by Beverly Aarons
What is genius? Most people would say a naturally or exceptionally talented individual is in fact a genius. But the word genius was originally used to describe a guiding spirit that resided within each human being. It was believed by the Romans that every person was born with a ‘genius.’ So if you created some great work of art it could be said that your ‘genius’ was the source of this artistic creation. But at some point, people began to believe that only some people had ‘genius.’ When I spoke with Seattle-based poet and playwright Jacqueline Ware about her two plays — Madison Park Bench and COVID Dreams — I couldn’t help but remember this old definition of genius. You see, for a long time this talented writer could only see the genius in others. She watched others write poetry and perform their work, and she believed she could never be as good as them. But then something happened — she changed.
“A friend of mine was a poet and I would go and listen to her perform,” Ware said. “And I was just mesmerized. You know how you have things going on in the back of your head? In the back of your mind? Something that you should do that you’re interested in and you believe you have a passion for? But you just don’t do anything.” As she recounted her hesitation to begin writing, Ware laughed. “That was my situation. It was there [her writing ability], but I just didn’t put it out there. It was running through my head: fear, concern, worry, anxiety. ‘No one would want it. No one will listen. No one would like it.’”
Ware’s poet friend offered encouragement and tangible support. While she appreciated Ware’s admiration, she wanted her to take a chance on her own writing. When the poet friend performed gigs, she shared the space with Ware. But when she was on stage and the crowd was watching, Ware was terrified. She would hide behind a pair of sunglasses and all her old scripts about who she was as a writer would return, relentlessly tearing her down. The voice told her she wasn’t good enough and she certainly would never match the exceptional genius of other writers she admired. But there was also another voice — what I would call Ware’s own genius — that nudged her to move forward despite her terror and the old worn-out narratives that kept her stuck. She joined the African-American Writers Alliance, where she received feedback, encouragement, and where she finally began to find her voice. But even with support, Ware still struggled to connect with her personal genius. She knew she could write, but she wanted to write like the writers she admired — so she began to mimic them.
“I remembered there was one poetry and spoken word artist, and I just loved her stuff. I’m like: ‘How does she come up with that?’ And I would try and write like her.” Ware’s voice rises and she laughs at the thought of mimicking someone else’s writing voice. “And finally I realized: ‘You know, I just can’t measure up to that.’ And this was a decision that I’ve made on my own. I have got to find what works for me, what sounds right for me, what’s important to me, what I’m passionate about. … When you try to write like someone else, it’s not authentic, and it doesn’t sound authentic. It doesn’t feel realistic. And so it was necessary that I found my voice so that when I spoke I was speaking from a place that was real and important and critical to me. …”
Ware realized that she couldn’t speak authentically about certain themes and subjects because they weren’t part of her experience. She tried to step into those foreign and sometimes appealing spaces, but the writing never came across as genuine no matter how hard she tried. When I asked her what was authentic and important to her, she showed no hesitation in answering.
“Social justice and injustice issues appeal to me the most,” Ware said. Although she has tried, she simply can’t write love poems or poems about nature — even though she is an environmentalist at heart. “It’s really what impacts me on a daily basis. What I see, what I experience, and what I feel is really what’s going to drive my writing. And when I am writing, I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I don’t want it to be all hard and hurtful and angry and mean. I want to find a way in my writing to get it out subtly, but at the same time have a way to heal from it.’”
In her first play, Madison Park Bench, directed by Sadiqua Iman and produced by The Mahogany Project, healing is found in the history and wisdom of an elder. An older man, his back to the audience, sits on a bench and shares his personal story and wisdom with young strangers who cross his path. I won’t give away the plot but the stories are transformative and challenge the assumptions of those who hear them both in the play and in the audience. As I listen to Ware share how she challenged her own assumptions about her writing ability, I can see how her life has been transformed.
Her second play, COVID Dreams, is a concrete manifestation of just how a change in narrative can shift a person’s life trajectory. This is only Ware’s second stage play, but it already has a theatrical home: 18th and Union, the Central District theater and art space. COVID Dreams, a one-act play, explores the pandemic’s impact on the lives of two college students. The play’s setup is simple — there are two students in a classroom and they’re singing and dancing about their pandemic experience as they wait for their professor.
“So they’re just waiting and they’re singing and they’re dancing,” Ware said. “And they’re talking about how the pandemic really has impacted and affected their life. … So he’s living at home with his grandmother. She lost her job working at the restaurant. She had to move back home with her parents. You know, they’re trying to go to school and just be there part-time cause she don’t want to bring COVID home to her son or her parents. He don’t want to give it to his grandma. And this is what’s happening in other people’s lives, you know — trying to be super careful, super distant, wearing your mask, trying to be careful when you go out because you don’t want to bring it home. People losing their jobs, you know, the whole ball of wax.”
As Ware described COVID Dreams as her best work ever, it was clear to me that she was not someone who was going to be stopped by self-doubt and limiting personal narratives. And Ware, who describes herself as a Boomer, even had a bit of wisdom to share with younger artists.
“Whether it’s acting, directing, writing, dancing — whatever it is that you feel that you truly want to do — do it now. Just do it. And you will thank yourself later. You’ll be so much happier with yourself and more content, more at peace with yourself when you do what you were truly meant to do in this life. Everyone has some sort of a gift. Don’t sweep it under the carpet. Don’t open the closet door and shut it. Go ahead and take that risk.”
COVID Dreams can be viewed in an online production by 18th and Union at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, October 18 and 8:30 p.m. Friday, October 23 — discounted and youth tickets are available. Madison Park Bench can be viewed online at no cost to the public.
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.
Featured image: A September rehearsal of COVID Dreams (Photo: Susan Fried)