When Oakulture scheduled a photo shoot with Tracie Collins, she requested the location be the ‘Welcome to Oakland’ mural at 109th and Bancroft. Tracie’s mix of fierceness and grace came across in the shoot, especially when she posed in front of a sign reading “Beast Oakland.” Since October 2013, when Tracie made her directorial debut with “The V Monologues: A Black Woman’s Interpretations,” she has written, directed and produced three more productions, all within the course of a year and a half – many of those to sold-out shows. Her online store sells a t-shirt which says “God is from Oakland.” From the soulful womanist inquiries that are her works to her history as a professional doula who helps women to give birth, Tracie clearly is on intimate terms with that God.
With a specialization in bringing provocative and soul searching works to the stage, Tracie has quickly established herself as a beloved playwright and director of Oakland, becoming a force in the theatrical scene in the space of just a few short years. In March of 2015, Tracie produced “Cold Piece of Werk,” a catalyzing theatre production focused on the young girls caught in the dangerous track of International Boulevard. On opening night, the city of Oakland proclaimed March 12th to be Tracie Collins Day. The proclamation states, “She is an avid activist on issues surrounding equality for women and race relations. Her ability to draw from the many changes happening in Oakland allows her to write, direct and produce entertainment that opens a forum for dialogue and self-awareness.”
“Cold Piece of Werk’s” dramatic activism aligned Tracie with a burgeoning movement of self-named abolitionists making moves to combat the sex trafficking epidemic in Oakland, the second largest hub in the U.S. for sexual slavery. Many of these community leaders are survivors and/or women of color who continue to unveil new non-profits, businesses and artistic projects to raise awareness and interventions, a grassroots community effort which has seen results in the City Attorney taking action against notorious motels. But Oakland’s well-established pimp culture won’t give up that easily, and despite giving lip service to the cause, its politicians haven’t made getting girls off the street a top priority. In the city’s most recent budget, $30 million was allocated to police overtime–a large portion of which was spent covering #BlackLivesMatter protests–but a $600,000 request to fund transitional housing for human trafficking victims received only $110,000 annually. Noel Gallo, whose district includes parts of International Blvd, aka “The Track,” was the only Councilmember to vote against the budget. “We pimp on the street and we pimp at City Hall,” he is quoted as saying. When asked about this, Tracie declined to answer, explaining that she was so upset and angry, she wasn’t quite sure how to respond.
At this time, Oakulture is very honored to catch up with Tracie Collins, a self-professed “voice of the urban woman,” to hear her perspectives on using art to stir social conversations and the issues she addresses. Current projects include a film adaptation based on “Cold Piece of Werk” as well as a stage production in Atlanta in early 2016. Upcoming projects include television and several stage productions including a thriller, “The Midwife,” “Divorce: Black Woman Style” and “Dressing Room” about exotic dancers in Atlanta. Originally an actor by training, Tracie also shared with us that she is currently writing a one-woman show.
Oakulture: Your productions have consistently been focused on subjects which have been both relevant and taboo in black women’s lives. Why is it important to focus on black women’s experiences?
Tracie Collins: Today now more than ever with Sandra Bland’s death, we need to focus on Black Women’s Lives. We are the first teachers and the givers of life; however, we are often overlooked, unless we are naked in music videos. I’m a black woman, and I will continue to touch on issues that are relevant to us.
Oakulture: How did “The V Monologues” differ from “The Vagina Monologues?” What changed when you took that topic into a black female cultural space, and what didn’t change?
Tracie Collins: With “The V Monologues: A Black Woman’s Interpretation,” I gave a voice to us as black women and our experiences with our bodies in relation to our culture. I also incorporated music by Nina Simone and eventually Chaka Khan, two iconic women not only in music but in the African American culture. I married subject matters of sexual intolerance, sexual abuse, body image celebration and our journey as Black Women and intertwined that with our music.
Oakulture: This past spring the city of Oakland officially proclaimed March 14th to be “Tracie Collins Day.” To what do you attribute this honor and do you have any plans for March 14, 2016?
Tracie Collins: Lol, well, March 2016 I’ll be in production mode, so I’ll be working. As for the proclamation, I feel it was attributed to my work in arts & entertainment in Oakland and bringing forth or reigniting the love of live theater in a city that isn’t known for it.
Oakulture: Your efforts to raise awareness of sex trafficking in Oakland has gained you recognition by the city for your leadership. How big of a problem is sex trafficking in Oakland?
Tracie Collins: Huge. E14th or International Blvd is the largest track in the intercontinental United States. Girls are brought here from all over and trafficked up and down International Blvd.
Oakulture: How much of that can be attributed to the glorification of the pimp as an icon?
Tracie Collins: I believe initially the glorification [came] from the movie The Mack, which was filmed in Oakland. However, fast forward to current day, the glamour isn’t as prevalent because these girls come from various different circumstances which have led them to this choice or moment of time in their lives.
Oakulture: How much of the problem comes out of cultural or linguistic isolation and economic disparity?
Tracie Collins: Unfortunately, rap music — and I say “rap,” instead of hip hop for a reason — rap music makes millions of dollars off the degradation of women and objectification of our bodies. And when the multi-million dollar industry glamorizes this, our youth will only emulate what they hear. Well, a whole list of issues and problems come from economic disparity. But in relation to sex trafficking, when one feels that their choices are limited when it comes to gaining economic stability and/or growth, then one may resort to matters that we would consider illegal or unethical. Also, social media places things at our fingertips. So women or pimps don’t have to walk the streets to “work” and make a viable income from that industry.
Oakulture: In your opinion, does the city do enough to address sex trafficking effectively? What should they be doing that they aren’t?
Tracie Collins: No. They need to educate these children in schools about the pitfalls and traps into and of this lifestyle. They need to add more resources and rescue and recovery agencies and arrest, shame and prosecute the pimps and Johns and not the young girls/women in these circumstances.
Oakulture: Your most recent production, “Cold Piece of Werk,” focused on the realities of young women’s lives caught in the sex trafficking industry here in Oakland. Did you speak with any young women in the game? If so, did any of them see the production or have any opinions on it?
Tracie Collins: No, unfortunately when I reached out to rescue and recovery agencies they were nonresponsive; that includes the District Attorney’s Office and Oakland Police Dept. They only joined in later after they saw all the attention my work was getting. Several mothers whose daughters were “caught up” in the game contacted me, and my publicist made sure that I was able to meet them personally.
Oakulture: What has the community response to your efforts to raise awareness around this issue been?
Tracie Collins: The community, on the other hand, has been amazing, extremely supportive and responsive. They either didn’t know or weren’t aware of the impact sex trafficking is having in the city of Oakland. I had mothers who brought their daughters to see CPOW to start the conversation. I brought awareness to a community that wants change, but wasn’t fully educated on the issue. I’m proud of that.
Oakulture: You’ve said that since producing “Cold Piece of Werk” you have been contacted by citizens when they’ve suddenly been confronted with sex trafficking in their own lives. What do you do with that information and those stories when they come to you? How do those stories impact your art moving forwards?
Tracie Collins: I listen. Anything relating to young girls and women will always impact my womanhood and, in turn, impacts my artistry. Never know what topic I will choose to spread awareness on next.
Oakulture: What are your influences as a storyteller?
Tracie Collins: I’m a huge fan of director Antione Fuqua, director of Southpaw, which will be in theaters this Friday, July 24th. He also directed The Equalizer, Training Day and Olympus Has Fallen. He’s exceptional and unrecognized by Hollywood standards.
Oakulture: How do you specifically approach discussing difficult or taboo topics in your work?
Tracie Collins: Not specifically; it just comes out. But I enjoy making people think. People don’t think. Way too much tunnel vision going on, especially in the black community. We have got to stop sweeping things under the rug and pretending issues don’t exist and hoping they’ll go away if ignored. We need to open our hearts first, our minds second, and our ears third to facilitate change and healing. My writing takes me on my own journey, but one thing that is consistent is that I write from my heart, so that I speak to the hearts of others. That’s when I know I’ve done my job.
Oakulture: How do you hold yourself personally accountable to your community and to the women which you seek to speak for?
Tracie Collins: I hold myself accountable to myself first, my children second, and my sisterhood third. I will share with you something I recently posted on Facebook in regards to the celebration of Frida [Kahlo] in San Francisco that just passed. “I am such a proud FEMINIST!!!! That’s who I am. There’s no escaping it, and I surround myself with strong women. Everything I do is to empower and strengthen women. I don’t care about your color, your background, your sexual identification, your health history or should I say HERstory, your relationship status, how others see you, the texture of your hair, if you’re PHat or skinny, a professional woman, a stay-at-home mom, what level of education you have or don’t have. Whatever! Because to me, we are all BEASTS!!! We are the givers of LIFE; it’s that simple. I see it every day. And until a man can say that, they can have several seats to me. I’m not a man hater, but #IJS #FRIDA has been my favorite artist for many years. She was before her time as many of us forward-thinking women are. She embraced her difference. Her uniqueness set her apart. As does yours!”
Oakulture: Role models? Who do you admire artistically and why?
Tracie Collins: I wouldn’t say “role models;” however, I do admire women who go against the status quo. I believe as an artist, if Im not pissing people off, I’m not doing my job. I believe that silent women don’t go down in history, or as i like to say, HERstory. As an artist, you are given a platform to invoke change. And let’s just say, I plan to exercise mine loudly. The larger my platform, the louder I’ll become for positive growth and progressive change for women.
Oakulture: Any Oakland heroines in particular?
Tracie Collins: I believe my heroines are those in my everyday circle: women who are mothers and still making things happen. I want to live my life to be a heroine for my daughters. We duplicate what we see. I want them to see power!
The mission of Tracie Collins Productions “is to finding, developing and producing works that highlight diverse experience with a focus on developing productions centered on women.” Current projects include a film adaptation based on “Cold Piece of Werk” as well as a stage production in Atlanta in early 2016. Upcoming projects include television and several stage productions including a thriller, “The Midwife,” “Divorce: Black Woman Style” and “Dressing Room” about exotic dancers in Atlanta. Originally an actor by training, Tracie also shared with us that she is currently writing a one-woman show.
Get to know the women previously highlighted in the series:
Candi Martinez, Chaney Turner, Nina Menendez, Gina Madrid aka Raw-G, DJ Zita, Soulovely crew Lady Ryan, Aima the Dreamer and DJ Emancipacion, Ramona Webb, Naima Shalhoub and Joanne Ludwig.
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