Actor Qamara Black (seen above, left) had an unexpected moment during a recent photo shoot for Obsidian Theater’s production of Trojan Women. Black plays Hecuba, the former queen of Troy. About to be taken into slavery by the conquering Greeks, Hecuba is placed in chains.
“We were just taking pictures so we were making jokes, ha, ha, ha, and as soon as that chain went on my neck, I had a very visceral reaction. Tom [Stell, the director] was putting the chain on me and I didn’t realize that I was holding his wrist. He said, ‘I won’t hurt you.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, I know that.’ But I was holding his wrist and my shoulders were up around my ears. I didn’t expect that.”
An adaptation of the work by Euripides, Trojan Women has been reset in Africa. As the play opens, it’s the day after Troy has been taken by Greek armies. All of the Trojan men are dead and the surviving women, now slaves, are about to be distributed to the various conquering kings and soldiers.
Black, who earned a Houston Theater Awards Best Actress nod for her work in Obsidian’s Ruined in 2014, leads the mostly African-American, female cast. It was the production of Ruined, which dealt with rape survivors in the Congolese conflict, that was the genesis for Trojan Women. “One of the reasons that I cast this play the way I did was to work with some of these women again,” Stell says. (Along with Black, Teri Mills and Ujo Edoziem, who earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance in Ruined, were originally in the Trojan Women cast; Edoziem has since withdrawn because of a scheduling conflict.)
The situation in Trojan Women, of formerly free people being enslaved by more powerful forces, of families being destroyed as the various members are separated and treated like chattels, echoes slavery in the United States. “The other day, one of the women in the cast said, ‘Except for this being Troy, all of this happened to [African Americans].’ And it did,” says Stell.
“It’s challenging and demanding to have this conversation. We’ve put it onstage and so it’s even more intense. This is a difficult story. Obsidian doesn’t run away from what’s hard; we run toward it.”
Black prepared for her role by talking with friends from war-torn countries. “I was talking to people who are in similar situations, who came from countries where there was war,” she says. “And the common thread that I kept hearing is that there’s not just giving in, it’s not just lamenting and crying.
“In one scene, Tom was telling me, ‘I really want to see the pain. I want this to be real.’ I told him, ‘Just pain, pain, pain, that’s not real.’ He said, ‘Okay, show me what you got.’ And we started there.
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“There’s a certain amount of directing going on, of course, but he’s also mindful and respectful of the dynamic that he’s created onstage. He’s on it and he’s also trusting us.”
One friend had a particularly insightful comment. She said, “You know, as an African American, there are places here that you can’t go, places you aren’t welcome. And this is your country; this is your home. You may not understand war and death and dying, but you understand what it feels like when everything you loved is challenged, when everything is questioned. When there’s really no totally safe place for you.” Black says that conversation was especially useful.
“We can think about it like, ‘Oh, that’s those Trojan women over there. That’s not us.’ But the point is that war is an acceptance of the idea that the ends justify the means. I want to really bring that home. This play says, ‘Open your eyes. It’s time for us to stop killing each other, to stop hurting each other.’ It asks, ‘What do we do now?’ That’s the question we’re left with. What do we do now?”
See Trojan Women at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. February 11 through March 5. Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak. For information, call 832-889-7837 or visit obsidiantheater.org. $20 to $30.