God Built Us Different: A Conversation with the Women of ‘Rise’

Pulled away from the Company of Angels Theater at Hazard Recreation Park as the lights were dimmed and the locks were shut after a lively post-production reception, and into the dark of the studio parking lot, I had the opportunity to discuss the makings of COA’s newest community play — Rise by Kimba Henderson — with the cast and creators themselves.

It was a warm Autumn night in California, the area was illuminated by street lights and a large moon overhead; I stood with the play’s writer, Kimba Henderson and actresses Justeen Butler (who portrays Young Emmeline/Grace in the play), and Bernadette Speakes (Old Emmeline/Harriet/Julia) outside to get some perspective on the history of Boyle Heights, creating believable characters among real life figures and the racial unification of early 1900s California.

I was granted free rein to speak to the crew and, between the three creatives, we spoke in excess of an hour and 10 minutes about Rise and its themes: community, legacy and more. First up was writer Kimba Henderson.

What kind of inspired the inception of the story of Rise and what made you decide you wanted to take it on as a play?

Kimba Henderson: So it was actually brought to me, it was a commission play. I had done some stuff with Company of Angels and they… basically sent me an email that said, “Hey, would you be interested in writing a play about Black Boyle Heights?” And I was like, “you had me at Black Boyle Heights” ’cause I didn’t know it was a thing. I was definitely one of the people who felt like, what I know about Boyle Heights as it being a predominantly, you know, Latin American Latino neighborhood. So when was it — when were there black people there?

It was kind of my thing. And so that started. Of course before the second I said, yes, I’m looking, I’m doing all this kind of research, trying to figure out when this time was. But what really started it was when they got together people that were African American and lived in Boyle Heights at all these different times. And we would have story circles. So people would come, we met here a couple times, and they would just tell stories about places they went to, schools they went to, experiences they had, what their parents did, what life was like.

And so I got a lot of that kind of real life information from real life people, <laugh>, which is really great, right? So you get that mixture of people’s real life experiences. And then you start looking at the history. So you start looking at how did black people first come here? And then kind of at the same time, you’re getting Jewish people from Europe, particularly, you know, Russian Jews, Hungarian, like Eastern Europeans, and then Italian, Irish, Japanese came here.

Because Boyle Heights was a place where there weren’t racial covenants. So that’s why the Evergreen Cemetery is so integrated.  And I thought that was really important to tell, because I feel like even today, you know, African Americans a lot of times aren’t safe where they live. They go to another neighborhood and somebody wants to call the cops or ask ’em why they’re there or… and you’re talking 1930s, forties, fifties, people weren’t doing that.

And it was interesting. People do that more now. Even though it’s like less — It’s supposed to be less Segregated. 

It’s supposed to be.

We’ll circle back to that actually. ’cause I was having an interesting conversation with Bernadette [Speakes] about that. Okay. But jumping back into the story, what influenced the decision to kind of tell it from the future, from the present backwards? Because that’s actually one of my favorite storytelling techniques that you used here, actually.

You’ll love how it started. Okay. So initially when we were doing this play, like the great thing was the community was really involved in the development. So we had a couple of readings and so, you know, and then we would ask them questions and they would give feedback. And so that was really helpful. So the first kind of iteration of this, I <laugh>, when I was doing my research, the thing that kept coming up, it was driving me completely bananas was the racial covenant thing and housing discrimination.

And I was like, am I gonna make a play about housing discrimination? ’cause I’m not trying to do that. Everything I looked into, I was like, “oh, because of racial covenants. Oh. Because they’re gonna put a freeway here. Oh.” You know? And so at the same time, there were all these things about Affirmative Action happening. This is — you’re gonna be very confused the way my mind works. I apologize — I’m happy you’re recording this, ’cause you’ll be like, “what did she say?” But one of the things for me is like, when people talk about… oh, slavery was this long ago and everything’s equal now, and blah, blah, blah.

But we know that’s not true.

And we know that’s not true. But part of me was like, mad. Like sometimes when you’re writing you’re mad. You’re like, “I gotta show these people what the truth is!”  And so the way I had initially written it was there’d be these little vignettes in front of the scene. And so the point of the vignettes was to show somebody say something like, “oh, like this Supreme Court case happened, so everything’s fine now” <laugh>. And so you’d be like, “great.” And then you’d go back.

So let’s say for instance, ’cause we would do something in the sixties and it would be like a freeway got put; the 10 freeway totally wrecked Black Hollywood, West Adams, right? Now in the forties, somebody tried to kick the black people out ’cause it was supposed to be a secret racial covenant.

And then the sixties or the fifties, the freeway came and, and wrecked it. So when it was told backwards, you would hear people talking about, “oh, the 10 freeway goes through West Adams.” Right. And then you would go back to the fifties where somebody’s writing this story about ‘people are saying that the 10 freeway is gonna go through Black Hollywood.’ “That’s just not true. And that’s not happening!” But you’re like, “oh, the scene we just saw.”

Right. It already happened. 

People try to act like Affirmative Action… Like, everything’s all equal now. It’s like, no, you keep changing laws and you keep doing things.

The goalpost keeps moving.

And one of the things I did was keeping track of this 1944 case that was argued by Thurgood Marshall and Lauren Miller, right? The West Adams people. Then in the fifties you had another housing thing. Then 1964, there is a Proposition 14, which literally, basically says that you should be able to discriminate against people in housing based on their color, their religion, <laugh>, their whatever. 

Was that — that was different than the redlining thing? Or was that the same thing?

Well, yeah, so the redlining thing is different, but — and so that’s a whole other conversation. That’s a whole other conversation. But redlining still has the effects of impacting Los Angeles to this day. So there was part of me that was writing it back, writing it backwards to show that. So that was probably confusing, but that’s what I was doing. And so, Lui Sanchez, he directed it and… that’s when the artistic director was kind of like, can we have that information in these little vignettes?

So I started thinking about movies. Two of my favorite biopics are Straight Outta Compton and Walk The Line, right? And so I just remember these scenes, one scene, like in Walk the Line, it was Johnny Cash is talking, his wife is basically going off on him. Like, “you need to go back to your door to door salesman job because you and your band…” And so I just remember watching this and I’m sitting here going, “does she not know he’s Johnny Cash?” And I’m like, “No, not yet.” He wasn’t yet. She doesn’t know he’s Johnny Cash. We all do. ’cause we have his albums. But you’re like—

He wasn’t ‘Johnny Cash’ yet.

He wasn’t Johnny Cash yet. And so you’re sitting here watching the scene like on fire <laugh> and mad and like feeling out these feelings. But you’re watching ’cause you’re like, “I wonder what happens next.” You’re not going, “I wonder if baby comes a country star.” It’s like, you already know that. So I’m like, “why am I watching the scene? Why am I compelled to watch the scene?” And there’s something about, oh, this is what this person went through to get to be Johnny Cash. He had to deal with these obstacles from people he loves and who love him to do that.

So in the beginning…  Emmeline’s great-granddaughter is working on a family tree and there’s a missing branch. And she doesn’t wanna say who the missing branches is. They don’t know. But it’s for a school project. And so part of this is all about getting to that end where you discover who the missing branch is. Yeah. And it’s Kenji. So I like this idea of telling the story backwards because there’s a mystery for you to unravel.

Circling back around to like the racial division, that’s like a little more prevalent now than that even: Bernadette and I were having an interesting conversation about… Martin Luther King makes kind of a spiritual appearance <laugh> throughout the, throughout the play…

Yes, he does. 

And you know, there’s the opposing philosophies of him and like Malcolm X at the time and looking at how Segregation or Desegregation kind of impacted the [black] community in an almost, I don’t wanna say negative way, ’cause we both kind of agreed that it was good to be able to have the freedom to be able to do those things. But we see before that the black family was very connected. Very integrated, very strong. We had our own banks. We had a black Wall Street, Rosewood. Then once [De]segregation happened… people branched out. What do you kind of feel like your thoughts are on that?

Woo! Honey! <laugh>. Okay. Because of the way that I grew up, I am an Integrationist at heart. However, <laugh>, and that’s a big however… I had been approached to adapt this Black Children’s book. It’s like a series… And I remember reading it and I got like 13 pages in it. And it was all like, “we’re gonna go down to the baloney store and get some—” Whatever.  It was just this, it’s like Tom Sawyer, Right. But black people. <laugh>. Right. <laugh>. And then by page 10, this car—it is like 1950s—so this car full of white people drives by and all of a sudden there’s all this tension. These children are terrified. And the whole Tom Sawyer, let’s-go-to-the-fishing-hole thing is over <laugh>. And it ended once the car passed. But this tension of these people are happy and they’re safe and they’ve, they’re living their lives.

But the second a car full of white people approach in the south, in the fifties, all of a sudden we’re all tense and scared. ’cause we don’t know how this is gonna turn out. And I was like, man… there was a time when black people were just safer by themselves. And it challenged me. ’cause that’s not the way that I think. That’s not what I believe, but it’s a truth. When you talk about things like — ’cause Black Wall Street, I was approached twice to write a script about that, by the way — I was like, we were told go get your own stuff. Go do your own stuff. And then we did, and then you found an excuse to destroy it.

So moving the goalpost, like we talked about. You don’t want us on your block. You don’t want us to have our own stuff and succeed and thrive <laugh>. You know? That’s the tension of being African American in this country is you’re like, “we’re not the problem in the sense of we’re not the ones that have the problem.” You know what I mean? So that’s another reason why this main character, Emmeline, why she’s so fascinating to me because she sees that whatever’s going on in this neighborhood, she’s always been safe.


I know this is a very long answer, but there was a scene in this play that took place at Ramona Gardens. And it was a Mexican gang [in 2014] that fire bombed black families to get them out of the housing project. We changed that scene for some good reasons… but one of the things that when I think about that… it’s not even about ‘Mexicans all hate black people,’ that that’s not what that is. But there’s something about when a dominant community has dominance, it becomes oppressive. No matter what it is, no matter what that community is. So to a degree, this Latino community, even though all the Latinos in it were not about firebombing black people, there are people in that community that go, “this is ours.”


And so there was a part of me that goes, would we do that as black people?

Probably not <laugh>. Historically, we’ve never heard that.

Historically. We never have. Um, but it’s a question, right? Because you kind of think like, why do the Latinos, why do these people do it now?

There’s a through line of colonialism in there. There is like, “as long as you’re not this race, you are better than that race.” 

A hundred percent. And that is, that is a real thing. But I think that the question that you’re asking, it’s a great question. I feel like, you know—

And there isn’t a ‘right’ answer…

And I’m not trying to land on ‘right,’ ’cause I agree there’s not a right answer. But it’s questions like, that is the reason you write. Because Emmeline has a clear answer for that. And so to me, I love telling those kind of stories. ’cause I always like to get to the humanity and the humanity of people. ’cause I think when you do that, then it can be about, oh, you’re an individual, you’re human. “This is what you think. Well this is what I think. It’s interesting. I don’t agree, but thank you for sharing that.” We don’t do that anymore. We’re like, “ah, Democrat!” You know, throw stuff at people. 

And I like that you did that too, because I know you said earlier your primary outlook is more Integrationist. And you made all of them sympathetic characters, even though they do have such vast differences between them. There’s the conversation between—

Saul, and then David is his father at the poker game.

Yes! And they were having the conversation about moving from Boyle Heights. And… they get into the topic of — technically — racial pride, where they’re talking about my group versus your group. And “our group was doing different things and now we’re being driven out.” But even through that conversation, there’s no malice or there’s no… there’s no ill intent between distinguishing the accomplishments of their individual groups. And then it circles back around to them being like, “we made this together.”

‘Cause when I think about the idea of being an Integrationist, I’m definitely not a ‘melting pot’ person. ’cause I think people lose their culture. I don’t want people to lose their culture. Their language, their food, their whatever, whatever.

It’s the differences that make everybody better. As opposed to — you don’t want to be a homogenized society where it’s like it’s all the same. That’s actually a colonial thing, right? Because when you strip somebody of their identity, their culture, and now it’s like all one thing that’s the opposite of what you are.

Because I’ll tell you something. When we had these two story circles, and I had these people. Nobody’s young, nobody’s 20, right? So these people were growing up forties, fifties, sixties, whatever, Boyle Heights. And I’m a writer. I need tension. I need conflict in a play, right? Like even Sound of Music, the corniest movie in the world had Nazis in it, right?

Yes. <laugh>

Why? Because we need tension and conflict. So we would hear all these great stories and… I was like, oh my God. I go, “Okay. When did you ever feel tension? When did you ever feel uncomfortable? When was there conflict?” Crickets! Tumbleweeds flowed through the room. Not like they’re afraid to tell me a story. They’re just like… nothing. And then one lady goes, “oh!” And I was like, “oh, good <laugh>. Oh good. Some tension.”

Somebody struggled!

Somebody struggled! And then she told me this story. This was in the ’50s. She goes, my best friend, you know, she’s black. She goes, “my best friend in high school was Morty. Morty was Jewish. And so when the prom came around, I wasn’t dating anyone. He wasn’t dating anyone. We were best friends. I just assumed we were gonna go to the prom together.” And she goes, “but he didn’t ask me to the prom.” And she goes, well, we’re friends. And I just let it go. And then she said, 20 years later, <laugh> He comes up to her and says, “you know what? I’m really sorry.” He goes, “I wanted to ask you to prom, but my dad didn’t think it was a good idea.” And it wasn’t about her being black. He knew that was his best friend.

Is that kind of the scene during the poker game where he is like, “my dad didn’t let me look at other girls.” <laugh>

That kind of fed that. Because I think it’s a theme. ’cause I think some Jewish people, they’re not, they’re not jealous. They’re trying to keep the Jewish. They’re, you know, you gotta convert and it’s all drama. Like if you’re not Jewish, right? So it’s not about, ‘I think you’re less than’, or ‘I don’t think you’re worthy of my son.’ It’s like, ‘but is she Jewish?’ But that was, that was the conflict and the tension.

It’s Tribalism, really.

It’s a hundred percent Tribalism. That’s exactly what that is. And… like I said earlier, every time I ran into stuff… [it was] something with housing discrimination in the early time. And that’s why people were like, “why is LA so segregated?” Because for it to be Los Angeles, it’s supposed to be this like ‘hippie-dippy, We’re all friends, We all love each other.’ It’s very segregated. It’s considering that reputation.

And I hate politics. I hate politics, but I’m like—

You have to go there. You gotta go there.

Yeah. ’cause this is how stuff happens. Like, that’s how you get gerrymandering. That’s why you have a place that’s 50% black, got two <laugh> people in Congress… And I appreciate what you said, “if it was an all black neighborhood and the white family moved in, would they be like, ‘you need to go.’” Like, my heart goes, ‘that would not happen.’ It wouldn’t.

The focus is to celebrate culture with the black people. With Africans, it’s like a celebration of your culture, not necessarily a diminishing of another culture.

Exactly. And… I hope a piece like this, people can come… there was two guys that came up to me. One of them actually did an interview and he said, “everything’s in this play.” He goes, “that happened to us personally.” I was like, “you’ve no idea how happy it makes me,” because one of my prayers and hopes is that people come here because I’m writing a play that incorporates a lot different cultures.

We are very used to having white people tell stories about us from their perspective. And they know two black people. This is, this is written by somebody who knows two black people! And one of ’em is like probably their gardener or whatever, something where you don’t have a relationship with them. 

They only know black people through TV and movies.

Right, I mean, that’s a thing. And so I’m trying to do something different.

So what would you want viewers and the audience to take away when they leave the theater after seeing this?

I always said this was, for me, a love letter to a neighborhood I never lived in. I think what I really want people to walk away and, it’s honestly — there might be specifics — but I learned this… I went to NYU, that’s where I studied dramatic writing. And I remember the first first class I had was basically try to how to find your voice. And there’s eight people in the class. My instructor sat by the window and smoked <laugh>. I was like, “this is different.” 

He was an artist. <laugh>

Yes, he was! I mean, was a writer. So he is all, you know, chain smoked out the window. But we had to write a play. And then we would choose people in the class to write to be the characters. And I remember the first time I wrote a little short play, it was like 10 minutes. Read it in class and a fight — like argument — broke out between the people in the class about the material <laugh>. And I was like “what the heck just happened?” I just, once again, not trying to be Spike Lee—

Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.

Right? But people were arguing over, “no, this character’s doing this.” And I’m sitting there like this [looking confused] and I look at my instructor and he goes [nods knowingly], and I go, “oh! This is what you want.” Not necessarily people fighting, but the discussion. They were just very passionate. They care enough about what they just read and… they are gonna stand up and have a conversation and say something and go, “this is what I saw.” So that to me, that was when I go, “this is why you write. This is why you tell stories.”

I want people to leave thinking about it. I want people to look up Boyle Heights. I want people to look up the folks there. I want them to find out about the first black firemen and the police officers that were black that were serving LA at the time. And I think walk away feeling seen and feeling represented in some way… ’cause I think we’re used to watching a bunch of white people in a movie. But can a white person come and watch a play with black people predominantly and be like, “I’m into the story.” Can we all do that? Can the Japanese person come and be invested in Emmeline’s story? I think so. And I hope so.

Next up, we spoke with one of the lead actresses Bernadette Speakes.

What attracted you to the part [of Old Emmeline/Harriet/Julia]? Was it Kimba’s influence in the writing, or how did you kind of decide to take this role on?

Bernadette Speakes: Well, honestly, Kimba asked me to be a part of the reading. There was a public reading. And so she asked, “Hey, would you mind doing this role for me, for this public reading, for one of the plays that I wrote about Black Boyle Heights?” And I said, “Absolutely.” ‘Cause I’ve known Kim for over 20 years. I’ve always been a huge fan of her writing. So anytime I get to do her work I’m excited. So we did the reading… one of the producers, emailed me and asked me if I would be willing to come on board and play the role of Older Emily. It was very, very nice to not have to audition! <laugh>

I can imagine. Did you take influences from different people in your own life to kind of influence the characteristics and mannerisms of the character? Because the through-line of the characters that you play is… she’s a very principled, very strong character. Was that something that was just built into the script?

For which one? At the beginning For Harriet or for Emily?

I feel like all of the characters — all the characters have that…

I think with Harriet first, you know, there’s nothing really about her. Right? So it’s kind of like honoring pioneer women that have done major things to move, especially African Americans forward in this world. In this country. And also taking on what my own grandmother has done… My grandmother’s from Trinidad, so she’s coming over here from another country and using her wits and her womanliness to be able to establish herself in a new country, and buy a home — more than one home — and be a businesswoman and all these things.

So I think it was like kind of putting all that together to kind of come up with who is Harriet, right? Based on all these things that she did, to me, it says a lot about who she was as a person, and she was very close to her son ’cause they did everything together.

And so it was that and then kind of finding her voice. What do I want her to sound like? How do I want her to move around the stage? You know? So that, that was really fun to kind of figure out. ’cause it’s all my imagination, you know, and I have nothing to go off of. I’m a mom, I’m a wife. And I also leaned into the fact that this is during a time where African American women don’t have the time to grieve or process their emotions.


Things just happen. And they’re told, subliminally, pull up by your bootstraps and keep it going. And so what does that feel like when, and remembering how my grandparents were, how my mom is… she’s close to what Emily’s age is. And that’s how Emmeline is. Loving two men, but completely different. She was 19 when she fell in love with Kenji [played by Miles Bryant]. And she was willing to leave Boyle Heights, leave her family. That’s how deep her love was for him. But Phil [played by Markhum Stansbury, Jr.], she loved in a different kind of way because he was such a stand-up guy.

He was like stability, security…

He was security. He was a stand-up guy because he was willing to take care of her [Emmeline’s] son as if it was his own. So here you have her son growing up, never, ever thinking “I’m different.” That tells you the kind of man that Phil was. And I think you can’t help but love that. But ‘in love [with Phil]?’ Maybe. I don’t know. I think it was always Kenji.

The city, the backdrop is as much a character as the actual actors: what does Boyle Heights mean to you, as an actress, as a person?

So after talking to Kimba about how the creation of this came about, talking about Black Boyle Heights… that’s when I’m looking at as much as I can documentary-wise on YouTube, trying to read as much as I can. Going into Chinatown, into where the Japanese museum is and going because they have an exhibit right now. And really listening and seeing about all the Japanese that were taken out, not just outta California, but just period, because of World War II. Reading all the history about Russia being here, and Jewish community being here and Latino and black, and you have all these different communities.

And you wouldn’t think that everybody got along <laugh>. Especially back then! But what’s interesting enough is what I kept hearing in documentaries was like this one black guy said that he couldn’t even speak English. He could speak Yiddish and he could speak Spanish. And then this other Jewish guy said he spoke Spanish and Yiddish before he spoke English. I was like, “oh my gosh, it’s so rich of history and people, and the common denominator is community.” It was kind of like all these oddballs. All these like outcasts were in Boyle Heights and created this beautiful bubble that unfortunately got kind of torn apart once other other neighborhoods opened up for them that weren’t opened before.

You know, we gotta talk about your cast. ’cause I feel like everyone really brought so much to each of the characters. And you have some great scenes with Sherrick O’Quinn [who plays Samuel and Bruce]. The kitchen scene is one of my favorite scenes with you, <laugh> and him going back and forth about his birthday party and things like that. So kind of talk about the dynamic. Did you meet everybody early on, or did you guys develop the characters together? 

Sherrick was in the reading, and I was in the reading, and Julianna [Julianna Stephanie Ojeda, who plays Veronica/Ramirez/Maria] was in the reading. Everybody else I didn’t know. Markhum I knew, but not because of this show, but because of a show that we’ve done together, ’cause we both know Kimba. So it was really wonderful to kind of meet everybody when we all got cast. And, you know, and respect everybody’s process of delivering their characters and and formulating their characters and figuring that out together.

And a performance is gonna be a little bit different from night to night, right? What do you feel like is kind of your anchoring thing and kind of keeping the performance authentic for the entire run? ’cause you’re gonna be performing this like for—

<laugh> A couple of weeks! I think honestly it’s not pushing, not trying to duplicate what I’ve done the night before, but being very present with however I’m feeling and utilizing that in the scene. Setting an intention most definitely of who I want to honor when I walk on that stage. And wanting to just give everything I have and leave it on the stage where there’s nothing left, where I don’t exit the stage and go, “I should’ve, would’ve, could’ve.”

And my castmates are always gonna be different. So whatever they give me, I’m gonna take <laugh>. You know, it’s like improv. You always say yes, you know, to whatever is handed to you.

Do you remember like your first play?

Oh my gosh. My first play was called, ‘The other Cinderella.’ And it was a musical as well. Black Cinderella.

You can sing too; we got a taste that a little earlier. 

Which was last minute decision, actually! Because it’s not written for me to do it there, but I wanted to kind of match what Justeen [Butler, who plays Young Emmeline/Grace] does, which is written for her to do it when she does it. And I felt — and it actually helped — singing it and reminiscing puts me in that pocket emotionally of missing Kenji. Right. Um, and so the emotion just comes because of it.

We talked a little bit earlier about how the races were very unified in a certain sense. They talk about Martin Luther [King Jr.] a little bit earlier [in the play]. And Malcolm had sort of an opposing view; if you look at the statistics, there was a lot more marriage in the black community during this time, early 1900s. There’s a lot more fathers in the homes, things like that. And as soon as certain opportunities in neighborhoods kind of opened up, everyone kind of branched out, you know, for better or for worse.


So I was kind of wondering, what is your thought on that? Do you feel like that was — not to say Segregation was good or bad — but do you kind of feel like were there more positives in just the way that everyone was able to stay together?

Oh, that’s a — that’s a loaded question <laugh>.

I know. I’ve been trying to figure out how I can ask that <laugh>.

Okay. So I think, you know, I have this theory that we’re not all absolute, and in some areas I feel like I’m a purist <laugh>, because honestly, Segregation helped us to be able to establish our own things. So when you think about like Tulsa, Oklahoma, when you think about Black Wall Street, right? When you think about The Talented Tenth, when you think about, even just black communities and how there were mom and pop shops all over the place.

You had your black barber, you had your auto mechanic, you had your grocery store… all these things that you were basically putting money back into the community and building up the community by doing that. And Integration happens. And I feel like there’s good things about that because we should be able to go where we want, do what we want, right? And sit where we want. But at the same time, I think it has hurt our communities.

More in an economic way, do you feel? 

Absolutely. And there’s always this fight to get back. This fight to preserve it again. And how now if I, being a woman that has a small business, if I want a small business loan, I gotta write a letter and tell you why I need that small business loan. Right? Like all these laws that are now trying to hinder us getting funding, you know what I mean? But I truly believe that it don’t matter how much adversity comes our way, we rise to the top like cream.

Historically, every time.

Historically. Even when we’re not trying to <laugh>

God built us different.

I love that about us! And I raised my kids that way, you know, to be proud of how God created us and who we are, not only as individuals, but as a people and what they can do and how they can make their mark in this world. And don’t let anybody ever tell them that they can’t. Because it starts with youth first, you know? Gentrification is very interesting because it’s like technology: anytime something good happens, it’s gonna affect somebody else in a negative way.

A lot of the gentrification that is happening [in Boyle Heights] is happening with Latinos coming in with money to try to build up. And this community, even though it’s vastly different, but one thing I’ve learned about it is it’s still very much there, there’s major pride in this community. And they’ve stood up to things trying to come into this community to disrupt it and destroy it. And there’s been protests and I appreciate that. And they won.

I feel like a lot of communities have a lot of agency and that they’re very unified. I feel like that’s something there that the Black community… we need more of that. I feel like a lot of other communities really have that unity and that legal strength. They can just sustain their communities, you know? 

They all support each other. My mechanic is Armenian. And let me tell you, <laugh>, like he takes care of us, but he’s also very much taken care of. You know, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.

My question is how do we bring that to our side? 

And there are people that are definitely trying to do that. But you know how we are, like, you can have a business and you say “this merchandise is blah, blah, blah amount of money.” “Why it gotta be so much?” <laugh>

“Hook me up!” You know <laugh>, because you wouldn’t ask them for a discount.

Right, right! So don’t ask me for one! <laugh> But I think you gotta keep trying. You can’t give up. You gotta keep trying, you gotta keep trying to make a difference and you gotta keep trying to instill value.

Absolutely. And in closing, I always like to ask this question to people: what do you hope viewers and the audience will take away from this play? What do you feel like you want to instill?

Love conquers all.

That’s a timeless one.

I mean, honestly, it’s a love story, you know? That in spite of the fact that they weren’t being able to be together, that their love never died. 

Would you want this to go to film, do you think? Would you reprise the role if it came out?

Wouldn’t that be a beautiful film? [Reprising the role] For Emmeline? Yes. For Harriet? No. <laugh>, because I’m not that old <laugh>. And when it comes to film, they need to hire somebody! There’s amazing older actresses out here that could kill it. But I would love to play Emmeline in the film version. Kimba would have to write it though!

Finally, I spoke with actress Justeen Butler, who plays a younger version of Emmeline/Grace.

Um, so starting off, I guess from the beginning, what kind of got you involved with the play? Why did you kind of decide to take on all these roles?

Justeen Butler: I auditioned! <laugh> As you know, I was going through Actors Access. I seen [sic] this up on the website and I was kind of just like, “there’s not a lot going on right now.” I love theater. This seems like a role that I could do. I submitted myself and got the audition. Typically when you do Actors Access things, sometimes they’ll have the sides up there for you. And like, there was none of that. So I was like, I’m just gonna walk into an audition and do a cold read. “All right! Haven’t done one of those in a while. Knock the dust off these skills and see what this is going to do.”

But immediately coming into the audition — even the size that they had — I really could see myself doing this. I could see myself portraying these characters. And that was before I realized I was going to be doing more than one character!

I was talking to both Bernadette and Kimba and you know, they both are from outside of Boyle Heights, right? So they kind of had to do a lot of research for it. Are you familiar with the area yourself or did you have to do the tracking and researching of the area?

I had to do all of the research and the tracking. I’m from Hesperia, California, so I didn’t come to LA until I was 16. So I didn’t even know anything about Boyle Heights. Like, this neighborhood was completely unknown to me. And then once I got cast and I read the play and I was like, “oh, there’s a wealth of history in this area that I absolutely had no knowledge of, and I live 15 minutes away now” <laugh>

I was like, that’s crazy. Then hearing Kimba say that they had those community meetings where they talked to people who actually lived in this neighborhood, that’s what inspired the story. I was like, “if I don’t do my due diligence to go and immerse myself in this neighborhood and see what is really happening here now…” So I went like to Evergreen Cemetery and just spent some time there and really got a sense of… I didn’t know how vast that cemetery actually was and the tombstones are so beautiful and just even that was like, “wow.” There’s a depth of history that I don’t think anybody really knows outside of Boyle Heights. Like if you’re not in this area, you don’t know about it, which is a shame, because if this is really how it was back then, it’s unfortunate that people aren’t looking at this neighborhood as an example of how all of LA could actually be.

And we have a very diverse cast of characters, obviously; Bernadette said earlier that she didn’t meet some of the cast members until a little bit later on in the process. So what was your experience? Did you meet everybody earlier on that you were going to be working with? 

The only person I knew previous to any of this was Doug [Kaback] who played, David, Saul and Mr. Ralphs, because I went to CSUN [California State University Northridge], I went to Northridge and he was a professor there when I was there. So when we did the first read and they were like, “and this is Doug Kaback,” and I was like, “wait, ‘Kaback?! <laugh>, hold on. I know, I know that name!” 

It was a reunion.

Sherick [O’Quinn], who played Bruce and Samuel, I saw him at the audition. So he was sitting in the lineup of actors… So seeing him again at the read I was like, “oh, look, we made it together!” And then everybody else I met the first day and I think Miles I met at the second rehearsal ’cause I don’t think he was at the first read. But yeah, I, for the most part, I got to really know everybody the first day.

And you know, Bernadette was saying she ended up singing during one of her scenes because your character also sings. So were there any things from her performance that you kind of took to keep the through-line of the personality of the character? 

Oh yeah, definitely. Bernadette is just a joy to watch. She’s a very powerful actress. And I knew after watching her, my job was to justify all of the hard work that she did, because you see Emmeline at that older age and she’s gone through all of these things. So how do I justify this deep well of emotion that she’s bringing? And I really needed to rise to the occasion. So I was looking at her for like, “okay, let me see what little mannerisms — let me see, when you get angry, how does that look?”

So that way I can make sure I add that, you know? Emmeline doesn’t get too angry because there’s a thing, but she will yell and then catch herself. So those were little things that I wanted to make sure were in line. So that way it wasn’t so awkward when we changed characters and I become ‘Young Emmeline’ and people are like, “well, wait, hold on, hold on! Who is this now?” <laugh> “It was a whole different person. What is this?” So hopefully, you know, that transition made sense for people.

Were there any additions that you guys made to the script based on the performances? Or was everything played out as it was written originally? Was there any improvisation allowed?

I feel like Kim’s writing is really, really strong. So we found moments, like in Scene Two, when she’s coming in as older and I’m her granddaughter — the Ring — because I’m wearing it in the first scene as old Emmiline. And we had to figure out a way to give it to her because she has to have it for her next couple of scenes. And I was like, “oh, well old grandma, you might’ve just forgotten this ring.” And so those little things are improvised and just the chemistry that Bernadette and I have, we found little moments that we could add.

So what would you like viewers to take away from the play when they walk out of the theater? 

I think this idea that we can respect one another, love our differences and celebrate it and still just all be together. That I want people to take that away from it. I’m very big on positivity, love sharing, culture, sharing different things. ’cause that’s how you learn and that’s how you grow. And I think this, this story in itself really encourages people to look at “why are we mad about our differences?” Especially like in that Scene Five, they’re all sitting there playing poker. That’s all different backgrounds.

That’s literally what life is supposed to be. Right? We sit down, we break bread, we laugh, we joke, you know, we share things. We might get a little heated sometimes <laugh>. The differences of opinion, you know, and it’s just like family. And I think if we look at everybody less like, “oh, this is a stranger who I need to take and, and keep away from me.” And more like, “what can I learn from you and what can I give you in exchange that’s gonna help elevate?” So if anything, that’s what I want people to take. 

It just means you can grow, you can be better. We all can.

RISE runs through November 5, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 7 p.m. Tickets to all performances are $25; $15 students and seniors (65+) Group discounts are available for groups of 10 or more at $12 per person (Promo code GROUP).

One thought on “God Built Us Different: A Conversation with the Women of ‘Rise’

Comments are closed.