Dr. Lisa B. Thompson is a celebrated Austin playwright, author and professor in the University of Texas’ African and African Diaspora Studies Department. You might have seen her work recently when Ground Floor Theatre produced her play "Single Black Female" in February. She’s currently working on a book about contemporary African American theater.
For our periodic series What We Need to Hear, we spoke to Thompson on June 3 about the realities of life for black Americans, the art she turns to in tumultuous times, how she takes care of herself and more. At the time of our conversation, protesters in Austin and cities around the world had for days been gathering to speak out against police brutality and the killings of unarmed black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Michael Ramos.
Here’s a selection of her thoughts from an expansive conversation. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
This weekend, I finally landed on some truth about myself as an artist and a teacher. ... I realized that I, in the past, have talked about humor being a way to shine light on things for people in a way that makes it easy for them, palatable for them to understand and to listen to.
But I also this weekend realized it's been my way of coping with the absurdity, brutality and illogical racism and other forms of discrimination. I realized (humor) has been a really useful tool for me to minimize the harm against me, in terms of using my wit. ...
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I feel that it's a way to deal with what is patently absurd, the black life of navigating a place that you're supposed to be beholden to, that treats you in a way that literally ensures your early death. You look at the mortality rate for black people, no matter even if you look at class and education.
You have to find a way to laugh through that kind of absurdity, violence and pain.
On reality for black Americans
There is no safe haven for African Americans, right? Not in our homes, not in schools, not in stores, not in hospitals, not on playgrounds, or even churches. And I list those because those are the places that black people have been, in the last 10 years, shot and killed with no (or) very little repercussions for those that have done (it). ... These are everyday places, quotidian spaces. ...
There is not one aspect of my life, or the lives of any other African American, that is not hindered by racist policies and attitudes. Again, quotidian things: buying a home or renting a home, or purchasing a car, obtaining education, navigating the medical establishment, navigating the job market. Not even buying groceries, because of food deserts, right? ...
One of the things that's really jarring about this time for black people is that you have the long issue of police, state violence happening at the same time that we're now dealing with COVID-19. And African Americans, of course, are dying at higher rates from COVID-19 infection because of pre-existing conditions — hypertension, asthma, cancer, diabetes. But those "pre-existing conditions" — I put them in quotes, actually — are not simply about one's personal choices or failures. It's about the ways living under a racist system impacts one's health on a daily basis. Disproportionate effects (are) a social issue in the guise of an epidemiological one. … There’s still not clean water in Flint, and the idea of washing your hands is what's important to do right now. Walk that out! Again, you have to laugh. It’s this absurdity.
On art she turns to
I immerse myself in black cultural expression. I collect African American art. The libraries are closed right now, but I have a huge library of African American literature, from poetry, plays, fiction, nonfiction, music, film. All these things buoy my soul when I'm weary, but also I turn to when I need a source of celebration.
One of my favorite artists is a local artist here Austin who is becoming internationally renowned, Deborah Roberts. Her work actually is going to be on my new book cover ("Underground, Monroe, and The Mamalogues: Three Plays," a collection of three of Thompson's plays, will be released in August). She’s about to have a show at the Contemporary that's been, of course, put on hold because of COVID. I’m lucky to be a collector of hers. The work of people like Sanford Biggers, who’s a friend. Hank Willis Thomas. There's just a tremendous amount of African American visual art that is amazing.
Literature, I find myself turning to Baldwin, but also Toni Morrison. Right now, particularly to poetry, because it's something that you can distill and kind of jump into, because we're so overwhelmed with everything that's happening now. Danez Smith, they (are) one of my favorite new poets.
I'm looking forward to reading Jericho Brown's new book, "The Tradition." He actually won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
What she would tell her students
I would definitely tell them to journal so that they figure out their own true north. I’ve journaled since I was in fifth grade, and I find that not only does it keep you writing, it helps you find your voice and how you write. ...
Also to read, and read widely. Read the work of those from Palestine, from the Ukraine, from all parts of the U.S., of North America. Read widely. Be curious more than you're afraid. I think that's really important. It's OK to be afraid. Don't let the fear determine your actions. Let that true north determine your actions.
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For this summer, with all this uncertainty, for students to think about what really matters to them most at this point in their lives. To relish being young, and that there is no perfect age to do anything. There's no rush to be on the list of top hottest X, Y and Z under 30. In fact, I'm thinking about creating a list of artists to watch over 50. This arbitrary idea of this pressure — August Wilson didn't have ("Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" performed) until he was 39. And Toni Morrison didn’t have her first novel published until she was 39.
We've stared down many, many, many things. And this is just another one of them and is an extraordinary moment, but that they are extraordinary. That is something I know in my heart.
On taking care of herself
Meditate every morning, work out. I'm a gym rat, but COVID shut those down. And so I've been walking in my neighborhood every day. And then I also work out with a trainer who I've been working with for, gosh, six years now, who's fantastic. And we're doing it on Zoom.
Eating things that make my body happy, but also treats in moderation. That's important.
Lots of listening to music, more than I usually do, and dancing.
And a bigger thing, which is a new part of it, is spending time in my backyard, because things have slowed down. I was supposed to be in New York two weeks ago seeing shows. I don't have any flights planned right now for the foreseeable future, and so I'm spending time in my backyard. My grill just arrived, so I'm looking forward to learning how to grill.
Aging is wonderful. And it's such a gift, especially for people who are in a category that usually don't get to do that. Often, our society is very ageist. And it's the only thing that people use as an insult that you hope to be someday. (Laughs)
I'm troubled a bit, I guess, by the focus on the destruction of property (during protests), because I don't see that level of concern over the destruction of life. Property can be replaced, where life cannot. ...
We want people to perform in a certain way in these moments. What's striking about that is that we have a heavily armed portion of society, repeatedly breaking the social contract we have, which is, you know, you don't just kill people. And then expect a segment of the population to resist or protest it in ways that maintain the social contract.
It's actually, again, one of those absurdities: "We broke the social contract in the worst way possible; you better not do anything," and, "Do it in the right way. Now, of course, peaceful protesting during NFL games is not allowed."
It's troubling. Protest is meant to be troubling, jarring. It's supposed to, you know, upend people, make people think. When Mr. Floyd was killed, there was no charge. ... Then, announced (June 3), the rest of the charges came down for the rest of the officers (involved in Floyd’s death). ...
Part of the anxiety for African Americans, we don't want to get in more trouble. We don't want our message to get diluted. And it's like, were people listening anyway? King was wearing a shirt and tie when he was gunned down in his hotel.
The idea of being respectable and presentable and doing it nonviolently and beautifully, yes, I'm all for. I'm always engaged in nonviolent protests. ...
I just want us to not be so critical and harsh with the young people who are expressing — oh, people, all ages, really, in all races, too — expressing the outrage that everybody should feel.