Ep11 – Staceyann Chin (Part 1)

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Hi, this is Tonya Pinkins and you're listening to my podcast, You Can't Say That, but it's the show where you can on the Broadway podcast network.

Tonya Pinkins: I am so excited for my guest today. She is a force of nature. I first heard her at a 5050 by 2020 event sponsored by Jill Soloway. That was the first time I heard her do a poem. Well, I have since been online, listening to her and just the energy, the power that exudes from her pores. Please join me in welcoming Staceyann Chin.

Staceyann Chin: Listen, I just want to be able to say that your spiel, I do a lot of like podcasts and like a step into a lot of spaces where people are like, kind of leading into the show. I'm like, you've got a real voice for like TV for like, I'm like, that's so flawlessly done. You didn't have to do a second take. That's nice. I'm like, okay, I'm going to have to like, get my radio voice on.

Tonya Pinkins: Get your radio voice on. You're so dynamic. I was listening to poems of you, of yours on YouTube today and just thrilled. So we are here for this conversation, but I don't want to just leave us in this one conversation. Cause there's so much that is dynamic and wonderful about you that I want people to know about. But a couple of weeks ago, I got a text from you inviting me to a salon at your house. That seemed to be a continuation of a group of salons you'd been having with women who wanted to talk about slave play.

Staceyann Chin: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I have women in my house, like all the time, lots of times they're like good men who are allies. And lots of times there are lots of white people who come in and are, they know they have to talk about race and those kinds of things when they come through my doors. But in my twenties, I moved here in my twenties from Jamaica. And one of the things that I noticed in in New York is like, I don't know, people, maybe they live in small apartments. They don't want to have people in their house. And I come from Jamaica where people stop off from work. They gather at each other's houses, they're in the front yard cooking. They're like, just like, the home is a very dynamic place that has a, and I know the South is like that here as well.

Tonya Pinkins: I am from Chicago and I had five generations under one roof. So I like that.

Staceyann Chin: So noise and people and conversations and we could be loud, and no one feared that we were arguing or killing each other, but it was just like, I disagreed with you and I'm going to disagree with it loudly.
So in my twenties, and 30's, as soon as I got an apartment, mine was weekly. People would come by, young, black lesbians, you know, young, not so lesbian and just like the most amazing people used to come through and just, on a Saturday night you could just come to Staceyann's house because there would be wine and there would be conversation and there would be talk. My house is a drop-in house. If you know me, you can just kind of, you can ring my doorbell and come up. Because I'm Caribbean, I'm a Jamaican girl who likes company. I don't go to work every day. I don't have coworkers. That's my great sorrow. I have no coworkers. So I like when people come by to chat and I went and saw this “Slave Play”

Tonya Pinkins: Did you see that New York Theater Workshop on Broadway?

Staceyann Chin: I saw it on Broadway, and I saw it with two white friends. And lots of people were like, no, you got to go on the night.

Tonya Pinkins: Black night.

Staceyann Chin: The Black night. And it just didn't work out because I have an eight-year-old kid and I have to just be home when I have to be home. And so the night I could go to see it was when my friend who, went and got two tickets and said, you should come with us. And I went and I was so bloody shocked. Like not shocked by like the content, because I had a sense of kind of like, I didn't read a lot about it. I just knew, like I had a lover who was like, you should go see this. You should definitely go see this. You have to go see slave play. But because we were in a strange relationship that, if you want to ask me questions about it later, I can answer.

Tonya Pinkins: Was it an interracial relationship.

Staceyann Chin: No, it wasn't interracial.

Tonya Pinkins: So it was a black person who said.

Staceyann Chin: We were navigating a lot of things. And so, one of the ways in which I was being passive aggressive, I was like, I'm not going to go see something If you say I should go see it. So I didn't go to see it. And then it just happened that I went to see it. And I was sitting in the front in the second row.

Tonya Pinkins: That's very close.

Staceyann Chin: I know. And all of the, the body fluids and the proximity, Oh my God. I mean the licking of the boots and the slurping and the spitting and the proximity to someone's vagina I don't know, personally. I'm just very like, and then I didn't quite know what was happening because as I said, it wasn't reading what the play was about. And so when this woman came out, kind of dressed in this kind of like stereotypical garb of like the black woman on a plantation. And then she started twerking to Rihanna and I was like, so I was like, I was confused at first. And then by the time she started eating a watermelon/cantaloupe, like I was losing my mind.

Tonya Pinkins: Okay. You were upset?

Staceyann Chin: Not upset, just like in deep shock, because I had never seen anything like this, but I was upset too, but I don't think I could get to the upset because I was still so shocked. And I am unshockable, I'm the one who talk about like vaginas and like, I mean, like if you listen to my work, you know what, my vagina looks like, what it feels like, how it talks. I'm not, I'm an open book, so to speak. But this thing was remarkably provocative and crazy. And it shocked me and I watched the whole play and I watched the dynamics between the people and some of it was very clever and some of it was very witty, but I don't know if I got to the place where I thought that the black woman's story should have been presented for this kind of consumption in this way.

Tonya Pinkins: And what is this kind of consumption?

Staceyann Chin: I feel like, I feel like the play, I can't, I'm not about to censor anybody, so I can't say what shouldn't be done. I can just say what it made me feel. I felt as if, the black woman's character, wasn't, it wasn't given, the nuance was missing from it. So this black woman needs to be treated as if she were a slave. She needs to enact the violation of rape and the violation of the power dynamics between her and the white masseur and, or plant or overseer as the, I don't know. And then we didn't get deep enough into why and how, because I can't be policing other people's fantasies so I can get turned on by just about anything. I mean, people, when they close their doors, they should be able to like, fuck. And, according to DH Lawrence to eat and fuck and Crow, they should be able to do all those things. I mean, without any kind of like, moral police in the bedroom. But the question is how do we publicly consume a black woman's desire, which has stuff to do with like, violation and rape on it, without talking about what it does to us and who is articulating it and who is consuming it. Because the night I went, the fact that they only have like a black night, no one then means that the audience was not that black. So I'm in the room with all these white people who are kicking and laughing and like snickering and sniggering to all kinds of comments and jokes about racism and about slavery and about sex and rape and plantation rape. And I couldn't get with it. I couldn't crawl into it. And I think I'm like as radical as they come, but I couldn't get with it.

Tonya Pinkins: I mean, I had a completely different experience of it for me having dated predominantly white men. It was like, he had written my life. And he had written an aspect of my life in relationships with white men that I was like, you think, could anyone even understand this dynamic of I think another friend of mine and I were talking about like, why do we date white men? Well, for me, dating white men is because most black men don't want to date me. I'm too much trouble. I'm a lot of work.

Staceyann Chin: I can see that.

Tonya Pinkins: So they don't want to date me. So for a white man, I'm easy and they provide a bit of access. They certainly have more discretionary income. They can be...

Staceyann Chin: Lord have mercy, you up in here preaching. You up in here reading people's lives.

Tonya Pinkins: They can be sympathetic to my troubles in a way that a white woman probably can be to a black man where it's two black people together, it’s like, we both had a hard day, nobody's getting any extra sympathy today on that. But I have always longed for relationships with a black man that knowingness of something. And I just haven't, I’ve had a couple and if they haven't been successful, so most of my relationships have been with white men. And there is this dynamic that slave play got for me from the very beginning that to me, what white supremacy and it, isn't a color melanin and thing is that they want to get to be whatever they want to be whenever they want to be it. And you must revolve around their need to be whatever they want to be. And to me, that's what that play showed. Like when the white man didn't want to participate

Staceyann China He didn’t want to participate in the thing that made him uncomfortable

Tonya Pinkins Correct. He didn't want to be uncomfortable for the sake of her sexual pleasure. And that was like, Oh, don't I know the truth of that. I had literally, like a week before the seeing the play, I had been taking a class at The Academy with Kasia Urbaniak and it was about Women's empowerment. And we were learning about Subbing and Domming and we were learning how to ask, because for black women, we are Uber Dom's. We are always serving everybody's needs, everybody's things.

Staceyann Chin: But we're also puts in the position historically of like surviving and surviving is about striking back. It's about hitting, it's about guarding, it's about walls.

Tonya Pinkins: Yes, we do all of that, but very rarely do people serve us, very rarely.

Staceyann Chin: And therefore we have no comfort with it as a process.

Tonya Pinkins: We don't. And so this class was about me having to give up my Uber Domness and learn how to sub.

Staceyann Chin: How come you ain't call me into this class?

Tonya Pinkins: Well, you know, we can get together sometime, but I had to learn how to ask. And so what I had asked my white partner for was I sat, and I heard this was something somebody else had said. And I was like, I cried when I heard, you could even ask for something like this. I asked him if he would, when I came home, would he undress me, tuck me into bed, make me a cup of tea and leave.

Staceyann Chin: And what did this man say pray tell?

Tonya Pinkins: Well, he did it. And it was sensuous. It was erratic. It was cozy. It was cheersing. It was comfortable. I loved it. It was lovely to not have to give back, to have to feel that everything was transactional. Like someone just gave to me and I got to receive. Now he refused to ever do it again.

Staceyann Chin: No way.

Tonya Pinkins: He accused me of being a lesbian for even asking. And it became an ongoing fight that this thing that was 10 minutes that I said was fantastic for me, he would never do it again. And needless to say, he is no longer in my life. And to me, that was what SLAVE PLAY showed me. That these white partners they're so used to you, domming them, you either telling them what to do or screaming at them or listening to them and Domming them .

Staceyann Chin: Because it triggers the historical not narrative, but the historical reality of them being the people who tell you what to do.

Tonya Pinkins: But they still are.

Staceyann Chin: Systemically. I mean, white people decide. I mean, right now I'm like, we were talking gentrification. And right now I'm in the middle of like the conversation about gentrification. We only move as people of color when we're being driven out by white people who are needing us to go, or we are being corralled into a space that, they say that space is ours and not theirs. But they make the decision about what we do when we do it.

Tonya Pinkins: All the time. They're making all the decisions, but they want to pretend that they're not.

Staceyann Chin: Downstairs. I went to Starbucks and you know, all the people who were serving, all the people who are making the coffee, making the soy chai lattes are people of color. And I realized there was not one white person behind the counter serving, but almost all the patrons were white. So it's a very like interesting. And when you say serve, I want to, I think I'm interested in when you said like, Oh, we aren't served, but it's an interesting that the plate provided the space that the service you're asking for is not because I think that I have a lot of like white women friends who are willing to like, Oh, what do you need? Let me do this for you. And it's kind of like a white savior narrative.

Tonya Pinkins: That's not it.

Staceyann Chin: The service has to do with, the service, the thing that like often white men do, they give you what they want you to have. They give you what they want you to have. And it may be extravagant, but they don't take the time to find out if it is what you want, what you value.

Tonya Pinkins: And I'm saying, yes, not because I’ve dated white men, because I mean, I’ve never had sex with a white person. I came here when I was 24 and I mean, I’ve had like maybe two or three, like kind of dalliances with like white people who cause, when you get a good white person and it can be remarkably kind of soul filling. But I haven't been able to close the deal so to speak. Haven't able to peel my undies down in any way. But the issue, I think, but the experience of being with white people who only want to do what they want to do and are inflexible, unmovable with walking out of the space that makes them uncover. I mean, how many times have you seen the crying white woman? We're not even talking about relationships here. I mean, you date men, I date women and like...

Tonya Pinkins: It's the first place they go. And I have gotten to the point with my friends go, you don't get to cry. You don't get to cry. I mean, I have a friend whose son is dating an Ethiopian woman. And when she comes to their house, she's always accusing them of being racist for various things that they've done and said to her, and she wants to cry. And I'm like, but you don't get to cry.

Staceyann Chin: She's accusing Brown people of being...

Tonya Pinkins: The Ethiopian women's accusing the sons parents and grandparents of being racist. And she starts crying. And I'm like, but you don't get to cry. You have to engage. You have to say, why are you saying that? What is this thing? Let's talk.

Staceyann Chin: I have an eight-year-old daughter. And every time I tell her that she's done something wrong, her first instinct is to cry. And one of the things that I’ve had to work at with her and to talk her through is when you do something and we all kind of have it in some way, but you have to learn to manage it as you move successfully through the world, you can't punch somebody in the nose and then cry because they're bleeding,

Tonya Pinkins: It's a manipulation.

Staceyann Chin: I mean, and maybe you might feel sad about it, but that is not your primary, that shouldn't be a primary focus. If you're a good person, you should be able to turn it around and say, I’ve hurt this person, how is it that I can help them? How is it that I can make reparations? And nobody wants to talk about reparations in this country. But I had the conversation in my house with a bunch of black women, because I believe that it was the one before the one, I invited you to, it was a sea of black women only talking about this play. Half the room had seen the play and half had not. And so we had like a woman in the room who was like a Dom. And she spoke of these men. Like she specialized in having white men as slaves. And she spoke of them as slaves and ex slaves. Former slaves. I was like, yo, what the hell is this world?

Tonya Pinkins: See, that's this thing that the language, the language is very important. So in the BDSM community, the Dom is the servant. So these men are paying someone to pretend to be the master so they can pretend to be a slave.

Staceyann Chin: And many of these men would walk into a situation. The very, even the man you might've dated, who said, I'm not going to do this 10-minute thing for you no fucking more. Because you're a lesbian. Like I am, he would say, he would participate in a process where he was paying the person. That means he is, for to do the very same thing.

Tonya Pinkins: He's still in control.

Staceyann Chin: Yes. To do the very same thing. But if it is that you remove the transactional nature of It, because you take away, when you remove the transactional nature, you take away his power, his paying power, you take away his power. He's no longer the initiator, the fuel, the driver of the action and all of a sudden, you're the driver of the action, then it makes him uncomfortable.

Tonya Pinkins: Right. Because now he's having to dom you, he's having to serve you. And by serve, it means put all your attention on the other person, figure out what they want, what they need. Is this working? Are they happy? Does that work? It's like what it is to be a good lover, a good lover, is a good dom.

Staceyann Chin: But even when it's not sexual, I think that we as human beings really have a big struggle with like putting our own desires aside for a second. And then when you're in a position of power, like if you're a white person who used to being in charge and calling the shots, can you imagine how difficult that might be for them? My issue with slave play wasn't that it didn't bring up so many of these very important conversations and force us to talk about this thing that we only give all these what black women's side eyes and say, how you're dating this white man, or, you look at these black men in the street and be like, Oh, he with that white girl because she is easy. Whatever, we have these like sub narratives, all of these like tangential narratives about interracial and people only talk about them in this kind of flippant way where we kind of assume we understand all of it already. So it was good to actually see the conversation being had in a real way. And the conversations that ensued from the play. I didn't like how it ended, man, how you liked how it ended?

Tonya Pinkins: Well, I’ve had a lot of things about that. I mean, I’ve done a lot of interviews with Jeremy about it. And with the cast about it. There's a difference between how it's written and how it's played. And I asked Jeremy about that. I said, that this, thank you. Like, what is she thanking him for? I said, because he's pathetic at the beginning and he's pathetic at the end, is she thanking him for letting her finally see you are never going to be able to do what I want to do. And I think that he wanted the ambiguity that everybody in the audience walks away thinking like some people walk away thinking she thanked him for that. And they're mad about that. And other people like, wow, what did that mean? Are they going to be together? Is it going to be over? So there's an ambiguity in it. For me, I felt like the rape wasn't violent enough. I felt like he still didn't step up and give her what she needs.

Staceyann Chin: You should have come to my talk because I mean, I have never had the experience where I wanted that from a white person. Like I’ve always had the ultimate, but also because I’ve never dated a white person. I don't know where my fantasies would take me if I were to be able to be in a relationship with a white person. So I speak from a place of lack of experience.

Tonya Pinkins: Well, let me say this. I was beaten horribly as a child and you know, the place where children get beaten is usually their butts. And so it's all around your legs. So it's all around all of your, sexual center . So I think that I am sort of primed for that. In fact, in some of my memories, I remember this combination of this erotic thing around excruciating pain. So, I mean, I'm saying, I think that the idea of pain and eroticisms are linked in me because of having been beaten from like two years old.

Staceyann Chin: I think that's maybe most people's experience. Most people won't say it in a podcast, Tonya, I will tell you that.

Tonya Pinkins: Well, you can't say that.

Staceyann Chin: You really can't say that in public now. Most people won’t say it But most people I know, I’ve made love to quite a few people in my lifetime and people respond to pain as an erotic thing, as erotic zone, as an erotic tool device.

Tonya Pinkins: Right. And so, I met a woman who said that, like, there's a point where the pain just you split from pain and it just becomes a kind of ecstasy for her. I have never gotten there and I'm not into that yet. Cause I don't like pain, but the idea of having a white man be raping me has been an erotic thing that I have experienced as a fantasy.

Staceyann Chin: So it's like tapping into a kind of psychological pain.

Tonya Pinkins: Yeah That psychological pain.

Staceyann Chin: Whoa Hallelujah. Jesus if you’re not busy come on it it

Tonya Pinkins: Some of the best sex of my life has come from it.

Staceyann Chin: HallelujahMy grandmother would say, Come Lord take me case and give it a pillow, Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord. That's so interesting because I mean, it's interesting to talk to someone who can art. And I actually had a young woman there. She was like of college age, like 20 years old. And she talked about that erotic place. And a lot of the older women in the room kind of dismissed her because she was 20. And they were like, well, she'll come to her own like pain about, race or whatever. But now that, I mean, do you mind asking how old you are?

Tonya Pinkins: I'm 57.

Staceyann Chin: 57 and I'm 47. So there's a way that, you're not a kid, you're not in college, you're not a college kid. So there's an interesting thing that's happening in my brain now. Like, have I completely misjudged this? Because it hasn't been my experience, but you know what I mean? Like my own sexuality is kind of tied up with like abandonment and, care, like, or lack of it. Like my mother left me when I was a baby, my father didn't come to claim me. And there was no one to care for me as an infant. And so whenever anybody kind of like holds me in this way, that makes me feel like I’m, like my kids' self is being cared for. That's kind of one of my erotic zones, like, and I guess maybe it's about that psychological pain being able to kind of sit in it and be with it intimately. That allows you to kind of open up a little bit.

Tonya Pinkins: Yeah, it's interesting. I find that if I'm masturbating my fantasies are very healthy, but if I'm with a partner, well, I mean, I'm saying if I'm with a partner and it doesn't really matter what race they are, my fantasies are always abusive. All my sexual fantasies with a partner they're abusive. And it's very few times in my life that I’ve actually had sex with a partner where I'm actually present with them. I'm always in some abusive fantasy in my head when a human, other human being is there.

Staceyann Chin: Yeah. I think I have a hard time; Lord have mercy, you've dragged me into this conversation so early in the morning. Do you know that it's early in the morning, too early for this shit, Tonya, too fucking irony, man, come on? And these are conversations that I should be having with a white women. So I can have some distance, and white women who are like much younger than I am so I can dismiss them. It's like looking in a mirror situation is bad for me, bad for me. But it's my own experience with like being present in a sexual space. I came up as a kid with like a whole bunch of shit. I'm in Jamaica with no parents, no welfare system. So you can imagine all the things that happen. And if you want to read about them, I have a book that shows you all those things that happened to me. And so when it comes to it, I really struggle. Like whenever I get intimate, whenever I'm really kind of present and intimate, then I get like really scared and like my emotional and my psychological self-kind of fleas the room. And I’ve had some of the most amazing experiences with partners who have insisted that I remain present. But then all of the shit about like the abuse and the fantasy is also in the room, because that's what you're kind of running away from when you kind of pull away from partners. Like you don't want to, you don't want them to see all this, like dark on the world, this kind of Ignace, this Freud nest that is sitting underneath all of what gives you pleasure. I saw you in Rasheeda Speaking. And I saw you in that place. And that was before we started to really talk about the angry black woman. But that was before it became like.

Tonya Pinkins: It's what the angry black woman has been around forever.

Staceyann Chin: Before we started the deconstructed into the kind of way, like now, we're interested in a whole bunch of black women's stories. They're on HBO.

Tonya Pinkins: Mine, hasn't still hasn't, I haven't seen my story yet.

Staceyann Chin: But they're talking about and so people are like, they want to know what makes her feel this way. Whereas before she was just a character, she was s maid, she was whatever. So now some people are interested in some parts of her. And so now the conversation I think is maybe a little more nuanced about who she is and why she does this or why she doesn't do that. And I remember that we hadn't really kind of bumped into the me-too movement yet. And we hadn't really bumped into kind of like, well, maybe white women are taking up too much space and I'm not giving like black women time to speak. And I was sitting in the audience and I was really quite moved by how you played that character as a black woman who is often like seen as, I dress weird, I talk weird. My politics are weird. I'm like way too much, I argue too much. I'm always arguing about what food that didn't come, whether people didn't talk to me or not. And it was kind of like really wonderful to see you like fuck with the psychological space that black women have with like people like in a working environment. And how it made the audience, kind of gobble it up at the same time and being uncomfortable at the same time. And I was never quite sure if the character was like really going crazy or if she was fucking with them.

Tonya Pinkins: Yeah. Well, “Rasheeda Speaking”, Joel Drake Johnson just died two weeks ago. Rest his soul. The character as written was written, like she was crazy. Like she was a nut job.

Staceyann Chin: And you gave it nuanced by like, no, the world is crazy and I'm not crazy. And even if I'm a little crazy it's because I’ve been in this shit with you all for so long.

Tonya Pinkins: Yeah. That was important to me. And then there were some things that he wrote, and I was like, no, that's just too crazy. No, you guys have to cut that. There were things that he wrote that just didn't feel consistent to me as a black person. Like he wanted her to swear on a Bible to a lie. I said, you know what? You all white people might do that. But the Bible actually has very real meaning in my culture and my community. So I'm not swearing on a Bible.

Staceyann Chin: And it's rare that you would find a woman who feels deeply and believes is centered in her life as a black woman who will swear on a Bible on a lie.

Tonya Pinkins: That's written in the play. And I was like, I’ll swear on this package of wipeys and I'm going to make sure the audience can see that it's some wipeys. Though I was told later that people in the back of the house didn't know that it wasn't wipeys. But for me, that was important. I was like, I'm not putting that out into the world about my culture. So doing Rasheeda, Speaking was living Rasheeda Speaking . I was in a room full of all white people and one South African woman of color. And I told her day one don't even jump into conversations about race because you don't have the same experience of race that I do as an American black woman. So I was living it and doing it simultaneously.Yeah It was hard.

Staceyann Chin: I can't speak to the politics of living it, but I certainly know that playing that kind of role, which is the same thing. Like, it was interesting that the people who put Slave Play on understood that the cast I don't know exactly how they whoever, but I knew that whoever was talking about it, whoever put, whoever was fighting for the rights of the people of color who were on that stage understood, really?

Tonya Pinkins: That was me.

Staceyann Chin: Understand that they needed therapy.

Tonya Pinkins: I set up every one of those talk backs. That was me creating that whole talkback space and finding those people. I did that, because what I became aware of is that these people that I was working for did not understand at all. And it was really difficult to go to work and have to argue with people about what it is to be a black woman from the West side and the South side of Chicago, which I literally am. And they're going to tell me what I am. So I was like, oh no, I have to, the place called Rasheeda Speaking. And I have a monologue in that play where I say that Rasheeda is a new word for nigger. And you know, for me to point out to them. So the place called nigger speaking. They were like, well, like, what do you mean? Like really? Are we in this much denial? I walk out of the theater and people have say, Hey, Rasheeda, it isn't called Jacqueline speaking. That's the name of my character. My character is Jacqueline. So they were in denial about actually what they were making. And for me, because my mother was mentally ill, gaslighting is my button. So once you were like...

Staceyann Chin: You have a mentally ill mother?

Tonya Pinkins: She's dead now, but she was mentally ill.

Staceyann Chin: As do I.

Tonya Pinkins: So that gas lighting, when we can't agree about reality, then I'm done with you. I'm done with you. Like once we go to gas lighting, like we can agree that this is the color white, we're done.

Hi, I'm Tonya Pinkins and that was part one of my provocative conversation with Staceyann Chin. Come back for part two and a poem from her latest published book, Crossfire.


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Part 1: I was invited to a salon at Staceyann’s house for Black women to share their disdain over Jeremy O’Harris’s SLAVE PLAY. I was afraid I might not get out alive so I invited her to talk about it on the show. She is a force of nature as a poet, Drama Desk Award Winner and star of Tony Nominated DEF JAM Poetry.

Produced by Dori Berinstein, edited by Alan Seales, music by Anthony Norman.

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