I know some people think it’s cliche, but I think it’s a good thing to use the beginning of the year to re-evaluate one’s goals as a human being and set some new goals for the upcoming year. Being a human is an ongoing process, and we can all find ways to improve.
I can personally think of a million ways to improve myself. As always, I do want to lose a few pounds, save a few dollars, and spend more time doing things I love, but like many people, I can dig a bit deeper to find something harder to work on.
One thing that has dominated my life since I started it 20 years ago is the theater that I founded in 2001. I realize the only reason that I ever thought that a two bit actress with a working class family and literally no safety net whatsoever in anything had the ability to start and run a theater was because I was young, and social media did not exist yet to force me to compare myself to others. Because of my complete ignorance and desire to do something genuine, it not only happened, but has existed for over 20 years now, chiefly on my own steam. It has had its highs and lows over the years, with more successes than failures, and I’ll never be sorry that I made it happen, but it’s also been a source of a couple of significant nervous breakdowns. Not because I didn’t believe in what I was doing, but because I let other people hold power over how I felt about what I was doing. At some point, you have to admit to yourself that you are the one who controls your power, not other people.
It really used to get to me that I was the only one giving up my life all the time for the theater’s projects. Other people wanted it there when they could use it, but would often be MIA unless they were directly benefiting from it. And the people for whom I was creating a place to shine were usually the ones who always got all the credit when something was good. Often, I would take a huge risk to give a young artist a place to begin and have a real project to do, only to have them make it clear that they had no respect for me when they decided they had enough experience to move on. I took that kind of thing personally, until I taught myself that having a generous nature and giving some power to others to use is not a bad quality. Ungratefulness is. It’s not a negative reflection on me when others behave badly. I can’t change who I am, or how people react to me. I can only control my own reaction to things and who I allow into my life. I don’t always succeed at this, but I am doing much better with it now that I have resolved to stay mindful of it.
Most of why I have taken things so personally has been because of some traumatic relationships I endured growing up. That’s true of many people, and it’s really hard to unlearn those patterns of seeking approval from people who will never give it to you, or being afraid of disappointing others to the point where you’re constantly letting yourself down. It takes a lifetime of work just to set boundaries, but I feel like I’m finally getting somewhere with that.
So my resolution this year is to not only continue the hard work of remembering my own value and not letting others define it with their words and actions, but also to compassionately refuse access to anyone who does not treat me with respect. It is also to remember that just because I hold someone in high esteem doesn’t mean they return the sentiment. I have often thought I was good friends with someone who made it clear at some point that I wasn’t even on their B list. That’s on me, not them. At the same time, I don’t owe anyone a friendship or support in a project. I don’t even have to go to any show, party or event I don’t want to or call anyone back who constantly wants something from me and never returns the favor.
My time and talents and love are all valuable, and people need to earn those things from me. Nobody takes your personal power. You have to give it to them.
URBAN COWBOY is on HBO. I was too young to watch it when it came out, but I remember the soundtrack on the radio. I thought I’d check it out because it was an important movie at the time it came out, apparently. Dude, this thing does NOT age well. So, this girl gets involved with and marries this dude that is uneducated and works in a factory, and his biggest talent is riding this fake bull, and he hits her. Then she does something he doesn’t like ,and he kicks her out (his WIFE) and gets another girlfriend like 5 minutes later and she has nowhere to go so she moves in with an even worse guy. And then he wins the fake bull riding thing and gets super mad that the other guy also hit her (like outraged, when he did the same thing earlier in the movie) and apparently there are only 2 men in the world she’s allowed to pick , so she goes back with him. I did not like this movie. I wanted to punch every man in that film except Uncle Bob, who was at least nice to his wife. The only thing good about this movie was Bonnie Raitt playing for 2 minutes at that bar.
sorry. I grew up around fucking men just like the ones in that movie, and I did everything I could to get away from them, and all I want is for fictional Sissy to do the same, but she doesn’t. So.. yeah, I’m triggered.
From around 2005 to 2010, my theatre company, Mildred’s Umbrella Theater, used a performance space called MIDTOWN ARTS CENTER. This is not the Midtown Arts Center that is called MATCH, which is new, clean and not cheap. I don’t think it has enough of a track record yet to be haunted.
If you google Midtown Art Center, that’s the one you’ll see. It’s the only one many people know about.
No, The Midtown Arts Center we used to use was a different one. I know it’s been there a really long time, and it has been declared a historical building. It’s so historical that it’s still standing and being used for theatre, even though it is falling down in places and certain areas of it might even not be safe to be in. This Midtown Art Center definitely has character. Its also haunted as hell.
Midtown Art Center a 3414 LaBranch.
Never mind the holes in the walls that the water would get in when it rained, or the mice and other ‘pets’ that we’d see here and there. That kind of thing is easily gotten past for a needy group of young artists, and it barely phased us. However, this was the site of the two most supernatural events that ever happened to me.
Some photos from shows I directed there: DARK MATTER (2007) and A MURDER OF CROWS (2008)
So, the stage in the space had no work lights, and it had really dim house lights, so basically, if you were working in there to build or rehearse, you had to turn on the stage lights to see anything. Whoever opened up the space for the day (usually me) had to walk from the front door, all the way down a long, dark hallway, to the backstage area to turn on the breakers and the AC. Then, you had to walk all the way back to the front of the space with only the lobby lights to guide you, up a ladder and into the tech booth in the dark to turn on the stage lights. I did this every time on arrival, and I was usually alone, and it always felt like someone was watching me, but that is easily dismissed as paranoia when you’re alone in an old building.
So, this one time, I was walking from the front to the breakers, alone as usual, and once I passed a certain spot in the hallway, it was suddenly cold. Then, I heard whispering that seemed to be getting closer to me until it was right in my ear! It was like… “Sskpskgt… SEE ME!” It sounded like a child’s voice, and I felt the air in my ear like it was someone’s breath. I nearly wet myself! I ran back outside and waited for one of my actors to arrive, and then we went back in together. There was nobody in that building and no way to get out or in besides the front door, which I was guarding until the actor arrived.
Later that same month, when that show was open, another thing happened. Our set had a white cyc curtain across the back with space for actors to walk between it and the wall that was behind it. I had just turned off the AC, and everyone had left, but I could hear a couple of the actors talking outside as I was locking up. No air was moving in the space and nobody but me was in there. I went up to the booth to turn the stage lights off, and as I was about to pull down the lever, I saw the unmistakable shape of a hand run itself along that back curtain, like someone was walking through there with their hand out. I screamed and the actors came running back in and we looked all over that space and nobody was there.
I was never in there alone again, but we did perform there for a few more years after that. We’d probably have gone back there again if the people who run it would ever get back to us. However, I’m very wary of being alone in any theatre, although we’ve had 4 other regular spaces since then, and I’ve never had an experience like that anywhere else.
THE FLU SEASON, by Will Eno (directed by Matt Huff) 2010
I wrote this essay for THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE about the 2 year process of creating a show called THE MOTHER PROJECT: A COLLABORATION TO HONOR BLACK MOTHERS AND THEIR CHILDREN. I learned a lot. Including that many of my friends, the mainstream theatre going public, and a lot of theatre press don’t pay attention to the work of black women like they do other things. If I didn’t realize how invisible black women feel before, I can see it now.
Essay: I didn’t respect motherhood as a choice until working on this show
“In his last breaths, he cried out for his mother.” Those were the words that stuck with me on May 26, 2020, when the murder of George Floyd dominated the headlines.
While I was reading this news, a cup of coffee in hand, my own mother called me. That day happens to be my birthday, and she was calling to wish me a happy one. I don’t call her, she often complains, but my brother does, and she’d just talked to him. He was having some troubles, again, and he needed her. From the time he was a teenager, she’s been bailing him out of crisis after crisis, often at great expense to herself. When I tell her to stop sacrificing everything to jump to his aid, she cries, “You don’t understand. I am his mother! He will never stop being my child!”
She’s right. I can’t possibly understand. I’m not a mother, and I’ve never wanted to be one. I grew up in Houston watching my mother struggle against the world just to keep her kids alive. To me, motherhood always looked like heartache and sacrifice and losing your own identity in the process. Unless you had money and family support, nobody was going to help you with it, either.
But that morning I was inspired to attempt to understand the woman who raised me. For the past two years, through my work in theater, I’ve taken a journey that began in personal inspiration, through race and class, bringing me to a new outlook on what it means to be a mother. I have learned how deep is the mother’s well of heartbreak, and joy.
My mother didn’t always choose the punishing path she found herself navigating. There was an abusive and often violent stepfather, followed by poverty when they divorced, leaving her suddenly without financial support when he disappeared in order to avoid paying child support for my younger siblings. My mother was suddenly plunged into single motherhood and, despite having little prior work experience, worked two jobs to keep the rent paid. One missed paycheck would have left us homeless.
Nobody was traumatized more by these experiences than my brother. The popular, seemingly happy boy stormed furiously into adolescence as a “troubled teen.” It was the late ‘80s and my mother knew little about mental illness; nobody else seemed to know much, either. Kids who acted out were labeled “problem kids” and thrown into a place where they could be contained. At least that’s how it happened in our world, where there wasn’t any money to do anything else about it. I watched my mother fight to save him in a society that does not help unless you can pay. I stood by, helpless as she burned her few hours of spare time every week to visit her son in a juvenile jail or attend meetings at a rehabilitation center, desperately trying to learn what to do to help a child who probably needed therapy, instead of just one cage after another.
I found motherhood a terrifying prospect after what I’d seen my own mother go through. I didn’t think I had the capacity for the kind of self-sacrifice or unconditional love that motherhood required. I’m also ashamed to say now that there was a time when I didn’t even respect it as a choice.
Instead of pursuing motherhood, I’ve poured all my time and energy into a theater company I founded called Mildred’s Umbrella Theater, whose mission is to focus on the theatrical work of women. We produce plays by female writers, and often those plays involve issues of specific concern to women. That morning in May 2020, as the world grappled with the video of Derek Chauvin killing Floyd, I decided to focus on single mothers by creating a performance piece using real experiences of different women whose children had been failed by the same systems in America that were supposed to protect them.
I sketched out a basic idea for how to gather material to create a script, and received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to help make it happen. But I knew I couldn’t create this alone. First of all, I’m a director and producer, but I am not a playwright. Second, I am a white, Gen X woman with no children. A play about the experience of motherhood couldn’t be told only from my point of view. So I brought together a small group of Black, Latina and white female theater artists into the conversation.
When we started planning the actual show, the energy was strong, powerful and feminine. Everyone had plenty of ideas for mothers we could ask to be part of the interview process. I fully imagined my mother would be one of them, since she was the one who inspired the idea in the first place, but theater is a collaborative process, and as we collaboratively worked, our conversations moved away from single motherhood in general, to the experiences of mothers of color specifically. The consensus was that children of Black mothers are the ones who are most consistently failed by the American system. Black mothers are roughly three times more likely than white mothers to die in or just after pregnancy. Doctors are more likely to undertreat them for pain. The differences continue after birth. To cite only one example, researchers at Children’s National Hospital found that Black children are far more likely than their white peers to die in gun violence, including police encounters.
I let the vision evolve away from my own story. It was uncomfortable for a short while, and it even hurt a little to do so, but I realized it was the right choice. As hard as my mother had to work, often at jobs with crappy pay, nobody would have ever decided not to hire her because of her race. She was not, as far as I know, treated as subhuman by hospital staff or looked at with suspicion when she was shopping, even though she was pretty much broke at times. It’s easy to forget your privilege when you know that you did suffer, but listening to other people can often put a sharper perspective on that suffering.
These Black mothers had a different experience where race was concerned, but they still had a lot in common with my mother. We set out to highlight the joys and heartbreaks of American motherhood and that’s exactly what we were doing. In fact, the process that followed helped to make my original idea even clearer.
Every mother we interviewed was eager to tell her story to people who wanted to hear it. It was heartbreaking to discover that some of them seemed surprised that anyone even cared. One mother said that she was used to feeling invisible. Her son was the best thing she’d done in her life, and she sometimes questioned her own purpose, now that he’d been taken from her.
“I raised him to be a kind, generous man,” she remembered, “And he was. He lived to help others.” Her voice shook as she tearfully told us the story of her only son being gunned down by a police officer. “How can someone just kill your child?” she cried, bringing us to tears with her.
A single mother of five, a full-time nurse, was exhausted with guiltover missing the signs that her beautiful, artistic son was suffering before he killed himself at age 13. “He put on a brave face for me,” she said, looking at the photos of her son and his art that graced the walls of her living room. “He didn’t like to burden me with his troubles.” She was angry that the staff at her son’s school had failed to protect him from the bullying that drove him to desperation, but after his death, she turned her anger into activism and was spending her energy to help others. Her young daughter sat beside her as she spoke, studying the pain on her mother’s face in a way that dragged me back many years, as I watched my own mother unravel, clinging to my brother in a desperate attempt to keep him from a similar fate.
Along with the pain, all of the mothers also recalled ecstatic joy. Even the mothers who had lost their children beamed when asked about the experience of giving birth and meeting their children for the first time. “I looked around, seeing everyone else with theirs, and I could now say, ‘This one is mine,’” one of them remembered. “What a beautiful thing that God has created for me.”
They each proudly related tales of triumph where their children had done something extraordinary, whether it was a major gift or accomplishment, or simply a touching act of kindness. One son had given his mother a single, perfect rose every Valentine’s and Mother’s day, from the time he was a small boy until his death in his 30s. “He never forgot,” she said, smiling at the memory. The youngest mother we interviewed, a new mother with a toddler and another on the way, was excited to give her girls the life she never had herself. Her dearest hope is for “each to have their own identity and be confident.” She never wanted them to feel unseen.
Not one of those women regretted her choice to have children. Whether they had stumbled into motherhood as a teen, or struggled to conceive for years before it happened, they all fiercely defended their identity as mothers. My own mother sometimes laments lost opportunities, and I certainly see that it would have been much easier to navigate some of the obstacles she was forced to encounter if she hadn’t had three children clinging to her the entire time, but she never expresses anything but joy about her choice to be a mother.
When she called me that morning on May 26, 2020, she said to me, “The day you were born was one of the best days of my life. I am so proud to be your mother.” I realized I needed to do better to deserve her devotion. I should definitely call her more.
I don’t regret my own choice, but I have changed my judgment about motherhood. For some, it is a choice, and for others it is something that happened to them, but to be a good mother takes incredible strength. Mothers are superheroes. There is no shame in calling on them when you need them, and we should also remember to call them when we don’t.
Jennifer Decker is the founder and artistic director for Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company and English faculty at Houston Community College. “The Mother Project: A Collaboration to Honor Black Mothers and Their Children” will run May 19-28, 2022 at the DeLuxe Theatre in the Fifth Ward. The show is “pay as you can,” which hopefully will make it accessible to everyone who wants to see it.
This year’s reading marks the 23rd anniversary of the Columbine High School mass shooting, which was among the first to ignite major discussions about school safety, access to firearms, and youth mental health.
Founded in 2019, #ENOUGH is a national playwrighting competition for teens to “confront gun violence by creating new works of theatre that will spark critical conversations and inspire meaningful action in communities across the country,” according to its website.
Sometimes a photo pops up on social media, and at first glance, it’s just a random photo of random people. To anyone who wasn’t there, that’s all it is; completely unremarkable. It’s a fairly boring photo of some attractive people sitting passively and fairly expressionless, posing for a group photo. It almost looks like one of those school class photos from elementary school in the way it is laid out.
However, if you were there, you might be transported to the moment of the photo. There are humans involved, and if you were there, and in the photo, you know exactly what was going on with at least one of them.
This photo was an early play done by my theatre company, Mildred’s Umbrella Theater. It was an original play called TOMORROW MORNING. It was written by our playwright at the time, John Harvey (top left), with input by myself (in the jean jacket) and Greg Dean (down right). We had just had our first successful show a few months before, and we excitedly cranked out another one in a very tight window of time when we had the space again.
The play was about a train taking a group of people to the Auschwitz museum, but they eat some drugged food and a wormhole opens in time , and they find that they are really going to a concentration camp. Two of the actors were waiters who turned into Nazis at the end, and one was a singing angel on a separate platform that watched in horror as the events unfolded, and reacted in song. The idea was really ambitious, and we didn’t have enough time or resources to fully realize the project, and it was kind of a mess when it opened. It had some really good moments, but we needed more time to make it what it deserved to be. We learned a lot from that show. Here are some photos from the show. they aren’t the best. We were just learning to be digital at that point, but you can tell that the show was far more interesting than the cast photo.
If you just look at that cast photo with us in our street clothes, it looks like a passive cast photo, but there is so much going on when I look at it. There are so many stories here.
I think I was coerced into sitting for this photo, and was really about to lose my mind trying to get the show up and not kill anyone. I was pissed off at everyone by about this time (you can see the tension if you look closely). Not that it was anyone’s fault. I just was acting in the play, and producing the whole thing on a shoestring. Back then, I always ended up dealing with the set, and picking up slack in every area of the show, so I was super stressed out every time we opened anything.
A few people in this picture don’t speak to each other anymore. There are 2 friendships and one romantic relationship here that ended very tragically.
There is one person in the photo that none of us talk to anymore. Several of us have that person blocked from our lives in every way.
Two of these people are now married to each other and living in Europe. I keep in touch with them.
One of these people now lives in New York, and another lives in Austin. I still talk to them online.
Of the ones who still live in Houston, I am still very close to two of them. I run into two of the others once in a while, and we say hello and remember each other fondly.
When we are all gone, this photo will go back to being unremarkable. A photo like this means nothing if you weren’t there.