As theatergoers are well aware, the phrase “autobiographical solo show” can dredge up contradictory feelings: hope and dread. When those kinds of shows are powerful and deft, they can knock the scales right off your eyes. When their performers seem pleading and solipsistic, you’ll leave the theater with an awful case of misanthropy. Fortunately, “Yankee Pickney,” by Jéhan Òsanyìn, is one of the former. “Pickney” is supposedly about Òsanyìn’s ordeal after her best friend was shot to death. But, like other great solo shows, it bends the borders of its original conceit and gets into brave and murky territory, from her being shuttled off to Jamaica as a kid to an interaction in a Kenyan market that shocked Òsanyìn into realizing she was “white-people black.” Òsanyìn’s dog Garvey takes the stage at one point, violating the old W.C. Fields rule of “never work with animals or children” — but in “Yankee Pickney,” Garvey is an unexpectedly charming asset to a story about race, violence and identity that needs to be heard.
BY GEMMA WILSON
“Most sound cues are abrupt interruptions. They take the performer from their story and force them into the larger socially constructed narrative.”
That introductory stage direction from Jéhan Òsanyìn’s autobiographical play Yankee Pickney parallels an interesting challenge for a journalist: How do you write about someone who won’t be defined by the world around them?
Òsanyìn (they/them), who generates more warmth in the cold void of Zoom than seems humanly possible, is an all-around theatre artist, a director, playwright and actor—though, they say, one of their current projects, adapting and directing N.K. Jemisin’s lesbian steampunk sci-fi story The Effluent Engine for Book-It Repertory Theatre, feels more like conducting an orchestra.
“The way that I rule my life, and I used to tell my fifth-grade students this, is beautiful failure,” Òsanyìn said with a laugh in a recent chat. “Just make a choice and we’ll roll with it. That’s my artistic career.”
They’re also a ceramic artist, teacher, outdoor educator, activist, facilitator, and the founder of Earthseed, an organization “that uses theatre and wild spaces to decolonize those spaces in the bodies that pass through them.” Speaking at a recent online symposium of Seattle theatre leaders, Òsanyìn was also an evangelist for new artistic business models, like the ever-evolving model they’re building with Earthseed.
“Nonprofits thrive because rich folks, who are deeply rooted in capitalism, get a tax benefit for giving to theatres,” they said. “I’m excited for theatres to look at business structures that are not rooted in the nonprofit industrial complex and then contribute to the theatre industrial complex, because we need something different.”
During that same symposium, Òsanyìn was the only person to ask fellow participant Braden Abraham, artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theatre, a kind but pointed question about the equity practices in place at Seattle’s major regional theatre. In a city that has a hard time having honest conversations with itself, that kind of candor matters.
“I’ve always been uncompromising,” they told me later, in conversation. “And the fact is that [art] is not 100 percent my job, and I am willing to leave a job at a moment’s notice…because I’ve been poor and lived in my car. There’s nothing else you can do to me that’s going to get me to not say the important thing. So, I just live a life of saying the things that are true in ways that allow someone to see it through love.”
Parent Map Magazine
Someone You Should Know:
A Seattle-based storyteller, poet, performer and outdoor educator, Òsanyìn spent years leading educational outdoor adventures. Her adventures in backpacking, whitewater rafting and canoeing as a Black woman inspired her to found Earthseed Seattle in 2013.
Through Earthseed, Òsanyìn organizes workshops in which kids and adults use theater to make outdoor spaces more inclusive, or, as Òsanyìn explains, to “decolonize wild spaces and the bodies that pass through them.” The organization in turn supports the WildSeed outdoor school, a nonprofit that hosts outdoor hikes, climbs and theater workshops for people of color.
Her work is getting attention. Earlier this year, Òsanyìn became a Creativity Connects fellow with the National Endowment for the Arts. The goal of her fellowship: Create a piece of theater that “explores how to have difficult conversations with the young people in our lives.”
We spoke with Òsanyìn about that project and her other work with Pacific Northwest families.
Q: Where does your background in theater come into this?
Theater gave me a place to feel the emotions that are in many ways illegal for a Black woman to feel. So frequently, strong emotions are penalized by our society when they’re emoted by someone who looks like me, [but] onstage, I could be full of fury or rage and the audience believed me. They believed my story.
Earthseed and WildSeed are my ways of seeing people, providing a space to see themselves and providing space for people’s stories to be witnessed. They are my way of validating others’ identities while facilitating opportunities for them to grow in all of the beautiful ways human beings are capable of growing.
Miryam's Theater Musings
"Osanyin’s message is a complex one involving race and racial consciousness, and the proliferation of modern attacks by law enforcement on now-familiar national names. She uses projections and bits of film to make points, but at the start of the piece says that she only does so up to a point. Her point – of stopping – is where it gets to triggering for her. She invites the audience to make itself safe, leave the room if you need to, and take care of yourself."
" This is a multifaceted one-woman show. Òsanyìn incorporates video, photographs, diary reading, spoken-word poetry, accents, props, and song. But it never feels chaotic or jam-packed. From start to finish, Òsanyìn remains cool, collected, and in control. Her storytelling feels organic but still intentional, like a seasoned performer at The Moth. "Yankee Pickney" is endearing, bold, and honest.
The most entertaining and powerful moments in the show are when she reads out loud from her childhood diary. This bold choice to read her angst-ridden tween musings paid off tremendously, sending the audience into a fit of laughter. Òsanyìn, too, gets to laugh at herself along with the audience, making these moments feel very dear. However, she then undercuts the innocence of these moments by playing the infamous dashcam video of Sandra Bland's arrest, showing that such modern horrors have invaded her own memories and identities. The sense of trust between this performer and the audience is profound, making every moment feel like an honor to be apart of."
"For her, theater is a tool to explore, to journey through an anecdotal mirror and understand our own truths, even when we frighten ourselves. “Feelings of loss, sadness, or grief aren’t bad or good, they’re just true.” On the stage, theater is a place to be, a way to push through what ails by telling those struggles as story and character. It’s a place for students to explore that complexity and excavate their feelings, to build their own character and truly tell their own stories."