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.
Bridgforth and 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 me."
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.
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
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.
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 work.
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."
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 shoes."
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.
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
The Bull-Jean Stories
sharon bridgforth is the founder/writer/ artistic director of
the root wy'mn theatre company