January 30, 2024 Coverage and Posts, CSA, Theater

PREVIEW: Real-Life Loss Inspires A Fictional Story of Community In New Play, Teaira Whitehead


by Vanessa Reseland

Editor’s Note: This is the first post in a partnership between Petrichor and New Hazlett Theater’s Community Supported Arts (CSA) series. Vanessa wrote this preview and was kind enough to be interested in cross-posting it in Petrichor, as subsequent previews and reviews will be.

Melannie Taylor’s play, Teaira Whitehead, premieres at The New Hazlett Theater on February 15th and 16th. The show, inspired by the true story of 16-year-old Teaira Whitehead’s suspicious death on the North Side, creates a fantastical world that explores the urban experience for black teens in Pittsburgh, the lack of attention given to missing black children, and the communities who are banding together to fight for their own. Playwright, Melannie Taylor, sat down with me to discuss her show and what we can expect from its debut during Black History Month. Ticket information can be found here: https://newhazletttheater.org/events/teaira-whitehead/

VR: The show itself is called Teaira Whitehead. That already evokes a lot. Could you tell me about your show and how closely it comes to telling her story?

Melannie Taylor: Teaira Whitehead is about three friends who experience their school closing down. Their friend, Diamond, goes missing and they go into the woods to find their friend in Riverview Park on the North Side. When they come into the woods and look for her, they come upon Teaira Whitehead’s spirit. She is a guardian of the woods [in this play], and [in real life], she was a 16-year-old black girl who was found dead in Riverview Park woods around 2014. The police refused to look into her death, so that trauma is held within the story, and it plays out as the trees turn into mystical creatures. There’s monsters that come out, and she helps guide them through that to find Diamond. It takes place around 2016.

VR: Is there anything else you can tell me about the plot?

MT: The play is about Rose and Sunny, and they go into the woods to find Diamond. When they come upon Teaira Whitehead’s spirit, she first appears as a shadow that is mysterious, then she reveals herself to them. At first they want to help her, but then there is this fear of her which shows throughout the play. The fear is representing first how the city treated her death. There was a lot of gaslighting of the parents and of the witnesses of her death. I think also there’s this fear within the kids that they feel like they are worthless. There’s this anxiety and depression that they are feeling throughout the play, but it comes up as these actual physical monsters that they have to fight. After the girls find Diamond, she doesn’t want to leave. She’s a part of this life that she created, that she feels safe in, and they try to convince her to come back home.

VR: What was it about Teaira Whitehead’s story, how it was covered, and how it was overlooked, that spoke to you enough to want to write a show that has her as the title figure?

MT: Whenever I was younger and I heard about her death, me and my sister, that same day – we live on the North Side – we went to go play in Riverview Park woods, and on our way there, we kept feeling this overwhelming sense telling us to go back home. “You’re not welcome here; go back home.” Me and my sister were young at that time, and we went back home, and that’s when we found out that Teaira Whitehead was found later that night. I felt like her presence was [there] to help protect me.

VR: That’s an incredible personal story. When did the idea of creating this show begin for you?

MT: That happened more so in college, when I got more of the tools to write the story and really be able to dive into playwriting. Whenever I first wrote the script, I was just very angry about how Pittsburgh carried her story and how I felt like a lot of the time in Pittsburgh they throw a lot of the black kids away and don’t really give them any schooling that is proper for them or put any real money into their education.

VR: So anger was kind of the driving force to write the show; what is the driving force behind creating the production now?

MT: I feel like now, it’s more so healing – to find joy within the pain. There’s a lot of humor within the play and a lot of playful elements in it and magic in it. There’s a lot of community activists, such as Dreams of Hope, who were really upset and really hurt with how the city handled her death. I just want to make it known that it’s not forgotten. That outcry and that work that they have done – years and years, ongoing – is not ignored by me.

VR: So beyond just saying her name, you’re creating an entire place for people to come and feel her and honor her. What does social or racial justice in the arts mean to you?

MT: I believe that it is kind of a duty as you are creating art – to have something that has meaning and can speak to your community and where they are at now. I do believe that this story still does apply to today and how schools are being treated here on the North Side. We have more detention schools than we do any real magnet schools, which is really disappointing. I want to let that be known that even though you may put children who are black in these hostile schools, they still have hopes, they still have dreams, they still have this magic about them that you can’t take away.

VR: So with the subject matter of this young girl who was murdered in real life and then another young girl in the story who is missing, that sounds very heavy, but you say that there’s also humor?

MT: I got through a lot of my childhood with laughing and jokes, and finding [humor] within those friendships, so you’ll see a lot of scenes where they’re laughing together or or they’re cracking jokes with each other or certain natural things that kids do that they can’t help. Even through hard times, kids always find a way to laugh.

VR: Can you tell me more about the style and format of this show?

MT: This is a play, but there is going to be music. There’s going to be some dance. There’s also going to be puppets as well, Afro-tree puppets. There’s going to be a healing ritual towards the end that you’ll see within the play. I’m really excited to share the piece with everyone.

VR: What is changing for you as the production prepares to be mounted at the New Hazlett Theater for their CSA Series?

MT: The play won the Steel City Spotlight with Throughline Theater. They did a reading, and they helped me kind of like flesh it [out] and rework a lot of that before I kick it to this production. I was able to have a reading, and a lot of the community that I want to hear from came and was able to give me feedback, which I’m grateful for. I’m excited to take that and put it up where it can be performed and fully produced.

VR: Who is involved in the production here?

MT: Dreams of Hope [a queer youth arts program], they also created Flowers for Black Girls, which was an organization that came out of Teaira Whitehead’s death, and they are helping me produce this play which I’m super excited about. I’m the playwright, and I’m also doing the set designing. Kim El, who is a playwright, but she’s also a director, she’s [directing] this. Frames, he is a rapper, and he’s going to be a part of the music, helping me add hip hop. Aaron Henderson, he’s helping with media production. Rianne Lindsay is doing the lighting. Jeremy Pitzer is doing the costuming for the piece.

VR: As you were writing it, did you know you wanted to do the Scenic Design for the production?

MT: Yeah. I knew what I wanted. In the beginning, Rose, she takes out her braids, and she has hair all over her room and it’s kind of a depressive, messy room. Her messy, hairy room turns into the woods they venture through, and [her hair] falls down and becomes Afro-trees.

VR: Is there an ideal audience member for this show?

MT: I would say anyone from the North Side, anyone who is from Pittsburgh that wants to learn more about the history of Pittsburgh, anyone who’s a teacher, anyone who is a school principal or school official. Anyone who is looking for healing and who is aware of Teaira Whitehead and wants to come in and be reaffirmed in some of those feelings.

VR: What do you want people to walk away with after seeing this show?

MT: I want people to walk away, first, wondering what happened to Teaira Whitehead, and I also want people to walk away questioning the system that we have here and why is it so aggressive towards black children? I also want people to walk away feeling empathy, that there are different parts of human emotions. Even though they are scary to look at, it’s always good to face those things within yourself.

Teaira Whitehead runs at the New Hazlett Theater: February 15 at 8pm, February 16 at 10am, 8pm. Tickets can be found at: https://newhazletttheater.org/events/teaira-whitehead/

Creative Team
Melannie Taylor (She/They) - Playwright, Scenic, Props
Kim El (She/Her) – Director
Kia Davenport – (She/Her) Choreographer

Design Team
Frames (he/him) - music/sound
Rianne Lindsay (she/her) – Lights
Jeremy Pitzer (he/him) – Costumes
Aaron Henderson (he/him) – Projection

Vanessa Reseland (ze/they) is a TV and musical theatre actor/singer (Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods, The All-For-Nots, MOD Theatre Company Founding Member). After performing in New York City, London, and Los Angeles, alongside legends like Randy Graff, Beth Fowler, and Alice Ripley, Vanessa is emerging as a part of the post-pandemic film and theatre scenes in Pittsburgh, PA.


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