Ten Questions with Erika Dickerson-Despenza
Photo of Erika Dickerson-Despenza
Erika Dickerson-Despenza - photo by Joey Stocks for The Dramatist

1What was your most memorable theatrical experience as a child?

The Black Baptist Church on the first Sunday of the month (communion Sunday). It’s the way the folks would be possessed by the Holy Spirit. The way bodies innately respond to spirit, to the drum, to the right note on a Hammond B3 organ. It’s still one of the most transformative theatrical experiences I get to witness and engage.

 

2 What production do you wish you’d seen?

The 2015 Broadway revival of The Color Purple.

 

 

3Who is the person who’s made the biggest impact on your career?

There’s no one person; my work and career are deeply impacted by a lineage of Black women writers. Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Ntozake Shange, Lynn Nottage, and Katori Hall have made the way I write and how I center Black women possible. Lorraine Hansberry showed me that a queer Black girl from Chicago could leave UW-Madison, move to NYC, and be a radical leftist playwright. I am forever grateful for her example and our parallels.

 

4 What are you reading right now?

Right now I’m in a period of rereading. I read books in clusters. Right now, there’s Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System (Katrina Hazzard-Donald), Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (Saidiya Hartman), and Dub:Finding Ceremony (Alexis Pauline Gumbs).

 

5 When you sit down to work, what must you have with you in the room?

My entire library (or easy access to it). At any moment, I may need a reference, a photo, a theory, etc. I must also have clear Post-it notes and several black felt-tip pens.

 

6When you’re in despair with a piece of work, how do you maneuver out of that?

I dance. I take ritual baths, do somatic work, or get acupuncture. I sit at my altar and talk to the people who’ve walked before me and who walk with me. All of my work is spirit work that lands, finally on paper and then sometimes a stage. So, I try to find the spiritual root of the challenge I’m experiencing. What am I not curious enough about? What are my blocks? Where is the stagnation in me/my thinking? Am I exhausted or lacking self-regard here?

 

7If you hadn’t become a dramatist, what profession would you have chosen?

Well, I was an English/ELA teacher and a seminarian pursuing a Master of Theology prior to my career as a professional dramatist. I wanted to pursue a career as a linguistic anthropologist, studying the development, shifts, and maintenance of regional Black dialects in Chicago and New Orleans. I still consider pursuing a PhD in Linguistic Anthropology and African American Studies. I’d like to be a kind of Zora Neale Hurston of theatre.

 

8As a writer, what have you not done that you’ve always wanted to do?

There’s so much I want to do! While I’m not generally fond of musicals, there’s a musical brewing in me about my fellow west side of Chicago comrade and birthday twin, the late Fred Hampton. I also want to write a musical based on Black chorus girls of the Harlem Renaissance. There are a couple of poetry books, children’s books, and a genre-bending Black Feminist/ Womanist project about Black women’s bath rituals in the works.

 

9Whose work do you drop everything to see?

Remounts of Ntozake Shange’s work and innovative engagement with the work of Alexis Pauline Gumbs.

 

10What’s next?

Everything! My play cullud wattah will premiere at The Public Theater November 2021 and at Victory Gardens Theater summer 2022. I have some commissions I’m working on and a couple of television and film projects.

Erika Dickerson-Despenza
Erika Dickerson-Despenza

is a Blk, queer feminist poet-playwright & cultural-memory worker from Chicago, Illinois. Awards: Susan Blackburn Prize (2021), Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award (2020), Thom Thomas Award (2020), Lilly Award (2020), Barrie and Bernice Stavis Award (2020), Steinberg Playwright Award (2020), Princess Grace Playwriting Award (2019). Select stage plays include: cullud wattah, shadow/land, and [hieroglyph].