WHEN SHE WAS around 8 years old, Phanésia Pharel ― then a newcomer to the Miami, Florida, area ― found herself enrolled in an amateur theatre camp housed at the local mall. “It was hilarious,” Pharel said. “They had a guy come in every day who showed us magic tricks that I don’t even feel would pass the YouTube test, then they had us watch movie musicals. I guess they didn’t know to get us sheet music or bring in someone to be a pianist. There was no technique. So, we learned Hairspray the musical from watching the movie.”

Despite the less-than-illustrious introduction, Pharel became hooked on theatre and, later, playwriting. Her first completed script, Penelope ― a biting allegory about systemic racism and the ways in which public education fails students ― earned Pharel a trip to the 2016 International Thespian Festival as part of the Thespian Playworks program. In Penelope, a young Black woman must literally walk the tightrope to survive the circus that is her school. During what Pharel describes as a dark time, the Troupe 3637 alum said, “Thespians was a light.”

Currently a member of the Barnard College class of 2021 at Columbia University, where she recently won the Brandt Playwriting Award and Helen Prince Memorial Prize for excellence in dramatic composition, Pharel will soon mark another milestone: the end of her virtual residency at Los Angeles’ Echo Theater Company, where her latest work, Black Girl Joy, will be read via livestream in December.

Pharel sees the play as emblematic of her work, which often focuses on marginalized voices. “I write about a lot of different things,” she said, “but one of the things I love specifically about writing about Black girls is if you give Black girl characters the space, they will take it.”

Phanésia Pharel and Juan Espinosa
Phanésia Pharel on her final day of high school with her theatre teacher, Juan Espinosa. Photo courtesy of Phanésia Pharel.

When were you introduced to playwriting, and whose work inspires you?
I didn’t know about playwriting until I was 15. I was very much interested in being an actor. I also wanted to become a comedy writer. When I was 13, my house burned down. It was really traumatic, and all I did was watch Saturday Night Live. That was my coping mechanism, getting into comedy. I was a Tina Fey fan, a super Sarah Silverman fan. So, I would write my own comedy sketches about what it was like to be a teenage girl getting her period, weird stuff like that.

I remember my drama teacher ― there was a public theatre program through City Theatre to teach young people how to write plays. It was during the summer, it was about two hours away from my town through public transportation, and he really encouraged me to do it. I submitted a spoof of Mean Girls called Vegan Girls. I showed up thinking I was going to learn to write screenplays because I had some experience in a film scholars program through the University of Miami. I showed up, and they were talking about plays.

I was so confused because, even though I was reading all these plays in my theatre program in high school, I never really thought writing plays was something someone could do. I have a continuous relationship with City Theatre ― I interned there a couple of years later, and I was part of their program for the next generation of playwrights. So, they really nurtured my voice as a young playwright, and that was where I got my understanding of playwriting.

I read a lot of Suzan-Lori Parks. She’s the benchmark for me of what it means to be a great playwright. Her plays were so crazy, and I didn’t understand a lot of them, but I felt them. And that’s something I really liked: You might not understand every piece of theatre you read. We live in a world now where so much content is digestible. Even in classes, they tell you, “Make your work digestible.” And I’m just now working with a theatre company that’s telling me to do the opposite, that I don’t necessarily have to make my work digestible. I feel like Suzan-Lori Parks is similar to Toni Morrison because her work asks you to meet her where she’s at. She’s not talking to you. You have to get to that place.

What inspired your Thespian Playworks script, Penelope?
As a performer, I felt very much put to the side. I would always get typecast as certain characters, or I wouldn’t get to play characters that spoke to my experience. So, I decided to write. I started to loathe performing because it was so stressful, whereas playwriting opens worlds. It opened opportunities.

With Penelope, I was coming from a place of feeling unheard in my high school. There were so many experiences, but a lot of people above me in their roles in public education, they still had work to do in terms of being complicit within white supremacy. If you don’t acknowledge racism ― if you are not fully prepared to acknowledge that ― you’re not going to be prepared when a young Black girl comes up to you and explains to you how racism is happening; you’re not going to be prepared to hear her. I think Penelope was that no one was hearing me, but here I found this really great way of expressing myself. I wanted to write a satirical play clowning the public education system, turning it into a circus, taking all my frustration and putting it in one place.

Pharel met her favorite playwright, Ntozake Shange, as a sophomore at Barnard. Photo courtesy of Phanésia Pharel.

I used to write rants on my high school drama teacher’s computer about my feelings, and I would perform them at our spoken word night. I have so much love for my high school drama teacher, Juan Espinosa, because ― and I’m getting emotional thinking about it ― he would tell me, “There’s nothing you can’t do.” Even when I didn’t know how to use my emotions in a healthy way, he was such a loving professor that he cheered me on and told me, “Keep expressing yourself.” Because of him, I felt comfortable writing that play. I didn’t have anybody who was encouraging me in that way. He will always be someone I treasure because of that.

Penelope is at the center of the story because I like to write from my perspective, but even within the play, all these different types of people who have different experiences and struggles come together to stand up and revolt. Public education can sometimes really limit expression when it’s done poorly. And, when it’s at its best, you’re able to fully express yourself. I’m inspired by all the high schoolers right now who are writing petitions and calling out racism. These students who are speaking up ― that’s so important. That’s the essence of Penelope.

Was Penelope the experience that made you decide to pursue playwriting, or did that come later?
It was a mix. At the International Thespian Festival, we had an amazing staged reading. It was one of the best memories ever, so many people were just on the edge of their seats. Is Penelope the best play ever written in the history of the world? Absolutely not, but it was a play that a 16-year-old Black girl from a low-income school in Miami wrote. I wrote really boldly, and I think the reception it received ― the best play in the world might not be the play that people care about because it might not be the play that drives us as humans or pulls us in.

After the reading, this girl came up to me, and she was crying. And I remember this changing my life ― she just looked at me and said, “This is incredible. I feel so seen.” And I thought, “If I can do that, I should totally keep doing this.” I knew to hold on to writing. I didn’t necessarily know how it would manifest. There are other things I want to do with my life. I didn’t major in theatre; I majored in urban studies. But I do feel like playwriting is kind of my life’s calling. Too many things have happened that have confirmed that for me to just walk away.

Your most recent play, Black Girl Joy, has been described as the coming together of four young women grieving the loss of their friend. Why was this story important to you now?
Black Girl Joy started in January. I was studying abroad, and in a fever dream, I wrote a scene of this girl coming into a room and talking to her mom, and her mom being like, get away from me. The girl is haunting her mother because she has something important to tell her. These two ― the mother and the daughter ― have been under so much stress just from being Black. Black women take on so much. I think part of what you have to learn as a Black woman is to let things go. You don’t have to do everything. You don’t have to be everywhere. You can ask for help.

There’s this idea of the strong, independent, magical Black woman. That’s not a human being. No one can live up to that standard, and even trying will kill you. I really wanted to write a play that brings down our toxic ideas of Black women and how that manifests on Black girls. Black women face a lot of danger. We experience the most domestic violence. We experience the most assault as young women. We get targeted more in schools. I wanted to write a play that had a diverse group of Black girls. They’re talking about all these experiences ― the neglect, how they’ve been left behind, the expectations placed on them, and how they had to push back against those expectations.

Pharel (center) with her mother, producers, former director, and dramaturg at the 2019 reading of her play Lucky.
Pharel (center) with her mother, producers, former director, and dramaturg at the 2019 reading of her play Lucky. Photo courtesy of Phanésia Pharel.

Through viBe Theater Experience, you teach young women of color about leadership and writing. What is the most important lesson you share with them, and what would you tell Thespians interested in provoking change in theatre today?
What’s cool about working with viBe is that it reinforces my interest in writing about young people for as long as I can. When I’m there, I’m so inspired. What I try to teach them is how to get out of their own way and let their voices lead. There’s so much programming that tries to shrink girls and make them feel small. But they’re brilliant. Put a young woman in office, and just see how the world changes.

Young people have a lot of power because they are among the biggest consumers. Young people are incredible innovators. I feel the best thing you can do is speak to power, critique, do the research, listen to different perspectives. Learn from other people ― don’t just hold the mike for yourself. Be willing to have tough conversations. They say it’s much harder to change an institution built on certain ideals than to make a new one. I think people who want to make their own projects, want to make their own theatre companies or their own collectives, that’s really important. That’s where innovation in theatre will come from. I don’t think we necessarily have to follow the old rule book.

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