Lights, Camera, Action! How This Playwright Fuses Language with Theater


Step into the captivating world of Jelisa, a Black woman who effortlessly weaves the threads of language, culture, and theater together. As a seasoned theatre teacher with a passion for languages, Jelisa has not only nurtured young minds on their theatrical journeys but has also embarked on her own adventure of language learning, embracing Spanish, Igbo, and Pidgin English. Through her extraordinary talent for writing plays, she blends her linguistic prowess, cultural understanding, and storytelling prowess to craft compelling narratives that resonate with diverse audiences. In this blog post, we take a look into Jelisa's awe-inspiring journey, her profound connection with her students, and how her linguistic endeavors have enriched her creative expression. Get ready to be inspired by her redefining the boundaries of theatrical artistry. 

BGLL: Thank you so much for sharing your language learning journey with us. Tell us about yourself.

Jelisa: My name is Jelisa Jay Robinson, I’m from Houston and I’m Black American. I have a B.A. in Latin American Studies and a B.A. in Theatre and Dance. Professionally, I've been a theatre teacher for the past 8 years. I've taught both High School and Elementary to theatre.  I've seen students graduate from college and go through college.  I've also seen students transition from first grade to the third.  Each time reminds me of how we grow!  It's an honor to be with them on their journey.  

I am a playwright whose words have had the opportunity to be on stages in New York, Detroit, Creede, Austin and Houston and more.  My work seeks to highlight connections across the African diaspora through the lens of a quirky, strong and flawed leading Black woman. 

BGLL: What is your proudest accomplishment thus far?

Jelisa: I am proud of being named as a finalist for La Mansion Baldwin Writers Residency in France (2020).  I haven't gotten to go to the residency yet, but it was my first big residency win! I truly feel proud when my students say "you're my favorite teacher" or "I love your class!". That means so much more to me than any award. 

BGLL: With your Bachelor’s in Latin American Studies and in Theatre and Dance, have you ever considered connecting the two?

Jelisa: I connect my language learning to my job because of the students I work with. At my school, I work with many diverse students from various backgrounds and they speak multiple languages.  I love learning words and about their cultures with them. They teach me so much!

BGLL: That’s amazing! What is your approach to connecting language learning to theatre? 

Jelisa: I allow my students to write in their languages or incorporate them in their work!  The world is more than just the English language and I encourage them to have a worldview, to express themselves and their culture.

BGLL: What languages do you speak?

Jelisa: I speak English, African American Vernacular English and I’ve been learning Spanish since I was 10. I am also currently learning Igbo and Nigerian Pidgin English, because my husband is Nigerian from the Igbo tribe.  I think it's a pretty cool language and it's something about how Black people can connect to their heritage.  My inspiration is a social media language learner @akata.muta.igbo who is also Black American learning the language.  She speaks so well. I'm definitely excited about the Igbo class that I'm taking this summer!

BGLL: Do you have plans to incorporate language into your work?

Jelisa: I write principally in English, but because Spanish is my 2nd language (I'm still learning) and I'm also learning Igbo and Pidgin English, pieces of what I'm learning always find their way into my writing. Whether it be through my characters or through the setting, you're going to get this multilingualism.  My first play, The Stories of Us showed the connections of Latinx, Afrolatinx and African Americans.  Surely, I used some language there.  I have also written other plays like We Both Suck Our Teeth that use the Igbo language.  

My dream is to continue to write a film or play in Spanish and host Spanish language writing spaces. I was inspired to learn languages by my mother, an African American, who studied Spanish and French and my father who would come home from work and share words in Spanish that he learned.  I later met Yurixi, in the fifth grade, and she would teach me Spanish words and teach me Spanish songs like Los Kumbia Kings.  My Spanish teacher Ms. Gomez in the fifth grade translated the song "Te Extrano" by Xtreme for me.  It was the first song I learned to sing from front to back in Spanish.  All those memories brought language learning alive to me.

I hope to have many of those beautiful memories learning Igbo and all of the other languages I hope to learn in the future. 

BGLL: It sounds like you have a passion for the arts?

My passion is writing.  I write plays, and I'm learning television and film writing! I am the facilitator of a writing and worship space for writers who are believers called Light Write.  We play worship songs, pray over our writing career and lives and write on prompts or or current work. I am excited to continue working on that with Iron Sharpens Iron, an accountability group and our regular light write sessions.

BGLL: Were you able to take advantage of opportunities because of language?

Jelisa: The coolest opportunity I was able to take advantage of was traveling to Brazil.  They speak Portuguese, but I was able to communicate to them because the language is similar to Spanish.  Also, in Italy, I was able to get around because of the similarities with Spanish  Of course, any time I travel to Mexico, I get to dust off my Spanish, which brings me joy. Talking to my students in their language is by far the most fun of all.  They are always so excited.  I've noticed that the younger students talk back to me in Spanish with no questions while the older students want to know how I know Spanish or I jam to their music.  I also have some Igbo students who share with me parts of their language and I surprise them with the little that I know.  It's so beautiful to connect with people.

BGLL: What is something you’ve struggled with in language learning?

Jelisa: My hardest struggle was confidence in speaking.  I just told myself that it's okay to mess up.  I mess up in my own native tongue.  It's okay to make mistakes because that's how you learn.  Now, I am at the point where I can laugh at myself.

BGLL: What are some tips you have for others who may be learning another language?

Jelisa: First, this goes without saying, but have fun in your target language! Do things that you enjoy doing but in your target language.  I love writing in my journal so I have days where I write about my day in Spanish. Second, listen to music in your target language. I love music, so I listen to music in Igbo as well. Lastly, use social media in your target language.  TikToks in Spanish anyone?

BGLL:  How can we keep up with you on social (social media)?

Jelisa: You can keep up with me on Instagram at @jelisathewriter1.

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