Full disclosure. I met Ursula V. Battle in 1996 during my brief stint as editor of the Baltimore Afro-American Newspaper. She was a dedicated journalist who dug deep to pull out something that no one else saw in a story. Our proudest moment together was an expose’ she did on discrimination within the Baltimore City Police Department that led to wholesale changes, including a change in police commissioners.
Since then, I have witnessed her rise as one of the most recognizable and well respected playwrights in the city, writing and presenting original works through her company, Battle Stage Plays. Most memorable were her first production, “The Teachers’ Lounge,” (which debuted at Coppin State University in 2002), and ‘DisChord in The Choir’ (which played to packed houses at Johns Hopkins University).
The Baltimore native and Walbrook High alum graduated a magna cum laude from Coppin State University and earned a master’s degree from the University of Baltimore.
Her current project is a revival of sorts, “For Better or Worse.” The dinner theater production will be performed August 26 and 27 at the One God One Thought Center for Better Living in Baltimore. The play premiered in 2009, drawing a sell-out audience. A return two-show engagement in February drew sell-out audiences, and the show returns in August by popular demand.
Recently, The Baltimore Urban Spectrum sat down with Ursula to discuss her writing process.
Urban Spectrum: Let’s talk about your current project, “For Better or Worse.” The play revolves around a bet. Doesn’t it?
Ursula Battle: Yes, it does revolve around a bet. The storyline centers around a bet between two church-going mothers, who are sworn enemies. They make a bet as to whether their children are going to get married to each other. One is betting that the will get married, and one is betting that they will not get married.
US: One word. Describe For Better or Worse.
UB: (laughing) Hilarious.
US: Talk about how you developed your main characters and their interactions. Where did that come from?
UB: For this particular piece, I actually came up with these characters based on things that they do that are depicted in their names. There is “Adulterous Anna,” “Gossiping Gertrude,” “Lustful Larry,” and there’s “Lying King.” I created these characters to represent things that often drive relationships apart, and things that people should avoid to keep their marriages or friendships together.
Contrarily, the characters also include “Mr. and Mrs. Equally Yoked,” compared to “Mr. and Mrs. Unequally Yoked.” There is also “Honesty Harriet,” “Constance Communication,” and the pastor, “Rev. Right Just.” They are among the many supporting characters. The main characters are the engaged couple “Clayton Johnson”, and “Theresa Stone“, and their mothers, Sister Geraldine ToPhaze/Two-Faced Stone“ and “Sister Sudie Snooty Johnson”.
US: Now this play, like many of your works, takes place in a church setting. Why is that such fertile ground for you?
UB: That is a great question. I have come to realize that writing plays is my God-given ministry. These plays allow us to preach and minister from the stage. I write the script, it is then given to the director, and finally the performers.
We are all under the direction of the ultimate and great director – God. Each of us plays a part in performing in these productions that He has put together. All of my plays have some connection to The-United-in- Victory-Tabernacle-on-the-Hill-Free-Will-Baptist-Catholic-and-Episcopal-Church-of God-in-Christ.
All of these stories center around this imaginary church. While fictitious, the things that happen in the lives of its membership are very real life – the joy and the struggles. People can relate because they can identify with what these characters are dealing with or are facing.
UB: You and I go back about a minute or two (to the Baltimore Afro American Newspaper in the 1990s). During your days as a reporter, you took on discrimination in the Baltimore City Police Department, and other things. Talk about those days, and what you pull from that when you write today.
US: First, I am always grateful to Jake Oliver and Frances Draper, and former editor Joe Green Bishop, for giving me my journalistic start. They let me come in and join their staff. I am thankful, because I believe that God was preparing me by equipping me with experiences that can only be learned by writing for a newspaper. My writing experience with The Baltimore Afro-American Newspaper, and The Baltimore Times, whom I currently write for, has provided these experiences, and I am grateful for the opportunity these publications have given me. I am also thankful for my former Afro editors, the late Jimmy Williams, and you Michael, who trusted me as a journalist, and allowed me to write stories that not only needed to be told, but brought about needed change. Kudos also goes to the late Afro-American Newspaper sports editor Sam Lacy, who made sure my stories were well-written and accurate. I also thank my journalistic mentor and former professor, Dr. Ernest L. Lassiter.
US: What came first for you – a love of writing or a love of theatre?
UB: Writing. I was the one in school who could write my research and essay papers at the last minute and get good grades, write short skits, etc. I never really gave a great deal of thought to writing a stage play until I saw Shelly Garrett’s Beauty Shop during the 1990s. After seeing the show, my mother, Vashtied Battle-Brown, who was a special education teacher in the Baltimore City Public System at the time, said, “Ursula, you should write a play about teachers.” I sat down to write, and The Teachers’ Lounge was born. It was then that I realized I had the God-given, natural ability to write plays.
US: Tell me a story about your childhood.
UB: As a child, I used to do a lot of reading. I was a regular at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Garrison Boulevard, always checking out books. I stayed at the library. I read a lot of comic books and other books, but one of my favorite writers was Richard Wright, who wrote Native Son. I also loved reading books by Agatha Christie and S. E. Hinton. Sometimes, I would read the same books over and over again. Reading would allow me to go into an imaginary world, and I would often use dolls and toys as performers and props.
US: Tell me something that explains who you are as a writer and as a woman.
UB: As a woman, I have a strong church background. My grandfather, the late Rev. William Nelson Stokes, who founded New Hope Baptist Church, my grandmother Vashtied Myrtle Stokes was both first lady and a missionary, and my father John Battle is a minister. My siblings and I grew up in the church. I believe that upbringing is why so much of my work is reflective of the church. My parents also had a dedicated and hard-working work ethic. I am also a former athlete, which instilled a sense of perseverance, dedication, and endurance.
US: So is there a playwright that you admire?
UB: I have a lot of admiration and respect for Tyler Perry, and the door he has opened for other playwrights. I’ve often been called, ‘The Female Tyler Perry.’ I also admire Lorraine Hansberry. I’m often told that I remind people of her. I can’t say that I emulate anybody because I have my own unique writing style. Ursula V. Battle plays are a combination of powerful ministry, side-splitting comedy, edge-of-your-seat drama, soul-stirring singing, and unpredictable, yet unforgettable story lines. However, each play is vastly different.
Ultimately, my goal is that people leave better than where they were when they came in. I want them be uplifted and to see that God is able.
US: You have a library full of plays. What’s your favorite? Is there one that you are most proud of?
UB: I’m going to answer that two ways. The one that I am going to be most proud of is debuting in December 15, 16, and 17, 2017 at Johns Hopkins, called Ursula V. Battle’s Serenity House. I believe this piece will have the biggest impact on audiences spiritually and I am very excited about that aspect. It deals with addiction. Not just the problem of addition, but overcoming.
As for what I have done, I am proud them all, but DisChord in The Choir is the piece I am most proud of. We took that play to Johns Hopkins University, almost 800 seats, and we sold out every show. It marked the first time I worked with Dr. Branch on a production, and I believe we make an outstanding theatrical duo. A close second in terms of my favorite play is The Teachers’ Lounge, because that was my debut piece. I am grateful for those who support our shows time and time again, and continue to help us to draw sell-out audiences. Most of all, I thank God for using me a vehicle to write these plays, and to uplift and glorify His name. All honor goes to Him.