Donja R. Love and Carmen LoBue Are Bringing Black Queer Lives Center Stage—and Changing Theater
Black queer playwrights Donja R. Love and Carmen LoBue talk racism, joy, resistance, and why theater must be radically restructured to foster Black talent and tell Black stories.
This year’s season of “Pride Plays,” produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York City, is showing online at Playbill.com. This is the second of two articles focusing on the Black queer playwrights with plays in the season.
Donja R. Love, 34, is the playwright of one in two, which premiered at the New Group last year and takes its title from the 2017 CDC statistic that one in two Black men who have sex with men will be diagnosed HIV-positive in their lifetimes. The Juilliard-trained Love is also the author of the plays Fireflies and Sugar in Our Wounds. His awards include the 2018 Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award and the 2017 Princess Grace Playwriting Award.
Has the experience of producing the play online rather than on stage been weird, OK, or liberating?
Everything you just said. When I was first approached to do my play one in two via this medium I was petrified because the play is so personal, and also because when we did the physical version last year it was a very challenging experience for me—and it was challenging because I was sharing so much of myself.
My collaborators were doing their jobs and interrogating things in my play. But these things are moments of my life, and I was petrified to get back into that space again. Then I thought, “Oh wow, so many people will be able to see this play who were not able to see the play on stage.” I was still petrified, but I realized I would be able to share the story.
I was diagnosed with HIV in December 2008, almost 12 years ago. I started to write the play in September 2018, thinking about what that 10th anniversary meant. I thought I would feel very victorious, but I actually found myself getting incredibly depressed. Suicide ideation started to came back.
One thing I do when I get into such an emotional space is to write. So I grabbed my phone off the nightstand—I couldn’t get out of bed—and in the Notes section of my phone I started writing the play. I wrote the first draft in a week, then left it alone a while. I thought, “I don’t want anyone else to see this. It’s too personal. I’ve spilled too much tea about myself. No one will see this play at all.”
Fast-forward to a person reaching out to me and saying, “Hey, Donja, can you talk to a friend of mine? They’ve just been diagnosed with HIV and they’re not taking it well. They’re throwing themselves into reckless sex, drinking a lot, and aren’t taking their meds.”
So I met with this young man, and when he was talking to me I kept saying to myself: “This was literally my story too. This is what I went through too.” I found myself wondering if this was a rite of passage for Black gay men. Afterwards, I wrote in my Notes section: “This may be my testimony, but it’s not my story.” This story is for so many people, so it would be selfish for me to leave this play on my phone because I am scared that people would know more about me.
How did you get past the 10th anniversary depression and suicide ideation? Did it lift naturally, did you have therapy?
It was a multitude of things. One of the things was being able to write what I was feeling. Writing was the thing that helped, and that I was able to have a support system: my husband, Brandon; friends; family; therapy; and speaking to that young man liberated me as well. And this is an ongoing journey I am on. It’s not like, poof, it’s completely gone.
Fireflies and Sugar in Our Wounds are set in the past. Was one in two a break to set something in modern times?
I would push back and say one in two was a historical piece. When the CDC announced the one in two statistic, that was a historical moment. It’s a staggering moment in history. If you look through a historical lens, you look at what got us to this point: [President] Reagan taking years to even mention HIV publicly, organizations like ACT UP and Gay Men’s Health Crisis doing their best at the time but centering in white male queerness.
There was an erasure and invisibility of Black queer men, who were dying at disproportionate rates. Think of the advertisements of the time. The safer sex images of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s were of white gay men. But what of the community of Black queer men who were also part of this, who were also dying? We have to look at how history got us to that statistic.
Is it a shocking statistic for you?
For me, as a Black queer-identified, HIV-positive person, it is not a shocking figure. It’s life. People are always surprised when they learn about the statistic and where the title of the play came from. That goes again to what stories have been told and who are the folks who have been historically centered in this conversation.
Two plays I love talk about HIV and AIDS: Angels in America and The Normal Heart, which also went on to have amazing screen adaptations. Their common thread is that they are white queer man-centered, which goes to a larger conversation about who is centered in stories and why they are centered. The HIV statistic for white queer men is one in eleven. That large gap reflects the centering of those stories, and the work done to eradicate HIV in their community.
Where does your love of history come from?
I always loved reading, ever since I was a young boy in history and social studies classes. I always gravitated towards stories that focused on individuals with marginalized identities. Stories that focused on marginalized narratives were so few and always came from the perspective of dominant culture. How can we not so much rewrite history—I don’t think we can rewrite history—but how can we hold space for those stories and lives from histories that are so seldom told, so often looked over and forgotten about?
I remember that when I started writing Sugar, I was upset with myself for never imagining queerness at the time of enslavement. It wasn’t as if me and the rest of the queer community popped onto the scene at a certain moment in time. We have existed throughout time and history. What is it like to see ourselves throughout history in a way that fully represents us?
Tell me about growing up
I am originally from Philadelphia. I went to school there, my entire life was in Philly. Just before I turned 30, I moved to New York. It was my first time leaving the area I had known my entire life.
How was your childhood?
I think part of growing up in any marginalized identity, there will be opposition. There will be moments where it is not as easy as other moments, I come from such—and I can’t stress this enough—an amazing support system. The amount of love my family gave me truly helped me become the person I am—to be so vocal as an advocate for myself and others with similar lived experiences.
For the last four years on Father’s Day I have posted the story of when I shared being queer with my father [Carlton]. He read me a verse in the Bible. To this day I don’t remember what the verse was. I remember what I felt. He asked me did I know why he had asked me to read it. In my head I thought, “Because I am going to hell, because I shouldn’t be queer.” But out loud I said, “No.”
He said: “I had you read this verse because there will be so many people who will use this thing [the Bible] against you, to make you feel like you cannot, should not, be who you are. I want you to be equipped.” This scripture lets me know why I can continue to be queer, to allow myself to be me. I remember thinking how radical it was for a Black father to use the Bible—this tool so often weaponized against queer folks—to actually help liberate me, to help me say, “Oh, I’m OK to be who I am in my physical and spiritual form. This higher power is allowing me to be who I am.”
What do you think of racism within the white LGBTQ community?
One thing I want to be able to center and need to center even more than ever—especially in this moment with the reckoning that has been happening—is what does privilege look like for the marginalized within an oppressed identity.
I have encountered folks within the white LGBTQ community who do not feel they have any privilege because of their queerness, when in fact they do still have a level of privilege and with that privilege they can still navigate the world in certain ways. I would like to abolish these things. As I said earlier, Angels in America and The Normal Heart had complete blind spots around other individuals of other marginalized identities who have been left out of the conversation for so long. And again, look at that one in 11, versus one in two, statistic.
I think those white gay men are feeling like, “OK, I’m existing within a marginalized identity. All I need to worry about is me and my fight.” They also have privilege, access, and resources to create space for individuals who do not have those things. How can they hold that space for those individuals?
Broadway, indeed all theater, is currently shut down. What change needs to happen in theater when it returns?
Just as we are having the conversation about defunding and abolishing the police, we need to have that conversation about theater as well. White supremacy and anti-Blackness is so pervasive and expansive, and it is sometimes at its most violent and oppressive in liberal spaces.
Think of Amy Cooper in Central Park. She could have got that birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, killed. She was a supposed liberal who donated to the Obama campaign. Similar kinds of people work in theater—artistic directors, producers. I’ve navigated situations and moments where instead of writing or rewriting my play, I am being asked to do marketing and get contacts in the Black, Black queer, and Black HIV communities. When I talk to white writers they tell me they are never asked to do that. Theater needs to come to terms with its anti-Blackness, racism, and discriminatory practices.
At first when theater shut down I was completely devastated. It’s my home and life. Then I thought, “How can we reimagine what the theater looks like? How can we reimagine the theater space which is not anti-Black, not anti-queer, not anti-HIV? What does that space look like? Can we use this moment to rebuild that space?”
What we have now has to be torn down so we can build something more equitable and progressive, and which holds space for the most marginalized of the marginalized of the marginalized.
How about the organizational structures of theaters?
By and large, at every theater that has produced my work, sometimes I am the only Black person in meetings. In the reimagining of theater, we should be imagining Black people in positions as gatekeepers: Black artistic directors, Black producers. There is a lot of power in the boards of theaters, so having Black people on boards is important.
Specifically, what would it mean to have Black trans women in positions of power, Black HIV-positive people, Black disabled people— and not as tokens, not just to be listened to when a Black play needs to be slotted in, but all year round?
I know I am coming from a position of privilege as someone who has had major productions in New York City, as someone who has a “name.” But what does the future of theater look like for someone without success and resources? How can I hold space for those other people so they can speak about the injustices they want to speak about? How can these people advocate for themselves without feeling like they will never work again?
How have the weeks since George Floyd’s killing been for you, personally and creatively?
As a Black person existing in this moment, incredibly exhausting, incredibly heartbreaking, and incredibly infuriating. When we see photographs of George Floyd, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor, we are seeing our moms, uncles, sisters, aunts. We are seeing ourselves. We are saying, “That could be me at any given moment.” We are seeing our community, and versions of ourselves meeting a fate like this.
How have you gotten through it?
Being able to write, and the writing centering those voices and stories that seldom are centered. Holding space with my community. And on Zoom, with my friends having a good time, chatting, laughing, using Black joy as resistance. Protest is resistance. Black joy is resistance. Me being able to smile and laugh despite everything going on. Me, because I’ve survived and am thriving is also resistance.
What is the next play you’re working on?
I had this idea for maybe the last three years. I kept putting it off until the end of last year when the idea said, as all the plays I have written have done, “Donja, I’m tired of being trapped in your head now. Stop playing.” I started speaking with Black same sex-loving men who survived the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, a whole group of individuals erased and forgotten, made invisible during time. I talked to about 20-plus men. Some were diagnosed HIV-positive, some had lost lovers, some had lost friends, some were a combination of all three.
One man was diagnosed in 1984. When he was diagnosed, he didn’t know who to go to. He said he had seen so many white queer men fighting for change he went to the white queer activists. They told him that he should go to the Black community. The Black community told him that he was gay and to go to the gay community. He didn’t know where to turn.
One part of the play will be set in the mid-1980s, and the other part in 2016, when the CDC statistic is released. The man in the first part is the father of the son character in the second. The play looks at how AIDS has ripped through a Black family. What does legacy and family look like in the Black queer community, and how—between the mid-1980s and now—have things changed and how they have stayed exactly the same in relation to HIV and the Black community.
Do you have a title yet?
It stems from James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time. He asks a question towards the end of the book, “What will happen to all that beauty?” I was struck by that: the beauty within the queer community, the beauty within the Black community, the beauty within the HIV community, and the intersection of all three.
How significant are successes like Jeremy O. Harris (with Slave Play on Broadway) and Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer for Black queer playwrights?
It’s incredibly nuanced. One, I am so excited when I see my community win. When I see my community thrive it truly liberates me and gives me hope. And I am also thinking about who are the individuals who are championing these voices, myself included; who are the individuals who are putting these voices on?
I found myself wondering what it will look like when we are able to have gatekeepers who are championing us to also look like us as well. Right now, I don’t know, because that is how white supremacy is designed and how anti-Blackness is designed, and what this country is built on.
When I see our community thriving and winning, I want to hold space for those in the community who may not be getting the same attention and recognition as those famous names. We should hold space for those writers doing amazing work, who are tearing it up, who may not have a Pulitzer or be on Broadway but who we should be so proud of being in the community. We may never know their names, but we should support them.
Two things I post every day at every chance are Black HIV Lives Matter and Black Trans Lives Matter. Seldom are these narratives included in conversation. Every time folks march in protests, they seem to be galvanized for cishet Black men. We also need to center Black trans women and be able to center Black folks living with HIV. These are folks who truly need to be part of the conversation.
After feeling so bad, how are you feeling now?
I am feeling so light, so beautiful. I am feeling even more energized and invigorated. When one in two was at the New Group at the end of last year it was an incredibly dark time for me. I wrote the play to navigate my way through my emotions. But I didn’t account for when the play was happening—in the rehearsal process, previews, and even after opening—I was in such a dark place because I was reliving my trauma in a very immediate way, and I also felt incredibly depressed by the lack of audiences and lack of recognition the play was receiving.
This wasn’t a playwright wanting attention for his play. This was a Black, queer, HIV-positive man saying, “Why are we never listened to? Why are we never heard?” It took me a while to see that the play had touched many people who had seen it. Fast-forward to now and the Pride Plays, and I am petrified and excited that so many more people will see it as a digital presentation. I am so appreciative of that, and for that to be a space where I can continue to advocate for me and my people.
I have been doing an Instagram Live “talk show” in which I talk to a different Black person with HIV every night. Every conversation is completely different. Hearing their stories reminds me of what I am doing and why I am doing it. I’m at the point now of being so excited about what comes next.
What do your parents think of your success?
My parents are ecstatic every time they find out a play of mine is being produced. They say, “Now you better make sure we’ve got tickets for opening night. They pay attention to everything I do, including my Instagram show even though they don’t have Instagram, so I think they’re using their granddaughter’s or my younger brother’s.
They are such champions, and one reason why I am in the space to be vocal right now. They have given me such support. I am on the path I am meant to be on.
Carmen LoBue is a writer, director, activist, and teacher who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and identifies as non-binary. Their Pride Plays production is Will You... Hold My Hair Back? Among LoBue’s many projects, their short film Splinters premiered at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
Given the events of the last few weeks, from George Floyd’s murder and all that has come from that, how are you doing/feeling?
I am in a state of grief. Like many African Americans, we are merely trying to survive. First, watching our community obliterated by COVID-19 and now several deaths to police brutality and lynching. It’s maddening to see that there’s no justice for the murder of Breonna Taylor.
It’s maddening seeing Black trans people murdered and beaten as well. How would anyone feel if they were part of an unprotected class of humans who had to spend their lives begging for the protected class to stop killing us? My last few weeks is the reflection of the collective American history hidden from our history books nationally. Needless to say, I’m not doing well.
In this moment being Blasian and queer means I am Black (African American) and Filipino. I am also queer. Queer in thought, queer in orientation, queering my world.
How did you feel about the massive Black Trans Lives Matter demo in Brooklyn?
I feel like we should always stand for Black trans lives. In person, in our homes, in our actions, in our minds, and in private conversations. I feel like this moment (I hope) is reflective of the pure love and care we must and will continue to show for Black trans people. We are all deserving of respect, protection, and equal rights. I am hopeful that this moment will be the start of a better future for Black trans people globally.
“Black Lives Matter, Black Trans Lives Matter” is not a slogan. We aren’t advertising anything. Words are so interesting. I think that society is so used to commodifying Black people that we have to find new ways to decolonize our language. Our existence means something. We deserve to live long lives—long, peaceful lives. We deserve to live to see our children’s children.
It’s horrific to think we have to beg for America to stop killing us. That’s the point of Black Lives Matter. It’s actively asking America to protect the stolen people who built this country. And by protecting Black lives you protect all people of color and marginalized people in this country.
Tell me about your play, its characters, and themes you wanted to explore in it.
My play Will You... Hold My Hair Back? is a comedy. A farce. It takes place in 2015. The main characters are an interracial couple. One is African American and the other is Italian American. Grace and Piper have became overnight “celezbrities” after an embarrassing wedding proposal goes viral during the 2015 San Francisco Pride parade.
Then, with less than a week left until they say “I do,” this couple is faced with loads more media attention. And of course once their parents get involved, things spiral out of control. Not only do Piper and Grace question their own individual identities in the face of society, but in the face of their future in-laws.
I’d say as far as characters go, each of them are vastly different. But it’s a farce right? So I created my own media. I created the world that includes two reporters, Betchen Betty and Charlie Harper. They’re so gossipy and supportive and sweet. They represent a lot of the fandom in the play.
Dr. Cynthia, the marriage counselor, represents faith in the play. And each set of parents are vastly different. The Italian couple are middle class, proud of their heritage, and also very unaware of their privilege as white Americans in America. These are Grace’s parents. They are the kind of white Americans who say problematic things like “We don’t see color.”
Piper’s parents are proud, affluent, very wealthy African American parents who love the media attention but exhibit a lack awareness when it comes to their daughter’s queer identity. Piper and Grace are great because they get to see themselves on their way to marriage in a new way.
Piper is the more confident, Type A, and self-assured. Grace is a romantic, she’s sensitive, she’s got a lot of faith and heart. On their way to marriage they realize that they’ve taken a back seat in regard to the wedding planning and stating their claims on what they want and need in regard to wedding preparations. And they have to figure out how they can set boundaries with their parents.
We as LGBTQIA people know what it is to have to confront our identity as it relates to the social constructs that exist in the world all the time. We know we can’t take a back seat in our lives or even in simple situations like having to assert our pronouns. It’s a lot! These characters have to aim for who they want to be in the world and in their marriage.
Where did the idea for it come from?
I wanted to explore how hungry LGBTQIA people are for content. I created this play to fall back in love with love. I wrote it the day after the Pulse nightclub shooting. In the wake of tragedy many of us were afraid to celebrate Pride that year. But plenty decided that we’d risk our lives to celebrate because fuck it, love wins, and our elders fought for our right to celebrate openly.
I long for the moments I can unapologetically experience queer joy. The only place I could discover and experience freedom and pure queer joy was in my imagination—the same imagination that seeks to be free from the perils of social constructs. The intention of this play is to provide my community with an experience of pure radical queer joy while acknowledging the fact that we still have a lot of work to do.
How was the process doing this play virtually for you?
Interesting, when you have a large cast like mine, and it’s a comedy so much of the comedy is lost because we don’t get the epic entrances and exits—and the physical comedy is limited. But my cast was phenomenal. Going to rehearsal and seeing Michael Potts do a comedy is something I’ll never forget. It was thrilling to watch these actors change clothes, use props, and use the frame of a little box on Zoom the way they’d use a black box theater or a frame in a film.
I was so impressed with the costumes Toni Ann DeNoble and Reed Northrup created as they played the TV hosts. Seeing Mary Testa play a problematic Italian mom and New Yorker was a real treat. My director, Dominique Rider, treated this like a workshop in the theater. That was great because the exploration of the characters remained the same. When actors lean into the theatricality without concern for the new art form it really works.
The minuses: internet connection. You really have to have a decent internet connection. And good sound. Ya gotta have good lighting, sound, and reliable WiFi.
Tell me about you and your upbringing: family life, coming into yourself, and coming out
I grew up in Ohio. I think my experience being “othered” shaped my artistry. I have a really loving family. I’d say that one of the harder parts of growing up was dealing with the bullying and ignorance of my peers. I had to overcome adversity pretty young. That probably primed me for finding ways to express myself creatively.
You do so much. What’s your preference: theater, film, writing, directing?
No preference. I am an artist. I am a creative through and through. I haven’t even tried out every medium yet. I won’t set limits on myself just yet.
What’s coming next for you? What are you working on?
Next up I am directing a pretty epic short film called Pink & Blue. It’s about a Black strait-laced lesbian and her multiracial trans partner. They wrestle with how their new baby will affect their relationship and how to raise their child in a binary world.
I have a few other projects coming up, like another short sci-fi film, O, Ryan. It’s a queer dystopian thriller. I wanted to create something in response to the opioid epidemic in America and the mental health of Black women in a post-apocalyptic world. I created this film with my besties and it’s a labor of love.
Where is America on race generally right now, and where do you think it will go—or can go?
Wow! Big question. I think it should go in the direction of decolonization. We (African Americans) have many the same issues that we’ve had in America since we were stolen and carried here. The same goes with the indigenous people.
As a Black human, specifically African American, I hope that allies and other people of color show up for us. By showing up for African Americans you show up for other people of color. We need all hands on deck.
The onus should not solely be on us to protect ourselves from being killed in this country. We’ve fought for so long and will continue to do so. I think it can go in the direction of transformative justice being implemented in all organizations and communities. Immediate change for me might look like justice for Breonna Taylor. The lynchings need to stop (we are not lynching ourselves), and other violence inflicted upon Black and Brown bodies can stop. No excuses.
Theater is shut down, and there is much talk about a changed theater once it opens up again. What does that change look like for you? What would you like to see happen?
Theater needs to redistribute power. The theater community needs to stop tokenizing creatives. There are so many underrepresented voices. The theater needs to make this art form accessible for marginalized groups. The system is innately classist. Studying theater is too expensive, there’s not enough resources for students in high school or grade school. And I’ve worked in one of the best playwriting departments in New York City.
I learned that many of the students of color go home in debt. Why? Because there’s a lack of awareness in educational institutions. They don’t know where minority artists go to find support or to be showcased. Fellowships for writers are few and far between.
How do you prepare artists of color for success when they’re the first of their community to inhabit that space? Or the first of five? We are not a monolith. There are an infinite number of perspectives that need to heard. But the theater prioritizes stories that center whiteness, or don’t but they’ll cast a white person to portray a person of color, or the play will be about people of color but not written by people of color.
How does Broadway and off-Broadway, and theater need to change when it comes to Blasian, Black, and Black and queer voices and talent—on stage and off?
The change needs to start at the top. I love writing plays and collaborating, but I can’t afford to see most Broadway plays. I ran to the off-Broadway theater to see Soft Power, Ain’t No Mo’... I love the New Black Fest at the Lark. I ran to these because the artists being represented in this art form brought me there.
Furthermore, as far as artists go, I’ve learned in filmmaking that I’m also part of a small community of Black artists or Asian filmmakers. We know that we have to create our own work and raise the money to do it. I think that just as much as theater artists are looking for White (meaning theater that prizes whiteness) American Theater to change and that’s valid, it’s just as important for us as artists to better support each other and to build our own theaters.
Wouldn’t it be great to have our own space like, ahem, the Apollo, the National Black Theater, and ahem! a new theater? Let’s build. We have to build our own structures so we don’t have to negotiate how we’re treated or represented. We can simply celebrate each other and support each other in our vast differences and similarities as a people.