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Zell Miller creates theatrical valentine to daughter

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

For Zell Miller III, it begins and ends with language.

"I write — that's what I do," he says.

For more than 20 years, Miller, 42, has been letting the language fly, penning hip-hop-laced performance poetry, writing award-winning plays, taking to the stage to spin exuberant stories that pull together the facets of his life as a school counselor, a father, a writing mentor, a performer and an African American man in 21st-century America.

On Thursday at the Vortex, Miller premieres his latest one-man play, "Oh (Expletive)... It's a Girl," an exultation to his 4-year-old daughter, Blaise Marley Miller.

And if the title contains language not suitable for print in a family newspaper, let alone for a 4-year-old, Miller's made no mistake. His is a theatrical valentine to his daughter.

It's "a celebration of the brilliance that is my baby girl," he announces at the beginning of his on-stage monologue.

At a coffee shop near the Vortex in East Austin on a recent afternoon, Miller muses on how so many fathers are confused about how to talk about their daughters, how many topics are just never comfortably articulated in the public discussions of parenting.

"There isn't a lot of language for fathers, especially for black fathers, to talk about raising little girls," he says.

With the school year over, Miller has a bit more time in his schedule for things like meeting at a coffee shop or rehearsing his latest play.

In addition to being a father and a busy independent performer, Miller has been working with young people for years at various nonprofits as a counselor and as a writing mentor. He's also the artistic director of the Cipher, an East Austin-based youth performance poetry effort.

"Zell has instant credibility with young people, and I believe it's because he has no other agenda than to help them find and use their voice," says Shannon Sandrea, the executive director of the Cipher. "He's a very authentic person, and you know where you stand with him at all times."

Most recently, Miller was nominated by the Austin Critics' Table for directing "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf," Ntozake Shange's groundbreaking 1975 play, considered a landmark of black feminist literature. After a successful run last year at the Vortex, Miller restaged it again this year.

Born in Ohio, Miller moved to Austin with his family when he was 4. Watching his older brother keep a daily diary, a 14-year-old Miller directed his verbally percolating mind to a self-invented writing challenge: penning his own lyrics to Prince songs. "Pretty soon, I thought what I was writing was better than what Prince wrote," Miller says with a laugh. "But I realized I was writing poetry, or at least that's what I decided what I was going to do."

In school, Miller found himself restless. "I questioned everything," he recalls. Specifically, he questioned where the nonwhite writers and poets were and why they weren't included on the syllabi of his high school English classes.

As a teenager and then young adult, Miller began to test his performance and writing chops, trying out his rap-influenced poetry on audiences at the long-gone spoken-word venue Chicago House. Perfecting his craft, Miller moved on, taking on roles in independent plays and honing short monologues for FronteraFest, the fringe theater festival started at Hyde Park Theatre in the early 1990s.

Then he began to write his own full-length scripts — among them, "Arrhythmia," "The Evidence of Silence Broken," "Radio Silence" and "My Child, My Child, My Alien Child" — all well-received by critics and audiences, all bearing more than a few traces of Miller's autobiography.

Miller's day job is as a counselor with SafePlace, a domestic violence prevention agency and resource center. Miller leads counseling sessions at area middle and high schools. He works with young men who have been identified by school officials as having violent tendencies, anger issues or trouble with authority.

"The one cussing out his teacher? The one flipping desks? That's my guy. That's who I sit down with every week," Miller says.

The authority figures that his charges most frequently act out against are women, Miller says. And violent behavior toward women comes from violent attitudes that are in turn fostered by derogatory language.

"It all starts with language," he says. "So I tell the kids that when they're with me, we're not going to use any derogatory words about gender, race or sex. Kids will feel powerless, but they have a mouth, and what they say can give them power over someone else. We try to change that."

Miller's new play is a companion to "My Child, My Child, My Alien Child," the critically acclaimed show about the wonders and trials of raising his son Zell IV, now 12. Debuted in 2005, "My Child" netted Miller the Austin Critics Table's David Mark Cohen New Play Award and has been restaged numerous times at the Vortex and Hyde Park Theatre.

Rocketing between biting humor, social satire and endearing sentimentality, "My Child" charts Miller's experience with his son from the birthing room to the preschool battle of wills to the hilarious kindergarten adventures of a bright and awfully verbally deft little boy.

"When my son came along, it was a flood," Miller says of how language descended on him after Zell IV was born. "The stories just kept coming and coming.

"But when my daughter was born, for a long time, I couldn't write about her."

Miller's marriage was troubled when Blaise was born, and within a year or so, the couple had decided to divorce. Miller and his wife now co-parent, with each taking the children for half the week.

The separation is still hard on Miller. "Waking up and not being able to hear my kids every morning, or have them wake me up in the morning — it's still shocking to me, and it still makes me sad," he says.

He touches on that emptiness in "It's a Girl." But he simultaneously spins his hilarious takes on being solo father to a little girl: wrestling her squirming legs into tights, doing her hair properly, trying to mitigate a meltdown.

Miller's monologue also muses on the difficulty of raising an African American daughter in a pop-culture world suffused with idealized images of white girls.

"The media does not give them a whole lot of options as positive portrayals of black children," he writes in his new script. "So you have to keep reminding them in different ways. So a mantra I do with my baby girl is: ‘I am. I am a strong, smart, beautiful black princess.' "

Miller fully expects that someday his daughter will write her own plays. And he wouldn't be surprised if, like his own, they bore autobiographical origins.

"She loves to make up characters and jokes and storylines," he says. "She already has her own language."

Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at 445-3699

"Oh (Expletive) ... It's a Girl"