Ayla Sullivan, author and actor, explores the story of Hart Island.
Ayla Sullivan, author and actor, explores the story of Hart Island.
Miles Jordan Wood

Ayla Sullivan Explores History and Identity in We Are the Wake

At nineteen, University of Colorado undergraduate Ayla Sullivan is already a cultural force to be reckoned with. Last year, Sullivan — who prefers the pronouns they/them/their — was not only named the 2017 Denver Youth Poet Laureate, but their play, We Are the Wake, was a finalist in the university's New Play Festival and had a staged reading. Now We Are the Wake is receiving a full production in the Loft Theatre on the CU Boulder campus, where it will debut on February 7.

We Are the Wake takes place on Hart Island, a cemetery off the coast of New York where over a million unnamed dead are buried. During the Civil War, slaves and Confederate soldiers were interred there; today it serves as the final resting place for New York’s homeless and destitute. Sullivan was inspired by a poem, "Mass Graves," presented by the Minor Disturbance slam-poetry team, of which they are a member, in 2015. When mentor Rebecca Preston told Sullivan about Hart Island, “I couldn’t shake that place, and I dived into research, spent most of that summer researching this and Rikers Island. I found some striking things that made me want to put it on stage. It couldn’t just be a poem. I wanted people to see what Hart Island was.

“It was wild that it got chosen,” Sullivan adds.

Sullivan’s mother is Chinese and Vietnamese, their biological father black, and the man their mother is married to — a father figure — is white. There are also two gay grandfathers. “I come from an aggressive social-justice background,” Sullivan explains, “and so when I first found out about the place, I was so angry. I came from an angry, frustrated place.”

As Sullivan wrote the play, its perspective broadened. “As a playwright, it’s my job to present a complex narrative and write about things that are complicated for me and the people who’ll see it,” Sullivan explains. “How can we humanize people who don’t understand they’re being racist, that the things they say are hurtful? You can use theater to create dialogue.” At the same time, they add, “I believe we shouldn’t have to educate our oppressors to get people to understand our pain.”

While We Are the Wake deals with pain, “it also celebrates the lives of black and queer people, people who are demonized by the media, which includes prisoners,” Sullivan says, noting that prisoners from Rikers serve as pallbearers on Hart Island and are paid fifty cents an hour.

The Hart Island Project has been unearthing bodies on Hart Island.EXPAND
The Hart Island Project has been unearthing bodies on Hart Island.

One of the characters, Ardella, has a boyfriend imprisoned at Rikers. The others are a journalist, Cora, who visits with her wife to find the grave of a long-lost trans sibling, and a prison guard who works on the island and is haunted by thoughts of his own daughter’s unmarked grave.

“My goal started shifting to how can we talk about all this,” Sullivan says, “why each character would be motivated to go to the island, and how grief would shift and change for each character. Grief is something everyone will have the potential to feel, but when they feel it, it changes.” We are the Wake explores “the nature of grief and how it brings people together, the pain black people feel facing constant images of violence and prejudice that unfortunately bind us.”

But the script also reveals that “so much joy comes through grief — especially historically for black people, who learn to overcome adversity through joy, to be empowered, singing, telling stories, using the arts as a way to heal,” Sullivan adds. “It’s a beautiful thing to see on stage and explore, to give narratives of death that lead to healing. As activists, we tend to be so entrenched in grief and anger that we tend to not take care of ourselves.”

Sullivan cites 2015 as “the year I started coming into myself and my racial identity: Why was I afraid of writing about my race? But after Ferguson, I saw something I couldn’t ignore; I couldn’t be black silently anymore. When I started speaking to my biological family, I learned about my great-great-grandmother, who was a slave — Cora in the play is named after her.” The theme emerged “through that, and hearing every day about new police brutality, and coming from an immigrant family who had to lose many of their siblings to the war in Vietnam, to emigrating on boats. There are so many different stories of Hart Island, so many different types of people.

Ayla Sullivan in 2016's Killer Wigs From Outer Space.
Ayla Sullivan in 2016's Killer Wigs From Outer Space.
Ian Mcmorran

“I’m the first in the family on the Vietnamese side to be born in the United States. I carry a lot of reverence for where we came from, what it took for my family to immigrate, and the violence they had to see to come here and provide for their family,” Sullivan continues. “There are a lot of ghosts for my family that are always around. The thing that pushed me to write this play was I noticed this lack of respect and reverence here for ghosts, and particularly people of color who are murdered. To get people to care, you have to show these horrible images of mangled bodies. Nobody would believe what happened to Emmett Till until his mother released images of him in his coffin. It takes graphic images of violence to get us to care about tragedies we are constantly seeing. We never see news about Syrian refugees where we hear their living stories. I wanted to write a play that talked about how media exploits the dead and how to combat people who don’t believe in the dead or in ghosts. A lot of the play rests on the chorus: There are references to the dead, and the dead themselves are always on stage. The characters can feel people there, but they don’t see them.”

Sullivan, who was raised a Buddhist, explains, “Our Buddhism is Buddhist shamanism. It’s a belief that your ancestors are holy and you should respect them. We had an altar that had pictures of the people we’d lost; we’d pray to it every morning. We believe when someone dies they walk the earth for 101 days. We burn fake money and leave out food as a way to comfort the dead; after that they’re either reincarnated or reach Nirvana. The way I interpret it is that 101 days may be different for the dead. They are always around you. Ghosts are present; you need to respect the dead and how they’re being buried.”

Sullivan is working toward a bachelor of fine arts in theater performance and minoring in education, with the intention to follow with a master’s in playwriting and ultimately create a network of community-centered theater companies in specific host cities — Denver first. People living in those places would receive discounts on shows; free classes would be offered in a multitude of disciplines with a goal of making theater, and arts education in general, more accessible.

We Are the Wake is a good start. Performances start at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 7, and continue through 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 10, with a final matinee at 2 p.m. on February 11. For tickets, $16, call 303-492-8008 or go to cupresents.org.

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