Mental Health Monday #57: Playwright Donja Love-Nicholas on Tending to Self-Care While Producing a Trilogy of Black-Ass Plays

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On last week's Mental Health Monday, we rapped with author George M. Johnson about how he loves on himself and manages stress while pursuing and securing his first book deal. Peep it right hurr.


Life for a gifted, aggressively Black wordsmith staging aggressively Black theatrical productions in largely white spaces ain't no crystal stair. Playwright Donja Love-Nicholas, the 2017 Princess Grace Fellow and creator of The Love* Plays (Sugar In Our Wounds, Fireflies, In The Middle) about how he keeps his spirit moisturized while bringing words to life onstage, being open to collaboration, and the power of writing to and for Black people.

How would you rate your self-care at the moment on a scale of 1-10?

Hmm. I would probably give it a 7 right now. Last week, I was at 9 or a 10.

What took that 10 down to a 7?

I’m feeling the weight of the multiple projects I have going on. This week, three big projects are overlapping. I’m doing a playwrights workshop with queer and trans youth and they have have a big culminating event. These youths are telling such beautiful stories and I want to be alive and present and active for them. I'm dong rewrites. I'm prepping for a big meeting at the end of this week about this other story that's really important for me. I want to give all my fullness to each of these three big, equally important things.

These three things are what took my 10 down to a 7. Most of my thinking is around these three things and not, "Okay Donja, you can chill a little bit. You can take a quick break."

I went to sleep thinking about rewrites. I woke up thinking about rewrites. Then emailing writers to keep things moving with the actors. It's a lot.

What are you doing well for you right now?

Being able to handle these three things. I'm throwing so much of me into each thing. I know I'm going to get them all done and that I'm going to bring my full self to each of these things as if it's the only thing I had to do this week.

I've gotten myself into a habit, between 6 and 8pm, when working from home, I stop and I'm done for the day. I'll make my food, get in bed, chill out and be with Brandon. I don't physically put energy into work, but I check out by tuning into Netflix. I love it.

What are you doing well for you right now?

I could be drinking more water. In terms of the mental space, this weather is giving very much Lauryn Hill, she's late to the concert. I need this warmth to stay. When I get flustered, I go for walks, but a nigga is not here for this cold weather. But it helps just to be outside. When if I'm home in these four walls, outside it's infinite and goes on and on. But I'm not doing that till the weather breaks, because I'm not here for this.

Outside, my mind can think of the sky or the tree or this cute-ass boy that walked by and not the things that have become so regimented. I need to get back to that.

What is the most stressful part of preparing to bring these productions to the stage?

photo by Brandon Nick for  The Each-Other Project

photo by Brandon Nick for The Each-Other Project

I haven't been stressed in the least bit as it relates to the productions. It's the balancing. What's helpful for the company as a whole is getting a good system together while doing rewrites for a working, living, breathing play that you're working on for X amount of days/weeks. This play is 119 pages. It is helpful for the actor, directors, stage managers, when we're all referencing and editing the play daily, for the pages to align so we don't have to throw all the page numbers off with each change.

Usually, I've been able to align the pages so it works out, but today I woke up and now I have 120 pages. SO I'm working on that. I'm here on page 78. Now, they'll just add 78a, 78b, so everyone can just slip that right on in we're not reprinting the entire script. That's where the stress is coming from. Stuff like that. I finally got my self into enjoying rewrites. It's this technology. This ain't my thing. I'm going to try some more, but if it don't work, I'm gonna need someone else to figure this out and move on.

Allowing other hands to mold your baby can be challenging. How do you find balance between being true to your work and message while working with a team of creatives (theater crew, your director, and cast) during this collaborative process?

This most honest thing I can tell you is that I know this is work not mine. I was just blessed enough to be the vessel chosen to tell these stories. I've been afforded the amazing opportunity to have a say in who comes on board. With this workshop, I was able to request the director I wanted to work with. I was able to request the stage manager I wanted. I was able to give my top choices for the actors I want to come on board, which can sometimes be rare. I understand that when it comes to advice and input, the people in the room with me are people I was able to assemble because they're all amazing, they're phenomenal. So when they give their feedback, I know these are people I asked to be in the room because I feel they can heighten this story.

I had this idea, marinating in my mind, and I got started putting this out. I feel, yes, there was a force that said, Donja you are the best person to tell this story. That same force said, Donja, there are other people who can help you refine this story to tell it the best possible way. When I'm in these rehearsal spaces, I know this is not MY story, but we're working together to tell the most beautiful story.

If a mark doesn't hit, or if something doesn't align with that vision, that original feeling I had in my heart, I will chime in. But there's a fine line between "Are you hurting the story by being so persistent about this particular thing?" and "Should I be more open about this?"

It's a moment-to-moment battle. Even years from now, I see me having this battle of "Okay, Donja, speak up." vs "Okay, Donja, shut the fuck up and listen."

Have you been pressured to dilute or tone down the Blackness in your work as you navigate these new spaces and how did that work out for you?

No, I haven't. If it has come I might have been unaware, because I probably played it complete dust. I have cultivated a space where I won't allow myself to feel marginalized or oppressed in any creative space. I have not allowed myself to feel that in a while.

Donja & Brandon. Photo by Brandon Nicholas

Donja & Brandon. Photo by Brandon Nicholas

I remember for one of my plays, my husband Brandon heard that this older white woman in her 70s or 80s, talking about my work. Brandon was in the lobby with some other folks talking about the play. She felt privileged enough to enter their conversation and ask these Black folks for their thoughts. She felt I was doing too much. She came in talking not about things I talked about in the play, but these emotions she'd attached to the characters based on who was on stage, through her lens. She said the only person who can tell such big, grand epic family dramas is Shakespeare.

It didn't make me hot, but it made him hot. I'm transparent when I say, what I think about is black people. Black people on the stage, Black people in the audience. Anyone else who is not part of the Black of the community, you need to consider yourself lucky and that it's a privilege to witness this particular Blackness. No ego in saying that, just from a deep love of Black people. And that goes for all writers who love and have a reference for Blackness, seeing that work, you need to consider yourself lucky to see what these storytellers are saying, how authentic and specific these characters are and how much love we put into these words and worlds we're creating.

Whether in a rehearsal space, in a meeting, in a class, I armor myself with my Blackness and my queerness so when I walk into these spaces, I don't give a fuck what you have to say to me or who you think I am.

As self-care, being honest can have weight, especially going into spaces you don't see yourself reflected. I'm secure in my identities but it's important I don't feel like I have to be every Black person in this space or be every queer person. That is freeing.

What fuels me is filling myself up with queerness and Blackness and surrounding myself with others who've shared my experiences.

How do you get some joy when you unhook your bra and take off your playwright’s hat?

I love to cook. I really love to cook and experiment and throw ingredients together, trying out recipes to figure how to make it my own. Outside of family and friends and Brandon, cooking brings me a lot of joy. When I have people over and I get to cook for them, that is Super Saiyan Joy.

Also, a nigga loves being in bed and watching Netflix. I'm structured. I know I'm cooking from this time to this time, then I'm getting in bed to eat this bomb ass meal I made and clocking out. Chilling, cooking, Netflix, and spending time with the people who really matter to me.

What has being a Princess Grace Fellow and working on these plays taught you about yourself?

That's a really good question. This has all taught me that I deserve to be where I'm at. It taught me that I am good at what I do. Now that I'm at a certain level and I have a certain visibility right now from various communities — queer, theater, black — even with that, I was who I was, I had this skill set inside of me before this visibility. I didn't need this to have an understanding of who I am, though it is nice to have people in your corner, who support you, blah blah blah. But even without that, I've realized I would still be exactly who Donja is. I'd be telling the stories that I'm telling. I would have the same love for myself even without the visibility and things that have come my way.

I think about my aunt Oprah and how she talks about alignment. I think about that in terms of when your purpose meets your passion and I feel as if I'm aligning myself with that more and more each day when my purpose on this Earth, which is being a storyteller, a writer, aligns with my passion, my Blackness and Black people and my queerness and queer people. I'm here to tell stories with truthfulness and transparency and filled with so much love all at the same time.

What impact would like for The Love Plays to have on those who experience them?

I think about this question through the lens of Blackness and queerness. What I want for us to leave with after receiving "The Love Plays" is the fullness of our history. Understanding and remembering that we existed and we do exist throughout history and appreciating all of our beauty. I think about the struggles that life throws our way, having these multiple oppressed identities, but at the same time, we are still here. That says so much with the way the world tries to bring us down and tell us we aren't good enough that we shouldn't be here, but we're surviving and will continue surviving. I want us to celebrate us and see us way back when and now and in the future. And the common denominator through everything is that we're here and surviving. I want you to take away how strong and beautiful we are. I want us to love ourselves.

And there's not just one version of us. Blackness and queerness are so deeply rich with nuance and history and love and trust and turmoil and triumph that all goes into our stories. That makes us great.

Where can people see you next?

Wednesday, May 16 from 6-8pm, Me and Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight)  be talking theater talk and Black queerness at the Schomburg. Tickets go on sale Wednesday May 2, my birthday. Info & tickets.

Tuesday June 5, Previews begin for Sugar In Our Wounds (which explores queer love during the Civil War) at the Manhattan Theater Club. All tickets are $30, which is a steal. Opening night is June 19. Info & tickets.

More Donja: Twitter | The Each-Other Project