34.5 Minutes with Breshaun

Breshaun Joyner

SHE ARGUED WITH ME over the import of the witches’ words in Macbeth, and she half convinced me that she was right.

She was in a circus. She flew flying trapeze, tightwire, and aerial hoop. And she ran the fastest three-mile cross-country race in her middle school because some white boy pissed her off.

She teaches English at Santa Fe Prep. She sweats the curriculum and hates to grade.

She had to master the dialect of an English immigrant woman for the lead part at the Santa Fe Playhouse in Or,. While researching this sounded unbelievably complex, she thought that it was fun.

She decided to learn to play the cello at 40.

At the end of our session, she thanked me and headed to the door. No, say I, thank you!

I don’t think she heard me.

She was off.

You recently appeared in a Santa Fe Playhouse production.

I was recently in the play Or, by Liz Duffy Adams. It’s a what if, an imagined night in the life of Aphra Behn, who is credited with being the first published female playwright. It takes place in the 1660s, but it had a 1960s flavor to it.

For that play, I had to learn an accent, not just a British accent. It was a dialect that is flavored by immigrant language – their own accent. It’s a unique dialect particularly for South and East London.

You are also a teacher.

I teach eighth grade English at Santa Fe Prep. Occasionally I will teach an upper school English elective, an honors elective of some sort. I do Shakespeare within eighth grade English. I want to get my students to love it.

What are some of the authors that you teach in eighth grade?

We are reading a book called Dread Nation by Justina Ireland. Then there’s Maus by Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She recently came out with a young adult version of that book, which is what I’ve started teaching.

We had Animal Farm as our summer read. Short, nice, pithy kind of book. But there’s a lot going on there. When you approach it from the straight-on Russian Revolution allegory, you have to get into the history of that. Of course, it’s easier to tell because the story involves animals. But you’re still talking about oppression, injustice and political violence.

The book I’m teaching now about Dread Nation tackles racism in a very obvious way, but again, a palatable way, as it’s about zombies. Like what if zombies rose up during the Battle of Gettysburg? Zombies are an allegory for racism.

We think that we have killed them, but nope. There’s another one coming down! We think that we have solved racism in this country. Like, Oh, we don’t have slavery anymore. Or, Now we have the Civil Rights Act, or, No more Brown vs. Board of Education segregation in schools. Or, Oh my gosh, we have a Black president, right? But it keeps coming back from the dead, just like zombies.

And about where does racism come from? We don’t know where it started.

In some ways I approach it like a Shakespeare play. There are real characters that are out there, but one of the biggest characters is not so much someone like a Trump. No, the most scary characters are the people who believe all the conspiracy theories, the people who believe that Trump is a vilified savior. Because Trump will go away at some point, but the people who follow that mindset and don’t think for themselves, the zombies, those are the ones that I’m concerned about. I would love to hear Shakespeare’s take on this.

You were a graduate student in Shakespeare.

And today I am interested in specifically looking at the witches in Macbeth. And I compare them to curanderas here in the Southwest.

But the witches are a force for evil…

Disagree. 100%. No! They’re not vessels for evil at all. The most famous scene of that play that involves the witches, that’s the whole double, double toil and trouble. All of those ingredients are real plants and herbs with medicinal property. These are crones perhaps, with knowledge of plants and herbs and are able to concoct some kind of medicinal tea, some kind of tincture, something that he’s able to ingest that will get him to where he needs to go. Other ingredients are hallucinogens, and we know that he sees the whole line of the kings and all of this. So they’re not listed as witches as characters. They’re listed as the weirds, weird sisters. They’re only referred to as witch a couple times in the play, and they’re quite offended by it.

They’re botanists?

They’re botanists without being given the credit of the knowledge of these natural plants and herbs. Because I teach in the Southwest, it could be an abstract play –what the hell does this play from 400 years ago, set in Scotland, have to do with me here in Santa Fe? That’s when I put the curanderas on it.

You’re on your way to get a PhD in Shakespeare. And you are a teacher, an actor, a mother and a wife.

You want another one? I’m a cellist. I am writing a song with my cello teacher Lisa Stuart. And so, yeah, I’m writing songs, composing stuff.

What do you think these things have in common?

Passion and creativity. The passion to do it.

You love it.

I love it! Like with teaching, there are some aspects I don’t love. I hate grading, but I love teaching. I have a passion for each of these components of my life. You have to have a passion for acting because of all the work that goes into it. This is not film where you get a thousand takes.

And the cello?

I started when I was 40. It was one of those, I’m gonna do something I’ve never done before and not what people would expect of me. Particularly as a Black woman, because at one point, I had someone tell me a certain limitation about me.

When was that?

This sounds like a therapy session! In sixth grade at school the kids would run races at recess. At that time I was really, really fast and I would beat a lot of the girls and some of the boys. And one day a white boy was upset that I had beaten him. And he said that the only reason why I could beat him is that it was a short race. It was a sprint, and he said, Blacks can only run sprints. If this was a longer track, he said he’d be able to beat me. I was flabbergasted. Not so much at that statement, but the fact that someone could sum me up just because of the way I looked. That was horrifying.

So the next year in junior high was the first opportunity to do organized sports within the school. I went out for the cross-country team. I’m like, okay, this motochocho is not gonna tell me that I have some kind of physical limitation because of my Blackness. I’ll show you! And so I went out for the cross country team, and in the very first meet, I shattered the record for the three-mile race.

You’re saying that your line of diverse activities was sparked by a sixth grade bigot. Is that giving him too much importance?

Wow, I’ve thought about that a lot. Like, is the trajectory of my life born from some white boy? No! My mom is the person who created me and my drive to do and be whoever and whatever, so that encounter with that white boy just makes a good story. But it’s not my origin story. It was my introduction to a world that had been one of anecdote before.

How is being a Black woman in Santa Fe? There aren’t many.

More than you would think. Not only are there a lot of Black women in Santa Fe, there are also a lot of Black women in Northern New Mexico – at least enough to have a Black Women of Northern New Mexico club. Seriously, there’s a literal club. But it’s not a huge demographic.

There’s a Black cultural colloquial expression about being the fly in the buttermilk, one grain of pepper in the salt, that kind of thing. I’m not afraid of it anymore, but I’m not any less cognizant of it. I think it depends on the company how I am received. And I’m now starting to choose my words carefully. In some ways, like that encounter with the sixth grade white boy, how many folks just look at me and see something?

Here’s an example: I was with my eighth grade class at a downtown restaurant. There’s a table of white folks sitting there and one of the gentlemen motions with his finger for me to come over. I come over and he asks me, who are these children? What’s going on?

I decide, this is my opportunity to be an ambassador for my school, to be able to talk about the wonderful kids and who I am as a teacher. And he said, You sound like you’re pretty intelligent. Which, of course, is code.

I thought, why did he feel the need to say something like that? I had just given him my resume or pedigree. Here I am at this big deal elite prep school, of course I’m going to be intelligent, of course I am going to be worthy of being a part of this academic environment. Now is that the first time I had that happen? Of course not. Is that the last time? Of course not.

What brought you to Santa Fe anyway?

My husband. If it hadn’t been for him, I would not have even paid attention to Santa Fe, and now I don’t have any desire to live any place else. Well, maybe 20 miles in one direction.


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