In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, director Sasha Maya Ada discusses Jubilee Theatre’s staging of “If Pretty Hurts…” with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Marcheta Fornoff: Tell me a little bit about “If Pretty Hurts…”
Sasha Maya Ada: So I’ve been describing it as Wakanda (the mythical setting of the film “Black Panther”) meets “Mean Girls.” And then in the last week of rehearsal, I was like, ‘Oh, there’s an extra factor to this, which is “Turning Red.”
I don’t know if you’ve seen the Disney movie. It is incredible. I wept like a child. It is this beautiful universe outside of Eurocentricity, detailing the dynamics of being a teenage girl, the pressures, the beautiful parts of it, but also the generational pressures and challenges of growing up. So that’s how (“If Pretty Hurts…” is like) “Mean Girls” meets Wakanda meets “Turning Red.”
Fornoff: Those are very modern references. What period is it set in?
Ada: There’s a reference to Beyoncé. There’s a reference to Lupita Nyong’o. So (it’s) obviously a time and place where that exists in our common knowledge. But, besides that, it’s a pretty timeless story.
Fornoff: It sounds like a very powerful, female-driven story. Tell me about some of the cast you’re working with.
Ada: Oh, golly. It’s a really baller cast. So we’ve got Tharmella Nyahoza, who’s playing Akim and she’s a student at SMU, a rising senior. So is Kayla Earl, who’s playing Adama. Kayla Marshall is playing Massassi, and then Tori Donald is playing Kaya. And so we’ve got this group of four young girls that get to play around, enjoy the extremities of being a teenager. I don’t know if you remember 16-year-old, 17-year-old you… I was dramatic. I was crazy. And so it’s nice to hop into a laboratory i.e., rehearsals and get to play around with that. They’re incredibly lovely. And the cast melds so well together. They’re breathing, they’re listening. They’re having fun.
If you go…
Dates: May 27-June 26
Location: Jubilee Theatre
506 Main St., Fort Worth
Tickets: Available here
Run time: Two-hour performance; 15 minute intermission
Fornoff: I mean, those are years I try not to think about too much. But you make it sound like it’s a little bit more fun. There’s an element of escapism there, rather than some of the more cringe elements of adolescence.
Ada: There are some cringe elements in there, but I think what is lovely about returning to that age when you’re 21, 26, 27, is that there’s a freedom to explore ‘the everything’ of it all. The things that suck really, really suck. And the things that are beautiful and exciting and joyful are just like a technicolor world. That’s what I sort of miss about being a 17-year-old.
Fornoff: As the director, what do you hope the audience will connect with or take away after watching this performance?
Ada: Self-love, especially for young Black girls (to know that) you are enough. I think the pandemic gave us some interesting things outside of the obviously horrific things (we experienced). The interesting thing that it gave us was community online. But with that came a lot of criticism and comparisons, so I think this is a nice place to touch back in with: What is my value? What is my worth?
Fornoff: Talk to me about staging this play with Jubilee Theatre, and why that was important for you.
Ada: I think it’s a fun space to play in. There’s not much when it comes to props … the set is pretty minimal. It feels like things are just roaming and popping in from one space into the next.
I think those are fun challenges to have as an actor because it’s like, how do I take this across the stage to get from one place to the next for my next scene?
Jubilee also is a space where Black people can (just) be. And it’s not exclusively that, but it is really lovely to celebrate Black stories and Black culture. To be able to do that with a story that I think is accessible to everybody is really exciting.
Fornoff: There’s a lot of art specifically about high school times and adolescence and normally there is romance at the center of it.
It sounds like there might be an element of that (in “If Pretty Hurts…”), but the focus is more on these individual women as they walk through this very confusing, very emotional, roller coaster ride phase of life.
Ada: You know, we had a brief conversation about this at one of our last rehearsals. I think it’s about each and every one of the characters. Every single character in the story has main character energy. And so bringing in that main character energy, it’s nice to see every one of them go on a journey, the four girls. Yes, there is romance involved. But at the heart of it, it’s not about the romance with whomever, it is about their perception on how worthy they are for that sort of love. It’s that old adage that you can’t love anybody else until you love yourself.
Fornoff: That sort of leads into my next question: What would 17-year-old Sasha think of Sasha of today directing a play at a theater of the caliber of Jubilee?
Ada: Um, I think it’s a gift. I did not have that self appreciation. (I) constantly compared myself to the other people in my class or my progress to what my friends were doing and that takes you out of what is actually needed for your own self growth.
And, maybe joy (too). I mean, it’s a pretty joyous space to be in and (there’s) silliness. I love some good silliness, and I think 17-year-old Sasha would be proud to embrace some of that silliness.
Fornoff: Is there anything that I didn’t ask you about that you wanted to mention, or you think it’s important to know.
Ada: This show is not just for 17, 18-year-old, 19-year-olds. So the show is for everybody. And I hope that we can give ourselves the gifts while we’re sitting in the show, finding that full belly laughter, finding the moments where you go ‘What is happening?” and then finding the moments of stillness that we deserve. Moments of stillness, of peace. That’s important.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.