Lenelle Moise searches for identity at home and abroad with "Expatriate"
Lenelle Moise brings her acclaimed two-woman play, in which she performs one of the roles, to Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, Oct. 4 through 6, 2012. Directed by Ashley Sparks and presented by The Theater Offensive, "Expatriate," her play with music is about a pair of African American women from Boston and their love affair, which takes them to New York and Paris. The production features Moise and Karla Mosley repeating the roles they premiered when the play was first produced at New York's the Culture Project two years ago.
"With all the theater out there, how inspiring it is to be reminded how invigorating an Off-Broadway play can be with just two appealing performers, compelling music and a searching, intelligent script," wrote the New York Times' critic Andy Webster reviewing the play in July 2008. "Lenelle Moïse, a poet, playwright and performer, has written, composed and stars in "Expatriate," a two-woman production at the Culture Project that delivers on all counts."
Described as an uncompromising look at the complexities of fame, sexuality, and artistry, "Expatriate" follows the sojourns of platonic soul mates Claudie and Alphine who start out as unsung musicians and longtime best-friends.
Both of them wrestle with the addiction, abandonment, and sexual trauma that run in their respective family histories. Diligent, dutiful, Julliard-trained composer Claudie may or may not be celibate, while sparkly, indulgent Alphine has more natural star-potential and sex appeal than she knows what to do with. When Claudie’s troubled brother (Alphine’s boyfriend) Omar dies of a drug overdose, the mourning women flee to Europe to pursue their American dreams.
In Paris, the two forgo fruitless solo careers to join forces as the sultry singing duo Black Venus. Parisians dub them "the greatest act since Josephine Baker" and they quickly rise to fame and fortune. Tensions rise as Claudie finds sexual freedom, artistic sustenance, and spiritual regeneration through her new life abroad while Alphine’s hunger for adoration from a celebrity-mad culture spins tragically out of control.
Its jazz, soul, and funk inspired songs also appear on "The Expatriate Amplification Project," an album recorded by Moise and co-star Mosley, which like the show dispenses with a band, opting for vocal loops as accompaniment.
EDGE corresponded with the playwright, who is also a notable poet and musician, over this past weekend. We wondered how she felt about "Expatriate" being touted as part of the new age of Queer Theater and what drew her to set her play’s opening in Boston.
What is Queer Theater?
EDGE: What is Queer Theater?
Lenelle Moise: Queer theatre can investigate the social conditions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other(ed) non-conforming lives. Queer theatre can be intimate, virtuosic and full of humor. It can experiment with form. It can fuse political confrontation with unabashed celebration. It is ever-evolving.
EDGE: What is its history would you say?
Lenelle Moise: Well, queerness in theatre predates the term "queer," right? I mean, back in the day, only Greek men got to embody Medea and Antigone. In graduate school, I was particularly obsessed with an anthology called ’O Solo Homo,’ edited by Holly Hughes and David Roman. I carried it everywhere! In fact, it inspired me to create my first solo performance, ’Womb-Words, Thirsting.’
EDGE: Do you regard yourself as a playwright/actor who is adding to the literature of Queer Theater?
Lenelle Moise: Among other roles, yes.
EDGE: Do you also write plays that fall outside this arena?
Lenelle Moise: Yes. When I write a play, I allow my characters’ voices to lead the narrative. Sometimes the characters share my identity markers or political affiliations and sometimes they don’t. Either way, I honor them and learn from them.
EDGE: Is Queer Theater exclusionary in any kind of way as far as who will enjoy it?
Lenelle Moise: Philosophically, I make theatre to connect, not to exclude. My audiences tend to be ethnically diverse and intergenerational. Since my work often grapples with "outsiderness," I find that people-across sexuality, gender expression, race and even class-can relate to that sense of not belonging. All in all, we meet at the theatre to experience a skillfully told story. If you walk into the room, I’m going to love you!
EDGE: The play’s synopsis says going abroad alters the two women’s sense of identity. What was their sense of identity to begin with?
Lenelle Moise: In the ’Expatriate’ script, the character description for Alphine says, ’born to be a star.’ She’s bawdy and impulsive. Claudie is heady, bookish, a disciplined musician. She’s more connected to her professional dreams than to her physical desires. I don’t want to give too much away but things change in Paris. Or they don’t.
EDGE: Is it correct that you lived in Boston for a time? What brought you here? Does your personal history vis a vis Boston inform the play in any important way? What did you love about Boston?
My family moved to the Boston area when I was about five years old. We went to church in Dorchester, I attended kindergarten in Roxbury and I ultimately grew up in Cambridge where I fell in love with the theatre. Like me, Claudie and Alphine remember a childhood in Boston. Otherwise, ’Expatriate’ is fiction.
"Expatriate" by Lenelle Moise opens Thurs., Oct. 4 for a 3-night run through Oct. 6. The performance is presented by The Theater Offensive at Villa Victoria Center for the Arts at 85 W. Newton St. in Boston’s South End. Tickets and more info are available by going to http://expatriate.bpt.me/