Black Mary: Interview with Theater Founder Shaunda Miles McDill

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Black Mary
“Black Mary” is a new play by the DEMASKUS Theater Collective in association with Post Theatrical about the life of Mary Fields, the first black woman to serve as a postal worker.



“Black Mary” is a new play by the DEMASKUS Theater Collective in association with Post Theatrical about the life of Mary Fields, the first black woman to serve as a postal worker. The online event will take place on Juneteenth weekend, between June 17 and June 19. The event will be presented online. The DEMASKUS Theater Collective is based in Pittsburg and they are proud to partner with Post Theatrical which is an international festival of plays. Although virtual, “Black Mary” is nonetheless an interactive theater experience.

To write this show, the creators had to research the life of Mary Fields who was born in 1832 and died in 1914. As the first African American female United States Star Route mail carrier, Mary was a trailblazer who, even at age sixty, endured Montana’s rocky terrain and volatile weather to deliver mail—a profession which she continued for eight years, well into seniority during an era where few people lived to see 70.

Shaunda Miles McDill who founded DEMASKUS in 2006, was moved by Mary’s life story and felt a personal connection to her story. She recently discussed her work on this project via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in theater and how did you break into the industry?

Shaunda Miles McDill (SMM): My first job at the age of 14 was with the American Red Cross as a peer educator on Long Island.  My mother was avoiding teaching me about the “birds and the bees” and I was gainfully employed – so she was happy. We would teach our peers about HIV/AIDS and utilize theater to educate during the epidemic in the 90s. People would often come up to me following an event to discuss my experience with date rape, or some other scene I had acted out.  The stories were real, they just were not all my own.  It was the moment that I realized the importance and power of theater to change lives by making people feel seen and heard, building community, moving people in a moment or viewing life from a different perspective. In terms of the industry, I have had the opportunity to work at various theaters across the nation and every member of the Collective has an extensive list of work they have done in various genres and with a myriad of companies. I am not sure I feel like I have “broken in.” When DEMASKUS has traversed from pages to stage to film like Shange’s “for colored girls,” or has national tours and a hit holiday show like Je’Caryous Johnson, when we have a body of work like Wilson’s century cycle, a studio like Perry or I turn on and see our work streaming, maybe I will feel like we have “broken in.” Until then, we continue to serve through our work, and tell stories that we think people need to hear. We just continue to do the work, individually and as a Collective.

MM: When did you first hear about Black Mary and why did you decide to make a play out of her life story?

SMM: When Molly and Rusty of RealTime Interventions first extended the invitation to DEMASKUS to participate in Post Theatrical, we began to think about our mission and how we might marry it to this unique opportunity. After discussing it with my husband, he immediately mentioned Mary Fields. His father had served as a postal worker for decades and we often attended the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees events. During many of these meetings historical information is shared, and it is where my husband first learned about Mary Fields. While Mary Fields is not always mentioned in historical documents and exhibitions, her story is extraordinary.  After he mentioned it, our team of producers for the project (Karla C. Payne and Charles E. Timbers Jr.) discussed it. We did some research and the project seemed to just fall into place.

MM: How much research into history did you do for this play and how long did it take to complete in total?

SMM: We are reading books, watching online productions and historic documentaries on the life of Mary Fields. We began in December of 2020.  We even had the opportunity to speak with author Miantae Metcalf McConnell who wrote Deliverance and was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine. Originally, we were going to use the title, “Deliverance,” given the play on words. But there is something beautiful about the way Black Mary rolled from our lips and celebrated the essence of who Mary Fields was. She was Black. We love that.

MM:
What were some of the most interesting and/or memorable aspects of Mary Fields life?

SMM: It is a testament to Mary Fields’ fortitude that she began her route in her 60s. This woman who was born into slavery, traveled to Montana and established a life that was so revered that her funeral was one of the most well-attended by both Black and White people. Her life brought people together through the mail and in the way she lived it. There is so much folklore surrounding her life, but we celebrate the fact that she was a land owner and registered to vote. There is so much we wish we knew, but staying alive, surviving, thriving, and becoming an entrepreneur are some of the most interesting and memorable things she did.

MM: Was it a challenge to tailor this for Zoom and how do you make that
interactive?

SMM: Part of the vision of Producer Karla Payne was not to try and tailor this experience for Zoom, but rather to air the event like a mini-series you’d binge watch — like Shonda Rhimes’ Bridgerton or any show on Netflix/Hulu/PrimeVideo. We hope to put together some great moments, have them expounded upon by an exceptional playwright and then give people an opportunity to watch how their personal journeys informed the final script/screenplay. Journal entries prompted by our actress (playing the character of Black Mary) will actually inform what people see during Juneteenth weekend. We never approached this all as a challenge, but rather as an opportunity to be creative and we think participants will find the work to be informative, interactive, and entertaining. Most importantly, we hope they find it to be a process that centers their healing during a tumultuous time in our world.

MM: You are mailing satchels to audience members, so how did you get the idea to do this and why did you include the specific things that you did?

SMM: We are so very excited about the satchels.  We were discussing what would make something like this appealing to us, and we know that box services are wildly popular.  People subscribe to monthly services for flowers, their pet food and toys, sorority and fraternity paraphernalia, wine.  So, we thought about what people might want to receive in the mail that would generate excitement and give people a tangible connection to this woman we were all getting to know. Many items were things that Fields would have had to carry along with her. Things that would sustain her and aid her on her journey.  Other items are contemporary and part of the experience but still give a hint to the time period. Some things we want to put in the satchel, like whiskey, are not permitted to be mailed. However, we certainly believe she would have had it for medicinal purposes as well as to stay warm and enjoy. We respect the rules of the postal service though! Participants will find some goodies, some things we hope aid in their healing and some items that will increase their knowledge about Mary Fields.

MM: What is some of the best feedback you’ve gotten about this piece thus far?

SMM: We have gotten great feedback on the selection of Mary Fields, since so many people do not know anything about her.  We have also been surprised by the great response and transparency around having a trained professional behind the scenes aiding people in their process of healing. That team will include The Reverend Dr. Leah C.K. Lewis, J.D.  Leah’s previous posts include sabbatical pastor, community organizer, elected official, and adjunct faculty at Cuyahoga County College and Georgia State University where she taught Intro to World Religions and African American Religious History. With degrees from Ashland Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, Howard University School of Law, and Bowling Green State University, Leah brings her whole being to every task she undertakes. I think our actors and team could have inspired people, but there is comfort in knowing that people will be receiving tried and true guidance along their journey from knowledgeable, compassionate and professional people.

MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes might you like to address in future works?

SMM: Currently, we are working on an adaptation of one of our Collective member’s books, Rhea the Great Detective and the Case of the Missing Mrs. Bearington. Dominique Briggs has written a brilliant story about a young girl whose daycare turns into her detective agency. Clues of shapes, colors and numbers help the children to crack the case while they learn about the importance of being their authentic selves and embracing difference. Our hope was to create a stage play, but due to COVID, we are now filming the production so that it can be shown virtually to nearly 90 early childhood classrooms in the Pittsburgh Public School system. Other partners are the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, Macedonia Church of Pittsburgh and Eps Patrice Johnson (Words with Wings Productions) and Tami Dixon (Bricolage Production Company). We are elated to be producing the Pittsburgh premiere of Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, an opera in one act by Missy Mazzoli with a libretto by Royce Vavrek and Mazzoli in collaboration with Kassia Ensemble and Amanda Van Story Lewis, who is also a Collective member. Amanda is a classically trained opera singer and will be the first and only Black woman to be featured in the lead role of that work in its history. In an effort to bring attention to wage inequity in opera as well as to acknowledge the numerous stage directors and composers who are overlooked for roles and are never produced by major opera houses, women will be producing every aspect of the opera, behind the scenes and on stage. We have a few other things in the hopper that we hope to
announce soon. However, these projects are keeping us quite busy and are extremely challenging as we strive to set new standards and create new norms, which make producing an even more challenging feat that it traditionally is.

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

SMM: I hope we will be financially free to continue to produce engaging and quality theatrical productions and presentations. To serve the field by providing artists an artistic home where we welcome failure as warmly as we welcome their achievements. We want the word marginalized to become obsolete. Equal pay for artists, and healthcare for them as well. Equity in grantmaking to organizations like our and others that are not “sacred,” in the eyes of those who hold the most wealth. We want to be supported beyond the current equity trends. We hope to learn more about the stories we too are overlooking, to contribute to a more civil and loving society. We want to assert the importance of the arts in the development of our communities and in the development of our nation and its citizenry. We hope to help others like our mentors have helped us. We want art to be a right and not a privilege, particularly for Black and Brown youth. We want to abolish oppression in every form and help people to live liberated lives. We think our art can do all of those things. “Black Mary” runs as part of RealTime Interventions Post Theatrical, a festival of works that use mail as a theatrical medium. In addition to “Black Mary,” the festival features works by a collective of 13 theater groups and over 50 artists originating in 8 cities across the globe. Running through June 30, 2021, POST THEATRICAL offers a diverse range of works that use the medium of mail in a broad range of ways.

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Tickets for “Black Mary” cost between $18.65 and $100 and can be purchased through Post Theatrical. The deadline for purchasing tickets for the mail engagement is April 1. Everyone who purchases a ticket will receive a satchel that includes period-specific survival items that mimic what Black Mary would have used on her journeys (maps, jerky, a flask, cigar, small Bible) as well as some contemporary pieces. For more information, please visit www.posttheatrical.org