In 2009, Aleshea Harris wrote and performed the one-woman show Oddlie at thestudio@620. A blend of theatrical storytelling, spoken word and music, the play was, in Harris’ words, “the story of a young woman’s search for her voice.”
Harris, who calls the seven years she spent living and creating in St. Petersburg “invaluable,” has found her voice, and it’s getting progressively stronger and louder. And it’s reaching more and more people.
The New York Times called Harris’ play Is God Is “gratifying and lurid,” and compared her to Sam Shepard and Tarell Alvin McCraney. Is God Is won three Obie Awards and the American Playwriting Foundation’s Relentless Award, in 2016.
She is part of a new wave of Black woman playwrights whose gritty, reality-based work is changing the face of theater in America.
This week, Harris was awarded the 2021 Hermitage Greenfield Prize, a $30,000 commission to create a new work, from the Sarasota County-based Hermitage Artist Retreat, and the Greenfield Foundation. The piece is to be workshopped and performed by Asolo Repertory Theatre in 2023.
She moved to the bay area from Mississippi in 2004, and toured for three years as a member of the Ruth Eckerd Hall Theatre Company. “I got really involved in the spoken word scene in Tampa Bay,” Harris tells the Catalyst. “There was a marriage in my work between spoken word and theater – I had gotten a B.A. in Theater, but the opportunities to perform were few and far between, so I decided to make my own.”
She appeared in numerous area theater productions – including American Stage’s in-the-park Hair – and “did” spoken word several times a week. She began writing longer pieces. “So I feel like I really got my footing, as far as kicking myself in the butt and not waiting for institutional support, in St. Petersburg,” Harris says.
“I really learned in St. Pete and was nurtured, especially in the spoken word community, to be true to my voice, to be true to my activism, and so I’m grateful. So St. Pete feels like where I became an adult artist.”
Oddlie, she explains, was the turning point. “I just knew that I wanted to be expressive in the world, and I loved the theater,” she says. “I had actually written plays since I was in high school.” But professional stage-writing, she muses, “might have felt a little out of reach until I premiered that play at thestudio@620. I didn’t identify as a playwright because I didn’t feel I had a right to.”
In 2011, Harris was accepted into the MFA Writing for Performance program at the California Institute of the Arts. She’s resided in California ever since.
Her 2018 play What to Send Up When It Goes Down was Drama Desk-nominated.
If “What to Send Up” is a receptacle for the rage that is part and parcel of life for many African-Americans, a piece that encourages its audience to respond with cathartic yells and tears, it is also shaped by a rarefied theatrical intelligence. You may not be entirely aware of its artistry until after it’s over, or realize that the show you’ve seen is also a very good play.
Ben Bradley, New York Times/Nov. 19, 2018
“I am interested in disrupting problematic norms,” is how Harris describes the engine that pushes her forward as a playwright. “I think that’s some of the fuel. I’m interested in representations of Black folks, especially women, that aren’t bound by commonly-held misconceptions and narrow tropes.
“And I’m interested in making just a bad-ass story. Just really strong storytelling and bold imagery. These are the things that drive me and keep me excited.”