Little Rock, Arkansas’ Shaneisha Dodson tackles complex issues through theatre

At one point in her life, she wished for some sort of guideline, an instruction manual of sorts, on how to have discussions around difficult topics. She grew up in a culture of silence where it just wasn’t talked about. The issues are swept under the rug. They become the elephant in the room. Create tension. She suffers in silence. It doesn’t mean that they go away, however. In fact, they stay and linger, building a home within her.

These are the experiences of some of the characters in the Black Girlz Productions’ play I’ll Be Single Before I Settle. And these are the everyday realities of young women all around the world.

BGP_2

Shaneisha Dodson, psychologist and all around natural helper, founded Black Girlz Productions (BGP) in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2012. BGP creates educational tools such as stage plays, webisodes and various learning content accessible for the community. There is a specific focus on young women of colour and topics of relationships, forgiveness, domestic violence and abuse, to name few, are covered. Realizing the urgent need to have places to be able to engage in dialogue around these topics, BGP provides a platform to begin to unpack the complexity and layers of these issues. It also creates a safe space for folks to come where they can relate and begin to heal.

For Dodson, BGP is more than just writing and performing plays, it embodies the everyday work she does in the community – supporting people around the different issues they deal with that range from molestation and domestic violence to unhealthy relationships, among others. “My passion comes from just the people in my inner circle,” she explains. “Because people talk to you about different things that they’re going through. You want people to know they’re not the only person that are dealing with these issues. I think this is a good platform to kind of help people realize they are not alone.”

“My passion comes from just the people in my inner circle. Because people talk to you about different things that they’re going through. You want people to know they’re not the only person that are dealing with these issues.

What makes BGP stand out in its own unique way from other initiatives that speak on similar topics is its raw and honest approach. The production house tells true stories. There aren’t always fairy tale endings, especially when trauma and tragedy are involved. The aim is realism.

BGP’s I’ll Be Single Before I Settle, which debuted at the end of February, takes an in-depth look at the lives of four young women who met in college. One of the characters appears to have it all together, while hiding a secret from her best friends – she’s HIV positive. Another character refuses to let her girlfriends meet her boyfriend of seven years. Finally she does, and they absolutely adore him. What is invisible to them at first though, is his abusive side. The patterns of mistreatment eventually surface – when she’s six months pregnant and he beats her severely.

These narratives explore the reality of how things can seem to be perfect on the exterior, when they are far from it behind closed doors. Today’s social networks have become a perfect place for many to create fairy tale fantasies to mask what’s really going on. “A lot of times people talk about their relationships on social networks like Facebook, for example. People post stuff like ‘oh my relationship is perfect.’ ‘I love my spouse so much and my spouse bought me expensive gifts,’ Dodson explains. “Writing the play, there’s people that I know personally, first hand, that are dealing with a lot of these same issues [within their relationships]. But if you don’t know them and you just look at the social networking sites, you’d think they have it all together.”

“I’ve had people talk to me about domestic violence within their relationships. They reaching out asking, ‘can I learn more about it?’ ‘Can you bring this to my city?’ ‘I’m dealing with this issue.’ ‘I have a friend or a sister or a cousin who’s dealing with these same issues.’”

Because issues like domestic violence, abuse and HIV/AIDS are so often seen as taboo within racialized/marginalized communities, it is often challenging for women of colour to seek support from mental health providers, due to the stigma of being labelled ‘crazy’. The work Dodson and BGP bares testament to the importance of alterative spaces for supporting and fostering healing.

“An older lady was like ‘I really wish you could turn this into a movie because I’m dealing with this right now, at my age I refuse to settle so I’m gonna be single until the right one comes along,’” shares Dodson. “I’ve had people talk to me about domestic violence within their relationships. They reaching out asking, ‘can I learn more about it?’ ‘Can you bring this to my city?’ ‘I’m dealing with this issue.’ ‘I have a friend or a sister or a cousin who’s dealing with these same issues.’”

BGP is a source of fulfillment for Dodson. A proud moment for her is witnessing the ways in which her community has evolved. Being able to learn from one another and share stories has made individuals stronger, bigger and better – one of the biggest rewards, as she describes it. Dodson is also excited for what’s in the future of BGP: taking I’ll Be Single Before I Settle on the road in July to Dallas Texas, a talk show that highlights African-American women in a positive light, a new web series in the works called “Naomi Sky” and getting more involved with the Black Lives Matter movement. “We just wanna see success,” she says. “We wanna see our message just go nationwide, international level. We want everybody to know about Black Girlz Productions. And all the positive work that we are planning to do in our community.”

Words By. Shellie Green (@ShellieLovee)

Photo Courtesy Of. Black Girlz Productions