Author, Poet, Performance Artist, and Playwright
Sharon Bridgforth grew up in segregated Los
Angeles surrounded by sweet and strong story-telling Southern
black single women who urged her toward a life of stability as a
schoolteacher. They had left their Southern homes and families
to flee the oppression of racism, to search for hope for their
children, and to be free of "family speculation" for themselves,
Bridgforth says. "Everybody was in everybody's business."
But she didn't develop a yearning for the stability her family
wanted for her. Through card parties and beach parties filled
with laughter, music on the radio, and lots of dancing and tale
telling, she did develop a love for her family's words, their
voices, and their stories. "Everything about me was informed by
who they were," she says. It was a love that was further fed
with summertime trips to Memphis and more stories, voices,
Southern words, and Mississippi blues. Its music wraps itself
around her writing like Southern humidity. In fact, you can
smell the Mississippi in Bridgforth's writing -- its flowing
waters of unconditional love she felt from her Memphis relatives
and the storms they experienced as black Americans.
RedBone Press publisher Lisa Moore at Brentano's Bookstore in
Cleveland in June
photo by Lincoln
She hears it and feels it when she writes. She listens to its
music "as a tool to get me to that place where I can feel," as
she points to her heart, "in here." "the bull-jean stories is
structured the way it is on the page," she explains, "because I
was trying to capture the way that I heard my older family
members tell stories." It is written in all lowercase.
"Lowercase," she says, "feels more like the language sounds to
As Bridgforth returned to the palm trees of L.A. and rode
crosstown bus after crosstown bus, from South Central L.A. to
her Catholic school in Echo Park, she read and daydreamed. She
was becoming a storyteller and author in her own right, despite
not knowing any writers, despite not discovering black writers
like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin until high school,
despite not even imagining becoming a writer.
But just like her wy'mn relatives had felt trapped in the South,
Bridgforth felt trapped in L.A. "I was suffocating. I was dying.
L.A. was killing me." She cannot seem to find enough verbs to
express her L.A. suffocation. "I felt so hopeless because it was
so big and mean and expensive. ... I think I needed to get away
from it in order to imagine myself." She just wanted to dream.
Friends in Texas beckoned her to Austin. Despite a fear of the
Klan and worry over intolerance toward gays and lesbians, she
heeded the call and took a job with the Health Department. It
was, as they say in Hollywood high-concept screenwriting, an
"epiphany." Through her work at the Health Department,
Bridgforth was "out and about in the community" and heard story
after story about "older black women who had lived with Miss
So-and-so for a long time." She started thinking about that.
Lesbians, she clearly realized. And Bridgforth was in awe that
there were black lesbians who were an integral, active,
well-respected, and well-accepted part of the community.
About the same time, Bridgforth was grieving for some of her
elderly family members who had died and was yearning to hear
their voices again. She sat down and wrote a story, combining
the women she missed with the women she was curious about in
Austin. And bull-jean was born. She was structured the way
Bridgforth had heard her family members tell stories -- a little
singing, a little dancing, a little poetry. It was 1993, and as
soon as Bridgforth finished that story, another story about
bull-jean flowed from her hands and mind, and then another, and
another. Bridgforth couldn't stop her. Bull-jean was now a part
of Bridgforth, just like her family was.
And so was writing. "It's like breathing," she says. "It's how I
understand myself and my life, how I look at the world, how I
appreciate those who came before me." It is her life, not her
Susan Post, proprietor of Book Woman and, perhaps, Bridgforth's
biggest fan, can't remember how or when they met. "It seems like
I've known her forever," she says. Post believes there's a
psychic connection between Bridgforth and herself; every piece
of Bridgforth's writing tingles her spine and gives her
goosebumps. "Haunting," she calls the work. Bridgforth says that
Post would be "upset" for her when she received rejections. And
Bridgforth did receive rejection after rejection for bull-jean.
Like every writer who gets even one rejection, she got the down
in the dirty, dejected, rejected blues. We're talking Bessie
Smith blues because no one, not no one, wanted to publish
bull-jean. The theatre pieces sounded too much like poems. The
poems sounded too much like short stories. The stories ... well,
they were filled with "too much cussing. The subject matter's
too risky." There aren't a lot of white small presses willing to
publish fiction about a Southern black lesbian. And there
certainly aren't a lot of large New York City,
conglomerate-owned presses willing to publish fiction about a
Southern black lesbian. It's just not a niche that's profitable.
And while white presses thought bull-jean was too black, black
presses thought bull-jean was too gay. But the rejections may
also have had to do with publishers' befuddlement about how to
sell a work that defies easy categorization. Is the bull-jean
stories fiction, as Bridgforth calls it? Perfomance pieces?
Poetry? "The way that I write is all of those things,"
Bridgforth explains. Her voice soars an octave as she laughs and
admits that she just might have to die if someone insisted she
write in only one style. "I wouldn't be able to separate that
out. It's not my style." She adds, "I think we're complicated,
complex beings, and that's a good thing. So for me, it's in
recognition and honor and celebration of my own complexity to
not separate out my pieces, my bits, my parts." She insists that
she doesn't even use dialogue in her fiction. "It's more
monologues, poems, songs, responding -- where people are
responding to each other or responding to what's going on ... as
opposed to direct conversations."
So time after time, Susan Post stared Bridgforth right in the
eyes and said, "Your time is going to come, and there is no
doubt about it." She swore to Bridgforth that if bull-jean
didn't get published, she was going to take Bridgforth to Book
Expo America, the publishing industry's major annual gathering,
and lead her, by the hand, to every publisher she knew. Post was
bound and determined to get bull-jean to the public. "It wasn't
like the scrub girl who hadn't yet become Cinderella," Post
explains. "She was already Cinderella. She was wearing the right
Indeed, realizing that if she didn't do it herself that she
wouldn't have "a place to talk from," and also wanting to make
sure that her works were performed the way she wanted -- "no
words added, shifted around, or changed" -- Bridgforth
established her own theatre company called root wy'mn. That was
1993, the same year she birthed bull-jean, and over time root
wy'mn toured her plays lovve/rituals & rage, no mo blues, and
dyke/warrior-prayers from Boston to Berkeley.
Bridgforth promoted her work and herself. That included
attending a 1997 Lambda writers conference in Washington, D.C.,
where she talked with Lisa Moore, a young black lesbian from
Atlanta who had started her own small press, RedBone Press. It
was a one-woman operation solely dedicated to publishing black
lesbian writers. It would become a match made in heaven.
Already, Lisa Moore was aware of Bridgforth. At the
encouragement of writer Shay Youngblood, Bridgforth had
submitted a story to RedBone's first publication, does your mama
know?, an anthology of black lesbian coming-out stories. Moore
accepted Bridgforth's piece, "that beat," in 1995. That same
year, at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, Moore saw no mo
blues, which has a lot of bull-jean in it. Then, Moore came to
Austin and saw Bridgforth's blood pudding, and also applied to
graduate school at the University of Texas. That was 1998, the
year that Bridgforth, Moore, and Post will never forget.
It was the start of a continuing business affair between
Bridgforth and RedBone and Bridgforth and the Lambda Awards
because at the Lambda writers' conference, Bridgforth told Moore
she was going to submit more bull-jean to the publisher. She
did, and in the spring of 1998, after Moore wrestled with the
fact that bull-jean sounded like poetry (she didn't publish
poetry), RedBone and Bridgforth contracted for the bull-jean
stories. In June of that same year, RedBone won two Lambda
Awards -- "Lesbian Studies" and "Best Small Press Book" for does
your mama know? Bridgforth was suddenly a part of a
Lambda-winning project. And Moore moved to Austin to begin
graduate studies and publish the bull-jean stories.
Bridgforth realized that she didn't have time to do both root
wy'mn and write. So she prioritized. Writing won. Root wy'mn
closed. And the bull-jean stories was published. Moore backed
the book with as much promotional budget and time and energy as
she could afford, which wasn't much since she publishes on a
shoestring budget. But she is a woman who is loyal and
determined and who is in love with bull-jean.
"Her voice," says Moore, "the way she spoke, it seems like
home." Moore's father is New Orleans blues man Deacon John. She
also liked the fact that bull-jean was situated in a community
and "belonged somewhere." So Moore faxed and phoned and flew
Bridgforth around the country until bull-jean was in the hands
of independent stores throughout the nation ... and Canada.
The following year, bull-jean won RedBone and Bridgforth another
Lambda Award for, again, lesbian and gay small press book. The
first person Bridgforth thanked at the awards ceremony was Book
Woman's Susan Post. "Her inner place seems to be deeply
anchored," Post says about Bridgforth. "So I don't think she can
be tossed too far." In other words, Bridgforth won't forget
those who helped her along the way.
Post is right; success has not jaded Sharon Bridgforth. But how
could it? She wants so much more -- a screenplay for bull-jean,
the gift of time to write, national theatres that can give
bull-jean the production values she deserves, to encourage and
mentor others as she has been encouraged and mentored. "I've
experienced bits of this," she acknowledges, "but I would like
to go full-steam."
This year, it looks as if RedBone Press will publish a book
that, for the first time in its history, does not involve Sharon
Bridgforth, who has been tucked away in Kyle writing, with
forays into the San Marcos Target and occasional trips to
Austin's Cafe Mundi to satisfy her city girl needs for noise.
Bridgforth received a 1999/2000 NEA/TCG Playwright's Residency
at Frontera @ Hyde Park and is working on a new theatre piece,
con flama, which was finished this summer and will be produced
by Frontera in September. It is about her time growing up in
L.A., "a look at the cultural landscapes of a place," "a ride
through a melting pot" of ethnicities and struggles.
The CD the
bulljean stories is only available through RedBone Press or
at specific events. To order call RedBone Press at (202)
667-0392 or fax at (202) 667-0393. Send checks or money
orders to P.O. Box 15571, Washington, DC 20003. CDs cost
$12.99 and shipping is $3.20 (priority mail). You can also
order the book directly from Redbone Press at
Source: Excerpt from
Other Voices, Other Rooms -- BY SUZY SPENCER
sharon bridgforth is the founder/writer/ artistic director of
the root wy'mn theatre company