Playwright Holly Charles is Still A Woman, Hear Her Roar

The Women of Houston Play on Purpose's debut production (Carmen Martinez, Riyike Faleti, Shymika Coleman)
The Women of Houston Play on Purpose's debut production (Carmen Martinez, Riyike Faleti, Shymika Coleman) Photo by Rome Goodson

Last summer, writer Holly Charles was writing her very first play to raise money for a cause she believed in.

One year later, Charles not only has a second story to tell, but another issue she’s fighting with her words. And this is just the beginning.

“So much has happened since last year, “ the advocate says. “It being my first time not only writing a play, but producing one as well – in a lot of way, I felt like I was not only informing people and raising funds, but I was proving myself to some of the people in the theatrical community. It was a lot of pressure.”

Flashback to In All Thy Getting, the script that launched Charles onto the scene with a weekend run at the esteemed Ensemble Theatre – with a sense of history, the playwright attempted to tell the story of Houston’s own Freedmen’s Town, the origins of what today would be the Fourth Ward.

By taking a candid look characters of privilege in the black community who fled this historic area and the dangers of writing off the past, the author was able to put some money where her mouth was by raising a significant balance for the Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum, which dedicates itself to the historic preservation of African culture beyond the continent. “I don’t have money to give,” Charles told us last year. “I know what they need in order to preserve this side of town, but I’m a schoolteacher! Then it hit me, stop looking in my own pockets. What can I write that can help?”

Now looking back, the dramatist is extremely proud of how the production came together. “I’m still so grateful to God, because we just did the five shows over one weekend – but we sold out the lot of them, 1,500 people over one weekend. We employed people with a show that had integrity, it wasn’t just entertainment, there was a purpose.”

But then came the obvious question – what’s next? “You know like when you have a baby, and then everyone just says: ‘So when you gonna have another one?’” she imitates with a laugh. “That’s how I felt opening night, literally people are already asking for the next one. I wasn’t totally prepared, I never even had a desire to write plays. I was thinking I could focus back in on another book, but I wrote In All Thy Getting because there was a need. And I remember telling people, if I do another play, it has to have a purpose. That kept vibrating, the word ‘purpose’ kept coming back – and I realized next time I did this, I need to have my own nonprofit and control things even more. I need to take the reins, be responsible and intentional this time.”

Thus, Houston Play On Purpose (or HPOP) was birthed... through necessity. “I’m hoping that each year, we can find a topic that disproportionately effects minority communities and underserved populations, like the disabled or women. I want to look at issues that matter but we’re not talking about – and I want to use the arts.”

This year, Charles’ crusade is motherhood – and the woman who elect to defer that choice and the social ramifications of eventual infertility. “I wrote this because I’m a 37-year-old black woman who has never tried to conceive and because that is such a typical situation. I have so many friends and co-workers, people struggle with this issue of delayed motherhood and biologically being unable to carry traditionally – but this is really taboo to discuss in black and brown communities. There’s an amazing amount of shame behind this and even the way people talk to me [is telling]. They talk about what I'm doing, or about what time I’m wasting..."

"Just like the last play, I started doing research. WHY is this happening? And I started looking at black women now – not 20 years ago – and there has been this huge renaissance. African American women are the most educated demographic in the US. Our community alone makes up 60-70 percent of all master's and doctoral degrees,” Charles says before adding with a laugh, "which completely changes our dating pool! See what I’m saying?”

Compound this statistic with an increased commonality of uterine fibroids in black and brown women, as well as certain products such as “hair relaxers” with chemicals with adverse side effects, and it’s undeniably a culturally specific concern. “All these factors point out that we should not be ashamed of things that are culturally specific, there is nothing wrong with us. We do the best we can with the resources we are given, with our culture and all these other constraints. I just want to remove the shame.”

So what is I Am Still A Woman? “My goal is to show [our audiences] characters that look like them. To be able to speak all our insecurities and at the end of each monologue, be able to proclaim their womanhood. No matter what you say, whether I’m a mother traditionally or not, I’m still a woman. No one can take that away from you. There are so many people that think: you have to be a woman to be a mother, so you have to be a mother to be a woman. But the two are not interchangeable! Motherhood is 100 percent a choice, and womanhood is 100 percent fact. This is who I am.”

Charles hopes the play will encourage woman to explore all their options, and end the shunning that can come with these tough decisions. To help facilitate new, healthy conversations around this issue, the play's 3 p.m. performance will feature a talk back with experts from the Houston Fertility Institute, the Texas Adoption Resources Exchange and will moderated by the Houston Area Urban League Young Professionals.

“Another thing that effects black women is that culturally, we don’t do a lot of pro-active care,” Charles notes. “I think a lot of women will do what they’ve been afraid to do and that’s check their ovarian reserves. We talk a lot about testing sperm counts for men, but we never really discuss checking on egg production. Do I need to freeze my eggs? I want women to walk out of [the show] and feel empowered, yes – but I also want you to walk away with some information. The goal is to know your options even if you’re not actively planning a family today. There are lots of options and wow, there are a lot of women just like me.”

Performances are scheduled for 3 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 25 at MATCH Houston, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-521-4533 or visit $25-35.

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee