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Essay

The American Voice: Theater of the Neo-Soul

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Album cover for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

By Lizzie Stern, Literary Associate

December 6, 2018

In 1998, 15 years before Beyoncé released her song “Pretty Hurts,” Lauryn Hill dropped her legendary record The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Rich with vulnerability and hard-won lessons, this album spoke urgently to Hill’s community, rocked the music industry, and inspired the work of an infinite number of intrepid Black female artists. And on a road in Raleigh, tucked into the backseat of her mother’s peach Volvo on the way to school, nine-year-old Tori Sampson was listening. 

“I was extremely attracted to hearing a Black woman speak her truth through storytelling.”

Tori Sampson

At that age, Tori had never been to the theater and had no idea she would become a playwright. But she did already have an innate understanding of the art that spoke to her. She told me, when she heard Hill’s song “To Zion”  for the first time, “I was emotionally stunned by the melodic reality she shared with the world. She bellowed out self-assuredness, and I was extremely attracted to hearing a Black woman speak her truth through storytelling.”

Hip-hop evolved in the South Bronx in the 1970s — a grassroots response to systemic oppression and displacement (specifically, the construction of the South Bronx highway and cutbacks in federal aid at the end of LBJ’s Great Society era). As academics Layli Phillips, Kerri Reddick-Morgan, and Dionne Patricia Stephens note in their 2005 essay, “Oppositional Consciousness Within an Oppositional Realm: The Case of Feminism and Womanism in Rap and Hip-Hop 1976-2004,” hip-hop was a space where Black women could hold power and “speak to each other about…recurring issues in the larger sociopolitical domain.” But even as women such as Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, and MC Lyte powerfully took the floor, the same scholars argue that “the public face of both hip-hop and rap is masculine.” 

At the same time, hip-hop, and Hill in particular, paved the way for the genre neo-soul, which had a more inclusive and arguably more feminist pool of influence. The genre is helmed, in large part, by women: Hill, Erykah Badu, India.Arie, and Alicia Keys, to name a few. As historian Sarah Fila-Bakabadio puts it in her 2014 essay “Pick Your Afro Daddy: Neo Soul and the Making of Diasporan Identities,” neo-soul built a new sound that contains “the histories and cultures of African Americans, Africans, and other Black communities worldwide… It is timeless and borderless. It encompasses local and community practices, revives past practices and opens to future intertwining.” It is this kind of intersectional and inclusive work, rooted in the strength and vision of Black women, that most powerfully informs Tori Sampson’s dramaturgy. She is, in a sense, a neo-soul playwright. 

“Your voice is the future of the American Theater.”

Tori was a 22-year-old Sociology major when she saw her first play: Fences by August Wilson, at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. “It was a Black story with a white audience, and it was universal. I felt my body levitate,” she told me. The actors bowed and the audience went home, but Tori could not leave her seat. An usher had to escort her out. Until that evening, Tori’s perception of the American theater had been shaped by a general knowledge of Broadway (the “Great White Way”), and now suddenly she was realizing that, in fact, the theater might be a space where she could creatively explore her investment in society. And so Tori started writing a play — a secret that she kept from her family while applying for a PhD in Sociology at Stanford. She finally outed herself to a family friend, who is a playwright and who offered to read what she’d written. The friend called her one day: “You’d better be sitting down for what I’m about to tell you. Your voice is the future of the American Theater.” Tori started her MFA at the Yale School of Drama the next fall. 

At Yale, Tori began to encounter the Western theater canon — Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Bertolt Brecht — and found herself grappling with its limitations: namely, that it was made up almost entirely of white men. As she steeped herself in their work, she homed her focus in on Brecht. “Why is he so didactic?” she sighed to me. “But if you ignore everything you don’t like, you’ll stay in a box. If you learn him, you can break him.” Tori came to recognize in Brecht a shared impulse to illuminate and repair social ills. As Brecht argues in his essay “On Chinese Acting,” “It seems possible and necessary to rebuild society. All events in the human realm are being examined. Everything must be seen from the social standpoint.” He accomplished this through the technique of “alienation,” which distances an audience from the events of the play by emphasizing its fictionality, so that spectators can reflect on themselves more deeply, and leave the theater motivated to take action against injustice. 

We can find a similar sociological mission in Tori’s play Cadillac Crew, which will premiere at Yale Rep in the spring of 2019. Cadillac Crew intelligently and compassionately charts the journey of four female activists in Virginia during the Civil Rights movement — rigorously exploring the strength and hardship of grassroots mobilization, and shedding cold light on the ways that history tends to forget its bravest leaders when they are Black women. Meanwhile, If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka embraces the theatrical vocabulary of Brecht’s technique by never letting us forget it is a play: it is textured with direct address and highly theatrical moments of obvious fictionality, which engender a distanced self-reflection within its audience. 

This dramatic convention is just one of many threaded throughout If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka. The play is a vast universe — as uncategorizable and borderless as the diaspora itself. Its structure is the reconciliation of seeming opposites: a broad-strokes, moralistic fable set in a rural town with a contemporary edge, and a human, intimate portrait of the pains of one individual woman. Set at the intersection of “Affreakuh-Amirrorkuh,” the play is a crossroads of Africa and America, of the real and the fantastical, and of the jocular and the serious. This hybrid world is populated by a panoply of theatrical traditions (Brecht, the Ancient Greeks, Baptist mimes, to name only a few), the lyrical storytelling of Lauryn Hill and her peers, Southern Baptist spirituals, kinetic movement, African drumming, and so much more — all woven together by Tori’s utterly original voice, which is itself a rich stew of heartfelt generosity, rhythmic elegance, prophetic insights, and irresistible humor. 

“Black struggle must be universalized wherever Black people happen to be.”

Walter Rodney

 “There’s no one place to talk about being Black,” Tori told me when we were discussing the play, “because Blackness is everywhere and uncontained and uncategorizable.” Or, as Walter Rodney put it in a 1974 interview: “Black struggle must be universalized wherever Black people happen to be. Our history has been bedeviled by the fact that we, as a colonized people in the western world, have never had a power to which we could turn and that our oppressors have never felt any sense of having to account to somebody else for the treatment which they accorded to us.” 

One of the ways that Tori has responded to that truth is to reject aesthetic borders and containers: to incorporate, rather than to restrict. This is what makes Tori a neo-soul playwright. As Dimitri Ehrlich puts it in a 2002 article “Young Soul Rebels” in Vibe Magazine, neo-soul is a paradox: “Neo means new. Soul is timeless. All the neo-soul artists, in various ways, perform balancing acts, exploring classic soul idioms while injecting a living, breathing presence into time-tested formulas.” By embracing a time-blurring, geography-bending, genre-upending hybridity, Tori makes her theater a neo-soul space: one that is radically inclusive. She simultaneously reaches out to the vast, uncontainable diaspora and to the individual, particular hearts within it, to create gorgeously assembled works of soul-nourishing joy.