"Single Black Female" director JaMeeka Holloway. Photo by Brett Villena.

Single Black Female | Bulldog Ensemble Theater  |  Mettlesome, Durham  |  Thursday, May 18–Sunday, May 28

“It’s like I stay in perpetual motion,” JaMeeka Holloway says.

The director—and sometime agent provocateur, for pre-pandemic works like her 2015 production of The Shipment with Black Ops Theatre Company and White, a scathing satire on race in the world of fine art, for Bulldog Ensemble Theater in 2019—is talking about both her her past and immediate future on local and national stages.

The day after Single Black Female, her new production for Bulldog, opens at Mettlesome this week, she’ll travel to Charleston, where auditions are taking place for the fall premiere of a musical biography play she’s been tapped to direct about the life of Robert Smalls. The 19th-century congressman, publisher, and seaman first found fame when he freed himself, his crew, and their families from slavery by surreptitiously commandeering a Confederate battleship and piloting it out of Charleston Harbor into the hands of the Union.

“It shifted the course of the Civil War in ways that haven’t been recognized,” Holloway says.

The director hasn’t had much time for rest since the lockdown has lifted and theaters have reopened. Before providing directorial input for Rosetta Circle, Tift Merritt’s recent evening of music and stories about the life of feminist blues and jazz historian Rosetta Reitz at Duke, she assistant directed the groundbreaking production of Hamlet starring Tia James in February at PlayMakers Rep.

Before that, a two-year odyssey saw her careening from Northern Stage in Vermont to La Mama, one of New York’s home churches of the avant-garde, where she collaborated with puppeteer Torry Bend on playwright Howard Craft’s Dreaming. After a pit stop to helm a student production of the Yoruban-tinged drama The Brothers Size at UNC, she was off to Ohio. At Kent State, she created what she calls an Upper East Side, “Gossip Girl–esque” take on Much Ado about Nothing. Then came the premiere of playwright Jacqueline Lawton’s Hotel Berry, a historical drama about the night Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to stay in a famous Black-owned hotel near Ohio University.

“It’s been a journey,” Holloway reflects, “uplifting memory and illuminating all of these stories and voices that have stayed under the radar.”

The journey’s far from over, although there have been sudden detours along the way. For her first live public production in four years, Holloway originally planned to stage the North Carolina playwright Stacey Rose’s drama As Is: Conversations with Big Black Women in Confined Spaces.

“The casting calls for a demographic of women over 250 pounds,” Holloway says. “It’s a demographic of women who haven’t been highlighted enough on the American stage.”

But when two cast members had to leave the production, Holloway had to pivot to another work that’s long been in her visual field: Single Black Female.

“[Producer and photographer] Erin Bell and I had wanted to do it a couple of years back,” Holloway recalls. The pair presented it early in the pandemic during the Let Her Tell It online reading series of Black women playwrights in 2020.

Stage veteran Kyma Lassiter and up-and-comer Lauren Foster-Lee play the title characters: an English professor and a lawyer, two successful, single Black women in their upper thirties. But what at first looks like a couple of old friends catching up over drinks soon begins to resemble an intervention instead—with the audience as the subject.

After the unnamed lawyer says, “Welcome to the lives of single middle-class Black women,” the professor springs a pop quiz on us.

“Remember Ellison’s Invisible Man? Well, we are the invisible women. Black professional intellectual leftists with conservative fiscal ideologies … the New Negro African American Black Colored Girls who only considered therapy. And even though nobody wants to hear us—we are tired of being ignored!”

Holloway notes that playwright Lisa B. Thompson wants us to know up front that Black women are not a monolith.

“She’s not trying to speak for the entirety of Black women; she’s looking at a very specific demographic,” Holloway says. “That specificity really resonates with me.”

Though they’re successful, Thompson’s characters are still dealing with longings and expectations—from their families, their friends, and themselves—about careers, relationships, and the everyday realities of life.

“They’re trying to grapple with their identity as single Black women and how that exists in relationship to all the other aspects of their lives,” Holloway says.

There’s an edgy, almost stand-up-comedy vibe to Thompson’s candid, rapid-fire inventory of discontents. But what attracted Holloway to the work is the home-truth honesty in the dialogue.

“It felt so familiar to all the ways me and my girlfriends speak on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “It felt so accessible. I love that, how that language felt.”

To Holloway, the spirit of the piece “felt really prime for collective witnessing. It’s a callout to single Black females—and there are so many in the world. It just feels like something that’s reaching out to the plurality of Durham.”

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