*Denotes Actors’ Equity Association
Interview with playwright Angelica Cheri
Researched, interviewed, and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee
CATF: You first heard the song, Berta, Berta, while watching a production of August Wilson’s, The Piano Lesson. You said that the song pierced you in a very haunting way. Why?
Angelica Chéri: Sound has a reverberation, and the first time we hear a type of music, our bodies have to adjust to it. I’m used to gospel, hip hop, jazz, R&B – different forms of music from the African American heritage that I have a reference point for. I didn’t have a reference point for the way a field song would vibrate with my body. I had read Piano Lesson, and it was easy to skip over the song, Berta, Berta. But when I was in the same room with this song, I was overwhelmed.
American work songs were sung by enslaved people to remind them of their origins in African song traditions, while others were instituted to raise morale. Still others were used as a form of rebellion and resistance. But Berta, Berta is a love song.
What’s so striking about Berta, Berta, is that people from all over have sung this for decades and have no idea who the man is who originated this song or who the woman is who is the subject of this song. Every man who sang this song had his own Berta. He had the same longing, disenfranchisement, and captivity. Where did this song come from? I had to write an origin story.
Why do you even want to know where the song came from?
Obviously, I’m a romantic. The way that stories come to me is that they visit me in a moment. It was one thing to have a Berta, Berta moment in the theater, it was another thing to hear this again on YouTube and yet again in the context of hip-hop. Berta, Berta was showing me that it’s still relevant. But the story behind it was not available.
In an interview you said that the mystery behind writing this play “became exploring Leroy’s psychosis.”
It’s no secret that Leroy is going to jail; otherwise we don’t have a prison song to reference. So I started with that. Why is he going to jail? What did he do? After many iterations and drafts, it became clear that he had been to jail before and was haunted to be at Parchman Prison again.
I wanted to bring into the conversation the prison industrial complex – the wrongful imprisonment for the sake of commerce – because it is still a prevalent issue in the African American and Hispanic communities, communities of color.
Leroy shows up at Berta’s door knowing that he’s done something that’s going to earn his way back to an institution where he did not deserve to be the first time he was there. Once you get looped into that prison industrial complex – that prison pipeline – you’re stuck. Even when you get out, something is going to pull you back. That was Leroy’s psychosis.
In the play, Leroy says, “That’s what they do to us Berta. Colored men. Decide we ain’t slaves no more, but find another way to own our time.” African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. One in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The United States was and has always been founded on the premise and the foundation of slavery. All the industries of the South started with slavery. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery with one caveat – people could not be enslaved and work for free unless they were in prison. That caveat made it possible for the commercial infrastructure to still exist and rely on the labor of prisoners.
The reason why Leroy winds up in jail the first time is because a sheriff fabricated a crime. The time was cotton season and the crop had to be harvested. “We don’t have enough people to harvest all the cotton,” thought the sheriff, “so we need to lock up more people.”
Parchman Prison is the haunted setting in Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning 2017 novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing. Ward has said, “By the numbers, by all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing.”
Look at Freddie Gray. Look at Mike Brown. I could go on – this mentality of our lives being expendable either by imprisonment or death. The mindset of the American commercial infrastructure is still, “This is labor.” You see it happening now with immigration. I live in Los Angeles and witness this mentality about Mexicans and Hispanics: “These people work for us. They do this kind of labor.” If it’s not a black person, it’s a brown person. Some form of infrastructure both in our American psyche and in our commerce necessitates slave labor.
Berta, Berta is a love story. Can love redeem evil – all the injustice going on outside of Berta’s house?
Their love highlights the evil that they are faced with, the evil that keeps them apart. Prison is the only reason why they are not able to be together. The narrative of it will be one of disenfranchisement, which is the same narrative of so many of our people and our history. The prison industrial complex for Berta, Berta was something that naturally sprang from digging deeper into the narrative, but the core of it was always the love story.
We don’t have enough narrative in our canon of African American stories that highlights love. It’s always about the pain of disenfranchisement, violence or injustice. All of this is necessary to document, but if we don’t also document the love and the passion that is part of our narrative, we perpetuate the dehumanization of our narrative.
Talk about the mysticism in this play – the “hedge around the house”; the sound of chains, the howling of wolves. Does Leroy have the devil in him as Berta often asks?
The legend behind a blues singer named Robert Johnson is that he made a deal with the devil that would make him a famous, wealthy blues singer if he gave the devil his soul. That’s what he did and from then on out, he said that hellhounds were on his trail. In fact, one of his most famous songs is called, Hellhounds on my Trail. He did become successful, but there’s no record of his death or his body. No one really knows what happened to him. I was inspired by this mythology. I also wanted to incorporate some of the mythology that is in the African American experience. My grandmother and her sisters used to talk about “haints” and “hedges” – different things from their own mythology because their grandparents were slaves.
“A lyric can say what it takes five pages in a play to say,” you’ve said. Berta, Berta is based on the lyrics of a song. Why is Berta, Berta a play and not a musical?
Lyrics in musical theater are different from any other form of lyric. When I said that, I was referring specifically to musical theater lyrics and the construction of song form and the storytelling within that. That shape can do so much heavy lifting. But the lyrics of Berta, Berta are all character. The song is not telling you one specific story that happened; it’s not leading you through a moment. It’s painting a picture for you. I didn’t think this needed to be a musical because musicals wear their emotions on their sleeve. There’s not as much secrecy in musicals as there is in plays. So much of Berta, Berta lives in the subtext.
You have said, “The more specific you are the more universal you are.”
I wrote a play called, The Seeds of Abraham about my grandmother and her second husband with whom she had a tumultuous relationship. The play is part of a trilogy called, The Prophet Cycle which is about our family, our faith in God, and the spirituality we live within.
A friend of mine, a French woman from Corsica, a brilliant playwright and choreographer saw the play, and said to me, “I don’t know anything about the Bible. I’m not a black woman, but I know what it’s like to be the oldest sister and have an annoying little brother, or to see your mother struggle and try to do the best for her kids.” That was a defining moment for me because on the surface, how could this woman find any connection to this piece? The more specific and nuanced you are about your experience, the more people will find themselves in it no matter who or where they are.
August Wilson said, “Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.” What are your demons? The dark parts of yourself?
When I go to the page, what I have to go to bat with the most is vulnerability. When you write from a place of truth, you will undeniably expose yourself and things about yourself that you probably hadn’t shared with people. Berta required a lot of vulnerability. The next time I wrote a play required that I take that vulnerability a step further. After Berta, Berta, I wrote a play called, Crowndation – a one-woman show where I just nakedly say all sorts of things about myself. Vulnerability is the biggest thing I wrestle with, but my writing did sing back to me when I saw how universal vulnerability is. It’s not just about me. Or you. Humanity is one experience.
What’s it like to work with CATF?
I can’t wait to get there. I love Ed’s passion for the play. After our first conversation, I thought, “He knows.” I’m excited to get into the rehearsal room and work with the cast. I’m excited to be in the company of the five other plays happening concurrently. To be able to talk with the other writers is an awesome gift.
If you were going to write a play about your first memory, what would be the title?