What is your name? Where are you from?
My name is Roberta Uno. I was born in Honolulu Hawaii, I was raised in L.A. and now I live in Queens New York.
What’s the project you’re working on when you’re here at SPACE?
I’ve been working on a couple of projects. I’m working on one play with an artist named Dahlak Brathwaite called Spirit Trials. This is a play that he did about his own arrest in California, and the whole issue of police profiling, identity, and dealing with labels, like the label of being a felon. It also deals with systems of authority from courts, to church, to the system of incarceration. So I will be directing that at the Center for New Performance. We will be looking at how to expand it from being his solo piece to a multi-character piece and also incorporating different types of movement other than the movement categories he is already using. So we’re looking at using step performance, we recently met with one of our choreographic consultants last night who is very steeped in African American Fraternity step. He is a graduate student at Cal Arts so we are excited about working with him. His name is Toran Moore.
I’m also working with another writer, her name is Dionna Daniel. She wrote a one act called Gunshot Medley. Which is just very coincidental but I think it is just what is really saturating the psyche of the U.S. right now. It’s about the murders that have happened of many young black men by police. This piece right now is a one act and we are looking at that piece to be expanded into a full length play. She’s really quite a brilliant writer, beautiful performer, and a beautiful singer.
Actually another project I’m working on while I’m here is, editing and Kristin Calhoun, who is also here, is the assistant editor for a collection of contemporary plays by women of color. So that play is in that book.
I also did an adaptation of a short story from a South Asian writer Chitra Divaruni she is a fiction writer, she has many novels out, but she has a collection of stories called arranged marriage about the practice of arranged marriage in many Asian countries. My maternal grandmother was a picture bride, she was an arranged marriage, which is why I was interested in adapting this. I directed this adaptation called “Clothes” a few years back but I never formalized the script and we want to include it in the book. So my goal this afternoon is to finalize the script. It’ done, I just have to separate stage directions and create the literary copy, like what does it look like on the page? It’s about a young woman from a village in India who gets an arranged marriage with a man here in the United States, an Indian man. So she has all these dreams about America and it turns out he owns a little convenience store in a very poor neighborhood and at the end of it he actually ends up getting shot by somebody who comes in to rob him. Then she becomes a widow, and it’s clothes because she starts changing her clothes and her identity and so on. I was very interested in the issue of an arranged marriage and how women adapt. My grandmother and grandfather were married for 50 years, they met on the day they were married. And I know many people who got married because they chose to and their marriages lasted a year or two, so comparing those.
So yeah, all three actually deal with a lot of violence.
Is there a reason all the projects you’re working on right now do involve violence?
Last night we had an incredible conversation at dinner and Zakkiyah is a historian, educator, and she just outlined the whole litany of laws and historical reasons why violence towards African Americans has existed over centuries. So I don’t think it’s necessarily the times we’re living in so much as the fact there are now cell phones, citizen journalists, social media, which are bringing certain things to people's attention that would have been not even in the newspaper, or buried somewhere.
And I think these kinds of issues, like gun violence, it’s a very American story, we’re a very uncivilized, barbaric nation in that sense. Also, many of these issues touched me personally because I grew up in a very poor neighborhood, and because I have had family members incarcerated, and my own nephew was shot. These are issues that I’m aware of on a deeply personal level.
Do you think these are issues that audiences are more willing to listen to now because of a broader awareness and social media?
As a director I was very fortunate, I had the blessing of being the last director to work with James Baldwin, I directed his play, “Blues for Mr. Charlie”. Which was on Broadway when it was originally written and it was a big flop. It was based on the lynching of Emmett Till. This was in the moment of the civil rights era and people didn’t want to hear it. So when I directed that show, I think people still didn’t want to hear it. It was my job as a director to find a way to bring that to a contemporary audience. It’s really challenging, I know for me, I would rather turn on the television and watch Project Runway, something completely light and fun, but that’s why I think the writing has to be so strong and the work has to be so compelling. People have a lot of choices and how do you make people engage with very hard stuff?
Do you have a target audience for any of these pieces?
Yes, I always have a target audience. I feel if the play is about a specific world, I want those people, when I direct Native American work, when I direct work by Latino/Latina writer, I would want whoever the subject matter is about to sit closest to the play. I see it as concentric circles, I feel if it speaks to that group, whoever that is, it will feel honest and people as we sit further and further, we may not know all the cultural nuances but we will feel reverberations of truth. It’s interesting because people do come from culturally really different places.
For example, I directed a play called “Sneaky” directed by William Yellowroad who is a Assiniboine writer. It was about these three Assiniboine brothers, one’s very traditional, one’s a stereotypical alcoholic, and one is kind of like the assimilated Indian. Like an apple red on outside, white on the inside. And their mother dies, they decide to steal her body from the morgue, and give her a traditional burial. Which for the Assiniboine, they used to bury their dead in trees. They were a nomadic people, so if you came by again, and you saw a tree with remains, there would be ribbons and things from the tree. You would know that was a burial site and you would say prayers there. When they became a stationary people because of colonialism and their captivity on reservations, their traditional burial became torching the tree. So the brothers wanted to take this body and burn it. Anyway it was interesting because, many native people came to see that play and it’s written with a lot of humor in it. The native audiences were cracking up, and falling off their seats and rolling on the floor practically. And white audiences were shocked, they came very prepared for “it’s about Indians and their plight” etc. And I thought it was really interesting, the non-Indian audiences had to adjust themselves to the humor that’s in a lot of native work. If I had tried to direct it towards an audience that didn’t understand, then I’m almost like a tour guide to the work. I think it’s sometimes okay for people not to get everything, but to feel something. I think you can do a certain amount with program notes, dramaturgical research, displays outside the theatre, those kinds of things that help people get into a world.
Do you have a city or region where you mostly work?
I live in New York, but a lot of the times I’ve done work that then tours to other places. I ran a theatre for 23 years that I founded in 1979 called New World Theatre in Amherst Massachusetts. I founded that as a theatre for artists of color, I founded it right out of college because I found that there were not a lot of opportunity for Asian American women directors but I felt that the best thing for me to do would be to, rather than shop a resume, was to make the theatre that I was interested in. I made a theatre company, to make a theatre world that I wanted to live in.
How has being at SPACE impacted your work?
I think this has been an extraordinary week for SPACE because this creative collisions residency is something that’s kind of new. I was really excited because I’ve done other theatre residencies before to create new work, such as White Oak or La Mama Umbria in Italy, different experiences like that but I was there very specifically to work on a project. So I liked very much that they let this be completely open to whatever we wanted to do. Jenny Koons curated a group of people of color, who don’t all know each other, who are working together in social justice in a variety of ways, has been a very stimulating, provocative, and inspiring encounter. But we don’t have the burden of artificially collaborating and creating something. I think this idea that people can come together, and have their ideas interact as human beings and spiritual people, is really very powerful. It has felt very organic.
The other things I’ve been doing since I got here was working on my Hula Practice. My Haumana Hula and uniki which is process of learning from a master practitioner, who chooses their students to pass on their knowledge to and so I’m about 2 years through that process. So every morning, I spend time chanting and drumming and working on that.
Where have you been spending most of your time at SPACE?
I like to be in that garage up there by Kay Hall. It’s cool and you can look out on nature. And I practice my Hula mostly in the Chicken Coop.
What’s coming up next for you and your projects?
I’m in New York for the rest of August, and then September, I am doing Spirit Trials in California. And I have a few trips to Hawaii planned to study with my Kumuhlua Vicky Holt Takamine. Kristin Calhoun and I work on a project at Cal Arts called Arts in a Changing America which is looking at the changing demographics of the United States, and how we can use that as a lens to focus in on social justice issues. America is demographically shifting to a country where people of color will eclipse the historic white majority. So this whole idea of finally having the possibility of a true plurality or democracy, we are in a really incredible moment because America was constructed as a white country, through its constitution, 3/5 of a man, slavery, broken treaties with native nations and so on. The 1960’s much of the legislation that was passed through the civil rights era and the Taft Hartly, the immigration act of 1965 created the possibility that we might all have access to the same rights of citizenship and voting rights, education. It’s because of that era that we’re seeing decades later, this is what it means, it means that we turning into a country that is more than diverse, possibly pluralistic, which is very exciting to me. October 6th and 7th, Kristin and I, and our team at Arts in Changing America are gathering in Detroit, which is the largest black city in America. It’s 82 % African American, a lot of the problems that it’s had of bankruptcy, being taken over by an outside city manager, decline of industry, rate of homelessness, these are all kind of apocalyptic post-industrial problems. So in a way Detroit is already living in America’s future. There are so many creative, innovative people, who are working on solutions there. So we are really excited about that.
If you were reincarnated as a farm animal, which farm animal would you be and why?
I would definitely be a horse with a really long tail, like my long hair. I love horses; I am so happy they have some here, the first day I went and pet the white horses. I love horses I could be around them all the time.