Global empowerment artist and author, Lacey C. Clark! took some time out between tours to talk to Aisha Adkins about her acclaimed one-woman stage play, Phenomenal Everywhere. The original production moves audiences as Clark brings her Black expat journey of self-discovery and growth to audiences around the world. She also shared how she uses her personal triumph over pain to empower women.
Tell us a little bit about your background; where are you from and did you grow up traveling abroad?
I say I’m from ‘everywhere’. In North Philadelphia, where I grew up, people didn’t travel a lot, if at all. But I was ambitious and wanted to see the world.
What was your first trip abroad: when was it, how did it come to be, how old were you?
My first trip abroad was to Paris. It was very eye-opening. There were a lot of culture shocks and comparisons [with the US]. “In the States we do this, and over here it’s like this.” One I can remember was the idea in the US the customer is always right. You go into a store and if you don’t like something or it’s not right, you get your money back or you can exchange it. There’s some kind of way to make you happy. But when I was in Paris it was like, if you buy something and you don’t like it — that’s on you, you have to keep it. It was a real culture shock.
I was in Paris for four months for a study abroad program. I didn’t speak any French. I actually learned French there. That was an interesting experience. This was pre-internet. I didn’t have Google Translate. I was so used to using English to express myself — my heart, my passion, my sadness — and I pride myself on being a really good communicator. When I had an issue with something and I tried to explain myself, it was really frustrating not being able to get the words out in French because I didn’t know it or I didn’t know how to say it quite right. Communication was one of the most difficult processes for me in adjusting to life abroad.
What was life like for you before you started traveling abroad?
I was at New York University in New York City. I was young, about nineteen. That experience was really rich. I loved New York because I was young and fabulous, I was around a bunch of really cool people and really powerful artists. Paris deepened the access to different types of culture that really enhanced my inner artist and my self-identity. That’s what the show is all about: snapshots of my life in these places that express what I was feeling, what I was thinking. There were all of these different experiences that shifted and changed with my reality.
Prior to traveling and moving abroad, what were your hopes for living abroad? Did you hope to continue this journey of self-growth and self-discovery?
At that time, I just felt so open and free and ready to take on the world. I was nineteen, and since this was pre-internet, it was about asking people who’d already gone. I didn’t know anyone who’d lived there or had that experience. It was still kind of rare for a young Black person to live abroad. I knew I was open to experiencing all that life could offer me. I don’t know that I had a hope. I didn’t say, “I want to go and then when I come back I want do this thing.” I knew as an artist it was important for me to gain as much life experience as possible because that’s what inspires art.
I would say my hope was to be a richer artist, a richer person. More expanded.
As you continued your expat experience, even beyond Paris, how would you say the realities of living abroad compared with what you thought it would be like, particularly as a Black woman?
The identity of ‘Black’ as kind of a broad brush stroke became more nuanced in different settings. I really got clarity on my Americanism. At one point I did brush myself with that broad brush of Black, and I think that’s a beautiful brush to paint with. However, I think the way people saw me as I traveled was very interesting. As I moved about the world as an African-American woman, it was interesting because, we’re all Black, but we all have different nationalities and experiences. I definitely gravitated to all the Black people, all the Africans. When I was in Paris, I gravitated to Africans from different countries. Some of them connected to each other, some of them didn’t. When I was in Ghana, all of us were Black for the most part, but my African-American thinking and culture started to come out. When I was in Colombia, I was an American who spoke English in a Spanish-speaking country where English is looked at as elite. Then you have Afro-Colombians who I wanted to identify with, but they still saw me as an American and I couldn’t speak Spanish that well; but we still connected.
There are all of these different levels of identity: one, centering and anchoring into myself, but then how other people see me. Or the stereotypes that come with Black people in the US. Media is one of America’s biggest exports, so a lot of what people have gotten all over the world has come from media and I was lumped into that. For example, I was asked if I was reading a book about gangstas when reading James Baldwin; or when I was a student in Europe people asked if I was a nanny (a lot of African women come to European countries to be nannies). There were implications for me as a Black person, and then when people found out I’m an American, the implications changed. Then there’s the other piece about American privilege. The fact that I have this blue passport that allows me to move more easily in and out of most countries. A lot of people can’t do that.
Video: Trailer for Phenomenal Everywhere
How did you come up with the idea for your one-woman stage play, Phenomenal Everywhere?
I was a closet expat. What does that mean? As I said, I grew up in the inner city. A lot of my peers didn’t have visions beyond wanting to be a hairdresser or play basketball. These are the limited options we had to get out of the ‘hood or to be successful in the US. I was always kind of avant garde and off the beaten path. An artist, on a different kind of rhythm, if you will. I used to hide [my travels from people]; I did a lot of traveling but people didn’t know it because I felt like when I would come back and express my travels to people I grew up with, they couldn’t identify with me anymore. I remember a specific experience with a family member I was really close to who couldn’t identify with me in those ways anymore and it hurt me deeply. So I hid and I didn’t tell my stories. I would literally say to people who were really close to me, “Don’t tell them I’m out of the country, just tell them I’m out of town.”
How did I come up with Phenomenal Everywhere? It was pain associated with that suppression. I wasn’t able to be my full self.
Here I was empowering young people, but I wasn’t telling my full story. I had lived in over five countries; nobody knew this. I kept it under wraps. It was a pain in not being fully out and being fully who I was. So in that pain, I wrote Phenomenal Everywhere. It was like, “You’re gonna write this, or you’re gonna die. You’re gonna get out of this place, this pain.” It was really that serious. Phenomenal Everywhere saved my life. Writing saved my life. I went to school for theater and film; all of the things that were in me that I learned from a child I just started writing and I wrote myself out of my pain. From that low space, the story Phenomenal Everywhere was formed. My soul wrote the story.
You’re now on tour after developing and producing the play. What is the racial or national composition of most of your audiences? Are there mostly expats or locals? How have audience members responded to your performance?
It’s very diverse. People from everywhere. South Africa, UK, US, people from the Continent, France, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong. For the most part it has to be English-speakers because it’s in English.
I’ve had a lot of folks at my shows. I received very positive, powerful feedback. When I shared it, I didn’t know what the response was going to be. I just knew I had to tell this story. I think that because it comes from a very deep place, it touches people. It covers human interest themes: despair, gratitude and hope. It’s about my experience traveling and expatting but I think it resonates with people on a deeper level. My dad says (it’s not his quote, but he always reminds me) that which comes from the heart reaches the heart. And I think that’s really wise.
You also do women’s empowerment work. How has your life as a Black expat influenced your work with women?
I think it helped me to have an expanded view. Here’s one thing I learned about living around the world: reality is reality for the people who are living it. For instance, it’s not my reality yet that I can just hop on a private plane or jet and go where I want to go. But that is somebody’s reality. People think that reality is what’s in front of them, which is right. If you grew up in the ‘hood and all you saw was a certain type of reality — living paycheck to paycheck, not having access to certain things — those are certain realities. But there’s a reality way beyond what you’re used to. I think it’s helped me to present and make real that there are many different types of reality. But I think that when you are an empowered person, you get to choose your reality. That’s how I believe my work has impacted women.
One of the slogans of Phenomenally U, which is a brand and a book I wrote for young women, is ‘create your own reality’. You can define what reality means to you. If your reality is that you want to live around the world, that’s your reality. It might not be your parents’ reality, but it can be your reality. To me that is empowerment — to understand your power to create, to influence reality. I think that’s what I want to do for those I serve: to empower them to create a new narrative full of possibilities, love for self and hope. If everybody around you is doing one thing, then for you to say, “I want to do something else” — that’s a helluva shift. Because that means you have to shift your circle and who you’re around. Once you recognize that you have the power to move from one internal place to another, it’s a big hurdle but that is owning your power.
What does the future look like for Sisters Sanctuary and Phenomenal Everywhere? What do you hope for those realities to be?
Phenomenal Everywhere is doing pop-up and touring theater experiences around the world. Ultimately the show could appear anywhere and everywhere. This is the first time this has been done. The first time you’ve seen a Black woman put her expat experience on stage as a one-woman show and tour it globally. But beyond it being a show, we will have other iterations as well. We’re working on a book, audio play, movie and more. The other thing that is fresh and new about it is that as I travel, it is an ongoing living, breathing project. There are places that I’ve never been but I would love to go. As I go I’ll add more chapters to the show and the book. [The show] is always evolving and growing. The more places I see, the more experiences [I add to the show].
Sister Sanctuary is the overarching company and we’ve created experiences that are relevant for women such as intergenerational conversations, workshops and artistic presentations about self-love and identity. That’s really what we’re about: self-love and healing. Being able to really look clearly at yourself and your identity, specifically as a Black woman in a white-dominant world. A world that tells you lies that you are inferior and you’re not pretty and all the other B.S. The whole point is to really understand that you are phenomenal everywhere because you are the original woman. You are the original human being on the planet. Everything comes from you. There is no way that you’re ugly. You’re the blueprint!
Is there one specific place on your performance bucket list?
I would love to perform on the moon… and underwater. TV. That’d be dope. On top of a mountain. Everywhere!
How can our readers support you and find you on tour?
To book the show or see the show when it comes to your neck of the woods: