In Conversation with Shasta Geaux Pop
Interviewed by Terrence I. Mosley
The Contemporary Performance Think Tank is housed in the John Wells Directing Program MFA at Carnegie Mellon University’s School Of Drama under the direction of Caden Manson. Each year the Think Tank focuses on a set of topics concerning the fields of Theater and Contemporary Performance and conducts research and interviews to produce a paper as a resource for practitioners. This year’s topic is contemporary performing artists and companies redefining relationships with audience and pushing the formal relationships of architecture, artist, and audience. For this paper the Think Tank chose five areas on the forefront of this research to explore; Contemporary Choreography, Mixed Reality Performance, Performance Cabaret, Immersive Theatre, and Social Engaged Art. Each section of this paper includes an introduction to the specific practice, a conversation with an artist, and a list of artists working in and around the specific practice. “In Conversation with Shasta Geaux Pop” is part of a series of posts. Check back daily to see the next posts.
New York City is known for being packed with performance in January. Scanning through the performances offered, I stumbled upon Shasta Geaux Pop, which was a part of the Public Theatre’s Under the Radar INCOMING! Entering the theater, I was immediately transported to a basement party. Red lights that reveal as much as they conceal spill onto my skin as hip hop rattles my bones. The hour or so that followed introduced me to musical artist Shasta Geaux Pop, who is not your typical pop princess. She charmed the crowd with songs about thrusting exponentially, spicy hot chocolate, and the power of kegels. She was all at once satire and a role model.
The women behind Shasta Geaux Pop are New York-based multidisciplinary performer and creator Ayesha Jordan and New York-based Canadian/Barbadian/UK director Charlotte Brathwaite. Jordan has multiple international credits and recently understudied the groundbreaking Broadway production of Eclipsed at The John Golden Theatre. Brathwaite, who was the recipient of the 2010 George C. Wolfe Award from the Princess Grace Foundation, has a rich directing practice that includes international directing credits and teaching at MIT. Ayesha, Charlotte, and I discuss the evolution of Shasta and how they came together to give her voice.
Terrence Ikechukwu Mosley: Just to kick us off, where are you from?
Ayesha Jordan: I am originally from Winchester, Virginia. Ever heard of it?
TIM: No, is that in Europe?
AJ: Right. No. Yes. (Laughter) No. Winchester is a small town… it’s in Northwestern Virginia so it’s about an hour and half outside of DC. It’s literally 15 miles from West Virginia.
Charlotte Brathwaite: My family’s from Barbados. I was born in England and raised in Canada. I moved to New York City when I was 15.
TIM: So what was the purpose of the move? You moved without your family to the states at 15?
CB: My home life was less than satisfying so I left home early.
TIM: How did you get your start in performance?
AJ: I began… Well, I mean, if you go way back as a kid I enjoyed it.
TIM: Give me the whole story.
AJ: The whole story nothing but the story. So I say I started performing sort of in the 5th grade when I was in Odyssey of the Mind. I don’t even know if they still have that in schools now. They have, you know, groups that do like math and then groups that do… Ours was specifically performance-based and we did a version of Charlotte’s Web and me being the only black kid they cast me as Templeton the Rat but anyway… Alright, I’m a leave that one alone… but I’ve always enjoyed it. I went to Clark Atlanta University which is an HBCU [Historically Black College or University] in Atlanta, Georgia. I’m so happy I did that cause growing up where I grew up I had the other experience. They have a theatre department and I decided the end of my sophomore year to take a theatre class so I took an Oral Interpretation class with Carol Mitchell-Leon. She was a wonderful actress, and artist and teacher. She’s no longer with us but, you know, that was my first taste and it’s funny cause the first time we had to do something in front of people I was scared out of my mind. I literally cried in front of the class… This is ridiculous but she asked “Do you want to stop and start over a little later?” I was like “Yes.” After I got through it, I was like “Oh, this is what I want to do.” After that, you know, that was kind of all she wrote doing theatre. Doing internships, acting internships at the St Louis Black Rep… Now I’m giving you my whole bio… (Laughter)
CB: I ended up completing my last year of high school in Westchester, New York. Half the year was regular high school classes, the other half of that year they allowed students to do an internship. I was searching for theatres to intern with and La MaMa was the only one at the time, that allowed students to work directly on shows. I eventually started working there. Ellen Stewart, I don’t know if you know of her, but you should totally look her up if you’re studying contemporary performance, Ellen was essential to my understanding of global performance and theatre making. Ellen took care of me, I ended up working with La MaMa as a performer in the Great Jones Repertory Company and two weeks after I graduated high school, I was on a bus in Eastern Europe with 30 people, a snake and making theatre. I was the youngest in the company at the time, Ellen just kept telling me “You can do this. You can definitely do this.” So I did, just because Ellen told me I could. That’s it.
TIM: Did you have a hard time seeing yourself in the performance world? What were some barriers for you in terms of entering the theatre?
CB: I have to be honest, I can’t say there were barriers. Theatre, music and art were always a part of my life from when I was really young. I was in dance classes at eight years old and attended a high school for performing arts in Toronto. By the time I got to New York I knew I wanted to make art, but I wasn’t into doing the Broadway knockoffs that we were trained to do. I was like, “I don’t know what else there is but there’s got to be something more…there have to be other options.” I feel lucky that La MaMa found me, or I found La MaMa. Ellen created a situation I could thrive in both as an artist and a human being. There are few people like her in the world who love people that much. She was like “…you want to do this thing? Here are shows you can perform in… here are 90 plus shows a year you can see for free.” At the time, La MaMa was presenting something like 90 shows a year and I went to see everything. I eventually became the production coordinator. I had a job. I even lived on top of the Annex Theatre (now Ellen Stewart Theatre) for a while. She provided a situation, she gave us support. She gave all of us a family. We were all making theatre and struggling but living in the joy of what it meant to create things that really expressed the life we lived, who we were and what our real experiences were. It was a multidisciplinary, multi-cultural, intersectional highly creative environment—way before those terms became catch phrases. It was like running away with the circus. It was fantastic. I never had any money. I guess that would have been a barrier to some. Nothing was ever handed to me. I worked for everything. I entered into a professional theater situation with a black woman running everything. I had the perfect role model. Ellen taught me that I could do this thing in the way I wanted to do it. At the time I wasn’t even cognizant of what that all meant because I was a teenager just happy to be performing, travelling and living the dream. But when I think back, I can’t thank Ellen enough for that time, it was fundamental to who I am today. I think about her all the time, especially when I make work. I’m sorry she never got to see any of my work.
TIM: Ayesha, what made you seek performance?
AJ: I think I just really enjoy affecting people on some level and that’s one of the best ways I feel like I know how. I mean, yes, I’m a ham so there is that… I don’t know… It’s the feeling that I get. It’s the way I feel like I best know how to express myself. It’s the thing I feel like I’m truly best at. I mean, there are other things I think I’m good at but I feel performance is something I know how to do well.
TIM: So both of you are in long tradition of Black American artists who have spent time in Europe. What brought you to Europe?
AJ: So the company I worked for in Atlanta, the Youth Ensemble [of Atlanta], we did an exchange project with three companies in the Netherlands called Rotterdams Lef, Onafonkelijk Toneel and another company, that’s now defunct, called Made in Da Shade. We did this exchange and our group collaborated with their group. They brought in people to work with our group and then we did these three pieces and one of the companies, Made in Da Shade, asked me… Initially, my partner was working with them at the time and they asked if he wanted to stay and work with the company and they needed another person and he was like “Hey, if you need another actor, Ayesha can stay and do it too.” So I ended up going in and doing their show and they basically moved us to Amsterdam. We went back to Atlanta, packed up all our stuff, and moved to Amsterdam to do the show with Made in Da Shade. The show toured the Netherlands, Belgium, and a few other places. We ended up staying there for two and half years.
CB: After La MaMa I went to undergrad in the Netherlands, the Amsterdam School for the Arts.
TIM: What was your experience studying there?
CB: It was different than the education in the arts here. In the US, you have programs in acting and directing. In the Netherlands, the program I went to was for theatre makers. I graduated with a class of eight people—we all performed, wrote or devised original work, directed, and designed to a certain extent. It was definitely focused on performer-generated work.
TIM: How did you two meet?
AJ: I met Charlotte because the person she was seeing at the time and the person I was seeing at the time were in the same program called Das Arts. She and I met and we both said “Ahh two black Americans, North Americans, in Amsterdam… Let’s stay friends,” and we just started hanging out and we worked together a little bit there. We stayed in touch and then I moved away to London for a year and half and I think at some point she moved to Germany, I can’t remember when…
TIM: What took you to London?
AJ: I was studying dance at a school called Laban. They have a professional diploma in Dance Studies so I did that course. I was going to stay and pursue my Master’s degree at the Central School of Speech and Drama. I was accepted into their Performance Practices and Research program. I was so excited but I couldn’t get the money together.
TIM: How did you two start working together?
CB: We became friends. We were both North American, Black and Ayesha was fun people to hang with! I was making a show, a devised piece about the women in the shadows of the Red Light District in Amsterdam. I found out working on that project that many of the women were trafficked. They’re not there on their own accord. Many people think prostitution is legal in Holland, but many of those women and girls are forced to be there. It’s one of the most undercover corrupt, seedy places ever. I was making this show and then I invited Ayesha to collaborate with me on it.
TIM: When did you all come back stateside and start working together?
CB: They left Holland but we stayed in touch. Ten years later or so, they moved to NYC.
AJ: I said “Well, my money has expired. My visa expired.” So, London and I were done. We [Ayesha and her former partner] packed up all of our stuff. We had to get our stuff out of storage in Amsterdam and move back to Atlanta. I think we were in Atlanta for three years from 2005-2008 before I moved to New York. Basically, a job opportunity brought my ex to New York. So we moved to New York for the project he was working on and that was all she wrote. I started my New York hustle. Been here since 2008.
TIM: How was Shasta Geaux Pop born?
AJ: So Shasta… That’s my home girl. I manage her and she goes way back to the days of Atlanta. I remember living in Atlanta… Oh God, this is so funny… This is around the time Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie kept getting arrested over and over again for doing the dumbest shit. I said “What is this? They just keep getting more and more famous. This is crazy!” So I started writing. I wrote the song “Drunk and Famous.” Then there was the other part of me that said, “Ok. I’m an actor and I live in Atlanta…” Atlanta is this place, if you live there and you’re an actor, you know, you can get cast in film and TV roles but primarily you’re going to get a day player part. You need to either be New York or LA to get a lead role or you need to be a rapper. I said “Wait a minute… If I become a rapper…” I mean, “If Shasta becomes a rapper and I manage her then I could totally get cast in movies and stuff.” So Shasta was born. “Drunk and Famous” was her first hit single that is waiting to be recognized but they’ll get it. They’ll catch on. So she was born. It started with Shasta performing “Drunk and Famous” in the most random places. On a bar counter at a bar in a room full of five people or in a living room or whatever. It just grew into this thing and then more songs were written. So essentially Shasta was going to help me be cast in film and TV because she’s going to become a famous rapper. The music is really going to be good and people are gonna wanna listen to it. They’re going to say “Who is this? I want to cast her!”
TIM: How did Shasta get her name?
AJ: For one she’s has the 80’s/90s vibe, feel on some level. I have a thing for S-H names. I like “Sh-uhs” in names. You know, Shasta soda? I used to love that soda as a kid. I remember it being super colorful. You know, “soda” is also called “pop” and she makes fun of pop culture on some level. She is pop culture and also satire about pop culture so I was like “Oh! Shasta Goes Pop.” Then I was like “Go Pop… ‘go’ needs to be spelled G-E-A-U-X cause she’s from New Iberia, Louisiana, which brings in the whole French, Creole thing. Shasta’s a Leo. She was born August 17th. It was one of those “Ah-ha” moments mixed with some meditating and marinating on other ideas that brought together this name.
TIM: How did you get involved Charlotte?
CB: I left Europe when I got into grad school at Yale. After that I ended up coming back to New York to work. After several years Ayesha was like “ I want to make something with you.” She had been doing the Shasta character in clubs and at parties. I said, “Yeah, you should do something with this. This is awesome.” The time kind of came around and we created the show, Come See My Double Ds. Ayesha wanted to talk about her experiences dealing with divorce and the passing of her father, so the double Ds were death and divorce. We created it with our friends, composer/performer Justin Hicks and lighting designer Tuçe Yasak who both worked on Shasta Geaux Pop. We were like, “Okay, let’s do another,” and Ayesha had been talking to Noel [Allain] at Bushwick Starr and he said “Yes, we’ll support you doing a Shasta show.” So we started on that.
TIM: Why do you think you two work so well together? What are some of the highlights of working on Shasta Geaux Pop?
AJ: For one, she’s a friend. Two, we come from a similar theatre-making background and I think our aesthetics fall in line with each other. Our history and our friendship plays a part as well as both of our extended networks and the way they come together. She brought Justin [Hicks]. This is where our personalities are different but this is what I need… She’s one of those people who, if she knows what she wants, is very specific about it, knows how to address it, and make something happen. Me? I can be a little less decisive and she helps focus me. She helps me make a decision which I think is the scary part, sometimes, of creating something. She tells me “Make this decision. It doesn’t have be final.” She helps keep the process moving forward. She likes gives us room to create. Justin and I would create music and our other collaborators, Akhmose [Ari] and [DJ Avg] Jo, who’s the DJ, we would all work together, work on the material, work on the music then Charlotte would come in later and share some ideas. We would talk about what we could do with this or what we could do with that or how we could expand a moment. She gives me room to create, comes in, and helps shape things. She brings form and inserts other ideas that expands and clarifies themes. You could say that our script is a bunch of songs but our collaboration created the meat in between and the order and flow of the evening. It worked similarly with Come See My Double Ds except Come See My Double Ds wasn’t as music heavy as Shasta. The interaction was very different in that show. I feel like she helped shape me. She’s my sculptor.
CB: It’s such an awesome team. Justin, Tuçe and Ayesha are a group of my artistic loves. It’s great to work with them. At Under the Radar, we also added DJ Avg Jo as well as Rucyl Mills. Rucyl is awesome. She helped us with Shasta’s online media presence. It’s a group of folks I love to work with. They’re also artists I’m working with on several other projects. It’s such a pleasure when you’re able to express yourself artistically with people you love and who love you. You’re in these spaces of creativity where you’re dealing with subjects you all care about deeply, but you’re also laughing a lot, having fun and creating really exciting work.
TIM: What were some of the challenges of creating Shasta?
AJ: We asked a lot of questions like “Ok… Well does this show need to have some sort of linear thing? Does it need to be a specific event happening or is it just going to be a concert?” I think the challenge initially was figuring that out. We had so many different ideas that totally got pushed away. We were like “Maybe she went off to some monastery and had to go find herself.” So the show was about her like rediscovering herself and now it’s her big comeback. That didn’t make it. So I think initially it was about what is this and what does it need to be about and what experience do people need to have. We thought, “Well, you know, let’s just make it a party! Ok, welcoming people into the space… Ok, well how do we make this a party that is more than just singing songs as an actor?” We explored the questions like that. Other big questions for us were “What do we do in between the songs to help shape it?” and “How make it a more active experience?” We wanted to make it more than just me singing to you.
CB: Money, space, and time. Everybody wants more of those things. I don’t think there’s any artist that’s like “No, no, no, I don’t need the money.” (Laughter) Those would be great things to have more access to. I think we’ve been really lucky both with Bushwick Starr and Under the Radar. They’ve both really supported the work and us as artists. I hope we can continue to find other avenues that support this kind of collaborative work.
TIM: Are there future plans for Shasta? How do you want to see Shasta grow?
CB: We’re in conversation with different venues who want to tour in the U.S. and internationally. I would love us to not only tour the version that we did but have a developmental period that allows us to continue to expand the work and the world of Shasta.
AJ: I want to see the brand of “Shasta Geaux Pop” grow. I want to make more music. I want to get the music out there. I would love for the show to tour, to be further developed, and be something that can change. We’re working on creating a web series. Of course, there is a lot of work that needs to go into that but we shot the “Shasta Geaux Pop for President” videos. I think with this whole presidential bullshit… I think it’s a good time for Shasta. I’ve had four years to play with it. Oooh the things I could do in four years with “Shasta Geaux Pop for President”.
TIM: What are you working on right now?
CB: I’m working on a film that’s tracing my family through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. I did an Ancestry.com test and found out that I have a connection to the Togo/Benin area. I’ve be shooting in Barbados and I’ll continue to shoot in England and hopefully in Togo and Benin eventually. It’s a very personal project. I would also love to work in film and television. Shows like “Atlanta,” “Insecure,” “Queen Sugar,” and movies like Get Out are incredibly unique. It’s an exciting time to be working around all of that. I’ve also had the pleasure of years of working with incredible musicians. I recently did a project called, Can I Get A Witness?: The Gospel of James Baldwin, a collaboration with Meshell Ndegeocello based on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and at the moment I’m working on a project called “House or Home” with long time collaborator Justin Hicks; and a project called Bee Boy with Guillermo E. Brown [aka Pegasus Warning]. That project is in development at MIT this spring. All these projects involve me working collaboratively with artists I love and with elements I love—music, text, visual art and film/video. I want to continue to do more work in this direction.
AJ: In terms of Ayesha, as an artist, I just have so many random ideas I have to pare down some things. I work as an artist for hire. I’m also an actor. I’m on the audition circuit. I was just in San Francisco doing “Eclipsed” [directed by Liesl Tommy] at the Curran. I want to continue collaborating because I really love our crew of collaborators. I think we have something really strong and powerful that we need to keep working and harvesting. We have so many golden nuggets. Justin Hicks, he did the music, most of the music, for “Shasta.” He’s so incredible and the work he’s making on his own is incredible. I want us all to just keep working together and making stuff together.
[Edited for length and clarity.]