The name Azuka is from the Nigerian word meaning “strength of foundation.” For those of us in Philadelphia, the name also means a small but mighty theater company whose mission is to present shows that give a voice to unheard stories and people. Their current show, “A Hit Dog Will Holler,” written by Inda Craig-Galván, is the tale of a popular online political & social commentator who is forced to examine her own legitimacy when agoraphobia prevents her from physically engaging in the very activism she boasts about online. The show delves into social commentary, race and a number of issues that are at the forefront of our collective consciousness right now.
In addition to mounting shows, the company has a writer’s group, New Pages, that was created to give local playwrights a truly writer-centric space to develop their work from the first seeds of an idea to the stage. The program “Rising Writers” offers playwrights the opportunity to work with established playwrights as a way to help underrepresented and underfunded artists to make their voices heard. It’s a program that was developed by this week’s portrait, Azuka Theater Co-Artistic Director Reva Stover. Stover is a director, producer, playwright, actor, activist, and teaching artist. She also describes herself as a “black pansexual non-binary artist with ADHD.” We had a chance to discuss her journey and her authentic self.
So I believe I read that you’re originally from the land of Mickey.
Yes, I am from Orlando, Florida. I like to tell people that I am one of the good ones. I escaped and am nothing like the Florida Man, I have good common sense. It’s funny, Philly has a strange relationship with Florida, they really loathe it but then want to go there for a vacation.
I guess we’re such a gritty city, that we can only stand a place built on sunshine and smiles for short bursts of time! So tell me about the family.
My dad does a lot of things, but right now he’s a landscaper. My mother was an HR manager, but she passed about two weeks before my 21st birthday. Sadly she had cancer and they didn’t find it until she was at Stage 4, and then it happened quickly.
Sorry to hear that, what are some of the things that made her special?
She was a magical human being. She was funny and caring and so incredibly smart, we called her MacGyver because she always had a plan and could fix anything with anything. She always knew what to say to people as well. I remember being jealous growing up because my mom had five sisters and all my cousins would call my mom to console or counsel them and I felt like, “Stop talking to her, she’s MY mom!” But she was so warm, she made friends with everyone everywhere she went. She’d stop and talk to everyone. A large part of why I love theater and why I do the community work that I do is because of the time that I got to spend with her.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I had big ambitions. When I was in 5th grade I would wake up very early in the morning to watch “Law and Order” with my Mom, so originally I decided to become a lawyer. I love a good debate, but then I started researching what a lawyer really does and found that they didn’t actually spend much time in the courtroom, so I passed on that. Then I decided I wanted to be a fashion designer, then I wanted to be a journalist, and then I did my first musical in Middle School and thought, “Oh, I could do this forever” but told myself that acting wasn’t a real career that a person would reasonably pursue. My one sister was going to be a doctor, another sister a vet, and they were real jobs. I need to add that no one else was telling me that or discouraging me, it was all me.
I thought I’d get a business degree, but luckily I had a good teacher who talked me out of that. Looking back, it would have made me miserable. She said, “If you love something, you will find a way to make money doing it. Just choose every day to love that thing.” I was really passionate about acting and storytelling and did research on schools and decided on Florida State for musical theater, where they crushed my hopes and dreams, and then transferred to the University of Central Florida as an acting major and it was the best thing that could have happened.
How did you end up here in the City of Sisterly Affection?
After I graduated with a BFA in acting, I went on tour with a musical called, “Best Foot Forward.” We toured for about a year and then I went home to Florida and realized, [laughing] “I cannot stay here.” So I started looking for places to move to that I could afford. I wanted to be close to New York because the stage is where my heart is but I obviously couldn’t afford to live in NY. It was between Atlanta and Philadelphia, and Georgia had just made the push to ban abortion. Having saved my money for two years, I was not going to turn around and give it to a state that did not support my rights as a human being. So Philly it was! And it’s been great, it’s reasonably affordable and there’s a large black population. In Florida, I didn’t see or grow up with many people who looked like me. So the diversity in Philly was very attractive and of course it’s so accessible to DC and NY and AC. So I loaded up my car and drove 14 hours with my dad and my sister, and here I am!
Fab! How did you get involved with Azuka?
I moved here in January of 2020, so shortly after I got here, everything shut down. I was supposed to do the Greater Philadelphia Annual Awards, and then that shut down because of the pandemic. I had a job lined up at a restaurant, and that closed down! So I was scrambling to find work and was able to get some work as a teaching artist, but that didn’t pay enough, so I worked as a teacher’s aide because I have done work in education. I chose the specific school because I was told that I could build a theater program, but they kept pushing and pushing it back indefinitely, and I realized that it probably wasn’t going to happen, so I left there.
I ended up in Vermont as the Artistic Associate and Education Coordinator for the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company. I thought that was going to be permanent, but Vermont was not what I had hoped, and then I saw the position at Azuka. I applied and happily got the job and was able to come back to Philly and I’m so happy to be back! That was in October of 2021, I’ve been able to start a few programs like the Rising Writers, and it’s been a lovely experience. I have the best co-artistic director anyone could ask for, Rebecca May Flowers.
It must be exciting because this year you were able to select the programs for the new season. What helped inform your selections?
That is correct! I think we were really looking to highlight feminine stories as well as really focusing on our mission of telling the stories of people who are the underdogs or outcasts. But we chose to highlight not so much stories of how people are beaten down in their individual lives, but to expand that to a larger and more universal lens.
How does the current show, “A Hit Dog Will Holler” reflect that?
The play is set in 2020 just before the height of the Black Lives Matter Movement was taking off with the George Floyd protests and the real dismantlement of society that we all sat at home and witnessed in 2020. We also started having real conversations about mental health and finding community and stability in a world that is maybe not built for us. Because as you know there are queer people, especially queer Black, Latinx and Indigenous people who every day face a world that is not meant for them and that does not openly accept the person that they are. I think this play really addresses that and invites us to challenge it by creating community with each other.
Exciting! So back to you, what’s your coming out story?
[Laughing] I’m not sure it’s in any way exciting or interesting. I am the youngest of three daughters and both of my sisters are gay and came out before me, so by the time I came out it was pretty passé. Even when my older sister came out it was not a big deal. We were all watching TV and eating dinner and she stopped the TV and there was this, “I need to tell you something…” moment and she told us that she was queer and my parents said, “Okay, that’s great. Obviously you’re the same person that you always were and we love you so can we turn the TV back on?”
So it never was a big heavy thing, it was more a matter of me realizing that I was not straight. Figuring out that the feelings that I had towards women were not the same feelings that all straight women had about their friends! I was like, “Of course I’m straight, I like boys” and it wasn’t until I fell in love with my best friend in college who was queer and then trans did I realize, ‘Oh, maybe I’m not straight…’ Two weeks after I graduated I told my dad on a car ride, “So Dad, I’m pansexual” and he said, “Yeah, I know, it’s pretty obvious.” Which I don’t think it was! But then I told my sisters and they were cheering, “Yay! We can all be gay together!” My mother had already passed at the time but I know she would have been fine with it.
Cool. So with all three siblings being gay, you must get some comments.
Yeah, mostly we get comments about how this affirms that it’s biological and not a choice but the weirdest response is of course guys asking if we ever, “you know, do it together… hook up?” because men are gross. My response is, “They’re my sisters, so no I don’t ‘hook up’ with them.” So weird.
Ugh. Let’s move on, what is BaddiesNBroomsticks?
That’s a crafty shop I have on Etsy; it’s basically stuff I like to make and put online when I run out of space to keep them! I really love thrifting and up-cycling clothes and things. I do a lot of craftwork with clay, I paint a little bit. I’m not purporting to be good with any of these things, but they’re all made with love, blessed, and endowed with magic. It’s a place for my crafty, witchy activities.
When you say witchy, do you practice?
I’m not a Wiccan, but I do some magic work when I craft. I’d probably say that the tradition that I would be the closest to would be Hoodoo. I just like to do ancestral practice work, but I’m very new to it so I combine a lot of what I’m learning with art. So I make wands and plates and bowls, little totems and figurines, which are blessed and enchanted or infused with magic.
Switching gears, what was your craziest moment on stage?
I fell off the stage during a show! I literally stepped right off the edge by accident but just popped up off the floor and engaged with the audience as if I’d meant to do it! That was painful, but I think I pulled it off and we all had a good laugh. Another time on tour, I went blank during my solo number. I completely got lost with the words and I didn’t want to make up lyrics so I just stared longingly in different directions for like a full minute until I figured out where I was in the song and just picked it up from there, but it was a little touch and go.
The holidays are coming up; any family traditions?
My family never cared for traditional Thanksgiving foods, like my sisters and I don’t care for turkey, so we traditionally each picked a dish that we liked and my mom would make it for us. Since she passed, we’ve kind of rotated cooking or else everyone brings the dish they would like to eat, kind of a pot luck. This year we’re all in different parts of the country. My oldest sister and my Dad are still in Florida, my middle sister is in Colorado and I’m here so I may end up doing a Friendsgiving instead.
Favorite line from a play or movie?
I really love a play from Branden Jacobs-Jenkins called, “An Octoroon.” I worked on it in college and I have loved his work ever since. I played a character, Minnie, who is a slave, and there’s a part at the end where she’s trying to cheer up a friend, another slave, and she says, “You have to live your life for you…” I love that quote. As a serial people-pleaser, it’s a reminder to me that I have to live my life not trying to please the people around me but in a way that’s going to make me proud and happy.
“A Hit Dog Will Holler” runs from November 2 to November 20 at the Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake (302 S. Hicks Street). It’s part of the popular Pay What You Decide tickets, where you only pay what you want after seeing the show.