We had the good fortune of connecting with Cris Eli Blak and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Cris Eli, what’s something about your industry that outsiders are probably unaware of?
I primarily work in the theatre, and I think one thing that people outside of that world are probably unaware of is the fact that there is space for them. I arrived at theatre rather late, when I was nearing the end of high school, and I think a lot of that was due to me not having theatre as a constant in my life, and not knowing all the possibilities that come with it, you know? You think theatre and you probably think Shakespeare or you think big musicals and dance numbers, which is true, but there is so much more there, there is so much potential, and accessibility is important when trying to unlock that potential. The next big voice in theatrical arts may be sitting in a classroom in a school with an underfunded arts program, where they are not as easily exposed to the same things as some other kid in an affluent private school whose parents can get season tickets and take them to every show that comes to town. The theatre needs to be more diversified but that can’t happen if you only open the door to a certain batch of people.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I write. It is as simple and as complicated as that. I write plays and have also written for film and print. I think what sets me apart are the stories that I aim to tell. I don’t really have any interest in telling stories that we have seen a thousand times. Yes, we know that those stories work and can be successful, but there are so many that are never told, that get put to the side. There are so many people – so many groups of people – who are labeled as minorities or “underrepresented” but there are not many people fighting to represent them, and that’s what I feel like my job is. To take these voices and allow them to control their narrative, to stand under a literal spotlight and speak their truth, show their humanity. I grew up around people who are so often made into breaking news headlines, their humanity is basically stripped away. With the things I write I want to restore that, or at least try. I am not proud of myself for this, but I am proud of the stories that have touched people and connected with people across the world. It’s crazy how a story about injustice and brutality is relevant in England just as much as it is in the states. I didn’t get where I am because I went to a school that costs one hundred thousand dollars a semester. I didn’t get where I am because I come from a family with clout or anything. I wasn’t born with that silver spoon. The only reason I am here to answer this question and talk to you all is because I just kind of got to work and didn’t stop. I reached out to people myself and basically said “Hey, I do this. I think I’m good at this. If you give me a shot you’ll see it too.” And that has been the way I’ve been doing it. Mostly, though, I have to give credit where credit is due. Everything I am and everything I have is because I grew up with an extremely supportive family who let me dream and create and never batted an eye at it. My mother never missed a school play, no matter what, no matter how many jobs she had, no matter what better things she could have been doing. And seeing that allowed me to reach for things. It wasn’t easy. I am a young man of color, there’s one strike against me already. I have had people not take me serious. I have had people tell me that my characters aren’t angry enough, which they equate with blackness. I have heard it all. You overcome it by continuing to create the things you want to create. I always say that you should always take constructive criticism, but never compromise yourself for the satisfaction of someone who hasn’t walked in your shoes. I have to be honest, I learned how to be humble. I had to drop the teenage ego, or whatever you want to call it, in order for things to start moving. I also had to drop certain people and see who was on my team. No one, no matter how “independent” they say they are, can do anything alone, and I am grateful for the love that I have behind me at all times. It keeps me on track. I’m not saying I’m perfect. I’m not. I’ve been through it, I’ve struggled, I’ve hit walls again and again, but those around me have helped me stand back up and that’s why I am where I am. And that’s what needs to be known. Your past doesn’t influence your future if you start going the other direction. If I had gone right instead of left who knows where I would be, what I would be doing. I certainly wouldn’t be doing this. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like – – you are valid, your voice is valid, your story is valid.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I want to dedicate this shoutout to the people who push me, drive me, motivate me and hold me accountable. So, this goes out to my mother. This goes out to my grandfather. This goes out to my grandmother. This goes out to my sister. This goes out to my aunt. This goes out to everyone who came before me. This goes out to the late great August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry who are on my personal Mt. Rushmore. And this is to everyone who wakes up and turns their dreams into goals and their goals into realities, for everyone who struggles and keeps going anyway.
Maxwell Mitchell Negro Ensemble Company A Is For Vashon Repertory Theatre