Revered spoken-word poet Staceyann Chin wants to change the world, and she is not alone. Cynthia Nixon and Rosie O'Donnell do, too.
The three have teamed up to bring to life Chin's latest one-woman show MotherStruck!, currently running at the Lynn Redgrave Theater through Jan. 29. Nixon directs the vibrant and visceral tale of Chin's journey to and navigation through parenthood. O'Donnell (along with Culture Project and Robert Dragotta) produces the show.
The combination of Chin's masterful use of language and dynamic presence on-stage marked her as a titan of spoken-word since her early days performing at the Newyorican Poets Cafe. Her work is well-loved for proudly lending a poetic voice to lesbians and women of color. MotherStruck! follows Chin through her early life in Jamaica, her move to Brooklyn, her struggles with in vitro fertilization, her difficult pregnancy and the many ways the arrival of her daughter changed her world.
Both Nixon and O'Donnell first saw Chin perform in Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway which ran from November 2002 to May 2003. A few years ago, Chin reached out to Nixon. Chin had been blogging about pregnancy, childbirth and the beginnings of single-lesbian-motherhood for The Huffington Post and wanted to turn what she'd written into an evening. From there, Nixon approached O'Donnell, who had read Chin's book The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir and had her as a guest on her Sirius XM Radio show, Rosie Radio, in 2010. "I think, really, to date, this is the most universal tale I've written, because everyone has a mother. Everyone has a desire. Everyone has to reexamine how they were raised," Chin says of MotherStruck!. She traces her theatrical instincts to her difficult childhood in Jamaica. "I was ignored as a kid," she says. "When you don't have a mommy and a daddy doting on you all the time, you pretty much are saying to everybody all the time 'Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!' So, I don't think I've been shy ever. I've always been trying to get other people's mothers to look at me."
Nixon and O'Donnell share with Chin a pull towards the performing arts. Nixon won an Emmy in 2004 for her work on Sex and the City and a Tony Award in 2006 for her performance in David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole. O'Donnell hosted the beloved daytime talk show The Rosie O'Donnell Show from 1996-2002 and is known for Sleepless in Seattle, A League of Their Own, and many other films.
Chin, Nixon, and O'Donnell also share the desire to make a difference. Each of them is an icon in LGBT activism, or, as O'Donnell describes it, someone who "tries to speak their truth in order to give honor to the voices that don't have access to a microphone." MotherStruck! is the result of the intersection between activism and art, an intersection Chin, Nixon, and O'Donnell embody.
O'Donnell remembers a particular moment when she understood that, by combining activism and art, she had been making an impact. She brought her youngest daughter to see The Lion King on Broadway, and some of the performers approached her. "Most of them stopped and said [something like], 'I want to tell you that I was seven years old, and I was in Oklahoma, and the first time I ever saw a Broadway show was on your TV show, and that's the reason I'm here.' And after the eight or ninth guy from the cast did that," O'Donnell says, "I started crying. And my daughter said, 'Why are you sad, Mommy?' and I said, 'I'm not sad. I'm happy.' I'm happy that somehow my love for theatre was able to fertilize the soil enough to grow a new garden of performers."
Nixon recalls a similar a-ha moment. "It was really the moment when we all realized that Sex and the City was having a much bigger impact than we ever could have imagined, which was when they put us on the cover of Time Magazine with the headline 'Who Needs a Husband?'" Nixon says, laughing. "I think there are a lot of ways to change the world, and you can change the world through activism, and you can also change the world through art. And television can be art. Even wildly popular television can still be art."
When it comes to MotherStruck! Chin says it's about visibility. "These stories are not told enough," she says. "Our stories. Women of color, lesbians, and [people who] have no money, and people who see things maybe differently than how they're presented in the mainstream."
Chin makes the evolution of her relationship with art and activism clear. "I mean, I think that I was an activist first," she says. "And then I became an artist, a person who used art. So, I stepped into art because I wanted to pick a tool that would be effective in my agenda as an activist. And then when I had 'the kid,' I realized that now my activism meant something very specific." She affectionately refers to her daughter Zuri as "the kid" both in the show and in life. Many have gotten to know Zuri, a precocious four-year-old, through Chin's ongoing series of "Living Room Protest" videos on YouTube in which mother and daughter demonstrate from their home in Brooklyn about issues ranging from police brutality to personal space to not wanting to go to bed.
"I wasn't fighting for this arbitrary future [anymore]," says Chin. "I was fighting for the future of this kid for whom I wanted so badly a beautiful future. And so now I know why I want the world to be better to girls. I know why I want the world to be better to people of color. I know why I want the world to be less sexist. I know why I want the world to be good. I want the world to be good for Zuri. It's a very specific reason. It's very different from, 'Oh, I want girls generations from now to be better.' Now I have a face and a heart and hands and a belly that I want to be better, to see the world and experience the world better. It underscores my commitment."
Parenthood as a theme looms large in MotherStruck! In fact, turning Chin's story into performance felt organic to Nixon. "Actors are communicators. That's what they are. And so we're good at that, and we like it, and we want to get better at it all the time. And I think that that's what a parent is, really. Because a parent is really a teacher. That's all a parent is. A teacher who loves you."
"Childhood marks you forever," Chin declares in her show. "Those of us who are in charge of children, we have a rather weighted, important critical task. You know?" Chin explains. "We have to be good to them. We have to give them the tools to survive the other hard things that will become harder when they are adults. We have to take care of them. We have to love them. We have to give them room to f**k up and fail and fly."
At the talkback after the Jan. 13 performance, Chin sat between O'Donnell and Nixon. She rattled off beautiful turns of phrase such as "You have to surround yourself with people who think you are beautiful," and "Love is largely a discipline." Nixon and O'Donnell chimed in as well, visibly proud of Chin and of the show that had just impacted the audience in front of them. When asked what she wanted from being in theatre, Chin took a second. "I want to tell stories," she said, "and I want to tell stories that echo the stories of the other people in the room. I want to find a point at which we become more similar than different."