Play explores the Black experience in America from a Haitian-American perspective
By Carlotta Mohamed
Haitian-American playwright France-Luce Benson seeks to tell stories about people of all cultures who struggle against oppression, or whose flaws or past traumas create seemingly insurmountable obstacles that they are determined to overcome.
Overall, Benson aims to explore the Black American narrative from her unique perspective as a first generation Haitian-American.
“My goal is always to tell compelling stories with characters that are universally relatable,” said Benson. “I love a good laugh and I believe there is always a light to be found, even in the darkest aspects of human nature.”
In the forthcoming “Hear Her Call” festival, Benson is one of seven Caribbean-American women writers, whose play will be debuting at the event on Friday, March 29, at the Milton G. Bassin Performing Arts Center at York College, located at 94-95 Guy R. Brewer Blvd in Jamaica.
The festival, co-produced by the Queens-based production company, Conch Shell Productions and the Milton G. Performing Arts Center, is a celebration of Caribbean women writers, and their stories and narratives.
“There are a lot of other festivals I’ve been a part of but there hasn’t been one for Caribbean writers, specifically Caribbean women,” said Benson. “I’m really happy this is happening.”
The submission call asked for female writers of Caribbean descent to submit a short 10-minute play, with three characters or less, and have a unique story in any subject.
Benson’s featured play entitled “Fall” explores the tension and internalized racism between people of the afro-diaspora, she said.
In the play, Benson says, two women – a Haitian home health aide caring for the mother of a Jamaican woman – engage in a dispute that explodes into racial tension, only to realize that their experiences as the children of immigrant mothers were similar and complex.
“It starts as they’re disputing over the care of her mother suffering from Alzheimer’s, but it triggers a lot of issues that have nothing to do with the care of this woman,” said Benson.
Benson added, “It gets into the role of immigrant mothers, particularly from the Caribbean, and I think for first generationers like myself, growing up in America we had an expectation or this sold image through media the way a mother should behave and raise their kids. There’s a big disparity between mothers who immigrated as adults.”
Benson, who has been recognized with several awards and honors in her career, graduated with a BFA in Theatre from Florida International University, and an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama.
After living in New York City for 15 years and teaching at St. John’s University and Columbia University, Benson relocated to Los Angeles, CA., to pursue television. She also currently teaches at UCLA Extension, a continuing education institution on campus.
A member of the Dramatists Guild of America and the Ensemble Studio Theatre, Benson has conducted workshops and staged readings in New York City at The Lark, Playwrights Horizons, Primary Stages, Ensemble Studio Theatre, National Black Theatre and Classic Theatre of Harlem.
Additionally, at the Victory Gardens Theatre/Ignition Festival in Chicago, the Bricolage Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA, and City Theatre in Miami, FL., Duke University.
At the age of 12, Benson began training to become an actress while attending performing arts schools. A few years later, after reading “For Colored Girls,” written by Ntozake Shange, she was inspired to continue writing her own dialogue of plays, she said.
“That was the first play I read that spoke to me and it blew my mind,” said Benson, who is also inspired by writers Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
There weren’t many plays with strong complex characters for Black women in general, and definitely not for Haitians, according to Benson. When she first started writing plays, Benson realized she wanted to create roles for herself and other actresses that she admired.
While working on her first full-length play in college about a family living in Haiti during the Duvalier dictatorship, Benson’s research led her to discover more about Haitian history and culture, unknown to her.
“I felt that it was because I grew up in Miami during a time where there was a xenophobic attitude towards the Haitian community,” said Benson. “On the news things were said images were shown that were really offensive.”
After being inspired by Haiti’s history, music, dance, and the connection to Afro-traditions, Benson made a commitment to continue creating a canon of plays about the Haitian-American experience in theaters.
“Sometimes a character comes into my head and then I sit with that character for a while – a few weeks, months, or a year, until I figure out what the story is,” said Benson on her writing process. “Not all of my plays are necessarily about Haiti or Haitian history, but that’s definitely a part of my mission.”
While explaining the theme of race and identity in her plays, Benson notes that a lot of her characters are in one way or another grappling with identity – an experience she endured growing up as a first-generation Haitian-American woman.
“I don’t consciously seek out to write about identity and it’s not always about race,” said Benson. It organically finds its way into my work. So much of my own life I felt kind of like an outsider growing up as a Haitian-American. Black Americans saw me as other and I was an artist. I was always trying to figure out where I fit in.”
With each play that she writes, Benson hopes to discover something new about herself, the world, and uncover another peace in the complexity of being a black Haitian-American.
Benson is currently working on two playwrights: A trilogy on the Haitian Revolution; and “Detained,” a special project she has been working on in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). All of the characters are based on interviews they conducted with immigrants who have been held in detention and/or deported, and their family members.
“It will always be a part of my mission to celebrate Haitian culture to create characters for Haitian actors to tell stories about and for Haitians, as well as everyone,” said Benson. “I also aspire that my plays are universal through the specifics – that anyone anywhere in the world can watch my play with these Haitian characters and see a piece of themselves and get lost in it and laugh and be moved.”
Benson added, “I would love to feel like I’m opening doors or at least allowing young writers to feel like they can write from their own voice, but they don’t have to conform.”