What could teenage playwright Jeyna Lynn Gonzales, Florida-based International Thespian Officer, do with an inspiring idea and a free week? She could write an innovative play that places students right at the center of social justice movements. Gonzales, a Filipino-American student leader, dancer, and actor now adds one more title to her already impressive list: published playwright.

The high school senior recently published her play, With Liberty and Justice For All, through Theatrefolk, an influential publisher that provides plays for schools. Gonzales’ play follows multiple teens at Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020. It illuminates how the pursuit of justice requires people of all ages and identities to be involved.

Q & A with teenage playwright, Jeyna Lynn Gonzales

To celebrate her publication, Gonzales talked with us about her writing process, her goals as a student leader, and the pressing need for diversity in the playwriting industry. Through her work, she proves to other thespians what’s possible. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dylan Malloy: Will you tell us about the characters, and what your writing process was while working on With Liberty and Justice For All?

Jeyna Lynn Gonzales: The story is about the Black Lives Matter protests. As a part of the creation process, I interviewed four people from different states: Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. After the interviews, I combined parts of each person’s story to create a fictional setting. The script is based on a true story, but there’s also creative nonfiction at work.

Of course, every person has their own unique voice. I wanted to capture that authenticity, so I included direct quotes from the people I interviewed. The play pretty much wrote itself because it was their stories. It’s a series of monologues cycling in chronological time.

The part I had the most difficulty with was finding ways to connect each character’s story. I didn’t want to fill the spaces between their conversations with my voice, because I wanted to reflect their experiences.

DM: Many young theatre students feel that they can’t access theatre. And when they do, they sometimes find it hard to identify with the stories being told. Because whether we like it not, writers and directors in the industry are predominately male. As a female who has already dipped her toe into the theatre industry, how do you think we can combat this issue?

JLG: Speaking as a woman of color going into the theatre world, it’s difficult. Especially now, being so much more aware of the injustices that we face. And hearing more stories because more people are feeling empowered to share their stories. I’m seeing the reality.

For example, a lot of my professors and my bosses are white men. And, if you scroll through the Theatrefolk website where my play’s been released, you’ll see that a lot of the playwrights published there are men. I feel like the odd one out because I’m such a young woman of color. I think being young and a woman of color can very, very easily be used against me. I think it’s so easy for people to look down on me or underestimate me simply because of my identity. And to be honest, this is very difficult to deal with.

Representation is huge, and I know some people have mixed feelings about, for example, why we say someone was the first Asian-American man to win an Oscar. Some people ask why it’s necessary to bring race into the conversation. I think it’s necessary because that specification shows young Asian-American actors that winning the award IS possible.

DM: Historically, most playwrights have been men. So, as a young woman, what inspires you to keep occupying the space you’re in and telling stories in  your authentic voice?

JLG: I think this style of playwriting is my calling. I’m okay with being a trailblazer in a world where people like me are underrepresented. I don’t know if I’d say I’m “comfortable” with it because at times it can be very uncomfortable, but I’m willing and able to do it. For this ability, I’m very grateful.

As a student leader who’s passionate about servant leadership, I feel like it’s my duty to use what skills I have to offer help to other people. And if helping other people happens by increasing representation, then that’s what I want to do.

DM: How do you think young playwrights can use their platforms to create  accessible spaces for everyone?

JLG: I think it’s a matter of doing the work and having the conversations. This has been at the front of my mind for so long. I wrote the play to submit it to the Florida Thespian Festival. There’s a playwriting category for the competition. I did all the interviews and writing in one week because of the deadline.

Another thing people are talking about is how BIPOC stories don’t have to be all about pain, war, and tragedy. I admit that I feel some  guilt telling a story that’s so full of drama. But at the same time, I feel like it’s an important story to share. The guilty feelings stem from the fact that I don’t want to take much credit for writing a story  about the Black Lives Matter movement, simply because I’m not Black. And, also, because I wasn’t at the protests.

So, to be clear, I want to emphasize that my motive in writing the play is servant leadership. It’s important to me that readers and audiences understand that I wrote the play for  the people the Black Lives Matter movement affects directly.

DM: Where do you see yourself in 15 years? What kind of stories do you want to be telling?

JLG: I see myself wanting to do many different things. Right now, I don’t have an end goal; I don’t have a 15-year plan.

I just want to work on projects that excite me. For example, the work that revolves around creating social change really sets my soul on fire. Becoming an adult, I’ve had to learn to be comfortable with expressing my beliefs. Helping to create social change is also part of why I wanted to become an ITO. Because the role of ITO lets me advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion on an international scale.

Dylan Malloy is a playwright and director whose first play, The Rocket Man, was adapted from a short story by Ray Bradbury and premiered in March, 2021, after Dylan acquired performance rights from Mr. Bradbury’s estate. She’ll be attending Emory University as a playwriting major, with a double major in business on the arts administration track. You can find her on Instagram @dylan_writes.

Editor’s Note: If you’d like to learn more about Jeyna Lynn Gonzales and her first play, With Liberty and Justice For All, check it out at Theatrefolk. You’ll find her on Instagram @JeynaLynnGonzales, on Facebook as Jeyna Lynn Gonzales, and her website Jeyna Lynn Gonzales. Here’s where you can learn more about becoming an ITO. You can also read more stories about playwrights and playwriting in Black Girl Joy: 5 Questions Phanésia Pharel and Finding Your Why.

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