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Take Note: Lacresha Berry On Bringing Vulnerabilities Into Her Art And Her One Woman Show, "Tubman"

Lacresha Berry talks about her most recent show, "Tubman," with WPSU.
Courtesy of Lacresha Berry
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Lacresha Berry is a singer, actor, writer and educator living in Queens, New York. Her work infuses her life experiences into a broader, historical context. She received her BA in Theatre from the University of Kentucky. Her most recent one woman show, "Tubman," reimagines Harriet Tubman, the famous underground railroad conductor, as a 21st century student in Harlem, New York. 

Berry talked with WPSU about why she think Tubman's story still resonates with today's audience and how her career in teaching influence her art work, and vice versa.

TRANSCRIPT:

Cheraine Stanford:

Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Cheraine Stanford. Lacresha Berry is a singer, actor, writer and educator living in Queens, New York whose work infuses her life experiences into a broader historical context. The Lexington native received her BA in theater from the University of Kentucky. Her most recent one woman show, Tubman, re-imagines Harriet Tubman, the famous underground railroad conductor, as a 21st century student in Harlem, New York. Lacresha Berry, thank you so much for joining us today.

Lacresha Berry:

Thank you for having me.

Cheraine Stanford:

Let's start with the one woman show you're doing now.

Lacresha Berry:

Yes, yes, yes.

Cheraine Stanford:

Why was it important for you to create this play?

Lacresha Berry:

I think it's important for me to create this play because there are a lot of students who are overlooked and deemed invisible in classrooms. And I know that there are a lot of things that I felt as a young person growing up and what I see teaching young people and also reading about Harriet Tubman's story was like, she was pretty young. And I think that I found a lot of, you know, parallels between her, my students, and me. So I think it was important for me to make sure that the ones whose voice might've been silent or even those who are deemed invisible, that they're seen, that they're heard, and that their story and their life does matter and that it's an impactful story, a story that we all need to hear and to say over and over again until we can't say it anymore.

Cheraine Stanford:

For those who won't get to see it, can you describe the show for us a little bit?

Lacresha Berry:

Yes. Tubman is a re-imagining of Harriet Tubman's story as if she were a black girl who's 17 in high school, facing expulsion. She is facing a lot of over-policing, over-criminalization, and her name is Araminta and the show because she was born Araminta Ross. So she's like the 2019 version of Harriet Tubman. And what we do is, or what I do in the show is, I take the teachers that interact with Araminta and turn into them on stage as well as sing three songs that are, they don't push the narrative along, but they do add to the narrative. They do add to what Araminta and Ms. Berry, who I am, the narrator of the show, is going through, and she's trying to see Araminta in more ways than just one way, even though it's hard for her as well.

And so we take Harriet Tubman's facts and infuse it and try to parallel it with the life of a young girl. And so instead of the young girl being enslaved, she's in foster care. Instead of, you know, dealing with, a metal weight being thrown against her head or a brick thrown against Harriet Tubman's head, the girl has experienced, you know, abuse in the foster care system. And so therefore her, she's no longer the same girl that she was before she entered foster care. So there are a lot of parallels and a lot of reimaginings of what it would, what would it sound like now? What would freedom feel like now in 2019. And so I think the reason why it's been so impactful too is that, you know, it's dealing with real life data and statistics from 2013, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 up until you know today.

Cheraine Stanford:

Yeah and I think I've heard you talk about wanting to have a, you know, like a nuanced view of Harriet Tubman.

Lacresha Berry:

Yes.

Cheraine Stanford:

That maybe if she were in school, because she had to obviously be a really strong personality,

Lacresha Berry:

Right.

Cheraine Stanford:

Maybe she wouldn't have been the quiet kid in class. Maybe she would have been -

Lacresha Berry:

Maybe she would be the one that you say has an attitude or the one that, struggles in the class. And for me, the ones that struggle in the class sometimes I'm like, okay, well I'm not going to pay attention to you. Right. As opposed to maybe they're the ones that we need to love the most. And that's what I've learned in my journey is that a lot of these kids are not being obstinate. They are really acting out because either they don't understand what is happening in the classroom or you know, they never have the visibility that they should have. And so they're using their critical thinking skills to be seen.

Cheraine Stanford:

So Harriet Tubman has been recognized as a great historical figure. Now there's the first feature film out about her as well. Why do you think she continues to resonate so much over time?

Lacresha Berry:

Well, I think when were talking and dealing with intersectionality of feminism and dealing with talking about the struggles of women of color, I think her story is at the forefront of those conversations because she had to do a lot of things on her own and she had to fight not just, not just, misogyny but misogynoir and basically dealing with a black woman and dealing with, like, even her own folks that she's identified as, you know, black or African American, that she had to deal with a lot of that too, as well as deal with like, there's no way that she's able to do this in this five foot stature of a body. She was a small woman, very small. Like I saw her statue of her actual height at her national park, and I was like, she is little like I'm four or five inches taller than her.

She's little. And so I wonder like, you know, having to deal with her size, having to deal with, you know, her being a woman of color in the world, her being and you know, a formerly enslaved person. Just all of those things to me was important. And I think that's why her story still resonates today because it's, it's, it's still what we deal with. It's still deal with, we still deal with intersectionality. We still deal with misogynoir. I think it's important for us to, like, make sure that Harriet's story is always heard because she is like the blueprint of what it's like to get free, you know, or die trying.

Cheraine Stanford:

You know, when I heard the way you kind of described wanting people to understand that Harriet Tubman was not just this strong black woman, but a woman who had fears and doubts and heartbreak and -

Lacresha Berry:

Yes.

Cheraine Stanford:

But keeps pushing and wanting people to understand that. I also felt like, hmm, I wonder if that's also how you want people to understand you beyond just the like, you know, strong black woman. What do you think about that?

Lacresha Berry:

I think she's aligned so much with me. There were so many chills. I got reading her story. I was like, oh my gosh, that is me. Oh my goodness. And yeah, I think I've fought my vulnerability for a long time. Somebody asked me about my birth chart today, and I do believe in a lot of the how, how you're born really affects your personality and one of the Pisces traits, because I have a moon, I'm a Pisces moon, and it's like just being a vulnerable and sensitive is a thing that I try to hide a lot because I don't have time for that. I don't have time to really feel my feelings because I have things to do in this world that are more important than feeling things, and so I think maybe with Harriet too, that's probably what how she felt is like, I don't got time for this right now.

I'm hurt. I'm hurt right now. I'm facing a lot of vulnerability, but I can't afford that right now because I have work to do and it won't get done if I don't do it. So I feel the same way. And, but I've also learned as I've gotten older and learned from her story and other people's stories, I can be soft. You know, I'm more than one thing. And it's hard because you also have to deal with the things that you don't like about yourself or the things that are off-putting about yourself. And I'm not saying, Oh, I'm loud and people don't like loud people. I'm saying like being negative or being judgemental or shaming or all of the things that I avoided and kind of pushed down. I'm like, okay, that's not a big deal. Everybody does it. No, no, no. You need to check yourself. If you're seeking freedom, then you can't be, you know, shaming or judgmental of anybody that's trying to get free too. So it's just me being honest with myself, whether it's light or darkness, you know? And I think that's important.

Cheraine Stanford:

Well, vulnerability feels to me like such an important part of the life of an artist and in putting your work out there because so much of you is in your work and we'll talk a little bit more about that. But what role has opening up, being more vulnerable, played in your art, your work?

Lacresha Berry:

I think it's just made me a better performer when I can tap in so quickly to the things I've been through and having to like regurgitate it on stage. It's really therapy. It's therapeutic. My father's death was a big, big, event in my life and having to work through that and deal with people still after he passed away and having to navigate those feelings and still create work was a struggle. And for a while I didn't want to do anything for a while. I just was like, I'm putting all this stuff away. And then I was like, well, I have an urgency in my body and I need to be able to do it. So being vulnerable has really allowed me to open up more and to have the, have the characters, like have teeth, have weight, have, have intensity, have things. 'Cause if I can't open up my own spirit that the character can't come in and I do believe that characters take over and once you're tapped in and you're vulnerable and you open up.

Cheraine Stanford:

So your, your father passed away. Also to the day, from what I understand, a year after your grandfather passed away.

Lacresha Berry:

Yes. Wow. You've done your research. Thank you.

Cheraine Stanford:

I try. And you created, Daddy's Girl.

Lacresha Berry:

Yes.

Cheraine Stanford:

An album.

Lacresha Berry:

Yes.

Cheraine Stanford:

From that, did that have the impact of telling your family's story, history, that you wanted it to have? It's been a few years now, so when you look back on it.

Lacresha Berry:

That was almost, almost nine years ago, I guess. Yeah. I think Daddy's Girl came first and then 'Browngirl. Bluegrass.'. 'Browngirl. Bluegrass.' was like huge. And I know we're probably going to talk about that, but I think Daddy's Girl opened up that pathway of me healing. Opened to the pathway for me to like, I didn't, you know, seek therapy at that time cause I felt like it was a taboo even nine years ago. Now it's like, girl, let me, I need to talk to somebody and I'm not, and I'm not ashamed to say that I need to. And I think that helped me so much and Daddy's Girl was a big part of my dealing with his death and my grandfather's death and being able to embrace that, you know, we're going to celebrate their life as opposed to mourn their, their, their deaths.

But we're going to celebrate who they are. And a lot of my dad showed up in me after he passed away. And so I think that was a big deal for me. It's like, wow, what am I starting to like these things I never liked them before and not even think about it. And I was like, Oh, that's my dad showing up in ways where if he was here, I wouldn't even think twice about it. But now it's so much heightened because he passed away. So yeah, I definitely think a lot of the things that came after are inspired by or indirect relationship to my father passing away and my grandfather and even before that, his mother died six weeks before he did. So there were like three major deaths that happened before my father passed away or within a year and a half. And so I think that really changed who I am as an artist.

I mean, it really changed my eyes. My eyes were bright and bushy tailed and happy and oh my gosh, I saw everything and now it's like, whoa, dead bodies everywhere. And that changes your life so much.

Cheraine Stanford:

What's a thing- your dad's name was Michael. What is a thing that Michael Berry left with you?

Lacresha Berry:

His love of music, his love of music was huge. He, we used to go to Best Buy all the time back when Best Buy was like a thing to do. We used to go to Best Buy all the time and we used to like if we ever wore out a CD or if we ever, my dad used to really try to explore the music that I loved. He was listening to the Mos Def album that's like 20 years old now. He was listening to the Voodoo album from D'Angelo and also he was putting me on to things too. And as a kid I was like, ugh. But as I got older and I was in high school and you know, in college and high school, I was like, oh, oh, this is actually really cool. So my dad's love of music was a big influence on my life.

Cheraine Stanford:

If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Cheraine Stanford. Our guest is Lacresha Berry, singer, songwriter, actor, writer, and educator. Let's talk about “Browngirl. Bluegrass.” Which was your autobiographical show that documents your life coming of age in Kentucky. Why was that a necessary project?

Lacresha Berry:

Wow. Everything kind of stemmed from my father passing away and then like my mom and I becoming really, really close and I wanted to honor her as well because she's living, she's alive, she's still, she's still, you know, around and I'm, I'm so thankful for our relationship because it's gotten stronger in the past 10 years since my father's passed away. “Browngirl. Bluegrass.” was like, kind of like the, what do you call it, the, uh, the curriculum vitae or like, this is my life up until now and this is what got me here. And so “Browngirl. Bluegrass.” was a direct response to my father passing away, but also like who did I learn about in Kentucky that was black or who did I, what, what does my history actually say? Then when I started looking up these historians like Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, who, like, got shot six times in the back because he was trying to get people to vote, vote.

There was another lady named Lucy Harth Smith, she was a principal. And what I found out about her was that I worked in the same school that she was a principal of and I didn't know until after I did research. I walked the same halls as this lady. I walked the same, I walked on the same streets. I didn't even know, but I started looking her up and I was like, wow, she sounds a lot like me. And there were two others as well, the first Derby winner. And then there was also, Charlotte Dupuy who fought for her freedom from Henry Clay and he was this whole great compromise or the great, you know, compromise of 1850 or whatever. And he had a slave that, that he would not let go of. And so I just like these, they sound like my family. And so I aligned them with my brothers and my mom and my father and me and created a story out of that. And I feel like that really, really changed my life, that, that, that let me know that I'm on the right path. Before that I didn't know. And then once I did “Browngirl. Bluegrass.” I was like, I'm supposed to be doing this historical researching kind of work. So I always find myself and everything that I research too. So.

Cheraine Stanford:

So I'm going to ask you to sing a song from “Browngirl. Bluegrass.” that stood out to me, called “Star Stuff”. I'm wondering if you'll sing a little bit of it and then we'll talk about it, right?

Lacresha Berry:

Sure. Oh, it's been a long time since I sang that song. [singing] Star stuff is what we're made of. Constellations in our make-up. If the universe is inside our heart, why's the outside the most perfected part? Dogon teacher. Cosmic believer. A history be the life leader. Dark as night, mind so bright. Why be a diamond when you're already light? Do you know. Yeah. Greatness lives within your soul. Nothing is impossible. That's right. That's right. That's right. Sankofa be so powerful.

Cheraine Stanford:

Nice. Thank you. So that last part about greatness being within your soul and nothing being impossible. Who did you write that for?

Lacresha Berry:

So, you are so good. This is what you are supposed to be doing. You are a great interviewer. I'm a teacher. I was so upset with a lady at my job who decided that she was going to move me from the English language department to social studies and science. I was so mad at her and I was like, I have, my focus is English language arts. Why would you put me in science and social studies? So I was like, okay, well if you're going to do this, I'm going to make it. I'm going to be such a science, I'm going to be the most excellent science and social teacher you've ever had. It's going to be magic in this classroom. So I taught fifth grade social studies and science and I wrote that song for my students and I put up every Spanish speaking scientist, social historian, politician, every black person I can think of everybody of color that I can think of.

I put, plastered it all over the walls. And then I started reading about the Dogon from Mali. A lot of my students are from West Africa and I was like, you know what? We're going to write the song for my students. And I'm like, we're gonna make this the best two years of my, you know, the last two, the last best two years of my life as a teacher and nobody's going to say nothing. I wrote that for my students. And to this day I, you know, I still think about all the kids I taught during that part of my life and I'm just, I'm grateful that they taught me as well.

Cheraine Stanford:

Was that kind of your mantra too?

Lacresha Berry:

Yeah, I think nothing is impossible. I'm very practical and so I'm like, I can figure out anything. I'm, I'm gonna figure this out, I'm gonna figure it out and it's gonna be just fine. So a lot of my energy comes from like, I'm not giving up until this is done. There are a lot of things being an entrepreneur, I'm like, okay, I might need to hire five or six people to do that, but I don't got the budget for it. I'm to figure it out. And so to me, I say nothing is impossible, you know? And I think that was a big, big, huge part of that song. You know, the chorus came first and then all the rest of the words came later.

Cheraine Stanford:

So you worked as a teacher, full time, in New York City for 10 years.

Lacresha Berry:

Yes.

Cheraine Stanford:

Where I read that you said that you've seen the modern lens of slavery in schools.

Lacresha Berry:

Yes.

Cheraine Stanford:

What did you mean by that?

Lacresha Berry:

Thank you so much for asking that question. I read this book by Monique W. Morris called 'Pushout' and it deals with the over like over criminalization of black girls bodies in schools and black kids are just more likely to be suspended, to be incarcerated, to be the main partakers of the school-to-prison pipeline. And I worked at charter schools or I worked at a charter school. And I think a lot of the autonomy that you get with a charter school has a lot to do with corporal punishment has a lot to do with, you know, militaristic, you know, broken windows policies of that you would see in a police department, that you see in schools. And not to say that, you know, shaming or talking about police in that way. But I do think that the disproportionate amount of Black bodies in schools, these babies are four, five, six, 10, 13, 14 years old not being put in therapy, people being put in prison, incarceration, it was such a big deal for me. So I think, you know, the modern lens of slavery doesn't look like chains, physically, but it looks like, you know, the school-to-prison pipeline. Overcriminalization, over policing, you know, just for using your critical thinking skills, you know, so Monique W. Morris was a big, huge part of that. And I read the journal that she wrote with Kimberlé Crenshaw as well and I was like, wow, these stats are horrendous. Horrendous. So yeah, the modern lens of slavery is exactly that.

Cheraine Stanford:

Yeah. And the article you mentioned too, one of them was 'Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Over Policed, and Under Protected'.

Lacresha Berry:

That's right, the journal.

Cheraine Stanford:

Yeah. And it does say that, because I think maybe a lot of the attention also has gone to black boys, but for black girls they are six times more likely to be suspended.

Lacresha Berry:

The disparity is crazy.

Cheraine Stanford:

Than white girls. Yeah.

Lacresha Berry:

That's in the show too.

Cheraine Stanford:

That's in Tubman?

Lacresha Berry:

That's in Tubman. Yep.

Cheraine Stanford:

So what did you learn from teaching, and I know you still teach as part of your work, but what did you learn from teaching or what do you learn from teaching that impacts your art and vice versa?

Lacresha Berry:

I think I came into teaching as an artist, so I changed my career. You know, I came into teaching as like, all over the place, scattered. I showed up to work right in time to pick up the kids when I first started. I didn't really prep like that because you know, I'm an artist, we'll improv. That did not work at all, not one bit. And the parents let me know soon enough that you're making our kids worse. I'm like, oh my goodness. So they were rough. Okay. Them Harlem parents do not play games. They let me know about myself very quickly. Second, I think, I think for me I think its important for me to know that, you know, teaching makes me more planned, makes me more focused. And so I'll take that plan. I take that story. And I'll take that like main purpose, like the objective of the, of the lesson plan, and I let that guide me as an actor or as a singer, as a performer. So now instead of me just singing songs, it has like a, a thread. It has like an objective. It has a plan that when I get on stage you're going to be able to feel and understand what I'm trying to say. When you're finished, when I'm finished.

Cheraine Stanford:

What do you think is unique about your style of music?

Lacresha Berry:

I think my style of music is, I'm very, I think my voice has always sounded old since I was a kid. And so I think embracing that energy and not allowing, not allowing that energy to like be pushed down, but actually to come out, I think that old school belting with, you know, flat footed, singing, freedom singing, you know, like Mahalia Jackson-esque kind of, you know, vibes I think is what makes, sets me apart a little bit from a lot of the riff, riff focused singers now where they're doing a lot of runs and this and that. And I'm just kind of belting like this is how I feel. And like if I don't get it out, a lot of times I blackout when I sing, you know, when I'm really singing.

Cheraine Stanford:

Really?

Lacresha Berry:

Yeah. I don't, when I come back out of it, they're like, what did you do there? And I'm like, I don't even know I was gone. I was. And a lot of that has to do with church and gospel music as well and you just let the spirit take over you. But I do think that's what makes me, that sets my work apart. And also that I'm very historical when it comes to songs. So I teach also inside the songs that I, that I create.

Cheraine Stanford:

You definitely identify as an educator and I feel like that even happens within your art.

Lacresha Berry:

And on purpose. Yeah.

Cheraine Stanford:

'Cause it's not like you're singing about going to the club, which you could and I would listen to that, but-

Lacresha Berry:

I'll teach you about the club too. [singing] The club got two doors. There's an exit.

Cheraine Stanford:

But you did choose in all of your songs to be teaching us something. Why is, why is that important to you?

Lacresha Berry:

Listen, I think that, you know, there are a lot of people in my life that maybe didn't tell me everything that I needed to know and understand and so I just think it's important to pass on the information that you've learned on to somebody else and maybe they can continue that, that learning cycle I think its really important and I'm never too old to learn and I'm never too old to listen and to get something new. So I feel that same way when I pass on the, the education in songs and music and in my performances. Yeah.

Cheraine Stanford:

What do you think people don't maybe understand about what it's like to live a life full-time as an artist?

Lacresha Berry:

They don't understand that this is actually work. This is work. It's, I have to, like, there was one time a guy, there was one time a guy I wanted to hang out with me and I'm like, okay, I'm attracted to you it's great. But I was like, I've really got to, I really got to memorize this show and I have to put on this show in a week. I can't spend time with you like that. I mean, maybe later after I'm finished, but I can't, I need five hours, five, six hours of just me focusing on this work. But they don't think it's work. They think it's like, "Oh, you're having fun." No, this is a lot. And so I think that's the misunderstanding. A lot of times as people think that, "Oh, you creating videos?" No, that's, sometimes I'm, I'm, I'm taking four or five hours to edit a video. That's work and I should be getting compensated for that. You know, and it might not look like a nine to five job to you, but me talking to you and preparing what I'm going to say is the same thing as somebody, you know, having a meeting at their job that is a nine to five corporate setting. So it's, this is work, it's not play.

Cheraine Stanford:

And I think you are pretty open about the process that you know, being an entrepreneur and an artist is, is challenging. And I'm wondering why that feels important to you to be open and honest about that process?

Lacresha Berry:

Because nobody told me that's important for me because nobody's said that you can do this. I had to discover it and now that I've discovered it and I now show my mom, I'm like, "Mom, guess what? I'm getting paid to do this." She's like, "Oh my goodness." They didn't think that being a theater major would get me to this point. You know, they thought like, well if you do something like accounting or you know, I'm like, what about me says accounting? I was never even good at math. Like what are you talking about? I'm good at math now. But like I wasn't confident in my math skills back when I was a kid. So it's like, what do you, what are you saying? So for me, I think, you know, being able to see that I could make money off of this and also, like, nobody told me that like this is all the things that you have to do. So yeah, please come to me. Please ask me questions because nobody did that for me and I want to be able to make it accessible. It's not hard, but it is hard work.

Cheraine Stanford:

And you have talked about some of the challenges that you've faced. Life was not this super easy path for you.

Lacresha Berry:

No, not at all.

Cheraine Stanford:

You've talked about facing eviction.

Lacresha Berry:

Yes.

Cheraine Stanford:

Those kinds of things.

Lacresha Berry:

Recently, yeah.

Cheraine Stanford:

Recently?

Lacresha Berry:

Yeah, like almost two years ago. Yeah.

Cheraine Stanford:

So with all of those challenges, what keeps you going?

Lacresha Berry:

Don't make me cry up in here today. Being able to like, talk about my experiences and then hearing people say that like they felt the same way and that nobody has been able to voice or they haven't been able to find their voice in the same way has inspired me to keep going. And also like, I don't have nothing else in my brain but to write and to like talk about these stories. And so for me it's like if I don't do it, then I'm gonna die. That's how I feel. And I know it's like very artistic and romanticizing something. But I do think that I held it in for so long and I'm finally embracing and celebrating who I am that I can't even go back. I can't go back to what I was doing before this. Like what was life like before when I didn't listen to the voices in my brain and listen to the words that are coming out now.

So yeah, it's just important for me to keep going because I know that, that a minor setback is not my entire life. You know, I think, you know, I have more triumphs than I've had setbacks, but I do also want to talk about the setbacks too. Because you know, a lot of times in your Instagram reel, on your YouTube reel, you always talk about the highlights and you're literally talking about makeup highlights or you're literally talking about, "Oh this is the great thing that I did at Penn State," but they didn't know like, you know, that you're dealing with maybe I might not have enough money to do this, this and that or you know, I might have to eat the same thing for two weeks in a row in order for things to work out the way they're supposed to and I might have to wait for money to come in.

You know, so because you're dealing with, you know, W-9's and you know, you don't, you might have to owe taxes because you're doing all of this independent work. So, I'm inspired because there's somebody out there that that needs to hear it. And a lot of that, a lot of times that somebody is me.

Cheraine Stanford:

What do you want the impact of your work to be?

Lacresha Berry:

I think for me, being a childless woman, and oftentimes we think our legacy is what you produce as a mother. For me, my legacy is the work that I create and being able to pass it on to the young people that are, come after me. And I want to be able to say that that I died knowing that there is somebody out there that lived because of the work that I'm doing.

Cheraine Stanford:

Berry, thank you so much for being with us today.

Lacresha Berry:

Thank you.

Cheraine Stanford:

Lacresha Berry is a singer, actor, writer, and educator whose work infuses her personal experiences into a broader historical context. Hear more Take Note interviews on our website at wpsu.org/takenote. I'm Cheraine Stanford, WPSU.

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