TS Hawkins: Performing, plays, and poetry

TS Hawkins smiles
TS Hawkins.

Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words. ~Robert Frost

TS Hawkins (they/them/theirs exclusively) is a multi-hyphenated artist with a big laugh and an even bigger heart. They are an international author, performance poet, art activist, playwright, trauma-informed and award winning educator, and member of the Dramatists Guild. Hawkins’ works and powerful performances have been praised by the Barrymore Awards, Philadelphia Magazine, BroadwayWorld, Philly Voice, NPR, WHYY, WURD Radio, Philadelphia Weekly, Chicago Tribune, dosage MAGAZINE and The Dramatist. Their play Cartons of Ultrasounds had the pleasure of an off-Broadway run in New York to rave reviews. They are also one the Dramatists Guild Foundation National Fellowship finalists of 2024-25. I could go on, but it’s time to chat. Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Are you a Philadelphia native?
Not a Philadelphia native. I was born in Jersey but I’ve called Philadelphia home for a very, very long time. Philly is where I had the chance to grow. 

That makes two of us. What part of Jersey?
South Jersey. (in a Jersey accent)’ Near da watah, neah da beaches!’ The beaches weren’t far, but actually I’m from a more suburban area.[Laughing] I’m not the brown Snooki! 

What kind of things were you into as a young’un?
Ballet, tap and jazz — all the way through high school. I also did liturgical dance, which is a spiritual dance for church. I was on three choirs. I was in the thespian society, the terpsichore society. I was also an orator… all the nerdy stuff! And I also played soccer. 

Yes, we had a whole program that taught you how to effectively do public speaking. 

Ooh, I need that! I’ve been thinking about joining Toastmasters.
[Laughing] I have a Toastmaster’s certificate as well! I was a Junior Toastmaster in high school. 

Tell me a little about the fam.
In the immediate, nuclear family, there’s just me, my sister Charlese, and my mother, and then I have a ton of cousins and aunts and uncles.  

What does Mom do?
She’s an educator but she also paints really well. She was always decorating and creating these masterful programs, so a lot of my educational prowess comes from her. And Charlese is a videographer. She does films and she’s also really great at puzzles! [Laughing] Random tidbit! 

I write poetry and plays and I sing. I don’t dance much any more, but my body still works and moves! [Snapping and bopping] It works! It moves! It’s still got a little rhythm in it! 

Mine does too but it’s mostly in a chair! I can be at the party and I’ll dance and groove from my seat. Just don’t make me get up!
You’re a professional chair dancer. I love it! I was never into the clubs much, and nowadays, I like to binge watch. Not to just watch TV but to tighten up my dramaturgy skills. I like to see how the pieces are presented and how they’re moving or speaking and where they’re pulling their energy, what historical references they’re using. It’s helped with my career along the way. [Laughing] I’m not international for nothing! 

And I understand that you went to Temple University?
Yes, I studied elementary education, psychology and theater. The beautiful part is that now I teach playwriting and I get to use those skills to get the students engaged in a completely different way, which opens them up to their own creative minds. I try to instill higher order thinking through playwriting. It’s super fun! Stressful, but fun. 

What was one of the first things that you produced that felt like your big break?
When I published my first manuscript, “Sugar Lumps and Black Eye Blues.” I took a class at Temple, which helped me fine-tune the book, and then I published it. I think I was 24 at the time, which was super cool. I went on tours and people started to actually listen to the poems and what they were actually saying. I started getting invited to speak in random and beautiful places, from dive bars in the early aughts to theaters around the world. 

What motivates what you do?
I hope my plays and my poems really speak to the pulse and can help move things forward for equitable change. That’s really important to me. Not that nature and the ecosystem aren’t important but when we have a lot of bodies in the intersectionalities of injustice, we need to find as many modalities as possible to get their voices and their stories told. It’s at the forefront of my mind when crafting work. I don’t just do stuff just to do stuff. 

As a playwright, what was it like seeing your work on stage for the first time?
A lot of the time, I’ve been in a space where I have had to self produce. The genre in which I write my plays is choreopoem, and there are not a lot of people who are versed in producing that type of work. So I’m often wearing multiple hats. My first play done on stage was “Secret Life of Wonder: a prologue in G.” It was written to honor Ntozake Shange’s work, “For Colored Girls.” It was so cool! To see the actors on stage living their childhood dreams was beautiful. It was an honor. I hope every playwright can have that experience. 

What’s the farthest you’ve traveled with your work?
Prague in the Czech Republic. I was speaking at a poets and writers symposium. It was truly an eye-opening experience seeing how other parts of the world view art, to see how it is respected and revered and considered essential in other parts of the world. I got to network with different people from ALL over the globe. It was fascinating. Just hearing and seeing the way things were translated into different languages was incredible. And being in community with other artists and seeing the way we respected how we each walked in the world? I was gob-smacked. [Laughing] To come back to the states after that was a smack in the face! We need to do so much better by our artists and our creatives. 

I see you have a play called “The Secret Life of Wonder.” [Laughing] An exposè on Stevie Wonder?
Ha! No! It was my first play. And I had the opportunity to go to Australia during the height of COVID — which I thought was hilarious — to see it performed. It was so beautiful, hearing my words being spoken by someone with that Aussie accent. It was awesome! 

The things that you write about are things that are personal and passionate, and I’m sure they have an effect on your audiences. Is there a particular moment that stands out for you?
I love getting feedback from the audience. Just last year, I read from a new work that I was curating called, “Sweet Bread Peaches.” It talks about transition, which is not something we talk about often. We talk about life and death, because they’re hand-in-hand, kissing cousins. But we rarely talk about the time in between, that transition part when we’re preparing space, a pathway for someone who’s departing. When it was over, another playwright’s mom was running around the theater going, “Who is TS? I want to talk to this TS!” She found me and we had this beautiful conversation about the work and what it meant. And I find that a lot of people want to discuss what they heard or experienced. I love those moments. 

Speaking of transitions, let’s talk about coming out.
[Laughing] Woah, what! That was so long ago, ha! I was like… I don’t even know. As you know, for queer people, it often happens twice, sometimes multiple times. I guess I came out to myself around the end of high school. I was obsessed with “The L-Word” (with all its problems), but that’s about when I started to realize, OK, I am into this program! I am here for it… like every day at my homegirl’s house — because she had cable — we’d sit with our snacks and have “L-Word” night and that’s when I started realizing that my attraction was not just because, “Women are dope! Pound it out!” I was feeling a little more than that. 

To people who actually mattered to me? I’d say in my twenties. My mom and I were bickering about something silly as parents and kids do, and one of her responses was, “Well, when I was your age, I was married and had kids…” and I responded, “That is not my life’s path. I’m a big queer lady. And I’m going about my business.” And this was by email mind you, back when we were still all using AOL! 

Hey! Some of us are still AOL devotees.
Oops! Well, anyway, I just left it there and let her figure out for herself how she was going to deal with it. For me, I was grown and in my own apartment, so I could just chill while she decided what to do. And we didn’t discuss it at all at first. It took her a few years for the idea to settle in that the vision that she had for my life was something that she would have to throw away. It was her vision for me, not my vision for me. Now she buys me everything rainbow she can get her hands on. I think Kohl’s had a Pride collection and she went ham-for-the-gram and bought everything! It’s really cute. I’m blessed that my coming out was not tumultuous, like so many people experience. 

Ditto. So what are you up to right now?
I’m chilling, trying to find the groove. I’m on the board of Theatre Philadelphia. I’m in a residency with Azuka, the Rising Writers, so I’m in a community of like-minded playwrights and artists, which is amazing. I’m also a scholar in residence at UPenn at the LGBT Center, which has been a different and incredible experience as well. To be in and working with a cohort of scholars and being in service to the community is great. And I’m a teacher, which I sometimes like to call a beautiful burden! I try to push my students to be the best they can be and hopefully we can start making little cracks in the status quo. That doesn’t always sit well with everyone but it’s important for young budding minds to understand what is actually happening in the world and how they are a cog in the system. Show them that they have the ability to right the things that are wrong. 

We just had a lovely community dinner at the UPenn LGBT Center. I read a couple of poems, one from my poetry album and book titled “Becoming Saturn,” which will be coming out in June — just in time for Pride Month! It’s a collection of rhymes, roses and resistance! We’ll have an album release party, so keep an eye out for that. FYI,-the music for the CD was produced by HawkHatt Music. It’s an offshoot of Prime Act Media, which is a company dedicated to highlighting artists in their fourties and above. I was also commissioned to take a book called “Are We Free Yet? The Black Queer Guide to Divorcing America” written by a writer from Costa Rica, Tina Strawn, and turned it into a play that will be onstage in the fall. I have 50 or so odd chapters that I still have to get through! Pray for me! 

Will do! OK, let’s do some rapid-fire questions. If you were undead, would you be a vampire, zombie or ghost?
Um, vampire! Come on now. Queer vamps, all day. OK? 

People are always telling me I need to stop…
Talking so much! It’s never going to happen. 

If you could switch places with somebody for a day, who would it be?
It’s a toss up between Ava DuVernay and Amirah Vann. Ava does such wild, wondrous work. I just want to be in the space where the magic is happening. And Amirah Vann is incredible. I’ve been studying her work so that I can add her to the syllabus for my students for next year. The way her mind works when she steps into a character is eye-opening and inspiring for me. That’s how you know someone is more than just an actor. They’re an artist. I just want to sit in her cerebellum while she is creating these worlds for her characters. 

Three things on your bucket list?
[Laughing] Leaving America. Getting rich and not for the sake of buying things, but being rich so that I could just get up at 3 o’clock and read a book without having to worry about how bills are being paid or whatever. Just for some peace of mind and in a capitalistic society, the only way that happens is through wealth. And the last thing on my bucket list is to get through this book [holds up Tina Strawn’s book] so I can write this play!

Do you or did you have any pets?
I have no pets now because I’m allergic to everything in life. As a kid, I had a bird. It was a canary named Canary. I’m a very simple person. Canary had a very unfortunate accident so my mother decided on fish. Fish don’t last too long, but with my last one, I was doing really, really good with it but then I went away to camp and left my sister to take care of it. Apparently, she mistook the pepper shaker for fish food and that was it. My mother didn’t buy us any more fish, so that was that. 

I don’t know. I’d watch out for that Charlese. That sounds a little “Bad Seed”-ish to me!
[Laughing] No, she was little! Just trying to help. 

Uh huh. What movie could you watch over and over?
I could watch “Eve’s Bayou” over and over and over. It had a young Jurnee Smollett, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan — oh, I could watch that forever! Great storytelling. 

Favorite quote or motto?
I have a quote that I’ve been living with since I was in high school. I’m not sure who wrote it but it’s very simple and it goes, “Good, better, best. Never let it rest, til your good becomes better and your better becomes best.” 

Sounds like Dr. Seuss!
Stop it! It is not! It’s a gentle reminder that you’re not in competition with anyone in this world. You’re a walking banner/billboard for yourself and as long as you continue to wake up every day and be the best you that you can be, it sends ripples through the whole community. It inspires others to be their best.

For more on TS Hawkins, visit tspoetics.com.

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