaling. I have a notebook for every project I’m working on.

Did you grow up in a religious or spiritual family?
Not terribly. My grandmother was an Evangelist/Baptist, but we just went to church on Easter. I don’t know where my interest in Buddhism came from, but it happened. When I found it I was so relieved at how open it was and how much room it made for everything. I don’t knock on anyone’s religious convictions. I think some atheists are just as hardcore as some evangelicals. I think instinctively, we know what’s good. You can tell in a situation what’s working and what’s not. When I began my recovery, I had no idea how I felt about God, but programs are instilled with this process of helping you find whatever it is you believe.

Have your experiences with recovery and self-care influenced what you’re writing?
Not yet. Usually I write about race, but I feel this shift happening where I’m going to start writing about my weight, my relationship with food and with touch.

For the record, I do feel the “Perceptions Project,” with the words you’ve chosen, has a spiritual backbone.
I always say faith is an action word. My faith is taking the time to figure out alternative means of supporting myself. While I have downtime, maybe I should kick up my blog again. I always say this—for every me, there’s a person out there who will never get to Tisch, never win this or that, and I’m not confused about that.  I want to inspire those people—not because they need to go here and win this—but to live out their gifts right where they are.

Also, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. I could be this incredibly brilliant playwright and there will be a finite group of people who will know who I am. So why spend my life worrying about these wonderful creatives who I love and inspire me? What can I do writing-wise where I am and be happy.

What’s your relationship with “otherness” and do you feel art should be in tandem with advocacy?
Having money and being a person of color means that you need to fucking do something. Waking up Black or Asian or Native American everyday carry its own set of shit that I guess, in theory, is political. The world needs to open up to the fact that there are more stories than white stories.

Every once in a while I would contribute words to what’s going on currently, but then it just gets too much for me to keep up with. I go back to what Eduardo Machado told me, which is to put it on the page. If I want a show about it, write a show about it. I don’t write “straight” plays. I won’t write something like “A Raisin in the Sun;” I might write something closer to “Waiting for Godot.” But, it will be just as Black as anything you’ve seen.

What is nice about this time is the definition of being Black is shifting and coming into its own. This country owes Black people so much, the debt is bottomless. We are not like other minorities in this country, but there’s nothing special about what they did to Black Americans. Because of that relationship, there is a blood knot with America and with Black people.

This country doesn’t know how to atone.
That’s what I’m trying to say! It doesn’t know what to do with us. They want to tell us to get over it but they can’t. I love Black people from top to bottom, from the most ignorant to the most intelligent. I want us to stop apologizing for who we are. We have to take responsibility for every Black person that fuck up, but I don’t see white people apologizing for Donald Trump.

I’m reading a book now about the domestic slave trade called “The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry.” The heart of that movement was in Virginia. They were basically breeding human beings for sale and Thomas Jefferson was at the head of this. Let’s have a conversation about how white people made a race in order to make money. The South folded because most of their wealth was in human flesh, so they had no tangible wealth once slavery was abolished.

This is why you have to get this shit down in writing. You can’t spend 24/7 reading the news, worrying about being arrested at protests and not build anxiety.
Another thing for me is I’ve always been passionate about community programming and education. That’s what I feel my contribution is to all of this. God bless people who are protesting, but I want to get in those communities, be with them for a while and give something of myself to them. Everybody has a lane and there is room for all of it.

Looking to your immediate future, what will you be up to?
You know what, I want to be married and have another baby.

Awww!
I’ve been barking this for the last few months and it’s not going away, so I want to get my body ready to be a wife and mother. That’s my hope. In five years, hopefully I’m still doing work I love. Not because it will get me “x,” but because it’s coming from the inside of my guts. I’ll be 40 this month and what I want to do is spend the day workshopping my play for the Goldberg reading. You’re welcome to come.

Of course!
Come, nosh, celebrate 40! Anyway, I want to be happy and writing and hopefully living off of the income of being a writer. I think what this time is for me is to ground myself and enjoy the things I’ve taken on.

What would you say or do for another artist who’s going through struggles you relate to?
Another recovery saying—if you’re going through hell, keep going. Eventually it ends, and then it comes back. There’s no straight line to success so you have to define what success is for yourself. Once you reach that goal—and you inevitably will because you’re awesome—you will have to figure out what success is again. In 2011, success for me was getting into grad school. Then it became about getting into festivals, and so on. Success is a carrot, so be mindful of what that is, and keep it light.

When I was feeling really miserable and literally got into a bunch of theater stuff, I started thinking about when I first got clean. I was the happiest motherfucker on the planet. It was because all I wanted to do was stay clean. When I felt myself slipping down the rabbit hole, I started booking all the health appointments I hadn’t done for a while. Obamacare is real.

As a victim of childhood sexual trauma, there is no fixed. There are periods of really good where I might only see a therapist once a month. Then there are periods where things are really rough or intense, and I need to see a therapist more. That’s my emotional touchstone because I need someone who doesn’t know me to hear my story and see where they think I am.

There’s a book and program called the “12-Step Buddhist.” It’s about this guy who incorporates three things into his recovery process. It’s Buddhism, recovery meetings and steps, and therapy. I took that to heart. These are the three things that keep me sane.

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