MARK LOWRY | Contributing Writer
Georgia-born writer Shay Youngblood grew up with what you might call an alternative family: Eight mothers. Make that at least eight.
Her birth mother died when she was 2 years old, and she lived with her great-grandmother and great-aunt, with other relatives and friends in the housing projects raising her. Perhaps that’s why she has never done things via the usual route.
For instance, when she wrote her first play in the mid-’80s — it became Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery, which Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre is currently producing she hand wrote it and sent it to her favorite actress in Atlanta, who agreed to be in it should it ever get produced. With that encouragement, she walked the manuscript directly to the artistic director of the Horizon Theatre Company.
“I didn’t know much about theater,” Youngblood says. “I didn’t know that if you have 21 characters in your play, it won’t likely get done.”
But she persisted, and a few years later, a dramaturg read it and saw something there. The show was reworked through collaboration with the director and ensemble. For about two decades, it has been produced around the country.
It’s based on Youngblood’s collection The Big Mama Stories, which she wrote while living in France. The stories are about the women who raised her. In the play, Youngblood is presented simply as “Daughter,” a girl on the cusp of womanhood, who time-jumps to tell of her experiences with the mothers. One of the characters in the play is a woman who lived with another woman, and Youngblood, who is gay, makes it clear that even in the ’60s in the South, she didn’t consider her upbringing out of the ordinary.
“They taught me to be my own woman and independent,” she says, “but also to be aware that the outside world can be really harsh.”
That was a lesson she learned in eighth grade, when she made the decision to become a writer. After seeing a TV news report about Howard Hughes spending an ungodly amount of money on a hotel suite in Las Vegas, it changed her world view.
“I didn’t understand how someone could spend that much money on something that seemed to me as frivolous as a hotel room when I knew people whose lights would sometimes get cut off,” she says. “In that moment I realized there was a lot of injustice in the world and I was really angry ab
out it, and I wrote a poem about it. And I felt better. I realized the power of the word.”
It led her study at Brown with playwright Paula Vogel, teach at New York University, live and work in Haiti and Spain and travel the world, never expecting that she would move to Texas. Then three years ago, she got a job at Texas A&M. She now lives in Denton with the woman she married in Iowa City last year (she declined to divulge her wife’s name for professional reasons).
Youngblood’s novels include Black Girl in Paris, and she has lately been focusing on storytelling through painting. In March, she’s taking a five-month tour of Japan, where she’ll interview architects for a novel she’s writing about architecture and memory, set between Japan and Hawaii. For this, she received a grant from the Japan-United States Friendship Commission.
But wherever she goes, she takes the memory of her mothers who are all dead now with her.
“It’s a real gift to me each time this play is performed,” she says, “because it allows me to see my big mamas come to life again.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 11, 2011.