Texas Tech University

Playwright AND Actor

Shawn Ward

October 11, 2019

Despite what some may think, seeing a playwright acting in her own work is a fairly common occurrence. For LyaNisha Gonzalez it's just "another day at the office."

I've been writing longer than I've been acting. The first play I remember seeing was Snow White at Radio City Music Hall. There's something magical to me about the theatre. I love to write, create, and sculpt my own world. As I got older and started acting more, I would run into oppositions in the casting room. I grew frustrated by not finding any roles that felt real. While at The Actor's Studio, Bob LuPone suggested I write my own performance thesis, which hadn't been done before in that program. Since then, I've felt like that's what I needed to do; to show what actors of different colors, sizes, and ages can do. Mainly to also leave something behind for other actors of color, black actors in particular. Something where they aren't relegated to being servants or stereotypes. I like to write about real people and situations.

LyaNisha's newest play, Black Girl, Interrupted, is inspired by true events. In 2005, Private First-Class LaVena Johnson died while serving in Iraq. The Department of Defense ruled her death a suicide, but autopsy reports revealed injuries that led to allegations of rape, murder, and a cover-up. As of today, her death is still listed as a suicide.

BGIBlack Girl, Interrupted, a fictionalized version of this event, is about a New York Times reporter Riley Jones investigating the suspicious death of United States Army Private First-Class Sasha Green. The story forces Riley to face her own personal demons.

As LyaNisha explains, "I have performed in all the plays I have written. It's important to me to do it, because I initially wrote the role [of Riley] for myself. [In Black Girl, Interrupted] I created a dramatically interesting character that pushes me in a direction I need to go as an actor. On the surface, she is straightforward, but there's a lot of nuance in there. So it's been really rewarding to be able to continue making discoveries with a character that is complete as a playwright, but she's not complete. I have to come in [as an actor] and fill in the rest of her, which requires a different level of discovery and creativity. I try to do that for all the characters I create so the actors and designers have enough to play with."

Black Girl, Interrupted received two awards from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF): Distinguished Achievement for the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, and runner-up for the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award. Now that the play is finally in production, Gonzalez is getting to see her work come to life.

I need to let everyone know that this cast is amazing. Jesse Jou is directing and I'm so excited he agreed to do it. I'm excited for the work that we are doing. New discoveries are being made in the rehearsal that are even new to me. It's important to let other people come in and do their work on it. It's rewarding to me. That's why I like acting in my plays. We're all relating to it in different ways. It's just a beautiful experience to trust other people with the work and see what they reveal and discover, which adds to the world that I created.

This is the play I'm the most proud of. The moment I finished it, it felt different. I can't explain why, but it just felt like I said everything I wanted to say and that it was important in a way my other plays haven't been. This is really talking about the intersection of violence, gender, and race in a way that I am really proud to tell.

LyaNisha Gonzalez is a fourth year Ph.D. student focusing on playwriting and arts administration. A New Jersey native, LyaNisha studied at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia for her undergraduate degree, then received a Master of Fine Arts in Acting from the Actor's Studio Drama School in New York City. She returned to Spelman College as a professor and taught for four years before enrolling at Texas Tech.

She stars in her newest play, Black Girl, Interrupted, which runs October 24th to 27th and October 31st to November 3rd in the Maedgen Theatre.