Updated: Mar 10, 2019
Jaylene Clark Owens is an AUDELCO and Barrymore Award-winning actress, spoken word poet, playwright, producer and director from Harlem in New York City. She is the Executive Director of the Harlem KW Project, a theatre company she founded with Hollis Heath, Janelle Heatley and Chyann Sapp. And, we can now add Author to the list with her newly-released debut book of poetry, Afropoetic.
LOUD Girl Movement Creator Thysha M. Shabazz came across her spoken word piece, My Voice, My Choice, and immediately knew she was a LOUD Girl.
Check out her poem, My Voice, My Choice and the interview below.
How did you find your voice?
I think I found my voice through spoken word poetry. The earliest poem I can remember writing was in 5th grade. I continued writing poetry, and around 8th grade I began writing poetry based on how was I feeling. So if I was feeling a certain way about a boy, or feeling angry - usually when I was feeling upset - I would write a poem and I started sharing it with classmates and I saw that they enjoyed it.
In 2005, a friend told me about a poetry slam that Urban Word was producing. [That’s when I realized] people do this thing that I do. People do these poems. They actually perform them and compete with them. I didn’t really know much about that but once I got involved with Urban Word, that’s when I knew, this is a thing. That inspired me to continue writing. I realized through my poetry I could share things about empowerment, social justice issues and other things I was interested in; so I really found my voice in that.
Has anyone ever tried to silence you, or called you “loud,” “Angry,” or any derogatory terms for using your voice? How did you handle that?
Yes. When I was a Resident Assistant, a fellow, White male RA used the word, “ghetto,” and I did not like the way he used it. So I pulled him aside and calmly told him this makes me feel uncomfortable, that ghetto is a place, etc., and he apologized. So we handled that. Then a few days later, while we were having a group meeting with our boss, that same guy said something to the effect that he couldn’t talk in front of me because I make him have to think about what he’s saying, and that I was intimidating.
[Experiences] like that can make someone not want to speak up because it’s like, “I don’t want to come across as scary or anything.” But no, that just proved to me that I needed to continue speaking up. If me telling you that I’m uncomfortable with what you’re saying is making you have to think before you speak - which is something you should be doing anyway - that tells me that I need to continue to speak up and speak out.
Being an actress as well, a lot of times in the breakdowns of character descriptions, it will say [this character is] “sassy,” or “has a lot of attitude,” - playing up the tropes. Or it can be a breakdown that will say something like, “this person is very well spoken, very articulate,” which is another coded language that they want you to sound like what they feel a White person sounds like. So I feel like the profession I am in, as an actress and poet, I’m always coming against these things, and how I’m supposed to speak, but I do my best to not let anyone silence me even though I may feel silenced based on what somebody says or based on people like me, people who speak like me, not being present in what I do.
Do you think peoples’ reaction to our authentic voices can be used as a weeding tool to let us know if they truly accept us?
When something like the RA situation happens, it’s like, “Oh, okay. This is how you feel. Noted.” But I don’t use that to color a person’s entire character because that is doing to them what they have done to me. So, for me, it get’s noted, but I don’t think I’ll weed a person out completely. When we interact, I will be hyper aware and if it continues, I’ll address it each time. It basically becomes a footnote for that person.
Research has been released that discusses the different things Black women are experiencing at work just for being themselves and using their voices. Do you feel like your voice can be the difference in a paycheck?
I think it could be the difference in a paycheck in my career as an actress. If I am being cast in a project where they want to portray a certain type of Mom, family, lawyer, etc. If I come to the audition and I’m speaking the way I usually speak with my friends they may think, she can’t do this role. She’s not as polished as we’d like. She’s not the type of person we’d like to see represented for our brand, or something like that. I do think it could cause me a paycheck.
Part of the role of being an actress - switching your voice and how you present yourself - is taking on different characters, but at the same time, it’s about having balance. I have to figure out how much of myself I have to bring to certain roles. But if they feel like, I have no range then it could cost me a paycheck.
Are you saying that you have to act, to act?
In the moment when I come into the room and say hello, that is when I do my best to make sure they hear how I sound. Now, as I say in my poem, that code-switch voice, sometimes switches on involuntarily. There have been many times when I’ve gone into an audition and I’m like, [code-switches to higher pitched voice], “Hi, I’m Jaylene!” And, all of a sudden my voice is this other voice. I’m trying to work on coming into the room and speaking in my normal voice and when I practice a character, turning it as necessary.
When it’s just me talking, I do try to just bring my whole self. And I feel that it’s okay to do the character as the character.
My Voice, My Choice is a piece “that was written about the involuntary, code-switching that happens in your life as a Black woman.” What did you experience that led to your writing this piece?
I was doing a reading of a play called WHITE by James Ijames, who is a phenomenal playwright.
I played a character named, Vanessa. She is a friend of Guss, who was a White, gay man. Guss is trying to get his art into a prestigious museum. His friend, Jane, who is a White woman, is curating an exhibit there. So in Guss’ mind it’s like, “I’m in” because his friend was the curator. But she tells Guss she’s only doing work by people of color at that time. So, instead of Guss just waiting until she’s curating something that isn’t about people of color, he feels that he must get into this museum; so he hires Vanessa to act as though his work is her work. So, even though it wouldn’t have his name on it, his work would still be in the museum. So they create this character named Balkonae who is just over the top. A LOUD Girl. She’s bold, wears lots of vibrant colors, speaks what’s on her mind, and the play spirals out of control from there.
That was the background of what I was doing at that time [I wrote My Voice, My Choice]. So, Vanessa was like me on a daily basis; and Balkonae, her voice - definitely her voice - was me in my true Harlem element, New York City voice. The way that she was so outspoken, a lot of times Balkonae said the things that me as Jaylene probably would.
So, during a talkback, someone in the audience made a point that Balkonae didn’t seem educated because of how she was speaking and that if she was educated she wouldn’t sound like that. They expressed that they weren’t really comfortable with how she talked, and when Balkonae started talking, they wouldn’t really listen because of how she was speaking. So, Malika Oyetimein, the director of the play - who I also believe to be a LOUD Girl - responded to that point [by explaining] how we, as Black women, speak; having to switch “on” and “off” in certain situations; and, how we are unjustly judged because of how we speak, but it doesn’t mean that we are not educated.
I took notes because that inspired me to write a poem about it.
I’m happy I wrote it to share it, but also just for me because it [code-switching] is involuntary for me. So when I hear it and when I catch it, I tell myself, “your voice, your choice, bring your register down, you gotta be who you are.”
It’s one thing to know people code-switch. It’s another to realize you’re doing it and have to sit with the knowledge of having “sedated yourself” for others’ comfort. How do you work through that?
My husband is very good at being honest with me and calling me out if he notices something that is not authentic to me. So, I found that I usually do that voice in a store, restaurant or customer-service based environment. It just comes out, and he’s like, “There you go, doing that baby voice again.” So, my husband has definitely helped me to realize when and where I do that voice [code-switch] and that has translated to me being aware of it in other places, even when I’m not with him. I try to be aware of speaking in a higher register to sound like what other people say is “professional.”
You have written, directed and acted in your own play, Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale. Can you provide a little background about that play?
Killer Whale is my baby and I love it so much. It has afforded my partners, Hollis Heath, Janelle Heatley and Chyann Sapp, and I a lot of opportunities.
I wanted to update my [Facebook] status to say something about jumping back in to the poetry world after being on a break from the public spoken word community while I was in college.
As my brain began to think of what I wanted to say, somehow it led into me writing a status that was a comparison of the belly of a killer whale to gentrification in Harlem:
It’s time to stop dipping a toe in here
Wading in a little bit there
I need to jump back into this Sea World of poetry like I’m Shamu
Too much gentrification going on in Harlem to get light
Time to spit killer lines, with killer rhymes, of killer tales
Cuz Harlem is looking more and more like the belly of a killer whale.
A few days later, Alfred Preisser - who was my teacher at the Harlem School of the Arts - was doing a reading series at the Schomburg Center For Research and Black Culture. He asked me if I and two to three other women, could do a play about this killer whale - gentrification metaphor, and combine it with theatre and poetry.
I had never written a play but the opportunity sounded too good for me to pass up. So I contacted Hollis, Janelle, and Chyann, and told them about the opportunity. We then got together to figure out the stories we wanted to tell about gentrification in Harlem, then wrote a script that connected all of those poems, scenes and songs. And, that’s how we got Killer Whale.
How does this work tie in to your LOUD, and what are the benefits of using your voice to express your thoughts and ideas?
There are all these different factors when you are doing someone else’s work. But this is our work, that we created, and I have a stake in. It just feels so good to bring that to life.
This is my voice, now on the stage in a play. It means so much and it allows you to have control over your story and your narrative and that is so important. This is a way that we get to tell our own unique stories in the way that we want to tell it.
I’m a big fan of using spoken word in plays now. It’s something that I want to do more of. It’s beneficial because it gives you ownership in so many ways - of the work, monies you put into it and your story. Especially as Black people, as Black women - ownership is very important.
How can you tell your voice is making a difference?
In my own personal poetry, it’s through the reactions that I get while I’m performing it - the snapping, um-hmmms, and claps, etc. - I feel that energy in the room and it lets me know that spoke to them [the audience]. It could also be people making comments on my videos online about how the piece spoke to them; or after having listened to my work how they felt more comfortable in certain spaces. Hearing peoples’ reactions after they’ve heard my work is how I know it’s made a difference in their lives.
In terms of Killer Whale, whenever we have a talkback it’s so wonderful to hear peoples’ reactions. Even people who are not from Harlem telling us how this sounds like their neighborhood or the ways they could relate to various parts; or, that this is not their experience at all and them saying that this opens their eyes to this particular subject.
One of the most rewarding things is when we do this show at Teacher’s College at Columbia University, and working with students who are teachers, or who are going to be educational professionals, and hearing them respond to the play and telling us how they are now going to move differently with their students.
That let’s me know our voices are making a difference in peoples’ lives and it feels so good. It validates everything that I’m doing. I believe God gave me this gift of writing, telling stories, acting, and poetry. I know that it was a gift to me, but it’s so that I can speak to others and tell my story and stories of folks who look like me, who may not see their stories being portrayed.
There are Black women and girls who are constantly using their voice to speak their truth and are also suffering from it in the form of fatigue, stress, backlash, etc. What type of self-care methods do you practice?
For me self-care is a massage [whooo] I love to get a massage. Laughter, I love laughing. Hanging out with friends and family. I love crafts…it’s so comforting. I love to eat - in a balanced way. Exercise, especially for my career, and being the most fit that I can be, is really helpful.
Are you a LOUD Girl? What makes you a LOUD Girl?
Absolutely. I use my voice emphatically, unapologetically. I love speaking up, whether it’s about something I don’t like or do like. I think part of my mission is to speak up for the voiceless, for those whose story is not being told. I want to tell that whether it’s through acting or through poetry.
What’s the best thing about being a LOUD Girl?
I can unapologetically be myself. We’re constantly bombarded with what is considered beautiful and how we should be - then there are filters that change who you are, what you look and sound like. And I think you can indulge in those things from time to time, but the beauty of being a LOUD Girl is that you’re unapologetically yourself. That’s the person who you know how to be. So be that. You can’t go wrong with being yourself. You don’t have to study it, learn how to be it. It’s you, and that is very freeing when you decide you’re going to unapologetically be yourself.
If you could tell your younger self about your voice, your LOUD, what would you say?
Be proud of who you are. Don’t be afraid to talk about it.
I was bullied about being dark-skinned. It didn’t make me not like my dark skin but I wouldn’t really speak up about how much I love it. I think if I had spoken up about it earlier - how much I love my dark skin - and being proud of it and unapologetic about it, I think the bullying would’ve stopped sooner.
So I would tell my younger self, be proud of who you are and don’t be afraid to talk about why you are proud of being who you are.
If you love her LOUD just as much as we do, you can find her at: