The Order’s 2022 Good Death Fellow, Olivia Matthews discusses her Fellowship project which uses theatre as a vehicle to illuminate similarities and tensions between the Death Positive Movement and the Movement for Black Lives.
Miscarriages of justice, like we saw with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin and countless others, unfortunately make this play relevant. In a better world, and in a more perfect union, this play wouldn’t exist, but as someone who has always strived to use my art and my platform to speak out against injustice and cruelty, it must exist.
In my play, Here Lies Vivienne Greene, the title character is called to smuggle a young Black boy out of her hometown after he is threatened by an angry white mob. Set in 1956, soon after the murder of Emmitt Till, she grapples with risking her life and the family business while her own personal grief hangs in the air. Throughout the play, we are transported back in time, to a not-so-distant past in Nashville: to smoky somber jazz clubs; raucous Sunday dinners with new friends; a quiet, quaint bedroom in the middle of the night with Hugo, a lost love of Vivienne’s. Through her memories we learn while why she struggles, but why she must act- and fast.
Inspiration and Background
Here Lies Vivienne Greene was originally developed at Ohio University during my second year of graduate school. During this time I was inspired by the story of Henrietta Bowers Duterte, a Black woman who, after her husband’s death, took over his funeral home. It later became a stop on the Underground Railroad where she would hide runaway enslaved people as mourners in funeral processions or inside of caskets. This latter image struck me and became an essential metaphor within my play. While caskets usually suggest a finality to life, Duterte’s and then Vivienne’s use of it allows for a rebirth into freedom. However, as we know from history, that freedom for Black Americans is strained, with economic inequalities and systemic violence both physical and psychological.
As someone invested in Death Positivity, my goal with this play was to speak to this movement and the Movement for Black lives. To have a good death, one that is informed and has access to options, one that allows for a smooth transition, and possibly, as is part of Black culture, a homegoing, there must be a certain quality of life. Often, under such violent conditions, this is not the case for Black people and many disenfranchised citizens. How can one celebrate, how can one have a good death, when life seems so stifled?
“…how can one have a good death, when life seems so stifled?”
Throughout the course of the Fellowship much of the play has remained the same thematically and structurally. However, with some exploration into what it means to have a homegoing service or a celebration of life, I really got to expand on one of the most important characters of the play, Abigail. While Vivienne seems very stern, Abigail is full of love and life. She mourns the death of her late husband she knows that he should be celebrated like a prince. This conflicts with Vivienne’s frugality around funerals (inspired by The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford) and her reserved demeanor, but also her grief. How can Abigail grieve and celebrate out loud? What will being vulnerable do to Vivienne?
Outside of writing, the bulk of this process has been organizing and recruiting collaborators for the project. My dramaturg is Janai Lashon, a theater artist and activist who read for Vivienne during my time in graduate school. Her insight and ability to speak to theater, race and gender has always been invaluable to my growth as a writer. As part of our website, she will be creating a resource page.
Challenges and Barriers
When I initially applied for the Fellowship, I was planning to develop the play in Atlanta and work specifically with local actors and present it live with a talkback. However, circumstances occurred where it made more sense to do the play online, particularly as an audio play. This unexpected challenge turned out to be a blessing. I can now work with actors I normally wouldn’t have access to, and being available online the play will be able to reach a much wider audience.
That said, something I’ve struggled with in this process has been nailing down a time to work with everyone. With people being in different time zones and having different work schedules, there’s always been some kind of snafu with getting everyone to meet. While this has delayed the project a few times I’m happy to say that we are in the final stages of casting and will be scheduling a start date for rehearsals in August.
The Future of Here Lies Vivienne Greene
We will be rehearsing and recording the play in late summer/early fall of 2023. Once the dining process is completed we will be making Here Lies Vivienne Greene available to the public via Spotify and possibly other audio platforms. I am also speaking with other panelists to create companion content to help promote the play and explore its rich history and themes. For updates follow along on Instagram @hereliesviviennegreene where we’ll be highlighting our actors and panelists, and sharing behind the scenes details.
I’m always concerned with “relevancy” or “timeliness” with my work. What in our culture is it speaking to? As I mentioned this play, unfortunately, is ever-relevant, ever-timely. Back in May, I had a conversation with my dramaturg Janai, and we noted that a few weeks prior to us speaking, Carolyn Bryant had passed, which of course brought up conversations of Emmitt Till. Through the play his memory and his mother’s legacy are forever present with us, almost 70 years later.
APPLICATIONS FOR OUR GOOD DEATH FELLOWSHIP WILL OPEN AGAIN LATE SUMMER 2023.
Fellowships are open to thought leaders and community organizers within the death positive community that have a project intended to make death a more meaningful, sustainable, and equitable experience for all, including but not limited to education, community care, art, events, technology, and/or advocacy.
This grant provides funding to selected Fellows to launch or advance their existing work on a specific project in their area of expertise. In addition to funding our Fellows receive expert support, access to resources, and connection to a community with a passion for changing the future of death care.
Olivia Matthews‘ plays have been seen in Atlanta, Vancouver, Houston, and NYC. Her work often explores family dynamics, the complexities of young women and teens, and the oddities and magic of The South. Olivia received her M.F.A. in Playwriting from Ohio University. In 2020, she participated in the Sesame Workshop Writers’ Room Fellowship. Her full-length play Absentiais the 2020 winner of the Jane Chambers Student Playwriting Award and was recently named a panel favorite by The Wayward Artist.