In our “Black Art Matters” series, I talk with Black artists about how local and national protests are inspiring and fueling their work. Here is my conversation with Louisville playwright Cris Eli Blak, whose musical, “Liberty Bleeding,” explores police brutality. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MICHELLE TYRENE JOHNSON: Tell me a little bit about your background as an artist.
CRIS ELI BLAK: I always wanted to be in the arts. I mean, it was never another kind of option for me. I fell in love with film really early. I fell in love with animation really early. It was never a moment in my life when I said ‘Oh, I want to be a businessman,’ or, ‘I want to go to law school.’ I’ve always been wanting to pursue something in art, something in entertainment.
I didn’t figure out that writing was specifically what I wanted to do until later on. But I’ve never wanted to do anything but tell stories and entertain people. Because that was what most of my childhood consisted of. It consisted of watching movies, and watching cartoons, and designing theme parks, and just living inside my imagination, and spending countless hours in those different worlds in my mind. So, you know, my path to being an artist, I guess started the day I came out the womb. And then it’s all been downhill from there, because I’ve never wanted to do anything else.
JOHNSON: So tell me a little bit more about what you’re doing now. You’ve written a musical?
BLAK: I wrote a musical entitled “Liberty Bleeding,” which, not funny enough, has to do with a lot of the subject matter that we’re facing now, and that we faced every single year in history basically, which is, you know, an unarmed person of color being killed by the police. And you know, I started writing this show months ago, a year ago. And so it hadn’t — it wasn’t based on 2020 hindsight, it was based on the multiple occasions these kinds of things happened before.
JOHNSON: So what inspired this?
BLAK: I only enjoy telling stories about people — about real people. I’ve never been able to take myself, you know, to another planet or something. Even living in my imagination as a kid, the stories I wanted to tell had a basis in reality. And so when I decided I want to pursue a career in writing for the stage., I knew that I didn’t want to write what people expected. I’m not Stephen Sondheim. I don’t look like Stephen Sondheim. I’ll never be Stephen Sondheim, and I don’t want to write shows like Stephen Sondheim.
I can use this kind of career path that I’ve chosen to tell stories of people that don’t usually get their stories told, and give voice to the kind of voiceless groups. You know, since I was in middle school, basically, every single year, it’s been a different name added onto the list of people who have been taken away. The earliest one I can remember was Trayvon, Trayvon Martin, when I was in middle school, and we were very close in age. And it’s kind of a shock that this young boy, not even young man but young boy, was taken away.
And then it’s kind of felt like a domino effect after that. And every year, you know, one or multiple. You know, you see it hit the news and you see the country react in a certain way. And then you see people just kind of move on until it happens again. And so when I had made a list of ideas of shows I wanted to write, they were all, again, based on reality. But then I decided, you know, I want to tell this story that’s close to me. That’s the only way I’m going to do this.
JOHNSON: As someone who’s a local native, and who’s right here in the time and place where protests are still going on daily, in particular, for Breonna Taylor, what does that mean for you in terms of your work?
BLAK: I was born and live in the city, where Breonna Taylor was killed. And I was raised in the same city [Houston, Texas] that George Floyd was raised in and went to high school in, and lived in, and all his family’s from. And so it hits in a strange, different kind of way. And it goes back to that thing that it can happen to any of us, and that’s really tragic. And so, you know, my work has always talked about kind of social issues. So it isn’t like I woke up a month ago and said, Oh, I’m gonna talk about these things. I’ve always wanted to tell those kinds of stories.
JOHNSON: Do you think that art is protest?
BLAK: Absolutely. I feel like we all have our own weapons in life. And by weapons, I mean, gifts. Some people have politics, and can use their literal voice in that way. For better or worse, people sometimes have music, and can sing their pain. I mean, I think of Aretha and I think of people like that who really use their voices to portray their pain in a way that makes you listen, because it’s so beautiful. Some people have poetry, you know, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, people like that. Some people have essays. Some people have journalism. I just happen to protest through putting words and characters down.
I think protest theater is definitely a thing. You know, I was recently — earlier this year before everything stopped — I was in a production of “Hair.” And I think that’s protest theater at its best. And I think that the arts has a way of doing protest without lecturing you. And without outright telling you, ‘this is a protest and this is what we’re protesting.’ You know, we can kind of create over it and drop little nuggets in here and there of the message within a bigger story, and within a human story, so I definitely think art is protest.