Last year, the theater company Theatre Alliance included my play Follow the Money, This Is America in their annual Word Becomes Action Festival as they introduced me and three other playwrights as their Quadrant Playwrights. I had the opportunity to see my play read by actors I didn’t know and directed by someone I had never met. The person who directed my play was playwright, actor and teaching artist Ayesis Clay. I didn’t know she was a multi-hyphenate then. I only knew that I absolutely loved how she translated my work and presented it during the festival. I met her that day and stayed connected via social media, only to learn how truly phenomenal she is.
In this Q & A with Ayesis, I ask questions about her artist life and how she has managed to integrate all of the many facets of her professional practice. By the end, you will learn that she offers a brilliant example of how to live your life to the fullest when guided by a need to express and speak your own truth to power.
Tell us a little bit about your artist life. What is it that you do as an artist currently?
Ayesis: I have been in love with theatre for as long as I can remember. Even before I attended college for Theatre at Howard University and North Carolina Central University I went to the North Carolina Governor’s School for Theatre and knew that it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Currently, I am an actress, director, and teaching artist. In 2018, I founded Sculpted Clay Productions, a theatre company that uses productions, workshops, and online courses to help schools create trauma-sensitive, social-emotional focused learning environments for both students and teachers.
Prior to becoming a full-time artist, you were working full-time as an educator. What were you doing and what was the inspiration to begin life a full-time artist?
Ayesis: I graduated from college with a degree in Theatre and not one thought of becoming a teacher! My first teaching job was out of necessity and was with the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice. I was hired as a Creative Arts teacher and eventually transferred to Cheltenham Youth Facility where I taught Drama. In that position, I became very disheartened by the recidivism that I was observing and heartbroken by the loss of several of my students to violence.
After almost 5 years at Cheltenham, I left and went to Suitland High School in Prince George’s County where I taught theatre and served as the Theatre Department Chairperson at Suitland’s magnet school, the Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, for 14 years. It was here that I developed a love for teaching.
But years of counseling students who were experiencing trauma, losing yet another student (this time to cancer) and not taking care of my own mental well-being led me down the road of secondary traumatic stress. I realized that I wasn’t as effective as I had been and that I needed a change.
I hadn’t stopped performing and working in the DC theatre scene, so I decided to begin my life as a full-time artist by first writing and performing my solo show, Sculpting Clay or How I Became Mother of Unicorns.
Currently, you are doing professional development workshops for educators drawing from your past life experiences and presented through theatre. Tell us about this project and the themes you are addressing as you tour this presentation.
Sculpting Clay or How I Became Mother of Unicorns was a piece that was necessary for me to write as a means to my own healing. It is a coming of age story that follows my journey into education kicking and screaming. It highlights how I fell in love with it, and shines a bright light on my struggles with secondary traumatic stress.
I didn’t realize the importance of the story beyond my own healing until I presented it, first at the Playwrights of Color Summit in Geneva, NY and then most recently, at this year’s Atlas PAC Intersections Festival in Washington DC. Teachers and folks from all walks of life would come up to me and tell me how they saw their own journey—their own pain, their own feelings of hopelessness– in mine. I heard more than once from teachers that they never knew what they were feeling had a name and that it wasn’t just burn-out. The themes of dream-chasing and insecurity, hopelessness, self-preservation, and healing resonated strongly with the audiences.
I realized that I wanted to help teachers. So, along with the solo show, I created workshops and an online course to help them mitigate the stress in their lives. So, if they choose, they can continue to be the teacher that our students need and that they work so hard to be.
Tell us about the venues locally and nationally that you have worked with and what your biggest highlights have been.
With Mother of Unicorns, the very first reading was produced by FRESHH Theatre Company at the Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival. I will always be grateful for Goldie Patrick who produced the show and Danielle Drakes who directed for holding space for me during the early drafts of the piece.
The play was then taken to Quicksilver Theater Company’s Playwright of Color Summit in Geneva, NY and was again directed by Danielle Drakes. This time was so pivotal to the molding of the piece. It’s where I included the juxtaposition of a fantastical journey that my character uses as a means of coping with the harsh realities of oppressive systems in schools, incarceration, and death. Because I am a huge fantasy nerd, this was such an “aha” moment for me. A workshop production of the piece was performed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center (Washington, DC) this year and was directed by the amazing Angelisa Gillyard.
Along with Mother of Unicorns, I have another original play, Standing on the Edge, that offers a look through the eyes of five teenagers as they take different paths in the journey through high school. It has been produced and received honors at the DC Black Theatre Festival, the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival, and the Prince George’s County Public School Theatre Festival.
In what ways do you believe you use your artistic work as a platform for social justice? What is your area of activism?
My area of activism is steeped in education. All of my plays to date, speak to the failings of our educational system when it comes to our children and our teachers. From juvenile detention facilities to urban schools to rural schools with very little funding, if you sat and talked to many of these students and teachers, it would be very easy to see how complicit society is. It frustrates me to no end to see good teachers and administrators blamed for the ills that they did not create and cannot fix alone. Although I have been out of the classroom for two years, I will always be a teacher and will always fight for my fellow teachers and the students.
Who are some of the people locally and globally who influence your work and why?
The very first name that always comes up for me is Paige Hernandez. She gave me my first professional touring job with her solo show, Paige in Full. She inspired me to write my own original works and continues to inspire me to this day. I also love the works of Sarah Jones, Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi. I love the way they use word power to convey so many levels of thought.
Also, my former students, many of whom have garnered great success from the DC Theatre scene to LA and beyond, consistently influence my work. I see their faces and hear their voices in so many of my characters and am inspired by their tenacious work ethics.
What is coming up next for you?
Presently, I offer an online course called the Unicorn Teachers Academy that helps severely overwhelmed educators learn how to increase mental well-being, relieve stress in and out of the classroom, and reconnect to their authentic selves in order to reignite their magic and passion for teaching. I will be presenting on “Mindfulness and the Arts” at the upcoming Maryland Theatre Education Association’s Fall Focus Professional Development and I’m also leading student theatre residencies for Anne Arundel Public Schools and Prince George’s County Public Schools. In the upcoming months, I will be presenting Sculpting Clay or How I Became Mother of Unicorns as well as Standing on the Edge virtually.