By Byrne Harrison
LaTonia Phipps is an alum of The Eugene O’Neil National Theater Institute and has also received an MFA in Acting from Brooklyn College. She was last seen in All American Girls Off-Broadway at The Actors Temple, With Aarons Arms Around Me with The Negro Ensemble Company at The Cherry Lane Theater, The Colored Museum, by George C. Wolfe at The Crossroads Theater, Wait Until Dark, by Fredrick Knott at The Ivoryton Playhouse as well as a variety of venues throughout New York City. “Fishing in Brooklyn,” is Phipps’s first full-length play to be written and performed. Phipps is a multidisplinary artist whose writings and performance have been compared to the likes of Anna Deveare Smith and Ntozake Shange.
She also currently serves as a Teaching Artist for Opening Act a non-profit organization providing theater for at risk teens within the New York City area. As well as conducts workshops titled “My Wordz Heal” where students draw from their own narratives to construct mini-solo pieces. Phipps is also working on her book of poetry titled, “My Wordz Heal.”
How did you first get involved in theatre?
Well, there are two stories…. First, both my parents dabbled in the performance arts when I was a child, I didn’t find out this story until I was much older, but nonetheless I was always surrounded by the arts. Secondly, I was extremely hyper active as a child. And in my family that usually resulted in a spanking, but my mother put me in a dance class instead. I was so intrigued with performing that I auditioned for a play at school based on the story of Rosa Parks. After not getting the lead I was furious; I knew then that anger only meant this was something I really wanted to do.
Who are your biggest influences?
This may sound cliché but God and my father. I’ve had a pretty rough upbringing and these two forces in my life have truly kept me grounded. My father was never able to continue with his dream of being a performer and in some sense he lives through me. He is my biggest fan. I recently closed an Off Broadway show, “All American Girls,” a story about an all black female baseball team. I knew nothing about baseball. So he worked with me everyday for 2 months making me throw a tennis ball against the back of a wall and catch it just so I could work on my pitching. I never did pitch a real ball onstage but I could have if I needed to.
What is your show about?
Fishin' in Brooklyn is the heart-wrenching story of a mother and daughter’s love following a young performer turned playwright as she struggles to meet the deadline of her very first play. All goes “Write” when she unknowingly gets help from the spirit of her late mother. Set in 1995 Brooklyn and present day Harlem, NY. In it, performer I portray 27 characters, including a Jamaican roots woman, an African train hustler, a flamboyant Literary Agent, a female Love Interest, and a sassy 10-year old girl from Brooklyn. Infusing Slam Poetry, dance, song and much more, “Fishin’ in Brooklyn” touches upon how forgiveness and growth can be achieved through love.
What inspired you to write it?
There was two reasons why I decided to write and create, “Fishin’In Brooklyn,” First, there were and still is very little work for Black Female Actors. I grew tired of the seeing the same stories being told so I decided to tell my own. Secondly, I’d created a solo show several years ago during my studies at the Eugene O’Neil National Theater Institute and it was such a success I toured at a few colleges in upstate NY. I realized that I have a knack for this type of storytelling. During a dry spell in the “acting world,” I attended an emerging writers workshop at Freedom Train Productions and was given the task of creating a piece inspired by a childhood memory. One of my fondest memories as a child was fishing with my mother in a lake in Prospect Park, a lake that wasn’t supposed to be used for fishing.
The facilitator urged me to expand on this memory and that began the journey of “fishin.”
Who are your collaborators and how long have you been working with them?
Currently, I am working with Christopher Burris (Director), noted for his work on “A Raisin in the salad: black plays for white people.” Chris is new to the project however we have very similar ways of working and great chemistry. I’m also working with Arthur Toombs (Djembe African Drummer) whom I’ve known for years. Arthur has worked with me on many projects including the beginning instillations of “fishin.” And finally, Tesfaye Hamanot (Light and sound Tech) who is also new to the project but nonetheless a huge asset; a touch of genius is needed to travel through the non-linear world of “Fishin,” making each transition clear. That genius is executed through Tesfaye.
Why was it important to you to be part of an eco-friendly theatre festival?
As artists whether we know it or not our art is a form of service. We perform in order to change a person disposition be that laughter, anger etc… and they are forced to re-evaluate themselves. This festival highlights change and awareness… although I’ve always been aware of my role in caring for the environment I’m now inspired to take a bigger stance in doing my part.
Planet Connections donates a portion of the box office for each show to a charity. What charity has your production chosen and why?
I’ve chosen Providence Rock… it’s an organization dedicated to using the performing arts and spirituality to bring about a form of healing for people of all ages and races: be that suicide, domestic abuse, or people who’ve been diagnosed with fatal diseases. Three years ago I came to Providence Rock completely broken and alone with suicidal thoughts every since that day I’ve been singing and praying and dancing and building a strong spiritual relationship and understanding with God. I never had another suicidal thought since…
This organization, which does so much for so many people, is dependent on availability in a high-demand theater space. They have a growing population but cannot always accommodate all those who come to participate week after week. They are desperately in need in a place of their own where they can offer even more services to make a greater impact on the lives of those who wish to be join them. All the proceeds I receive will be going toward this purpose.
What's next for you after Planet Connections?