by Jody Key – Managing Editor – February 12, 2022
Unbossed & Unbowed is an immersive and interactive solo show about the 1st African-American woman to run for the Presidency of the U.S. In the 1960s and ’70s, this Brooklyn-born daughter of Caribbean parents was on a mission. They called her the black Joan of Arc. She called herself Fighting Shirley as she faced off against the political machine in the name of justice. It’s time you met this 20th Century politician who changed America!
How did you discover Shirley Chisholm?
I saw a documentary about Shirley Chisholm’s campaign race in 1972 and was fascinated that a Black woman ran for the presidency of the United States. I didn’t know that before. I knew she was a Congresswoman. But that was as much as I knew about her before I saw the documentary.
But I wanted to know more… What it took? The sacrifices she made? What were the circumstances of her family? I wanted to know more about her background.
Did you read her autobiography?
Yes, she wrote two autobiographies, Unbought and Unbossed and The Good Fight. A few other people wrote books about her as well. Shirley went to Brooklyn College and her papers are there. I would go there once a week for a few hours at a time and find all these things about her in newspaper and magazine articles. I also went to the Schomburg Center in Harlem; they had audio tapes of interviews with her that I’d listen to and take notes. My research began in 2015 and the process was ongoing for about two years. I was also working as an actor. I had written a solo show about my immigrant experience and was touring it throughout the U.S. and overseas.
The telling of my story in my solo show titled, DEMERARA GOLD, inspired me to write Shirley Chisholm’s story. I didn’t think it would take 6 years to complete, but it did. My own story was in my head. It could be regurgitated, emotional memories can bring earlier memories to the forefront. But the researching of Shirley’s story was more daunting in the sense that I kept finding more information, all kinds of information. And that was good. I wanted to find out as much as I could about her. But then, there was all this information that I now needed to carve into a dramatic, entertaining, and inspiring script. The show would be a history lesson yes, but it also had to have all of those elements. I think that’s why it took six years to complete. I was researching, writing, workshopping and rewriting.
Is this performance at Aurora a debut, or have you performed this work other places?
I performed the entire show live three other times. The show was completed in early 2020, and I was eager to share it during the 2020 election season. I wanted people to get to know Shirley Chisholm and that they might say, ‘I need to get out there and vote and vote for someone on the ticket that is conscious and willing to address the needs of people like me’. I wanted Shirley Chisholm’s story to inspire people to vote and make change happen.
Then the pandemic hit and life theater came to halt in March 2020. I had just performed the show at a Festival where ‘UN BOSSED’ won best script. I had a couple of bookings right after that but everything got canceled. Everyone was isolating, there was no vaccine then.
I was bummed out because I had been preparing to share this story for the past 5 years. It was time for it to be heard, and now this. Over the summer of 2020, I rewrote the script and created a digital presentation, a film of the solo show. In 2021, during Black History Month and Women’s History month, libraries in NYC, Brooklyn and Long Island were hosting the filmed show for their library community. It was like a blessing in disguise because audiences that would not have heard about ‘UNBOSSED’, or probably would not have come to see it had it been a live show. This audience was now able to access it in the comfort of their homes. It was an audience I probably won’t have reached out to had there been no pandemic.
The second time I did the show live was at Southampton Arts Center on eastern Long Island, that was in August 2021. And the third time was in October 2021 at a theatre space in Manhattan, thanks to a City Corp Artist grant I was awarded. I’m from New York City. And the city was offering artists grants to get our shows up and to encourage audiences to come back to the theater. The tickets were free.
The February 11th performance at Aurora Theatre will be the 4th time. I’m doing 6 shows here, so the show really is still a baby and I’m very excited to be performing “Unbossed & Unbowed” live.
What do you want audiences to take away from Shirley Chisholm: Unbossed & Unbowed?
I hope Shirley Chisholm’s uniqueness stands out as a good thing. Her not trying to fit in was her super power. I hope young people come see the show and leave saying, ‘Who I am is enough. I will own me’. Shirley Chisholm had a near genius IQ. She was the eldest of four girls, her parents knew she was special, especially her Dad. He kept telling her she is the tip of the spear.
My immigrant experience was different from Shirley’s in some ways. My parents were constantly fighting. I witnessed domestic abuse for some time. Then my parents eventually separated. Shirley and her father had a special relationship. She was a daddy’s girl. Her father kept encouraging her to keep going. We need to hear stories like this as well. He didn’t have a high school education but he read every book he could find, and was very political. He would buy 5 newspapers a day and Shirley’s Mom would say “how are we going to save money for a brownstone for our family?” He was very involved in the community, he was a proud Black man. In those days in the 1940s, Black men were being lynched. You have to see the context of this immigrant family.
Shirley’s father spoke up for his community. He would attend meetings and speak to the white leaders about the things they were not doing for the Black and Brown people so that they too can thrive. He would tell the neighbors “they’re not hearing us and we need to be heard so we’re going back”. Meanwhile, Shirley the kid is sitting in the middle of these meetings that were held in the family’s tiny apartment in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, and she is listening, learning. I think that’s why speaking up for the people, the community, became her life’s purpose.
Shirley Chisholm’s story needs to be heard, and I hope folks come see it. I want people to say, ‘Okay, I got her message’. There is a history about this Black woman and most likely others that’s been missing from our history lessons and textbooks. I want people to see the link between this country’s past to its present. A lot of what was going on then will resonate. I want people to know that we are the ones that make positive change happen. I want them to know that whatever they’re led to do, they should do it like Shirley Chisholm. I want people to take positive action in any way they feel, with a knowingness of their strength and worth. Especially a person of color… whatever you’re led to do, you can and must do.
SHIRLEY CHISHOLM: UNBOSSED AND UNBOWED begins at Aurora Theatre this Friday, February 11, 2002. Get tickets at https://www.auroratheatre.com/productions-and-programs/view/shirley-chisholm-unbossed-unbowed/