Fortunately for Miki Vale, she was always encouraged to follow wherever her creativity chose to lead her to. For this musician-teaching artist-organization founder-playwright, that’s translated into creating art — resulting in commissioned work, the 2021 San Diego Music Award for Song of the Year, the 2017 Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Honors award, and carving out spaces to raise the consciousness of her community in areas that include relationships, wellness and justice.
This month, it’s also led to her inclusion in the Old Globe’s annual Powers New Voices Festival, scheduled for Jan. 14 to 16.
“I’ve always loved words and writing and storytelling and music. So, from a young age, it was natural for me to tell stories through music — and hip-hop served as the perfect vehicle for that. Luckily, I was always encouraged to be creative and try many different forms of creative expression,” she says. “I am so grateful to have had that encouragement because, to this day, I love to at least give things a try if they call to me.”
The festival is a weekend of readings of new American plays and kicks off with its “Celebrating Community Voices” program, which features readings of one-act plays by Vale and Queen Kandi Cole from the Old Globe’s arts engagement programs — Community Voices and coLAB — and its collaboration with SoulKiss Theater.
Vale’s play, “And We Danced,” explores the life of Ruth Ellis, an openly gay Black woman born in 1899 who was an activist for Black people, seniors and the LGBTQ community in Detroit. Ellis and her partner turned their home into a lounge-gathering place in the 1940s for young LGBTQ folks. In 1999, the Ruth Ellis Center was founded in Detroit to support LGBTQ youth.
Vale — who is also the founder and artistic director of SoulKiss Theater, an organization providing arts education to queer Black women and encouraging them to use their voices to tell their own stories — took some time to talk about “And We Danced,” creating SoulKiss Theater and the importance of laughter in her life.
Q: Tell us about “And We Danced.”
A: “And We Danced” is inspired by the life of Ruth Ellis. It’s about a playwright (me) writing a play within a play, about a play I’m trying to write. It’s about my process as a playwright, going from writing a romanticized version of a play about Ruth Ellis, to writing about a more realistic version of the trials and tribulations that Ruth would have actually faced as a Black lesbian during that time. There’s a lot of humor in it.
I started this Ruth journey back in early 2020 as a short play. A slightly different version was produced for Juneteenth 2021 for Diversionary Theatre. Now, it’s a whole new story with a lot more drama. I’d say it’s taken me almost two years to complete this project, and I’m still working on it.
Q: What led you to decide to write this play focused on Ruth Ellis and her life?
A: Back in 2000, when Ruth was 100 years old, the Malcolm X Library screened a documentary about her life, “Living With Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100.” That was my first time hearing of her, and I was fascinated by what she had accomplished during a time when it was so unsafe to reveal sexual orientation.
Right before the pandemic shutdown, I was commissioned by the Old Globe to write short, site-specific plays for a collaboration with Diversionary Theatre for the San Diego Pride festival that year. All of the writers commissioned for the project were asked to consider including the experiences of seniors in our plays. It was, and always is, important for me to center Black stories, and Ruth Ellis was the first person who came to mind. I wrote the first iteration of “And We Danced” as a five-to-seven-minute play that ended up being read for San Diego Pride’s virtual festival in 2020.
Q: Have her life and work had an influence on you and what you do?
A: Her life and work have absolutely had an influence on me. After seeing the “Living With Pride” documentary, I was inspired to start SoulKiss events, which was a hip-hop night for women who love women.
Q: What has your creative process for “And We Danced,” looked like?
A: I stress out a whole lot, for days, and then start writing like a mad woman as deadlines approach.
Q: The Old Globe’s annual Powers New Voices Festival is a weekend of readings of new American plays. What comes to mind for you when thinking about “American plays” and what that means, particularly during the pandemic and the protests and social movements against bigotry?
A: Right now, in light of the recent protests and social movements, what comes to mind when I think about “American plays” is effort. Efforts at inclusivity and diversity are being made in spaces where inclusivity and diversity were blatantly omitted prior to the recent, global “aha” moment that Black lives actually do matter and the experiences and stories of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are worthy of being included as a regular part of the “American play” canon. Sometimes that effort feels disingenuous, but I do appreciate where genuine effort is made.
Q: Where do you see your play, “And We Danced,” in that context?
A: I see “And We Danced” as a fun way to share an important part of not only Black history, but also queer Black history and how human experiences are connected, no matter race, gender, orientation, etc.
Q: What do you hope people take away from the reading of “And We Danced”?
A: I hope people leave the theater feeling joy and love and a heightened awareness that, even though our individual experiences may be different, our basic wants and needs and values are very similar. That’s what I believe is part of what connects us as human beings.
Q: Can you talk a bit about how you went from your creative work in music to penning plays?
A: Back in 2013, two of my friends took part in the Old Globe’s free, community playwriting workshop. They both enjoyed it and suggested I try it, so I did, and I loved it. The workshop itself was fun, and I loved the activities the facilitator led us through. It was a fun, new way to tell a story, and I loved the fact that I could talk about anything I wanted and to create a whole new world. Also, being that I always have my hands in several projects at once, the two hours a week that we were in the workshop helped me slow down and focus, and I needed that. Thanks to encouragement from the facilitator (Katherine Harroff), I came back for more workshops, and other opportunities to write plays opened up over time. Now, I do both — music and playwriting. I feel like they go hand-in-hand; music is a big part of plays, and that’s something that I’m excited to explore in future projects.
Q: I’ve read that you and a collaborator created the SoulKiss event series for Black women in Southern California, and that after the series was retired so that each of you could pursue individual projects, you chose to launch SoulKiss Theater during the pandemic last summer to provide a space for Black women’s stories and voices? Tell us about SoulKiss Theater.
A: SoulKiss Theater is a stage for art, innovation, celebration and healing. Through carefully planned lessons, we empower and provide tools to queer Black women to share their experiences through art and meaningful storytelling, as well as provide assistance with career development in the arts. We offer 10-week playwriting workshops for beginning playwrights, and at the end of the 10 weeks, their work is read at a public and professionally directed reading by a cast of professional actors. We’re also building a creative co-working space (The Creation Station), which will host workshops and readings and allows workshop participants and local aspiring artists to meet, network and collaborate.
The precursor to SoulKiss Theater was SoulKiss Events, which was started in 2007 to provide safe spaces for LGBT people of color to celebrate and be uplifted. At the time, I’d noticed a lack of diverse outlets for entertainment in San Diego’s LGBTQ community. As a queer, Black woman, I knew that this was because Hillcrest had nothing that appealed to people of color. Over the next eight years, we produced more than 400 events, from weekly dance club nights to open mic and game nights. We also served as a platform for queer women of color to perform and showcase their businesses. In 2015, my business partner and I decided to retire SoulKiss Events in order to pursue our individual career goals. We were older and, frankly, tired of running around at night. I had always been an artist and since SoulKiss had unexpectedly become a full-time business, I hadn’t been able to focus as much on my art as I wanted and needed to. I began to focus on my art again and was presented with more opportunities.
Although I was no longer able to travel, perform and teach in-person workshops by the time COVID hit, I was fortunate to be able to pivot my business and still earn some income by teaching playwriting and songwriting virtually, and had opportunities to write plays and perform online. I was doing OK, but I watched the people around me suffer emotionally with loss — loss of jobs and loved ones and the way of life as we knew it. I felt the collective grief, and I truly believe that art heals. So, I launched SoulKiss Theater.
Q: What’s been the result of SoulKiss Theater since you started over a year ago?
A: Our first playwriting workshop began in September 2020. Together, we laughed a lot, shared triumphs and challenges, and, in the process, crafted a wide array of amazing stories. As a result of our first playwriting cohort, two of our workshop participants were commissioned by the Old Globe to write plays for the Powers New Voices Festival, an annual play festival that showcases works by new playwrights. Just like that, two Black women who’d never considered writing a play before participating in our workshop became paid, professional playwrights. That’s what SoulKiss Theater is all about, not only offering the space and tools to learn, but also assisting in opportunities to further careers in the arts. Black women’s experiences are important, and our voices are valuable.
I am currently facilitating the workshops myself, along with a fellow teaching artist. My goal is to bring on more facilitators and offer more workshops, including goal setting, screenwriting, podcasting, radio plays and more that will keep building opportunities for Black women’s expression. I also plan to start a podcast to showcase new artists’ work and publish an anthology of 10-minute plays created by SoulKiss Theater playwriting workshop participants.
Q: You’re a talented and busy artist, creating music, teaching others in workshops and presentations, and writing plays. Are there any other projects you’re currently working on, in addition to “And We Danced”?
A: It’s kind of a secret at the moment, but Queen Kandi Cole, who is my longtime musical collaborator and “partner in rhyme,” is also writing a play for the Powers New Voices Festival, and we have something special planned to celebrate both of our plays.
SoulKiss Theater will also be a part of La Jolla Playhouse’s WOW Festival in April 2022, and I am the writer and artistic director for that project. I’ll also be releasing some new music soon.
Q: What’s been challenging about your work in the Powers New Voices Festival?
A: Focusing on one project at a time is always my biggest challenge.
Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?
A: Just the opportunity to be invited to share my work is such a reward. I’m also so happy that the work and participants of SoulKiss Theater (Queen Kandi Cole participated in the first SoulKiss Theater workshop) is being honored in this way.
Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?
A: It’s taught me that I’m enough. What I bring to the table is enough. It’s taught me to keep doing the work and showing up and letting the path unfold.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: I’ve received so much good advice, but one the best pieces of advice was when I was performing at Project Blowed — a long-running, hip-hop night in Los Angeles — many years ago. At Project Blowed, if you are not good or not “ready,” they will boo you off the stage and tell you to come back when you’ve practiced and you’re ready. During my set, I forgot my lines and stopped in the middle of my song, which was horrifying. The crowd didn’t boo me, though. They were so hyped and into my performance that they just yelled, “Keep going! Keep going!” So, I got my bearings back and kept going. When I got off stage, someone approached me and said, “Don’t ever stop, even when you forget your lines. Just freestyle and keep going. No one’s gonna know you messed up unless you stop and make it obvious.” I feel like that advice applies in all areas of life.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I tend to be very quiet, but some people might be surprised to know that I am incredibly goofy. Laughter is definitely one of my love languages. I love to laugh and make other people laugh.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: An ideal San Diego weekend for me would include avoiding crowds. An early morning hike somewhere with not too many people. Maybe grab breakfast at Café Madeleine in South Park. Then a walk to Barrio Logan, walk down Logan Avenue and over to Libélula Books & Co. Then, dinner at El Salvadoreno on Imperial, and maybe catch a play or film screening or something very low-key at night.