Lenelle Moïse is a performer and playwright, whose critically acclaimed two-woman show, Expatriate, had a four-week run in New York City last year. This year she's been recording music from her show and making plans to take Expatriate on tour. This morning, Lenelle and I caught up by gChat.
Grace Moon: Hi there! So what have you been doing in the last year that we haven't talked!
Moon: How long was the run of Expatriate at the Culture Project?
Lenelle: We had two weeks of previews followed by a two-week run in July/August, 2008.
all photos by Vanessa Vargas
Moon: And a great New York Times review! So this CD is the music from your show?
Lenelle: Yes. My off-Broadway show, Expatriate. I call the music "root funk space vox soul." It's all-vocal. Two voices. Politicized lyrics. I sing with my co-star, Karla Mosley.
Moon: I saw your show when it first opened, and I remember being very impressed with your vocal talents. I’ve only known you as a spoken word performer. I didn’t know you were such a good singer!?
Lenelle: Ha! Well, I'm relatively new to singing. I mean, I've always sung in the shower.
Moon: Did you write the songs yourself for the show?
Moon: So where did the ability to write music suddenly come from?
Lenelle: The characters. The music tells their story. I found that if I remained open to what the characters needed to say, they said it with music.
Moon: You were like singing jazz and stuff…
Lenelle: They go on a journey from the U.S. to France, from sexual trauma to sexual liberation, from obscurity to stardom... It couldn't happen with dialogue only. Well, I study scat. I'm a writer, but words frustrate me. Sometimes.
Lenelle: So I'm always looking for new ways to communicate.
I love the theatre because you can combine forms of communication. Enter the music!
Moon: How much of Expatriate was autobiographical?
Lenelle: Well, like my characters, I grew up in the projects in the Boston area. Everything else was fiction. The journey to France, fantasy.
Moon: Where did that inspiration come from?
Lenelle: Nina Simone. Josephine Baker. James Baldwin. And an actress I knew. She asked the question first, “What did it take for these people to make that journey?” I wanted to write a contemporary story around that question.
Moon: Can I ask you what the Hijra to Paris is for the black performer? It seems like this archetypal journey?
Lenelle: Exactly. I think Paris has always been fascinated with Blackness, particularly American Blackness.
Lenelle: They had this word: negrophile. Parisians explored blackness as a site of liberation, raunchiness, playfulness, sexuality. Blackness was exotic. Dangerous and irresistible. It's actually pretty problematic.
Moon: Sounds like it…
Lenelle: Because "exotic" can move into the realm of sub-human if we're not careful.
Moon: Interesting, in light of what you explained to me about the history of slavery in Haiti, a French colony. You said the black Haitians revolted becoming the first colony in the Americas to end slavery.
Lenelle: That's right, yes. Well, in a Haitian context, Blackness is humanity. The way you say "person" in Haitian-Kreyol is "nèg."
Moon: Wait, explain that?
Lenelle: Literally, "nèg" means "person" in Haitian-Kreyol. It's a very radical notion!
Moon: What is the origin of that?
Lenelle: Gall. A refusal to be spiritually enslaved. This thing called negrophile was the first time anyone ever said, "The new black." Blackness was cool in Baker's time. It was about embracing New World.
Moon: So in Expatriate you deal with these intersections, don't you?
Lenelle: Yes. There's a scene in Expatriate where Alphine receives a leopard-print dress from a famous French designer. It's the fourth animal print gown she has received since becoming famous. People want to associate her with the jungle feline. Claudie hates this.
Lenelle: Right. But Alphine thinks it's a gorgeous dress.
Moon: Why did they see that so differently?
Lenelle: Alphine is into the adoration, no matter what. She's like Baker in a banana skirt. But Claudie is looking to find adoration/success/home on her own terms. If you're still exotic, you're not home.
Moon: I see.
Lenelle: At its core, though, Expatriate is about love.
Moon: Did the show change much from that first performance until now?
Lenelle: The music has evolved. There's more layering — more vocal play.
Moon: Okay, so what’s the plan? You’re raising funds for the CD, music from Expatriate?
Lenelle: Yes, we need to raise $1,919 by December 22. Our goal is $5,500. We’ve raised $3,500 already!
Moon: This seems doable! So people can go to your Kickstarter page to donate.
[Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing fund-rasising network for creative artists. So make sure to donate before next week's deadline!]
Lenelle: Yes. I think it's totally possible! I'm excited about getting the music streaming through many, many headphones first. I think the music is a great window into the play.
Moon: Can we have a listen to one song?