Interview: NaTasha Thompson discusses “Lavender Terrace,” a new multimedia interpretation of Marita Bonner’s “The Purple Flower”

Lavender Terrace is a multi-media performance that explores Marita Boner’s The Purple Flower, published in 1928. This new play tells the story of marginalized and oppressed people fighting for the right to have life at its fullest over the last eighty years in America. Lavender Terrace progresses through time, beginning in the late twenties and landing in an obscured but familiar representation of the present day.

NaTasha Thompson is a director, playwright, and North Carolina native. Much of her inspiration comes from her southern roots. She creates work that offers opportunity for productive discourse. As a result, underrepresented voices are amplified and education/awareness is increased. NaTasha holds an M.F.A in Directing from Carnegie Mellon University.

Check out our interview with NaTasha Thompson below!

Lavender Terrace premieres at the New Hazlett Theater on December 2, 8PM and December 3, 11AM and 8PM. Click here for tickets and additional information and read up on the New Hazlett Theater’s COVID policies before you attend.

David Bernabo: Hi NaTasha! To start, can you introduce yourself and the piece?

NaTasha Thompson: So my name is NaTasha Thompson. I am the director and playwright for Lavender Terrace. Lavender Terrace is inspired by a play written by Marita Bonner in 1928 called The Purple Flower. The goal for Lavender Terrace is to push her original allegory forward.

DB: Can you tell me a little bit about The Purple Flower and what inspired you to draw from the text?

NT: The Purple Flower, to me, is about Black life in America in the early 20s. Marita was commenting on the changes that were happening in America at the time. You’ve got the migration of Black people coming into the North to acquire better jobs, and at the same time, a lot of rioting happening, a lot of protesting happening. So when the opportunity came to create Lavender Terrace, it felt like the right material to be working on, especially with the protests that were happening last summer and that have been happening for years. It felt like good material to engage with.

DB: The Purple Flower is rather placeless and timeless, right? Are you setting the piece in a place and time?

NT: I’m going off of the period the play was published and produced in. So I’m looking at the late 20s, mid to late 20s to present day. Our goal is to walk through almost 100 years of time. It’s not a chronological 60s, 70s, 80s sort of walk, but just to capture the essence of what Black life has been from the mid to late 20s to present day.

DB: Lavender Terrace, where’s the title come from?

NT: So the original piece is The Purple Flower and the lavender portion is the play off of that. Lavender is the less saturated color. So we may not be as vibrant and as decadent as the original, but we’re still gonna have that essence of The Purple Flower. For Terrace, there was public housing — it wasn’t a project — in North Carolina called Washington Terrace that was renovated and has its own history. And there’s something about landing on that platform of the terrace that I’m playing with the title.

DB: Can you about how the multimedia aspects of the productions play into progressing that timeline?

NT: A lot of Lavender Terrace is about experimenting and using the material as sort of a foundation but also experimenting with different mediums. Projection is going to be used in the piece. We’re using music, we’re using poetry, we’re just using everything we have to tell this story.

DB: What draws you to those aspects that are not such a direct narrative?

NT: Just to experiment. When I walked into the piece, I was in school. I felt like it was an opportunity to use every resource that I had, just to see how those resources could contribute to narrative storytelling that’s not as linear.

DB: Do you think audiences engage on a different level when the delivery is abstracted in certain ways?

NT: There’s multiple avenues to engage with the work whenever you have multiple ways to tell the story. It’s like people who have different learning styles; it’s the same way I think about audience engagement. There are different ways to walk into the piece.

DB: Can you tell me a little bit about the different iterations of the piece leading up to the New Hazlett production? And will the New Hazlett piece be the premiere or is it a work in progress?

NT: The New Hazlett piece is the premiere of this third iteration. We are absolutely landing in a space that is based off of the prior iterations, though it should feel completely different from the prior iterations. We started out completely digitally, because we started during COVID, and we weren’t able to gather and to be together to create the work. So the first iteration is this digital representation of Marita’s stage directions. Then later on into the pandemic, we were able to gather-ish. So we started to experiment with movement without audience or without anyone to react immediately, but movement with one another, performers and co-collaborators. So, this iteration is a compilation of those things, that completely digital first iteration and the movement workshop that we did the second time around. We’re combining all of that, researching that material, and giving like, “here is the thing, maybe.”

DB: The communities that put together those first two iterations, are they Pittsburghers or do they live all over the country?

NT: Yes and yes. The performers were Pittsburgh natives for the second iteration. The first iteration was more of an interstate collaboration. The pandemic had just begun, and we were working with collaborators that I have in North Carolina as well as folks here in Pittsburgh.

DB: Then the histories that you’re weaving into the story, are they more national or specific to Pittsburgh histories?

NT: I would say it’s more national. Blackness isn’t monolithic, so it’s gonna be different even inside of Pittsburgh. Some of the characters that Marita originally wrote feel really close to home in North Carolina, and then there’s some characters that I feel are like, we know this person no matter where you are in the country. But it’s really gonna be what each collaborator brings to that character.

DB: Very cool. Are you carrying some of the characters through from the play?

NT: Yeah, there were like 30 characters that she wrote. I pulled three that either really resonated with me or really bothered me, just in their depiction, just as Black individuals. There were some characters that felt kind of trope-y in terms of depicting a type of Black person. So I’ve kind of poked at that a little bit in terms of how we see those characters in Lavender Terrace. We see them transform from where she left us to present day. We see the transformation of those characters. I’m excited to see how they turnout, because I’ve layered in my interpretation of those characters, but it’s a collaborative process. As the performers get a hold of the characters, I’m excited to see what they see inside of those characters.

DB: Can you talk more about the collaboration. You are overseeing this piece and it has all these components. How do you manage your expectations for the work with letting other people in and letting them transform things?

NT: I’m a collaborative artist just in general. I set the framework, the parameters, and then folks are welcome to come in and play and experiment. Again, it feels like it was born in a space of experimentation. So I like to leave a lot of room for that experimentation with collaborators even inside of the the framework that’s present. For me, the process is just you set up the border and then you let folks have at it and trust that their ability and their artistry will connect with the story that we’re trying to tell as a whole.

DB: I’d like to step back in time, and ask about how your interest for the theater evolve?

NT: I started out as a performer, performing through primary school. I didn’t see myself as a performer after undergrad, but I still had a passion for creating opportunities for others to perform, where history meets performance and how that network happens. So somewhere in undergrad , I jumped into director/playwright mode, and then carried on after undergrad and into graduate school. I love how theater works as an ecosystem, as a community for each project. I love being the supports around that. Again, the parameter. I love being a good border.

DB: For those early performances, were they formalized performances or more like backyard things?

NT: A little of both. We would create work for ourselves as children, and then — shout out to my mom — she was the parameter at that time. She was the producer or director at that time. So we would spark an idea, and then she was like, Okay, let’s move it onto a stage. That’s how that began early, early on. Then it became more formalized — we’re going to be trained and you’re going to work in a more professional setting. But yeah, we definitely started in the backyard, in the living room performing for each other and for the community.

DB: Then when you came to Pittsburgh for CMU, how did your ideas about what theater can achieve evolve during that time?

NT: It became less about performance and more about education. Again, encountering Marita’s work and understanding how important that history was — how do I now become a steward of translating that history so that more folks are able to absorb it? It became more of an artistic and educational practice, and I think they’re both still working hand in hand. I’m not a teacher in any way, shape, or form, but there’s more of an educational component to the work that I make for sure.

DB: Are there things that the CSA can provide that they offer that are beyond what you could achieve — that’s a leading question, but I think you know where I’m going.

NT: Yeah, no, I got you. Having support as you’re working is always more productive in a process. It allows you to explore more and dig deeper when you’re supported through a process. Trying to self-produce Lavender Terrace, there would have been so many more hurdles that administrative brain would have taken over and artistic brain couldn’t delve into the work. Having that sort of administrative support, but also having artistic support as well, is a nice coupling in order to produce the work.

Lavender Terrace premieres at the New Hazlett Theater on December 2, 8PM and December 3, 11AM and 8PM. Click here for tickets and additional information and read up on the New Hazlett Theater’s COVID policies before you attend.

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