Tag Archives: Shipside

Toast! to the Characters Who Never Leave- “Rootbeer Barrels”

Screenshot 2015-02-02 09.11.43

When you’re a storyteller, your head, soul and heart can fill with the songs, mumblings, cries and laughter of your characters. Some are faint, hanging out in corners, or moving in a slow dance towards the light when they will reveal themselves. Others come charging at you, demanding to be heard. Now, Damnit!

And some…they come on in and pull a chair and keep spinning yarns so you tell bits and pieces of them in different clothing, in different towns, at different eras.

On such character is Stella.   I discovered her years ago when I wrote a play called Shipside. She would be that older, (age-not-determined due to that “Black don’t crack” thing), wise, sassy yet have more heart than she can handle, more heart to give away and get stomped, but feeling her survival was for a reason, she’s a mainstay in the world. She certainly became one in my life.

At one point I gave her space to tell a story about herself. About her childhood and this is what she told me. About Rootbeer Barrels.

I knew this man. Well, hell, I knew a lot of men.

This one.I met when I was nearly seven.

Seven just like heaven, he’d say.

He lived up the street from us. You know the house. Peeling white paint. Like picked at scabs. Fitting. Except I didn’t know that then.

We thought it was kinda cool how he didn’t mind that us kids would scratch off, peel off big ole chunks of paint. We’d take chipped cups from our own kitchens and put those flecks in them, mix them with water from his hose and call it tea. We’d have parties on his porch.

This ole man was thick sweaters in July Straight press pleats down the front of his pants. And Pockets filled with candy.

Now, not just any candy. But root beer barrels. Each in its own crinkling plastic,A little hard nub of sweetness.That’s what he’d call them.

We’d play in his yard and eventually he’d come out on his porch and give us that. Little pieces of candy. Nubs of sweetness

One afternoon, I was playing around back near his garage. I was checking on the rhubarb. Seeing if stocks were ripe for picking. And he came out. Pleated pants. Long sleeve sweater.

Bulging pockets.

He took a piece of candy, had it in his palm and he told me,

Standing this close,

“do you know that one day when you’re all grown up and you become a woman, your nipples could look like this?”

I think I nodded no. Or maybe I said I knew that.

See. Sweat ran up my spine. My stomach squeezed and turned itself around inside of me. My bladder, I didn’t know that was what it was called then, I always pictured a baggie filled with pee. It swelled, and then squeezed itself, too. It hurt so much, hurt my legs and my thighs…

They got…hot

I tightened my muscles and watched the sun beat down on his nearly bald head. The beads of sweat. Were big like mulberries, fat and wet.

He unwrapped the root beer barrel while I watched his hands.

They were large and worn with cracks like old gnarly leather.

He took that piece of candy and handed it to me. I reached for it and he said

“uh uh. Open your mouth, Stella.”

He had never called me by my name. I didn’t know he knew it. So I did what he said.

“Wider, child”

So I did.

He stuck that candy in, pushing it with his thumb.

I saw myself biting down. Cleanly. Smoothly. Biting through that bone. At the edge of his finger nail. His skin tasted salty, even though, it was slick with sweet sweat

He said, “Don’t do it. Stella.”

I froze, feeling that barrel up against my teeth. In the back of my mouth.

He said “You bite me, girl, I’m gonna take all your front teeth out when I pull my hand out. And then in that hole, I’m gonna stick my dick in.”

That’s when I noticed his other hand was down his pants.

I released. He backed up.Stuck his thumb in his own mouth.

I turned and walked away, Sucking so hard on that piece of candy, I tore a hole in it

Then cut my tongue but I didn’t spit.

I let it bleed.

– Stella, over a bourbon, fanning her face

Stella is hanging out more those days because she’s Sweets in Shipside, she’s the many great grand daughter of a beautiful Nigerian Queen who has never lost her royal blood. She just needs writers like me to stop crying for her and tell the story.


Toast! to FADE OUT

Ahhh… FADE OUT. Those two glorious words.  Those words that make a screenwriter finally let out the breath they’ve been holding in, that breath that has been tearing up their gut, piercing their heart, and rearranging shit in their soul.  Okay, maybe if you write… Hangover IV or some sweet romcom, the story might not hold you captive like this last draft of mine has done to me.  Maybe I’m just sharing more about a psychological problem I have but hey, I’ve got a shrink and we’re working on it. 

But writing for me is a fierce exercise in digging deep, challenging my skills and trying really hard to honor wisdom from my amazing USC thesis teacher, David Howard,  [paraphrase] “For God’s sake, don’t be boring…” 

SHIPSIDE, my latest feature has been living with me for a long time. I know these characters. I have a relationship with them. And with each revision, I attempt to deepen that. This last revision, though, was about deeper development of the antagonist.  Giving him flesh.  And because that was new and hard… (have I mentioned he’s the spirit of a notorious slave owner?) when I got to the end, when I hit FADE OUT… I sat back from the computer and felt a bubbling of emotion rising. I went to my husband, curled up on the bed and cried. 

For two days after sending the script off to my director and producer, I had to work through the emotions of what I was forced to discover to do this revision. That this horrible man was once a human with feelings, betrayals, wishes and dreams. I gave him parents and a home, all to understand how he could become the awful evil man he was.  And for me, in my process, i had to let this character ruminate in my head, and hold him in my heart, and that meant i had to let all his dark evilness come hang out, too.  

FADE OUT was relief.  FADE OUT meant “breathe, Stacey”.  

i will be writing more about Shipside, as our pre-production ramps up. I will be writing more  about creating this character and telling this story about a haunted poor young single mom.  I  plan to document the full production, the trip down south to tour plantations, to see the manacles, to look to the Atlantic Ocean and envision the ships coming over the horizon and then…because i need to see this too, envision the ships of everyone going home. 


i will be searching for FADE OUT in a lot of places, I’m sure. 

And maybe…just maybe in your own work, in your day, you know what this feels like? Do you?