The Artist Formerly Known As: Zelle Bonney

Zelle Bonney is the writer, director and star of the upcoming production of Revelations, which will be showing at the Studio Theatre in the Adams Memorial Theatre at 7 and 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. The co-chair of Timeline Productions, Bonney has performed in St. Joan of the Stockyard, This is Why I Sing, The Trojan Women and the Black Student Union Martin Luther King celebration, as well as senior seminar productions by Rachel Watts and Curtis Morungi. She is a theatre major, a storyteller and dancer in Kusika, and a member of the BSU.

It’s interesting to get a view, after just interviewing Mike [Izquierdo], and after hearing him talk about all this Cap & Bells and theatre stuff, and I guess now you’re talking about a different side of Williams theater.

It’s a completely different side because some students feel as though the Theatre department doesn’t do a lot, or doesn’t have a lot of roles for, minorities. I know that the only role that I was called in for – what was her name? Tina? She was working in the Theatre department. She called me once – this was when they were doing A Streetcar Named Desire – she called me and she was just like, “Zelle, we have a role for you. Everyone’s been mentioning your name for this role that came up, so I decided to go ahead and call you and ask you to please come in.” And I was just like, “Oh my God, I don’t even have to audition anymore!” (laughs) Because my name was up there and I was that good.

So I went, and it was the no-name role of the “Negro woman,” and basically what I had to do was just sit on a step and laugh really loud, and just say some really trite and mundane things that were stereotypical of black women of the time period. And I went in, and I did the role, and everyone laughed, and they thought that I did a really great “city, urban, black-woman-on-the-stoop,” but after that day I went up to her and I told her that this was not what I expected and I definitely cannot play this role as an actress. So after that, it was kind of a weird situation. We talked about it, and they got someone else to do it who was Jamaican. I went to the production, and when she did it, it wasn’t as bad, but I knew what she was going for and I don’t think she got that from that actress. It was something that I couldn’t put on stage at that time.

Is Timeline a reaction to a feeling that that sort of thing is common in the Theatre department here?

Yes, I think that Timeline is definitely a reaction from that, and we’re trying to do plays that minorities are really interested in. If you saw our last play, it was sort of a gospel, and we had a lot of students come out and audition. We had a lot of black students come and say they wanted to do lights, they wanted to learn how to do sound, and they really wanted to be active participants in this. So we put it up, and now we have it, and we’re actually going to be doing something later in the semester.

Jerome and Jamila [co-founders of Timeline] are gone, so now I have to direct a show, and it’s going to be a series of one-acts that we’re going to put together. Hopefully we’ll make it last, and make it an established part of the Williams community, just like Cap & Bells. And it’s definitely a reaction to that because we feel as though there aren’t any roles for us in the Theatre Department, and they don’t really do any plays where we can be seen, or we can shine.

Do you feel any concerns about the lack of integration, that the theater community is being divided on racial lines? Maybe I could ask it this way: in a perfect world, would you have Cap & Bells be doing the productions that Timeline is putting up?

Yeah, it would be nice if it was one organization that did plays where minorities felt like they could definitely shine, and have roles with actors and actresses, and they didn’t have to just be the “black guy on the side” or the “Negro woman” like I was supposed to be in A Streetcar Named Desire. I think even in The Trojan Women I was Athena, and that was not racial, it wasn’t really typecast, it was just, “OK, she can play this role, she can really do that.”

For a lot of black students, doing a Greek tragedy, that may not speak to them. But doing a play about homelessness, doing a play like I’m doing that’s about violence, that’s about the objectification of the black woman, that has a message, and it’s something that’s pertinent to us. And at Williams College, when you have such a heavy course load, there has to be a point to something that you do. And you don’t just do it for the art, especially if you’re not an artsy student. But if it has a message, and if it has a point to it, then you’re more invested in the project. And I think a lot of people would be more invested in it.

Now they’re doing a project called Muddy Mouths in the Theatre department, and it’s about the white woman in the South who drowned her two children and blamed it on a black man. And so minorities have heard about this, so a lot of them are coming out and auditioning for this because this is of interest to them, and they feel as though they can have roles.

Tell me something about Revelations, what you feel comfortable with.

Well, I want the audience to be surprised with Revelations. It’s about a one-hour piece, an intense drama, and like I said earlier, it’s about violence and about the objectification of the black woman. It’s looking at the victims, as well as the perpetrator’s point of view, when we look at violence, and it’s talking about hate crimes, it’s talking about military takeovers and coup d’etats in Africa, and it’s also talking about black-on-black violence. It’s a series of small monologues and acts, and it’s movement as well as monologue. I choreographed it, directed it, wrote it, did the sound score. Deb helped me with the costumes, but it’s my baby, it’s my project, and I hope the audience enjoys it.

What was the process of creating the show? How did you go about it?

It started off about relationships. I had to propose what I wanted to do for my African-American senior project to Professor Wilder, and I told him that I wanted it to look at relationships, but through both personal and collective history, which sounds kind of complicated and which may not make that much sense. But I wanted to talk about what sort of advice parents give their kids, how people really act in relationships.

Dean Lee said…when you’re talking to someone, it’s not just you and that person talking. It’s about eight other people – your grandmother’s there, your father’s there, everyone is speaking through you to that person. And that’s what I was trying to get on stage. And then I was talking to my father, and he just said that most women, all they do is talk about love, love, love, love, love. My dad was just like, you all need to say something sometimes, instead of always being concerned about relationships and love.

[My father and I] watched a documentary on Sierra Leone, and it was talking about the war that’s been going on there, which is showing how many people have been killed, and the tragedies. My dad is from Togo, West Africa, and there was just a military takeover…where my aunt lives, and her car was stolen, she had just bought a new Mercedes, and she could have been raped and killed. This was over Christmas break, and I felt like I needed to say something. So after seeing that documentary and after hearing about my aunt – and my father is presently exiled from his country…because he’s a musician and he writes music against the Togolese government, because the dictator of Togo has been the longest-running dictator in Africa, for about 35 or 36 years.

So I decided that I needed to say something, instead of talking about love and relationships, which isn’t really that important, and which sometimes pulls our focus away from broader and bigger issues that are at stake and at hand. And so that’s why I decided to write the first piece about violence. The second piece, I was listening to the radio, and some of the things that my little brother says he repeats – he just regurgitates everything that he hears. And a lot of R&B [or] hip hop songs completely objectify the black woman, and I think that women in general have lost themselves, whether it is in rap videos or in rock videos, and I wanted to speak on that. These two things are basically the concerns that I have at the moment, and I wanted to put that on stage so people can think about it and see how I see these problems.

And so in a sense, all of these things are connected to me, and I think they’re also connected to the audience, and that’s what I’m trying to convey, though you may not know what’s going on in Sierra Leone, or Togo…this is something which should affect you in a sense, like what it actually happening to these people. And the day that I knew that I had to do this piece on violence was when I was watching a television show, and they were talking about how many people had been killed in a war in some African country. And the statistic was, he was just like, “it’s been so many people that have been killed in the last month. 180 people.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s not a lot!” And that’s when I was like, “Wait a minute! I can’t believe I’m so desensitized to what’s happening to these people.” And that’s when I was like, “I’ve got to say something about this.” And that’s another reason why I wrote the piece.

What about the future?

I don’t want to sound like Madonna, like, “I’m going to be world famous,” but that’s definitely where I want to be. I’m giving myself about six years to be in a major motion picture. I’m going to move to New York, hopefully, once I graduate. I’m speaking with alums, now, and getting my resume out. I want to work with a film production company or a television network, and then start auditioning once I get used to New York and feel out the whole vibe, and hopefully, in six or seven years I should be in a major motion picture. I definitely believe that it’s going to happen. My brother, he wants to make it in the music industry – I remember one day we were talking, and I said, “Well if I make it…” And he said, “No – when you make it.” And I was like, “Oh, yeah! That’s right!” (laughs) So now I always say, “When I make it,” and I have that confidence, and I think if you do have that confidence and if you believe in yourself, and if you have that focus and that drive, then you can do it. So you’ll see me.