On Telling and Documenting the Stories of Our Communities: An Interview with Desi P. Shelton

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Desi P. Shelton, founder and artistic director of the Camden Repertory Theater. Shelton’s plays include I Killed My Baby’s Daddy, For Sale!, Stilettos, Stacks, Sisterhood, P@$$y 4 $ale!, and more. She received her MFA in theater from Sarah Lawrence College and her BA from Northeastern University. 

I spoke to her about her passion for telling and documenting her hometown’s unique and important stories and adding urban female voices to the theatrical canon.

Desi, it’s so great to meet you. You call yourself an artivist. What does that mean?

I use art to pursue an agenda. I may not get out there on the picket lines, but I’m doing nothing different than what the Nina Simones did. When I watched a documentary about her, her daughter said something that really resonated with me. “There was no separation between my mom as an artist and…her mission”. That let me breathe! 

It makes you realize that as an artivist there is no separation. My art is personal. It is about things that are happening to me in my community. I Killed My Baby’s Daddy is about a woman who tries to “kill” her feelings for her baby’s father so that she can move on in her life.  I’m working on a sequel to it, called Child Support, which deals with the challenge of living with an absent father. We meet the mother and her daughter from the first play eighteen years later. My goal is to continue the work that my predecessors have done and not make it about me making money. 

How did you become a playwright?

Kicking and screaming! I have wanted to be a famous actor since 5th grade. My mom was a teacher and also ran the arts programming at my elementary school. We had to stay after school to wait for her. I wasn’t the best dancer so I joined the drama club. In fifth grade, she finally gave me my first solo – to give the graduation speech. I loved it. 

A lot of us saw Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, on Netflix. As you know, the play is one of the ten plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle, written by August Wilson. You also write about your hometown. Are you creating the Camden canon?

I am and Katori Hall does the same thing. She won the Olivier Award for her play, The Mountaintop, which is about Dr. King’s last days in Tennessee. She sets most of what she writes in Memphis. That lets me know that our affinity for our communities and the drive to get the stories of our communities told is important for everybody’s sake. The stories in Camden matter and need to be documented. As artists, we’re also historians and sociologists. 

You went to Northeastern University and Sarah Lawrence College. How was that for you as a Black woman and a girl from Camden, NJ?

I switched my major and left the theatre department at Northeastern because the season did not look like me at all. I was a fighter then, but I didn’t know how to channel it. The true fight would have been to stay in the major and to have them change and have the season reflect the diversity of their students. But I didn’t fight for that. I ran for cover. I was intimidated. This big thick white man, who was larger than life, didn’t want me there. I didn’t know how to fight that. 

Now I know and tell my students that college, especially undergraduate school, is the time for you to go for it! What happens is, you find that there are other things in the field that you may end up doing. Maybe you realize that you don’t want to sleep on couches but you do love the arts. Through experience, you realize, I’m organized, I can be a production manager. Or, I like money and being in charge, maybe I really am a producer. You only find out that there are other avenues to pursue as you keep walking down that road. 

What are you working on right now?

Snow White: An Islamic Tale opened on May 13. It’s a musical that is adapted from a book. The production will be headed to the DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival in Washington in June.

We have a growing Islamic community in Camden and Philadelphia, and we want our neighbors to be able to see their children on stage. We are performing in our outdoor open-air theater. Part of what we want to do is show our people that we have beautiful spaces in our community. I decided to activate this space because we have students who didn’t know it was there. I tell folks to stop looking outside for change. We have an amphitheater. This is our stage. 

How can BlackHer subscribers help you?

Support the arts! Two years ago I read an article in the New York Times that talked about how Black-led organizations earn far less in revenue than others. Folks don’t trust us to manage our resources and they don’t understand that we have a different culture. It’s very frustrating. We have to do so much more with less. 

Your members can support Black-led local arts organizations. Help a local artist get that building or space she can own. That’s so important for us. If you don’t have Black-led theatre in your community, please donate to us! 

Who are your BlackHer Sheroes?

Johnnetta B. Cole – I admire women like her that come from the “talented tenth.” Her family founded American Beach. Imagine that! Her grandfather always quizzed the grandkids on the 3 B’s you need to survivethe Bible, their school books, and their bank books. I admire that.

Is there anything else you want to share with us?

Yes, Camden Repertory Theatre has applied to be a member of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), the largest professional theatre association of its kind in the United States. There are no Black-led theatres among their membership. Being a member would help us negotiate with the union. Also, we deserve a place at that table. 

Amen. Let me ask you the miracle question. You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow, and a miracle has occurred for Black women. What happened?

The young women and girls in Camden stop looking for love in all the wrong places. They are making wise choices based on an archaic set of values. They are growing up with both parents, and their fathers know the men that they date. This has created more balance in their lives.