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Austin Chronicle Other Voices, Other Rooms

Sharon Bridgforth: Author, Poet, Performance Artist, Playwright

By Suzy Spencer

JULY 31, 2000:  The voice of Sharon Bridgforth had been ringing in my ears for almost two years. That's how long it had been since I'd first heard her read at the Metropolitan Club -- a venue that I consider a bastion of white Republican men and a few white women who'd like to date them. But during Texas Writers Month 1997, as part of the Austin Writers' League's annual Writers at the Met, Bridgforth's deep, melodious voice rolled through the Metropolitan Club's conservative, white hallways as she read with passion and humor about "wy'mn" loving "wy'mn." And not just wy'mn loving wy'mn, but Southern black wy'mn loving wy'mn. This was not the stuff my pro-Nixon, Baylor University background had taught me to like.

And maybe that's exactly why Sharon Bridgforth's voice had been ringing in my ears for almost two years and created a curiosity about this soon-to-be Lambda Award-winning author of the bull-jean stories.

bull-jean raise up
trouble/came in
stood to the side
made me
sense her first
russling skirt/jiggling jewelry/clicking
heels trouble/came in
smelt lik sunshine lik
freedom on a bed of posies/trouble
made me want her
befo I ever saw her face she
entered my Heart
and held me/trouble
came in ass popping
from side to side

It took me two years to get up the courage to hold the bull-jean stories in my lily-white hands and take my own silent taste of her words. Bridgforth's works aren't meant to be read silently. Some folks would say that's like eating barbecue without the sauce. But if it's good barbecue, you can do without the sauce because it has plenty of flavor on its own.

Then, one night, I was lying in bed watching an A&E Biography of Phyllis Diller when Maya Angelou suddenly filled the TV screen. (She and Diller had started out together at the Purple Onion, a nightclub, in San Francisco.) Angelou's voice boomed through my room, and right then I realized that, for me, Sharon Bridgforth is the baby boomer's Maya Angelou -- author, poet, performance artist, and playwright, at least.

A few days later, I was lying in bed watching the TNT salute to Joni Mitchell. (When you went to Baylor and are single, lying in bed watching documentary-style television is one of the only safe options.) At the same time, I was reading the bull-jean stories. With one ear I was listening to the voice of Joni, and with the other to the voice of bull-jean. And to my shock, they worked. They worked beautifully together. Their voices blended in jazz and blues.

Bull-jean sings the blues -- Ma Rainey, Ruth Brown, Coco Taylor, Etta James. But when Bridgforth writes plays, as she has many times -- no mo blues, blood pudding -- she thinks of them as "a piece of jazz music." Since bull-jean permeates everything Bridgforth writes, no wonder bull-jean and Joni sing well together.

one day
i was sitting in my yard
telling tales and dranking wid my pal lou when
i thought i heard a rustling
i didn't look up cause the dogs was jes
usually they barks at everythang
cluding me
so i jes kepa-dranking and telling
till i heard a voice

Sharon Bridgforth grew up in segregated Los Angeles surrounded by sweet and strong story-telling Southern black single women who urged her toward a life of stability as a schoolteacher. They had left their Southern homes and families to flee the oppression of racism, to search for hope for their children, and to be free of "family speculation" for themselves, Bridgforth says. "Everybody was in everybody's business."

But she didn't develop a yearning for the stability her family wanted for her. Through card parties and beach parties filled with laughter, music on the radio, and lots of dancing and tale telling, she did develop a love for her family's words, their voices, and their stories. "Everything about me was informed by who they were," she says. It was a love that was further fed with summertime trips to Memphis and more stories, voices, Southern words, and Mississippi blues. Its music wraps itself around her writing like Southern humidity. In fact, you can smell the Mississippi in Bridgforth's writing -- its flowing waters of unconditional love she felt from her Memphis relatives and the storms they experienced as black Americans.

She hears it and feels it when she writes. She listens to its music "as a tool to get me to that place where I can feel," as she points to her heart, "in here." "the bull-jean stories is structured the way it is on the page," she explains, "because I was trying to capture the way that I heard my older family members tell stories." It is written in all lowercase. "Lowercase," she says, "feels more like the language sounds to me."

As Bridgforth returned to the palm trees of L.A. and rode crosstown bus after crosstown bus, from South Central L.A. to her Catholic school in Echo Park, she read and daydreamed. She was becoming a storyteller and author in her own right, despite not knowing any writers, despite not discovering black writers like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin until high school, despite not even imagining becoming a writer.

But just like her wy'mn relatives had felt trapped in the South, Bridgforth felt trapped in L.A. "I was suffocating. I was dying. L.A. was killing me." She cannot seem to find enough verbs to express her L.A. suffocation. "I felt so hopeless because it was so big and mean and expensive. ... I think I needed to get away from it in order to imagine myself." She just wanted to dream.

Friends in Texas beckoned her to Austin. Despite a fear of the Klan and worry over intolerance toward gays and lesbians, she heeded the call and took a job with the Health Department. It was, as they say in Hollywood high-concept screenwriting, an "epiphany." Through her work at the Health Department, Bridgforth was "out and about in the community" and heard story after story about "older black women who had lived with Miss So-and-so for a long time." She started thinking about that. Lesbians, she clearly realized. And Bridgforth was in awe that there were black lesbians who were an integral, active, well-respected, and well-accepted part of the community.

About the same time, Bridgforth was grieving for some of her elderly family members who had died and was yearning to hear their voices again. She sat down and wrote a story, combining the women she missed with the women she was curious about in Austin. And bull-jean was born. She was structured the way Bridgforth had heard her family members tell stories -- a little singing, a little dancing, a little poetry. It was 1993, and as soon as Bridgforth finished that story, another story about bull-jean flowed from her hands and mind, and then another, and another. Bridgforth couldn't stop her. Bull-jean was now a part of Bridgforth, just like her family was.

And so was writing. "It's like breathing," she says. "It's how I understand myself and my life, how I look at the world, how I appreciate those who came before me." It is her life, not her work.

Susan Post, proprietor of Book Woman and, perhaps, Bridgforth's biggest fan, can't remember how or when they met. "It seems like I've known her forever," she says. Post believes there's a psychic connection between Bridgforth and herself; every piece of Bridgforth's writing tingles her spine and gives her goosebumps. "Haunting," she calls the work. Bridgforth says that Post would be "upset" for her when she received rejections.

And Bridgforth did receive rejection after rejection for bull-jean. Like every writer who gets even one rejection, she got the down in the dirty, dejected, rejected blues. We're talking Bessie Smith blues because no one, not no one, wanted to publish bull-jean. The theatre pieces sounded too much like poems. The poems sounded too much like short stories. The stories ... well, they were filled with "too much cussing. The subject matter's too risky."

There aren't a lot of white small presses willing to publish fiction about a Southern black lesbian. And there certainly aren't a lot of large New York City, conglomerate-owned presses willing to publish fiction about a Southern black lesbian. It's just not a niche that's profitable. And while white presses thought bull-jean was too black, black presses thought bull-jean was too gay.

But the rejections may also have had to do with publishers' befuddlement about how to sell a work that defies easy categorization. Is the bull-jean stories fiction, as Bridgforth calls it? Perfomance pieces? Poetry? "The way that I write is all of those things," Bridgforth explains. Her voice soars an octave as she laughs and admits that she just might have to die if someone insisted she write in only one style. "I wouldn't be able to separate that out. It's not my style." She adds, "I think we're complicated, complex beings, and that's a good thing. So for me, it's in recognition and honor and celebration of my own complexity to not separate out my pieces, my bits, my parts." She insists that she doesn't even use dialogue in her fiction. "It's more monologues, poems, songs, responding -- where people are responding to each other or responding to what's going on ... as opposed to direct conversations."

So time after time, Susan Post stared Bridgforth right in the eyes and said, "Your time is going to come, and there is no doubt about it." She swore to Bridgforth that if bull-jean didn't get published, she was going to take Bridgforth to Book Expo America, the publishing industry's major annual gathering, and lead her, by the hand, to every publisher she knew. Post was bound and determined to get bull-jean to the public. "It wasn't like the scrub girl who hadn't yet become Cinderella," Post explains. "She was already Cinderella. She was wearing the right shoes."

Indeed, realizing that if she didn't do it herself that she wouldn't have "a place to talk from," and also wanting to make sure that her works were performed the way she wanted -- "no words added, shifted around, or changed" -- Bridgforth established her own theatre company called root wy'mn. That was 1993, the same year she birthed bull-jean, and over time root wy'mn toured her plays lovve/rituals & rage, no mo blues, and dyke/warrior-prayers from Boston to Berkeley.

Bridgforth promoted her work and herself. That included attending a 1997 Lambda writers conference in Washington, D.C., where she talked with Lisa Moore, a young black lesbian from Atlanta who had started her own small press, RedBone Press. It was a one-woman operation solely dedicated to publishing black lesbian writers. It would become a match made in heaven.

Already, Lisa Moore was aware of Bridgforth. At the encouragement of writer Shay Youngblood, Bridgforth had submitted a story to RedBone's first publication, does your mama know?, an anthology of black lesbian coming-out stories. Moore accepted Bridgforth's piece, "that beat," in 1995. That same year, at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, Moore saw no mo blues, which has a lot of bull-jean in it. Then, Moore came to Austin and saw Bridgforth's blood pudding, and also applied to graduate school at the University of Texas. That was 1998, the year that Bridgforth, Moore, and Post will never forget.

It was the start of a continuing business affair between Bridgforth and RedBone and Bridgforth and the Lambda Awards because at the Lambda writers' conference, Bridgforth told Moore she was going to submit more bull-jean to the publisher. She did, and in the spring of 1998, after Moore wrestled with the fact that bull-jean sounded like poetry (she didn't publish poetry), RedBone and Bridgforth contracted for the bull-jean stories. In June of that same year, RedBone won two Lambda Awards -- "Lesbian Studies" and "Best Small Press Book" for does your mama know? Bridgforth was suddenly a part of a Lambda-winning project. And Moore moved to Austin to begin graduate studies and publish the bull-jean stories.

Bridgforth realized that she didn't have time to do both root wy'mn and write. So she prioritized. Writing won. Root wy'mn closed. And the bull-jean stories was published. Moore backed the book with as much promotional budget and time and energy as she could afford, which wasn't much since she publishes on a shoestring budget. But she is a woman who is loyal and determined and who is in love with bull-jean.

"Her voice," says Moore, "the way she spoke, it seems like home." Moore's father is New Orleans blues man Deacon John. She also liked the fact that bull-jean was situated in a community and "belonged somewhere." So Moore faxed and phoned and flew Bridgforth around the country until bull-jean was in the hands of independent stores throughout the nation ... and Canada.

The following year, bull-jean won RedBone and Bridgforth another Lambda Award for, again, lesbian and gay small press book. The first person Bridgforth thanked at the awards ceremony was Book Woman's Susan Post. "Her inner place seems to be deeply anchored," Post says about Bridgforth. "So I don't think she can be tossed too far." In other words, Bridgforth won't forget those who helped her along the way.

Post is right; success has not jaded Sharon Bridgforth. But how could it? She wants so much more -- a screenplay for bull-jean, the gift of time to write, national theatres that can give bull-jean the production values she deserves, to encourage and mentor others as she has been encouraged and mentored. "I've experienced bits of this," she acknowledges, "but I would like to go full-steam."

This year, it looks as if RedBone Press will publish a book that, for the first time in its history, does not involve Sharon Bridgforth, who has been tucked away in Kyle writing, with forays into the San Marcos Target and occasional trips to Austin's Cafe Mundi to satisfy her city girl needs for noise. Bridgforth received a 1999/2000 NEA/TCG Playwright's Residency at Frontera @ Hyde Park and is working on a new theatre piece, con flama, which was finished this summer and will be produced by Frontera in September. It is about her time growing up in L.A., "a look at the cultural landscapes of a place," "a ride through a melting pot" of ethnicities and struggles.

This summer, she has been researching a bull-jean novel. "I think she's just getting her legs," Bridgforth remarks about her creation. RedBone will have the bull-jean novel for 2001. By then, Writers at the Met may or may not exist, since no one seems to know where the Metropolitan Club will go after being thrown out of One American Center. Funny -- the white Republican bastion is thrown out of downtown Austin in the age of George W. Bush. And the voices of bull-jean and Sharon Bridgforth are still rolling strong, black, and gay.

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