An Interview with Shirley Jo Finney
Amidst the bustle of preparations for the first rehearsal of Stick Fly, Literary Intern Elizabeth Edwards was able to interview director Shirley Jo Finney. Sitting in cozy chairs on what would soon serve as the porch for the rehearsal room version of the set, they discussed Shirley Jo’s connections, reflections, and approaches to the piece.
So, the first question I would like to ask you is where or how do you connect with this play? Do you feel like there’s a place where this play touches you in a personal way?
Oh, definitely. I think it touches me because it reminds me of my family. My father was a judge; my mother was an academician/counselor/educator. I was in Jack and Jill, I was an AKA debutante. Being in [the world of elite African Americans], and understanding what that world is—I come from that.
All my life I have had to navigate going between both worlds; I have had the experience of being “the only one.” When I was little, my family integrated the neighborhood. And then I was the first African American in the Theatre Arts department at Sacramento State University, and at UCLA I was the first African American to be in the MFA program. Even as a professional director, at some of the regional theaters I’ve gone to, I’ve been the first woman of color some people have had to deal with. So, that touches me.And then, I come from a divorced home, and so there’s the father issue—absentee father, present but still absent, and wanting the father that’s present to be the father. Having to figure out, ok, where do I fit, and where’s my father, I have one over here and one over here. Having emotionally to navigate and find placement on that.
There are so many deep and powerful issues that this play addresses—class, race, family dynamics… What do you see as being at the heart of this piece, what ties these issues together?
What this piece has is—home. It’s in so many layers. There are different things that run throughout this piece, and regardless of the issues of race or class or status, this is a family, and home is the universal element that transcends everything else in this piece. So, what is home to a person? I think part of the thing that we do on our journey here is trying to find home for ourselves. People usually articulate it as “I have to find myself!” And I think the finding of the self is really “where is home?” When everything goes down, where are your values and your beliefs? And that’s a lifelong journey—but it is about placement and home, and I think that’s part of the theme that transcends everything in the piece.
So what do you think this play specifically has to say about home, and about finding yourself?
It’s trust. It’s trusting. And I think everyone, all these characters… What I love—here it is—what I love about the piece is that at the very beginning, the opening scene, Cheryl, the character, comes in and she has to unveil. She’s taking the sheets off the furniture. Which is the unveiling. And [this play] is about unveiling the masks, what is hidden—lifting what is hidden. And every character in this piece has something that they’re hiding, a secret, or a dilemma that they’re dealing with that has to stay hidden. And in these three days coming here, the three days that it takes, that unveiling happens, the secret happens, everything starts unraveling from the moment she takes the sheets off the furniture, for everyone.
Wow. Wow, I’m getting chills.
I think more than anything, we don’t ever want to show our flaws. We don’t ever want to be wrong. And by keeping secrets, we think that we’re protecting. When, in our lives, in our families (because, every family has a secret) the secret is the one that really harms. And, what is the risk of telling the truth? You know?
You may get upset for a minute. You may not appreciate it. But if you stand back from it—at least there was an honesty, and an authenticity. And I think that’s more empowering than having a preconceived notion, and then you find out that what you thought was a truth isn’t a truth. Ultimately, it’s better to be using your authentic voice than to hide and wear a mask. And that’s what that whole thing is about.
I know it’s hard, it’s a hard journey, it’s a lifelong journey. But the question with this particular dysfunctional family, as with other dysfunctional families, is—where does it come from? Where is the anger of not being seen, of not being accepted, of not being wanted, or being lied to? It’s because that person is in fear. And it’s all about fear. Because what is a secret? A secret is something that you’re fearing. So, if we can confront the fear, and face our own fears, that’s better for you, and it’s better for me.
That’s wonderful. So, after talking about that metaphor—the metaphor of the unveiling—can you now talk a bit about another prominent metaphor in the piece: the Stick Fly. What do you think the title refers to, what does it mean?
Now, see, now the writer may tell you something different…
There’s something that Taylor’s character says about how you cannot study the movements of a fly, because it moves so fast. In order to study the movement of a fly, you have to stick it down somehow. Taylor’s character does this at one point, she captures the fly and then she puts it on honey so it gets stuck, so she can actually study it. And what they do in the laboratories is that they’ll take a fly and put a pin in it, to stop it, so they can study it. And then after they finish studying and analyzing it, they discard it.
I think that’s one of the things that Taylor, and we, do. Everyone is trying to protect themselves, and overanalyzing… And once I think that I have you pegged, I have no more use for you. I think that’s what we do as human beings, instead of really dropping down in the heart space and exploring what your truth is, and accepting that person unconditionally, we place all these conditions on a relationship. And once we analyze it, and if it doesn’t serve our expectations, we discard it. And we see that happening in this house.
So do you think there’s a specific character in this play, one character who is “the fly,” or “the analyst”?
No, I think for me, this piece is an ensemble. It really is. If you, as the audience member, came in and decided just to watch one character, with each one of these characters you could say “Oh, that’s his story. That’s Daddy’s story.” “Oh no, the story’s really Taylor’s story.” “No, no, no, the story’s really Cheryl’s story.” “No, no, no…”
And so, in an ensemble, the family is the one character. Okay? In the world that I look at, metaphysically—and that’s usually how I break down scripts, is metaphysically, because every story that is told is a story about us—so metaphysically, houses represent consciousness. So if you ask whose story it is, it’s the house’s story. The house is a character, the house is a place of consciousness, and the house has a secret that’s being unveiled. And we find out, and I’m not saying here what that secret is, but, everything impacts the other.
Right… Okay, so, as a self-proclaimed “actor’s director,” and you’ve been an actress yourself, as well, is that right?
In one stage of my life I was, yes.
Right. And so, with this very character-driven play, how are you going to be approaching the relationships between the characters in your rehearsals?
When I work with a play, I look at mind, body, spirit. Spirit being emotional life. And all three of those make up a human being—the mental, the physical, and the emotional. There are times in our life where one of those is prevalent. You may be in more of your head thing, or you may be emotional one day… Okay, for instance, there are six characters in this play that are present, physically. Well, the number six, metaphysically, says, “working out of a condition.” So every one of these characters is working out a condition, something personal in their lives.
But there is also a character in this play who is not seen—the mother. This all takes place in the mother’s house. So her consciousness is prevalent within that home. The invisible character, seven, represents “spiritual realization.” Out of the working out, and out of the secret, comes a revelation that is going to heal this family.
And the other character, Cheryl’s mother, who also does not appear, is the number eight, which is infinity, which is “the end is declared from the beginning,” which takes its place in what? The secret.
So, when we’re at the table, that’s how I talk to my actors. So, they go: “okay that’s the higher level of that.” Then I will say to them, “Where do you think you are in this play? Who represents that spiritual, emotional element?” Well, I would go, “Cheryl.” And then who’s operating in their head a lot?
Have you read the play?
Who do you think is operating in their head?
There you go! See, see, there you go! And then, who’s the other one who’s operating spiritually and emotionally. Spoon. Right?
And then you have the other one—who’s operating in the physical here?
Oh, uh, what’s his name…? Flip.
Flip. See, see how it goes? See? So you can just see where that mind, body, spirit thing happens. And it’s in every play. So you see that operating, it’s interesting. And then we’ll talk about energy—it’s interesting that this woman who’s in the mental is drawn with this guy who’s emotional, and they’re trying to feed off of one another, you know?
If you look at your own life five years ago or three years ago, who were your friends then, and who are your friends now? You draw to your life what you need, and they come to you as human beings, as people. And you’ll see your strengths and your weaknesses in someone, either you say “Oh, that’s something I see in myself,” or you say, “I wish I had that.” And you’ll keep that person there. And when you’ve learned all you needed to know, you’re like the stick fly—you’ll discard. You see how it all…? Yeah.
So, that’s how I approach the work, that kind of investigation happens at the table. That’s tomorrow’s discussion. And then Saturday we’ll continue in that discussion, in terms of where people are. And by the time we have those kinds of discussions, and cry, and all that, then Sunday we’ll be able to start.
So is there anything that you are hoping that the audience comes away from this production with?
When I go to the theater, a movie, anything, I want to have an experience. I want to have an emotional experience. And so, I always set that as an intention. They’re going to bring certain aspects of their lives in those seats, and I want them to be able to connect—mentally, physically, and spiritually—to someone, or something, in this play. So that they can begin to have a conversation, not only with themselves, but maybe with someone else, to then perpetuate a healing within themselves, to understand what lies and secrets do, and then maybe they can look in their own mirror.