Atlese Robinson’s Journey Toward the Divine

When she was in elementary school, Atlese Robinson started journaling and writing letters to her mother. Robinson’s childhood included times of adversity and some traumatic experiences. She wanted to do well in school and valued her education, and, at the same time, she was quick to anger. She attributes her fast temper to a kind of post traumatic stress that resulted from early childhood experiences in the Englewood community on the southside of Chicago.

“I learned to like to cope by journaling,” Robinson says “and writing like notes to my mom and things like that, just to kind of get my thoughts out as opposed to just blowing up.”

Robinson has maintained a journal practice throughout her life. “I write because it gives me the space to be well mentally,” she says. Although Robinson says she is not really a morning person, she shared that she’s been getting up early lately. “Recently what I’ve started doing, which is kind of a new practice for my journaling, is I’ve been getting up at like 4:40 in the morning, before sunrise, so that I can pray and just like set my intentions for the day. When I set my intentions, I typically write them in my journal. Just simple things like moving your body, stretching, being outside, getting fresh air, things that I can build into my day as I go along, to keep myself grounded.”

Robinson is grounded. We met at Cedar Lake on a warm summer day surrounded by trees and  air and people and their pets making grand use of the beach and the lake. Robinson spoke about her love of writing, her experiences as a poet and playwright, and the numerous roles she’s played over the years in Twin Cities theater companies.

But all of Robinson’s experiences as a writer arise from journaling as her foundation. “I still use it before I go to the creative side of things,” she says.

Robinson the Poet
“Maya Angelou was one of the first people to inspire me to write poetry,” Robinson says. She was a student at Central High School, recovering from a significant knee injury and a period of difficulty at home, when she took a class in the school’s famed Black Box Theater Program. She didn’t have much physical and emotional capacity for a lot of school work, but the Black Box Theater was a place where Robinson could work on independent projects, doodling sometimes, but also writing – writing then performing poetry. In time, she found herself captivated by the poetry.

“My favorite part about writing poetry is really diving into imagery,” Robinson says. “One of my favorite pieces is a piece called ‘Love Conception,’ and it’s about a poem that I wrote about a dream I had about meeting a child that I’m supposed to have. Everything about that piece is so colorful,” she adds, “so specific about how the child looks, the world that I meet this baby in, and I love poetry that puts you in that space. I enjoy using that because I’m most inspired by the image when I write poetry.”

Love Conception is part of a solo show that Robinson will stage later this year.

At the end of the school year, when Robinson began writing poems, she participated in a summer theater program, “and that’s really what propelled me into taking my art from this private hobby that I had to sharing it with people,” she says. When she returned to high school after the summer program, she asked the Black Box Theater director, Jan Mandell, if she could join the touring theater. After proving herself ready, she did.

But that isn’t when Robinson’s love of theater began.


Robinson the Playwright
Robinson first became interested in playwriting during her first semester as a student at Augsburg University. “I took a Playwriting 1 class with Sarah Myers, and I was like, ‘this is it. This is me right here.’ I like writing plays.” Robinson says the kind of writing she did in that class reminded her of stories her father used to tell her. “He likes to sit down with his beer and go off about anything – anything from his childhood or stuff that just recently happened at work. It’s just the way that he tells stories, I’m really captivated by it. My dad and my mom would make up stories for us when we were kids and with that and my love of literature, playwriting just made sense.”

That oracular family tradition is evident in Robinson’s work. The dialogue in her plays is an expression of the language favored in her home and in her community. “People call it African American vernacular English, “ she says. “I feel like that’s kind of long winded. I call it ebonics.”

Her use of language – the way she deploys words, phrases, tone, rhythm, and pace is not only intentional, it’s connected to mission. Robinson is not interested in inauthentic caricatures nor does she mean to suggest that Black people talk in a particular way. “I definitely know that I cannot represent all black people, and I’m not putting forward images of us that are foolhardy. I can’t do that. So for me it’s this. I want to make sure that the characters that I write sound like people I know.”

She continues, “I think about the fact that even throughout West Africa, you got so many different names for the same thing. So many different ways of spelling it, you know? That’s just how we [Black people] are. It’s just like the way people make greens. Everybody makes their greens a little different.  Being able to celebrate that beauty is something I love.”

Things are going well for Robinson. In 2020, she was selected by Pillsbury House Theatre for their Naked Stages Fellowship, a program that provides time, financial support, and mentorship to early career performance artists as a way to help them create an original performance piece.

Recently, Robinson was chosen for a Many Voice Mentorship at the Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis. She’ll use her time in that mentorship program to continue efforts on two works in progress. One play centers young Black men. Robinson says that the play was inspired by “witnessing young black men in my family and around me getting caught up with prison stuff.” That play has allowed her an opportunity to think about how to break those cycles, and she describes the project, she takes care to note that “it also has a lot of humor in it. You see this friendship between three young black men who really have each other’s backs even in their roughness with each other. There’s a lot of love there.”

The other play centers a Black woman who carries a lot in her professional and personal life. “And it’s for me,” she says. “The point of writing that piece is to encourage. Because I know a lot of black women like to shoulder everything – because we have to.”

That last idea – shouldering everything – is an apt description of the many other roles Robinson has played in theater companies over the years. In addition to writing, Robinson has been a performer, director, and producer. She is also the founding artistic director of Ambiance Theatre Company, a company she founded to support Black playwrights in script development while they produce new works, she also plans to promote theater projects that center Black audiences.

The decision to embrace many opportunities in theater was as intentional as all of Robinson’s creative decisions. Early on she decided “I’m gonna focus on learning the other aspects. I’m kind of grateful that I did, because my focus was in playwriting, directing and dramaturgy, but I got to learn how to build sets. I’m a decent electrician, you know, and that helped me get professional work in the field before I even had any credits as a performer.” In fact, her work as a stagehand in a Penumbra Theater production eventually led to her being cast in the play.

And, as if all of that were not enough, because Robinson believes no job is too small for a leader, she often serves as an usher at theater venues throughout the Twin Cities – shouldering everything.

Atlese Robinson Ambiance Theatre
Atlese Robinson in a promotional photo for Ambiance Theatre.

Journey Toward the Divine
But Robinson has never ventured away from her first love, writing. The poems and plays all originate from the same foundation – family and home. They also arise from the same calling – healing and the desire to tell stories about and for the Black community. “Playwriting and poetry are the main things that I write as my creative mediums that I give to the world,” she says.

But they aren’t the only things. Writing arrived as a way to process a challenging world, and now it endures as a way to connect to her community in ways that only community members can.

All of her work, she says “has the same purpose in a lot of ways. It’s to help me heal. But also I’m curious about the stories of Black life that just represent us being people, you know? It doesn’t always have to be about our struggles and our tribulations. Sometimes I represent that because I have some of that. But other things too. What stories do I want to write that feature Black people – that’s just where I’m at now.”

The stage arrived early. It was there at Central High School when Robinson began doodling and writing poems. She first stood on the stage as a poet, a spoken-word artist. Then, as an actor. Then, as she made the transition from performer to playwright, the role became less important than the setting – the stage.

“For me,” Robinson says, “getting on stage is like going up to an altar call at church. That’s how it feels to me. There’s something I have to say. There’s something that has to be communicated, and it’s bigger than myself.”

“I don’t know what to call it, but  it definitely has a sacredness to it – connecting with the stage and being able to connect with an audience in that way. And to actually have people journey with you as they’re watching you on stage and to feel them with you in that journey. Like it’s, it’s otherworldly for me. It’s a very different thing.”