Actress and playwright Teresa Willis remembers the first black person she ever encountered. He was a piano tuner, hired by her parents, who came by her Valley Station home in 1965. She was 5.
She recounts that experience and puts her upbringing in suburban Louisville and struggles, triumphs and clarity with race relations under the microscope in her one-woman play, “Eenie Meanie,” which opens at the Bunbury Theatre on Feb. 13.
The idea for the play surfaced while Willis (a cousin of the Bruce Willis) was living in Los Angeles and witnessed the racial tension during the riots of ’92. She was active in the spoken-word scene and wanted to spend time on one subject. She recalled her upbringing — being obsessed with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” insisting on having black Barbies, and being bussed to Shawnee High School in 1975.
“I remembered my sensitivity to racism when I was child and how odd it was considering my lily-white Valley Station surroundings,” she tells Insider. “Where did that come from? Why did it hurt inside when I thought about black people and everything they had to go through? This little kid fascinated me, so I decided to write everything I could remember about this kid I was — how her relationship with African-Americans shifted and changed as she grew.”
Willis first performed the full-length version of the play in 2003 at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and recalls the moment she realized she struck a nerve with audiences. After those early performances, there would be lines of people waiting to talk to her.
“And they weren’t talking about my stories — they were wanting to tell me theirs,” she says. “I figured I had hit on something. I had no idea until that moment that this particular perspective was very powerful, impacting, even healing — for me as well as the audience. I felt almost obligated to flesh out the piece, take it as far as I could.”
The play has changed greatly since then, as has Willis, she says, and the original pain that inspired the show has long been healed. “It leads me to believe that art really can be a balm for what ails us.”
The Bunbury production brings the performance count into the 80s. Willis, who now resides in Louisville again, is happy her story still elicits positive responses, though she says she notices differing reactions between races. White people tend to sift back through their own history. “I often hear stories about the black people they loved throughout their lives and how the difficulties that society presents interrupted or affected those relationships.”
And black people are often incredulous she feels this way. “One African-American woman who saw the show in 2006 came up to me after, grabbed my hands, with tears in her eyes, and said, ‘You’re on a Mission up there. This is your Mission. You keep going.’ I capitalize Mission because it seemed like that Christian kind of context the way she said it. And that’s how I feel. I sometimes don’t feel like I even wrote it. It feels like it came through me, and it’s my job to follow wherever it leads.”
Willis hopes to entertain first and spark discussion second. Racism isn’t easily talked about, and she wants to tackle fears and shame head on.
“There’s so much we don’t feel safe talking about, and ‘Eenie Meanie’ flies in the face of that, bringing up ugliness and feelings we often keep inside,” she says. “Well, if we keep them inside, we can’t heal them. I think of racism as a wound we all have, but we’ve been taught to ignore it. I’ve gotten in touch with my own pain around racism, and I’ve gone a long way toward healing it. I hope it can inspire some positive intention for others around the issue as well.”
“Eenie Meanie” runs Feb. 13-March 1 at Bunbury Theatre, 604 S. Third St. Tickets are $22, $19 for seniors and $10 for students. For more information, go to bunburytheatre.org.