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Cleveland Playwright Ernesta Jefferson Shares Struggles With Abuse, Drugs In ‘Thiz Girlz Lyfe’

Lorrainna Worthern and Michael L. May in "This Girlz Lyfe" [Grace McC Photography]

Ernesta Jefferson always liked telling stories. She started scribbling down her own experiences several years ago while in drug treatment.

“You just have nothing to do but think… what you’ve been through, what you going through, just life period,” Jefferson said.

Her reflections took her back to when she was 15 years old in a romantic relationship. At that time, she didn’t know about warning signs of abuse, like a partner “not wanting you hanging with your family,” she said.

Even after the abuse became physical, she denied it to her family.

“I think my sister caught it a couple of times,” Jefferson said. “She was coming over to my house and he was like beating me up in the doorway, and when she got up to the house she asked me, ‘was that happening?’ And I told her, ‘no.’”

It took four times in drug treatment to realize the effect that domestic abuse had on her life. She channeled some of her experiences into a play, “Thiz Girlz Lyfe,” onstage at Waterloo Arts in Cleveland.

Nyrie Stallworth and Lorrainna Worthern in "Thiz Girlz Lyfe" [Grace McC Photography]

The play centers on the life of an exotic dancer who seems to have things under control but behind the scenes is struggling. It’s a story longtime Cleveland theater director Terrence Spivey felt passionately about bringing to the stage.

“What attracted me to the piece in terms of directing it and just reading it was the fact that this is a character that there’s a stigma, a stereotype,” he said. “We tend to see that in terms of imagery, but we never see the heartbeat.”

Spivey also wanted to help Jefferson share her art. He saw how it benefits her personal journey as well as the play’s potential to touch others. His ensemble, Powerful Long Ladder, teamed up with Playwrights Local, which supports local writers, to present the play.

Ernesta Jefferson, playwright, and Terrence Spivey, director, outside of the Idea Center in Playhouse Square [ideastream]

“It’s really helped me to realize, too, there are a lot of local artists here in the city, those who may not be as skilled but they are talented just like Ernesta,” he said.

Spivey added that this play is a story of “hope and redemption.” Jefferson said her hope is it helps prevent teenage girls from going through what she did.

The journey of writing “Thiz Girlz Lyfe, presenting it, reworking it and mounting this latest version has included low times, such as jail and relapses with drugs. Jefferson said she has been clean for a year and credits her theater work and faith for getting her to this point.

Playwrights Local and Powerful Long Ladder Ensemble present “Thiz Girlz Lyfe” at Waterloo Arts through May 18.

Rochelle Jones and Lorrainna Worthern in "Thiz Girlz Lyfe" [Grace McC Photography]

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.