“I have not always had dance in my body,” DeQuina Moore began. “But I have always known rhythm.”
Moore, a virtuosic Houston-born actress, was in a mirror-lined studio at Stages, rehearsing a scene in a new spoken-word and dance production about the life of Lauren Anderson, the former Houston Ballet star who was one of America’s first Black principal dancers. Plumshuga is billed as a show told in Anderson’s own words. It peels back the sugarcoated story many Texans know, exposing her challenges with alcohol and drug addiction.
Moore was also perfecting the tone and pacing of a monologue in which Anderson’s character wrestles with an uncomfortable memory about the hurt she felt as a kid when her parents split up. “There were many weekends caught between their two houses where I wanted to turn her memory to ash, for the way she left,” she continued. “But he wouldn’t let me. Wouldn’t let me speak a single unkind word. Wouldn’t let my heart char over.”
People don’t really talk like that, you know, in sustained metaphors. This may be Anderson’s story, but 37-year old playwright and codirector Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton has put those words through a blender, as she likes to say, and poured out what she calls a choreopoem. A large cast of dancers acts out the story while Moore, as Poet Lauren, addresses the audience directly, to echo the way Anderson and Mouton interacted through two years of interviews.
The real surprise of Plumshuga (which runs October 14 through November 13 at Stages) isn’t Anderson’s dark narrative but the way Mouton elevates it with her script. She is emerging as a powerful literary voice not just in theater, but also in opera and books.
Early in her career, Mouton shook rafters at competitive slams. In performances that still live on YouTube, she propels the full weight of her rich, expressive voice into a room-owning physical presence. She has always been a self-starter, but it took an epic storm for her to discover what she calls the “superpower” ability to transfer her voice to other peoples’ bodies.
When Mouton won a two-year term as Houston’s poet laureate in 2017, she was working full time as an English teacher. She vowed to accept every opportunity the city’s post brought. After Hurricane Harvey hit, organizations that don’t usually work with poets began asking Mouton to deliver soul-stirring verses about resilience. Beyond the obligatory school and library gigs, she appeared with Houston Ballet and the Houston Rockets. (Texas Monthly invited her to perform for its Texas Optimism Project.) “It felt surreal,” she told me. “For so much of my career there had been time limits and restrictions, but moving into my laureateship in that new way showed me that poetry and my abilities were limitless.”
Houston Grand Opera saw her potential, too, asking her to write a libretto with composer Damien Sneed. The company was planning a chamber piece about the life of Marian Anderson, the boundary-breaking Black contralto. Mouton panicked a little. She had always wanted to write for the stage but had no clue how to format a libretto. She cleverly added a spoken-word character to the cast who brought the history into contemporary focus. Marian’s Song premiered in early March 2020. “To find that I could exist in that space without being a musician—that was really eye-opening,” Mouton said. “It opened up something wide and different in me.”
We met at Dolce & Cafe, a strip-center coffee shop off Interstate 10 in Spring Branch. She sipped green tea, polite, poised and primly dressed in a silk polka-dot blouse and red slacks accessorized with bracelet-size gold hoops. After decades of working multiple jobs to make ends meet, she left teaching last year to devote all her time to her literary projects. She’s so busy, there are days she feels buried, but the bigger adjustment has been the freedom to plot her own course. “That feels like cheating,” she said, with a megawatt smile.
Born and raised in Southern California, the brilliant, inquisitive daughter of a minister and a feisty Southerner, Mouton kept a journal before most kids her age could write. Before she knew the taste of success, she learned the milky flavor of Safeguard soap in her mouth: she concocted some of her best childhood stories trying to wiggle out of trouble for disobeying her parents, who were not fooled. She adopted her stage name, “D.E.E.P,” in high school, to signal her seriousness as she leaned into “Def Poetry Jam” culture. “I was going to be a poetry rock star,” she said. She wasn’t thinking of the word as an acronym then, but it just kind of kept riding shotgun. A few few years ago, she decided D.E.E.P. should stand for something, and she came up with “Determined to Excel in Everything Possible.” It’s like she willed it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Mouton came to Houston after earning dual degrees in English and African American studies at the University of Michigan. She sensed she belonged here, even though she had no family or friends in the city, or even a job. Buoyed by faith in herself, God, and the power of words, she sought her community in the poetry world. She also found love, marrying business intelligence developer Joshua Mouton, and they grew a family; they now have two school-age children, daughter Olivet and son Julius.
After Marian’s Song, Mouton immediately went looking for another story about an inspiring African American woman, preferably one from Texas. She thought about Barbara Jordan, but then everywhere she went, people were talking about Lauren Anderson, who retired from the stage in 2006.
Anderson needed no convincing to share her story. She has dreamed of writing a memoir for years without knowing where to start, after her ballet papa Ben Stevenson, the artistic director who nurtured her, warned, “Dahling, you have to tell the truth or no one will read it.” She did not expect to share as much as she did, but Mouton is a keen and patient listener. They talked for two years, almost weekly, shifting to Zoom calls during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early going, Anderson cut off Mouton’s sensitive questions. “We’re not going to talk about that,” she’d say. So Mouton waited. Then she asked again, during another session. The script echoes that, sometimes ending a scene as Moore says, “But that’s a story for another day.”
Mouton is “an old soul,” Anderson told me. “She has a way of getting to the why, the emotion of it. She makes my words sound like cursive. I completely trust her.”
Mouton wasn’t aiming for a crash-and-burn tell-all. The play’s subtitle is “The Rise of Lauren Anderson.” “We always see people who have worked through really hard times in their life, especially addiction, as people who come out the other side of it broken. Especially Black people,” Mouton explained. “Obviously, struggles and life experience weigh on you, but Lauren . . . is this huge force in the city. . . . That’s what I wanted to champion her for.” Mouton also innately understood the external pressures Anderson overcame as a Black woman striving to excel, from people “both wanting you to succeed and telling you that you can’t, at every step,” she said. “That started to translate into something more complicated.”
Some of the stories Mouton carries in her own bones sound older than recorded time. Her forthcoming memoir, Black Chameleon, which will be released in March by Henry Holt & Company, is propelled by the myths of a fierce inner griot who provides a bridge to understanding memory and womanhood. In one of the first chapters, Mouton spins a mystical tale about how Black women got “eyes in the back of their heads.” She is seeking logic in phrases that have been embedded in her personal history as long as she can remember.
Mouton saw elements of myth in Anderson’s story, too. “She had to pave a path forward for herself that didn’t exist,” she said. “Whenever we do that we’re writing a new origin story.” All of us embellish memories the more we tell them, she noted, but Anderson’s past drug and alcohol use also clouded her recall, giving Mouton more freedom—“even if it doesn’t cross every t of being factually correct,” she said. “There’s a truth to it that still rings.”
Stages’ Eboni Bell Darcy, who is codirecting Plumshuga with Mouton, was with HGO during Marian’s Song and sold the theater’s artistic staff on the inventive play. “I knew her vibe, and the way she takes different mediums and pulls them all together to really intensify the storytelling,” Darcy said.
Dallas-based composer Jasmine Barnes has composed a Plumshuga score that melds elements of classical ballet and Southern Black culture. She and Mouton have been collaborating nonstop since 2020, when they met as residents in American Lyric Theater’s development program for promising librettists and composers. “We kind of both just fell in love with each other, in the most artistic way,” Mouton said. “We found kindred spirits in the ways we create work as well as where we both came from.”
Their new opera, She Who Dared, will have its first public reading in New York next spring. It celebrates four under-known civil rights heroines who refused to give up their seats on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus months before Rosa Parks. (Their case led the Supreme Court to outlaw racial segregation on buses.) Barnes and Mouton also are creating song cycles for the in-demand tenor Russell Thomas.
“A writer who understands pacing is a gift to a composer,” Barnes said. “She writes very singable things.” Mouton instinctively senses how text will feel “in the body,” even knowing how many syllables to use so the words flow with music, Barnes explained. “She already has such presence to her text. For me, it’s about, how can I bring the words out more?”
Barnes paused, for effect. Mouton can write anything beautifully, she said. “She’s going to be famous.”