A garden of racial and gender power politics in ‘Letters to Kamala’/‘Dandelion Peace’ from Voices Festival Productions

Three ghosts of women of color talk back to VP Kamala Harris, and a backyard feud reflects on the fight for equality in America.

“African-American women remain at the bottom of the economic totem pole” due to “their dual victimization by race and sex-based discrimination,” Dr. Pauli Murray told Congress in 1970. Fifty years later, Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris stated, “The litmus test for America is how we are treating Black women.” Uncoincidentally, 2020 was also the year that, in the heart of a pandemic, Rachel Lynett was commissioned to write a play on the presidential election (Letters to Kamala) and a post-election reflection on the Black woman’s fight for racial and gender equality in America (Dandelion Peace).

Touching on topics ranging from capitalism, communism, democracy, American exceptionalism, individualism, immigration, colonization, education, fake news, the media, and savior mentality, to the politics of heaviness and rest, social and political change, and the Black woman as a symbol, Voices Festival Productions’ world premiere of Lynett’s double bill Letters to Kamala/Dandelion Peace offers a condensed history lesson in two hours that could alternatively be titled Some Things They Didn’t Teach You in School.

Mariele Atienza (as Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink), Kendra Holloway (as Charlotta Bass), and Fatima Quander (as Charlene Mitchell) in ‘Letters to Kamala.’ Photos by DJ Corey Photography.

The acting and the dialogue between the characters in these two one-act plays are superb. The set for Letters, designed by Heidi Castle-Smith, is simple and functional, featuring three wooden platforms (which, overturned, become garden plots in Dandelion Peace), a chair, stools, a gate, and bunting. Behind the gate, projected on curtains lit by designers David Lamon Wilson and Sunshine De Castro, are the signatures of men who signed the United States Constitution. By the play’s end, the signatures projected are of pivotal women of color who have shaped the history and future of our nation. “In fact, for most things that moved us forward as a country,” one character asserts, “there’s a Black woman you need to be thanking.”

In Letters, the ghosts of three historical women —  Charlotta Bass, Charlene Mitchell, and Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink — are summoned by VP Kamala Harris to answer the question “How do you mend a country with a broken heart?” First to arrive is Kendra Holloway as Charlotta Bass, the first Black woman to run for Vice President of the United States and former owner of The California Eagle newspaper. Holloway, with her hair in crown braids and wearing a long overcoat, looks directly into the audience as if to Harris and says, “You asked how do I mend a broken heart? Not we. That’s your first mistake. You don’t. We do.” Lynett’s script is exceptional in how it intertwines differing viewpoints yet reminds all Black women in positions of power that change is a collective effort built on the shoulders of those who came before us. With a southern accent and a determined look, Holloway continues, discussing inevitable compromises often mistaken for selling out: “I understand why you did what you did. The choices you had to make to succeed. To win. They have heard us for decades now and they aren’t listening… Now we have to take their attention.”

When the ghost of Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink, the first woman of color elected to the House of Representatives, takes the stage played by Mariele Atienza, she echoes this sentiment: “American culture has never cared about anything but power and resources. So I realized if I wanted to be free, I needed to gain power first.” Dressed in a blue button-up dress with puff sleeves, a pearl necklace, and red shoes and earrings (thanks to costume design by Brandee Mathies), Mink emphasizes that the American way is the taking way, the stealing way, the violent way, and to heal a broken heart, we need everyone on board: “We need people marching and hitting the pavement. We need people creating and knocking on doors to get petitions signed, but we also need representation. We need people on the other side of the wall advocating for us.”

Mariele Atienza (as Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink), Fatima Quander (as Charlene Mitchell), and Kendra Holloway (as Charlotta Bass) in ‘Letters to Kamala.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

However, Charlene Mitchell, the first Black woman to run for President of the U.S., portrayed exceptionally by Fatima Quander, does not fully agree with the need for compromises in the fight for gender and racial equality for Black women. She critiques Kamala Harris’ past as a public defender who fought to keep nonviolent offenders in prison and supported The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, as a result of which, according to the LA Times, “African Americans were hit hardest: Their incarceration rate remains more than five times their share of California’s population.” Quander not only owns her character but brings her monologue to life with pauses, vocal inflections, sarcasm, cigarette drags, and bluntness. Sporting an afro, a patterned dress, and heels, she strides onto the stage with the confidence and fearlessness of ten thousand white men. “Lots of Black folk I am not helping move forward. Not all skin folk are kinfolk,” she states. “My support, my help is conditional. There’s a lot you still need to apologize for, Kamala. I’m watching and waiting.”

We were all waiting. And in Lynett’s post-election follow-up, Dandelion Peace, we meet three modern-day women of color — Moira, Zuri, and Anita — in an urban outdoor community garden in 2023. What strikes you initially in this parable of a play is how seemingly innocuous issues can spiral out of control due to unchecked political ambition, divisive language, and capitalism. Quander, who plays the powers that be, is ready to do whatever it takes to protect herself, her space, and her property from “weeds,” “plant criminals,” “abomination,” “outsiders,” and “undesirables” —  terms reminiscent of the “basket of deplorables,” or immigrants “poisoning the nation’s blood,” used in American political rhetoric.

TOP: Kendra Holloway (as Anita) and Mariele Atienza (as Moira); ABOVE: Fatima Quander (as Zuri), in ‘Dandelion Peace.’ Photos by DJ Corey Photography.

Moira, the president of the garden, portrayed by Mariele Atienza, is accused of ineptness for following due process instead of taking drastic measures to address the “invasive species” in the garden, thus jeopardizing her chances for re-election. Outnumbered and unable to secure the vote of Anita (played by Kendra Holloway), who opts out of a “democratic” election process based on friendship rather than the collective good of the garden, Moira is caught between a rock and a hard place. Will she — should she — choose political ambition despite the potential cost and threat to Black women, safe spaces, social and financial welfare, and inclusivity?

Letters to Kamala and Dandelion Peace serve both as social and political commentary and as history that should be seen by students, teachers, lifelong learners, leaders in every sphere and sector, and Black women everywhere. At the start, we hear news coverage of the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a white police officer — reports reminiscent of the police brutality Charlotta Bass wrote about in her newspaper 108 years ago. Voices Festival Productions, Director A. Lorraine Robinson, and Founder Ari Roth have done us all a great service by bringing this production to the stage.

But what do we do as a country when a play that started with hope leaves us feeling somewhat hopeless? In Charlene Mitchell’s words about Kamala Harris as VP for a major party, just because something is historic doesn’t mean it is progress.

Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission between plays.

Letters to Kamala/Dandelion Peace plays through June 30, 2024, presented by Voices Festival Productions performing at Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC (corner 16th and S Streets NW). Purchase tickets for this double bill online. Single ticket prices for regular tickets start at $45 for general performances. Discount tickets are available for those under 30 for $20.

Letters to Kamala/Dandelion Peace
Written by Rachel Lynett
Directed by A. Lorraine Robinson

Charlotta Bass: Kendra Holloway
Charlene Mitchell: Fatima Quander
Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink: Mariele Atienza

Moira: Mariele Atienza
Zuri: Fatima Quander
Anita: Kendra Holloway
Understudies: Kendall Arin Claxton, Helen Cheng Mao

Stage Manager: David Elias
Set Designer: Heidi Castle-Smith
Sound Designer: David Lamont Wilson
Lighting Designer: Sunshine De Castro
Co-Lighting Designer: Venus Gulbranson
Costume Designer: Brandee Mathies
Properties & Scenic Charge: Tyra Bell
Choreographer: Chitra Subramanian
Production Manager: David M. Smith
Assistant Stage Manager: Grace O. Gyamfi
Dramaturg: Khalid Y. Long, Ph.D.
Assistant Dramaturg: Ethan Hart
Speech Coach: Christine Hirrel
Wigs/Wardrobe: Diaya Ajose-Fuller
Casting Director: Eisenberg Casting
Set Construction: Complete Fabrications

Playwright Rachel Lynett on women of color in power and her double bill ‘Letters to Kamala’/’Dandelion Peace’ (interview by Debbie Minter Jackson, May 24, 2024)
Voices Festival Productions to premiere ‘Letters to Kamala’ and ‘Dandelion Peace’ (news story, May 4, 2024)


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