Photo Credit - Abe Booker III

Cheryl L. West’s plays have been seen on Broadway (Play On!), Off-Broadway and in England as well as numerous regional theaters including: Minneapolis Children’s Theatre, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Seattle Rep Theatre, Arena Stage, Old Globe Theatre, The Goodman Theatre, Indiana Rep Theatre, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Bay Street Theatre Festival, Syracuse Stage, Cleveland Play House, South Coast Rep Theatre, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and off‐Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club, The Atlantic Theatre, Second Stage and Primary Stages. Her plays include: Shout Sister, Shout!, The Watsons Go To Birmingham, 1963, Fannie, Last Stop on Market Street, Akeelah and the Bee, Pullman Porter Blues, Motherhood Out Loud (co-author); Addie, American Girl Story (21-city tour); and Jar the Floor. She has written TV and film projects at Disney, Paramount, MTV Films, Showtime, TNT, HBO, CBS and is the Webby-nominated writer for the original web series Diary of a Single Mom.  Ms. West is currently working on commissions for Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Seattle Rep Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Chicago Children’s Theater, Minneapolis Children’s Theatre, Seattle Children’s Theatre and UC Santa Barbara’s LAUNCH PAD Program.

Inspiration

People often ask me how or why I became a writer. Two words—Willie and Lemmie! Mississippi-born Willie Hawkins (Pa), my great grandfather, and Lemmie Noy Hawkins, my grandmother, were both master storytellers and my two greatest writerly influences.

When you are the descendent of masterful griots like these two, it somehow becomes a foregone conclusion that you, too, {if lucky} will inherit the storyteller gene.

And, thankfully, I was blessed with the same skill set and desire – to keep our family’s legacy and oral traditions alive while telling stories that highlight the poetry in everyday life as expressed through southern vernacular. Actually, it was Pa’s, “Jar the Floor,” early morning command that prompted the title of my most successful play.

It was thought that my great-grandfather, born on a plantation in 1888, learned his story skills and cadence from his preacher dad. I can remember our bi-yearly family treks from Chicago to “home” in rural Mississippi where instead of four channels of TV shows, we “city folks” were treated to a different kind of entertainment via a man simply “telling tales,” a man who could theatrically hold court, usually after dinner and before his eight o’clock bedtime, often announcing the first tease of story time with the beginning sentence: “well now, you wanna story, I’ma tell you like this…”

And then he’d be off and running with some funny, fable-like tall tale. For example, there was the one tale about the well-dressed man at church who walked on all fours. According to Pa, the poor man had a hidden tail – a bushy one – his penance for his mother striking a dog while she carried the afflicted man in utero. Pa was so convincing or I, being an impressionable child, so believed him to the point that during the entire three-hour Sunday Service, I literally stared at the “dog man’s” behind trying to discern any imprint of a bushy tail or any kind of tail for that matter. Pa had other outlandish tall tales, all about the misfortunes and folly of man, all told with nary a curse word.

And then there was his daughter, my grandmother, who made cursing an art form. Dramatic and fearless, my grandmother was a curious sort who never met a stranger and thoroughly enjoyed talking to any and everybody. And whatever she heard she filtered through her wit and repurposed it for hilarious and ribald entertainment. A true storyteller.

Whereas Pa Hawkins rarely left his chair to tell a story, my grandmother preferred to brazenly act her stories out from beginning to end, holding her audience open-mouthed captive and on the edge of their seats. She knew how to work a room, how to initially hook an audience and keep them spellbound with a story colorfully alive and relatable.

Clearly, that’s what I’m still learning to do every time I craft a script, seizing the opportunity to facilitate community through story, always hoping to integrate and validate the lessons learned from those that came before. My intention always is to make Willie and Lemmie proud… Cheryl L. West

Lemmie
Willie