Seattle playwright, actor, and dancer Kamaria Hallums-Harris didn't know what she was going to write for her senior thesis project at Cornish College of the Arts. But when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, her mission clarified.
As the Zimmerman case unfolded on the news, she began to wonder whether black women were being killed by police as often and for the same reasons that black men were. Her queries led her to the history of lynching.
She found the story of Mary Turner, who in 1918 was hanged by her ankles, set on fire, and riddled with bullets. Seeing that Turner was eight months pregnant at the time, a member of the white mob that strung her up cut the unborn baby from her womb and stomped on it. She also found the story of Laura Nelson, who was raped and hanged from a bridge. The baby she was carrying reportedly survived the murder.
Hallums-Harris weaves such stories into Waning, a coming-of-age drama about a 17-year-old black girl named Luna (Danela Butler). Luna struggles with anxiety. As she begins to reckon with a burgeoning queer identity, she also begins to discover the many horrifying acts of violence against black people in the United States. In the midst of that psychological thunderstorm, she unexpectedly becomes pregnant.
Over the course of the play's brief 50 minutes, Hallums-Harris alternates quiet bedroom scenes with extended transitions that pulse with emotional intensity and very active metaphors. There's a scene where a nameless man (Benjamin Symons, who otherwise plays Luna's boyfriend, Ravi) reads the brutal facts of Mary Turner's lynching while Luna moans in the ecstasy of her first queer experience, as if pleasure can't be experienced without acknowledging the history of pain that precedes it.
In another moment, as Luna meditates on her pregnancy, a remixed version of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" pipes in through the speakers overhead. The striking juxtaposition recalls a biographical detail from Hallums-Harris's own life.
While she was writing Waning, Hallums-Harris, like her main character, found herself unexpectedly pregnant. "It felt like the modern-day equivalent of lynchings to me, that I wanted to keep this child and was not set up to do so," she says. Her due date was her graduation day, and she says she was performing in two shows, working three jobs, and trying to keep her grades up all at the same time. "I did not have the resources. I did not have the funds, so I wrote that into Waning," she says.
Not that it didn't take a toll. Waning, which was co-produced with Earth Pearl Collective, is a heavy show, and the production takes unorthodox steps to prepare people for it: On Tuesday nights, the crew will lead audiences through a self-care breathing ritual involving lavender packets, intended to help them through the play's heavy themes. (Also, white audience members are encouraged to bring a friend of color.)
Hallums-Harris says moments where the past seems to rhyme with the present interest her the most—that interest is reflected both in the script and in the show's music and movement. Jazz from the Robert Glasper Trio mixes with hiphop from Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. A character named Leuanna (played Hallums-Harris), a sort of dancing fairy godmother whose life is intertwined with Luna's, incorporates into her movement gestures from hiphop, ballet, and modern dance.
While Hallums-Harris draws strength and creative energy from her research and from her particular swirl of contemporary and historical aesthetics, the implications of all of it aren't lost on her. That is, if the present looks a lot like the past, then the future doesn't look too good. This idea concretized for her during the writing process, and she finds it depressing.
"But I couldn't write anything else" she says. "I just needed to figure it out."
Before graduating from Cornish with a degree in original works in 2014, Hallums-Harris attended South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts & Humanities (the alma mater of actors such as Nicole Beharie and Danielle Brooks). Since she's been in town, she's acted in shows at Annex and Seattle Immersive Theatre, and she just landed the role of Barbara in Intiman's upcoming production of Robert O'Hara's Barbecue.
In the meantime, despite the heavy emotional toll of writing Waning, she'll be working on another time-bending play called Mitochondrial Eve, in which Hallums-Harris imagines the life of humanity's common matrilineal ancestor in different scenarios throughout time, from The Beginning right on up to the present day. Right now, she says, the first scene involves Nat Turner's wife having an affair with Kurt Vonnegut.