SPOILER ALERT: This post will contain spoilers for my play, The Elvenking. If you would rather see it than read about it, please do not read any further. If you would like to read The Elvenking, you can find it on the New Play Exchange.
When I came across the Final Frontier Festival: Horror 2015, I was stoked. Feminism, theatre and horror are three of my favorite things. I was so excited for it that I breezed through the first draft of a one-act play I call The Elvenking. It’s a story in the vein of Angela Carter’s short story, “The Erl-king,” but with my own spin on things.
(This is the point where, if spoilers ruin the experience for you, you may wish to close out this window.)
The story itself is this:
A young woman named Tiisha is taking a break from her perfect sister’s perfect wedding reception when she is approached by the Elvenking. They chat, and Tiisha is charmed by how the Elvenking listens to her and seems to understand her.
He lures her away and takes her to his home in Faerie, a palace that’s as much a prison and a coffin as a home. All along the walls are glass cases containing samples of butterlfies. The Elvenking wines and dines her and indulges her every whim, but sometimes Tiisha thinks she hears whispers warning her about the Elvenking.
After some time, Tiisha misses her mother, and the Elvenking uses his magic to bring her to his palace. Tiisha’s mother, Valerie, sees her daughter half-starved and dressed in rags, so she tries to get Tiisha to come home with her. Tiisha refuses because she’s smitten with the Elvenking and wishes to stay with him forever.
While the Elvenking is away for a time, Tiisha hears the whispers again, and she discovers that it comes from the butterflies. She picks up one of the frames and speaks to the butterfly in there, and the butterfly warns Tiisha that the Elvenking intends to do her harm. She refuses to believe this and nearly has a nervous breakdown under the weight of her denial.
The Elvenking returns with a gift for Tiisha and offers to let her stay with him forever. She agrees, and they kiss to seal the bargain. Tiisha transforms into a butterfly, and the Elvenking mounts her on a display case with all the others. Some time later, he exits the palace and returns with a new victim.
In a world where a black person is killed by police every 28 hours, it’s hard to think up ways that monsters of myth and legend would be potent enough to inspire dread. Since I began working on this script, more than 400 people have been killed, and so many live in fear of what the police will do next. Not to mention the civil unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore.
In the wake of all the real things to be afraid of, what place does an intimate story of supernatural horror have in the world? Why should Black people be afraid of powerful, capricious lords of the Fair Folk when police abuse and murder Black people on a whim?
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure.
The Elvenking is definitely creepy. He’s a predator who takes advantage of the simple human desire to be valued and understood, especially by those more powerful than us. It is no accident that he approaches Tiisha when she’s separate from her family. If I’m in psychologically vulnerable state, I can’t say that I’d be able to resist the lure even if I was aware of the danger.
But race, gender, and sexuality have nothing to do with that…or do they?
Initially, when I wrote The Elvenking, Tiisha did not have a name. She was simply the Heroine because I wanted the meaning of the story to change based on who was cast in that role. But in subsequent drafts, I challenged myself to be specific, to give her a name and an identity. I named her Tiisha, and I made her Black.
Part of my initial reluctance to give Tiisha her Blackness is that I feared that people would find her unbelievable because she isn’t a Sassy Black Woman. There is a tendency in media to portray Black women as one-dimensional caricatures rather than complex and messy human beings. That tendency often ignores the ways in which Black women are vulnerable. It reflects and feeds into the idea that Black women don’t have recognizably human needs and desires. To be a Black woman is not to be a human being, but an attitude. We are props and costumes that add color and spice to everyone else.
Because of these given circumstances, allowing Tiisha to be Black added weight to what happens to her. Tiisha isn’t just a silly young woman making stupid mistakes. She makes classic horror movie fumbles, but those fumbles don’t come out of the void. She’s acting out a lifetime of anti-Blackness and misogyny telling her that she is ugly and worthless because she’s a Black woman, that anything beautiful or worthy that comes from her is despite her being a Black woman and not because of it. Coming from a society that sees her as less beautiful, less feminine and less human, is it any wonder that she stays with the Elvenking despite knowing she would come to harm?
A friend of mine mentioned that women of color already “fall through the cracks of mattering in society without supernatural horrors taking them captive,” and this is very true. When I compare how the issues facing Black women are routinely dismissed and ignored to what happens with Tiisha in The Elvenking, the part that’s frightening is not that she’s taken into a faery realm by a fey king and stripped of her humanity, but that nobody except her closest family would come looking for her, and that would not be enough to save her.