By Brian Robin
Home Is Where the Inspiration Lies
Bleu Beckford-Burrell took Tom Wolfe’s immortal saying “You can’t go home again” and turned it into an oxymoron. That idea about putting writers on a pedestal, one she could never climb? Gone.
She never thought going home was an option. Until it was. Nor did Beckford-Burrell think writing was an option. Until it became not only an option, but a passion.
“When I was younger, I always put writers on a pedestal. I always thought authors were amazing and that I could never do that,” she said. “It was never something I thought I could do. Not until I left grad school for acting.”
Beckford-Burrell’s play, Crasiss, earned a pedestal of its own—a coveted slot in the 25th Pacific Playwrights Festival. The reading is 10:30 a.m. Saturday, May 6 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.
Crasiss is part of Beckford-Burrell’s End of the Line anthology, a five-play series chronicling intersecting lives in Far Rockaway, N.Y. where she grew up. It is a companion piece to her Lyons Pride, taking her interest in trauma and the pursuit of the American dream for immigrants and adding a horror twist to it. Crasiss chronicles the tenacity within a Jamaican family as the horror of the past lurks in the shadows of the present.
“After working through Lyons Pride, I decided there was something I couldn’t tackle there in that play,” she said. “It would take another play to do it, so I knew there was something more to tell. That’s how my mind works. I knew that after I finished Lyons Pride, there was more to tell in relation to a Jamaican family as they relate to figuring out what does the American dream mean to them?
“I didn’t just want Lyons Pride to be the (only) representation of that. I didn’t feel like it was the full picture. There was so much more to it: a multi-generational family who is coming up against adversity and challenges. There are different ways people handle those things who are a part of those things, and I knew something else needed to be written.”
It took a while before Beckford-Burrell realized anything needed to be written in her voice. She attended SUNY Stony Brook, then earned an MFA in Acting from Rutgers. And this is when the whole Tom Wolfe routine about not going home again got flipped on its ear.
Beckford-Burrell interviewed for an assistant manager position at a school. When she got the job, she was informed it was in Far Rockaway.
“I wasn’t going back there. I told myself ‘I’m not going back there,’” she said. “But that turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. It forced me to contend with what I was running away from and what it means to be from a marginalized community and what it means to not have resources. I was able to really reflect on that.
“Every day, I felt like I was living in a play. Everyone I met was a beautiful character who belonged on a page and belonged on a stage.”
Every day Beckford-Burrell was at work, she met kids with stories that wrote themselves. As she took on a second gig teaching acting to kids after school, Beckford-Burrell realized before long someone needed to tell those stories.
“I told friends about these kids and they told me ‘You should just write that.’ I said ‘What? I don’t think I’m a writer,’” she said. “I told myself I’m going to try and I did the thing that playwrights typically do. I said I’m not going to write the play I’m talking about. I’m going to do a two-hander.”
A two-hander is a play with only two characters. Think Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog, The Zoo Story by Edward Albee or The Anarchist by David Mamet.
Beckford-Burrell’s two-hander became Broken Record. It told her she could do this writing thing and do it very well. It led to other plays like PS 365 and La Race that became part of her End of the Line anthology. La Race premiered off-Broadway late last year. In its review of La Race, The New York Times wrote “The playwright Bleu Beckford-Burrell swings big, aiming to catalog a gamut of social ills by illustrating how they affect—and meet defiance from—Black women. …”
Crasiss really brought Beckford-Burrell home. She said she heard the voices of her former students loud and clear in her head. Then, they stopped, which is why it took her so long to finish the work. Her process can best be defined as “eclectic.” Beckford-Burrell writes from pure inspiration. If the characters speak to her, she blazes away. If they don’t, “I can’t write.”
She takes this on a visual scale, drawing images in her notebook that help her map out a path for her characters, once their voices return. It’s a process she has a hard time explaining, but like a puzzle, one that fits together seamlessly—even if she’s not sure where it’s going.
“A lot of times, I think it’s going to be something and it usually ends being something else,” she said.
Fitting. Because Beckford-Burrell thought her occupational path and her life’s path would end up being something—and somewhere—else.
“I think I just had a greater appreciation for where I came from and how I became the person I am,” she said. “I really found a love for the people I grew up around and really having compassion for them and seeing the beauty in something. There were a lot of things growing up I had to deal with, including negative stereotypes. But none of those things matter.
“The bigger picture is I matter and the people in this community matter. It (coming back) made me feel inspired and unapologetic in telling the story.”
Tickets to Crasiss and the other Pacific Playwrights Festival plays are on sale and can be purchased online at SCR.org or by calling SCR Ticket Services at (714) 708-5555.