Dominique Fishback is a creative powerhouse. At age 22 she has already accomplished goals that seasoned performers dream of — touring nationally performing her poetry, making appearances on national television and starring in many NYC productions. This summer, Fishback makes her off-Broadway debut in her one-woman show Subverted, at the Culture Project’s Women Center Stage Festival on Friday, July 19 (see listings below). Fishback channels her experience growing up in East New York, Brooklyn and being one of two African-American students in the Theater Arts/Acting class of 2013 at Pace University into an unapologetically race-conscious production. Featuring Fishback playing 20 characters, it traces the origins of the structural inequalities faced by black communities in the United States to the collective inherited history of slavery.
Ashley Marinaccio: What inspired Subverted? What issues does the play tackle? How have your personal experiences informed the play?
Dominique Fishback: The play opens with the main character Eden being accepted into a private university and categorized as below average, despite graduating from high school as class valedictorian. This part comes from my personal experience: I too graduated valedictorian, and was put into a program at Pace for students who “needed more academic attention” from the university. This is one of the crucial points of Subverted: it shows that even the best that’s available in the low-income communities isn’t properly preparing young people to succeed outside of them.
People at Pace have considered me the exception, and they often said, “Well, the people in your neighborhood just don’t want better for themselves.” I have tried to explain that we all live in different circumstances and that in order for there to be a top, there has to be a bottom. It just so happens that those in the ghetto live at the bottom, and so there is a higher climb that has to be made, and with fewer tools, which makes the climb harder. Some of this play was born out of that.
AM: Why did you create the character of Charlotte for this play? As a slave who lived more than 150 years ago, what does she have to say to us?
DF: I believe that slavery and racism is the thing that destroyed black identity in America. The negative associations with being black — poor grammar, violence, and broken homes, to name a few — are stereotypes, but they come from some kind of truth. I found myself questioning why these things were true. They can’t just be innate. So where did they come from? Why is this the collective reality?
I found passages about how slaves would fry leftover food and put salt on it, to give it flavor and make it good enough to eat. Could that be why black people today don’t eat properly? When slavery was over, black people found slum areas to live in. Could that be why the majority of people in urban ghettos are black? During slavery the masters used to breed slaves and sell them away from their parents. Could that be why a lot of us come from broken homes? When black women today have babies or emotionless sex for material things, could it be because during slavery, the overseers and masters used to keep “bed wenches” — women who gave them sex for more food and clothes? The play doesn’t go into all of these specifics but in order to show that this slave mentality has been passed down for 400 years and is now a cycle that is hard to break — thus affecting generations of blacks that weren’t present for it — I thought that Charlotte, the slave, could help make the connection.
AM: What aspect of the black experience in America is least understood by others?
DF: Definitely the fact that equal opportunity does not really exist.
I have lived in Brooklyn, East New York and have witnessed many people stay “prisoner to the block.” I also realized that often, growing up in “the hood,” you are accustomed to certain learned behaviors that you learn are “wrong” or “classless” when you leave, if you ever get that chance. You see that the “outside world” doesn’t dress, talk or live the way you have your whole life. You are told to assimilate and to be tolerant of the larger world’s ignorance about where you come from, but the reality is that the larger world is never forced to reciprocate. And that’s because “the hood” is a place they never have to go to improve their lives or reach their American dream.
If places considered “the ghetto” — such as Brownsville, the South Bronx, Southside Chicago, Detroit and North Philly — can exist, then there is no such thing as equal opportunity. To be born and raised in these ghettos means that one is already disadvantaged: because of the neighborhoods’ economic deprivation, the schools there have lower standards and lack enough textbooks, computers, and SAT prep courses. It is why they do not have swimming, gymnastics, piano, singing, or dancing lessons, and very little theater opportunities.
When I think of “equal opportunity,” I think of the fact that while there are no physical chains or masters saying certain people cannot learn or reach the American dream, there are still these “slum areas” that are not given the same tools that other communities have such easy access to.
AM: How do you think Subverted will change the theatrical landscape?
DF: I think the play proves that black actresses can do the “ghetto” roles and do them well but are capable of much more, if given the opportunity. Hopefully one day because an actress in her early 20s wrote and performed in a one-woman show with twenty characters, we will no longer have to prove ourselves in that way unless we want to.
For more about Dominique Fishback see www.dominique-fishback.com.
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