Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first edition of Brown & Fearless. There are so many powerful people doing beautiful things with their creativity and making the world a better place to be brown. And I want to interview them! Enjoy reading about Eliana, and be sure to watch her series (at TheClinicShow.com). And if you’re in New York, check out her play at The Fire This Time Festival (firethistimefestival.com) until February 5th!
Playwright, filmmaker, and actress, Eliana Pipes is also someting else— an activist.
A student at Columbia, Pipes directed, wrote, and acted in a web series, Meet Me @The Clinic, a workplace comedy about two very different young women, Dia and Nina, who begin volunteering at
a free women’s health clinic not unlike Planned Parenthood. The two find common ground while assembling free condom gift bags, folding pamphlets, and dealing with the occasional protester.
In a political reality wherein clinics like these are in real danger of having their doors closed, Meet Me @ The Clinic is a fun-size workplace comedy that is equal parts awkward and heartfelt.
The drama of the show is grounded by the strikingly honest portrayal of its two leads. Dia, played by Pipes is a YouTube star, whose brand of activism is the creation of informative online videos about social justice topics. Dia’s friend, Nina, played by the series’ co-creator Victoria Tamez, struggles with her political support of women’s reproductive rights as it chafes against her church’s conservative pro-life view.
After I stumbled across— and consequently binge-watched—Pipes’ web show, we sat down for a video-chat about life as brown artists and writers.
Meet Me @ The Clinic plays heartstrings, while maintaining a light-hearted tone. The material is joke-dense, seamlessly serving character and theme. Even though the world consists of only a few sets, it feels lived-in. Its humor serves its message, which helps, because sometimes the message hits you over the head, or is plainly spoken. The opening sequence of the show features Dia running away from her bus stop to avoid an interrogation about what languages she speaks. What The Clinic loses in subtlety is made up in authenticity — the audience gets a real snapshot of Dia and Nina’s lives.
Conversations about family planning are conversations wrapped up in life, potential, womanhood, and faith. These conversations are as high stakes as they are funny.
We see the world through the eyes of our two main characters, and with them, we feel the tug of political forces on their private lives. Dramatic beats are bookended by bizarre, dreamlike sequences spotlighting kooky characters.. These vignettes are often satirical glimpses of mainstream racist culture. Even as Dia and Nina play with condom packets, fight about glitter, and learn how to explain and teach about birth control, neither is ever able to let go of their political reality— a fact that distinguishes them from the other clinic volunteers. Conversations about family planning are conversations wrapped up in life, potential, womanhood, and faith. These conversations are as high stakes as they are funny.
In Episode 3, “Ay Dios Mio/Oh My God,” we see into Dia’s process. We watch as she wrestles with the awkwardness and discomfort of using ss her limited Spanish vocabulary to create a web-video that will reach an audience often marginalized in their access to unbiased family planning intel— Latina women. She’s well-intentioned, if a bit out of her depth. In a fun sequence, we see Dia in her rolling desk chair trying desperately to not sound stupid in Spanish, her emotional state no doubt mirroring the feelings invoked when trying to receive medical care in a different language. Eventually, Dia powers through her discomfort, in order to lessen someone else’s. This scene pays off when we see the successful finished product through the eyes of Nina, who watches the clip at the bus stop. Someone next to her asks, “Oh my god, is that Dia Ryland? Is she doing videos in Spanish now?!” Nina quickly loses her smile when the apparently non-Latinx bus-stopgirl cuts her off to tell her that Spanish “is the language of my people,” and proceeds to list off her few favorite Spanish words (“Perro! Gusta! Punta… is something people have said to me….” ) for Nina’s approval. Small victory comes with a side of microaggression.
Small victory comes with a side of microaggression.
Without judging its characters for their differing points of view, The Clinic delivers nuanced messages about personhood, humanity, and the need for better sex ed. But rather than serving up its messages in neat little packages à la—oh I dunno, an educational social justice YouTube channel— it gives you questions to chew on. What’s the point of online activism if you can’t see its impact on your community? How are you supposed to know if the guy you’re on a date with works at Upworthy? How do you explain how to use condoms without accidentally making a gesture that makes people picture gentalia?
Walking the Walk and Keyboard Activism
In an establishing scene, Dia is revealed to be a YouTube star with over a million followers— a fact that tends to impress people for about one second. Dia is humbled further whenever she talks to her sister, a grassroots organizer, who asserts that online activism is not “walking the walk.”
It’s clear that at least some of Dia’s motivation in taking a job at a women’s health clinic is to feel more connected to what her sister might call “real change.” It’s not clear whether the audience is supposed to side with Dia or her sister in this debate.
Today, we see activism take many online forms, from copy-and-paste status alerts containing desperate instructions, to checking in at Standing Rock, to live videos of political events and literal warfare, to 160-character death notes. Like her character, Pipes has made several videos in service of social justice
“So…?” I waggled my eyebrows and badgered Pipes to tell me where she sits on the debate between clicktivism and on-the-streets activism.
“[On-the-streets activism] is not accessible to everyone. Not everyone comes from a circumstance where they can be vocally radical. Not everyone can devote the time and mental energy, and not everyone can be a community organizer. I think that keyboard activism does have a place, but also education is a huge part of it. It’s hard to have a conversation when people aren’t even working with the same vocabulary,” said Pipes.
“These keyboard activists are the reason you can look it up. There’s definitely a place for keyboard activism. There are people who genuinely have their minds changed. I got my sex ed from [Youtube sex educator] Laci Green.”
“I got my sex ed from Laci Green.”
In addition to this meta look at the impact of web content beyond browser windows, The Clinic also gets into the meaty intersection of what it means to be a pro-choice Catholic, and how terrible you can manage to be while still volunteering your time to help people.
Finding Home On-Screen
While watching the show, as a woman of color, I found some home in it. I have known so many brown women whom I believe to be protagonists in their own stories. Even though we are nearly invisible in the media, I am lucky that I have had exposure to incredible brown women who have taught me to see and seize my own potential and power. Much of my time is dedicated to creating a mental playlist of Brown excellence, surrounding myself with the examples that prove the idea that we are greater than the stereotypes foisted upon us. As much as I know I’m not alone in this, I know it’s not a norm.
Despite curating my own media space resplendent with brown role models—my friends, my mother, photos on Facebook, the Snapchat stories, old family wedding albums, Bend it Like Beckham—there is something vaguely revolutionary about seeing two brown women Bechdel the shit out of an on-screen project. It’s kind of remarkable for a TV show to have more than one person of color, let alone woman of color, let alone women of color, let alone letting those women of color have storylines that don’t completely whitewash their experiences. It feels like steps forward. It feels like representation. It feels like a counter narrative.
I was struggling to find the words to express this weird feeling I was having. The show was so good. In its simplicity, it hit so many beats that resonated with me.
I finally settled for, “Your show couldn’t have been written by white people.”
“That’s the highest compliment I’ve ever received,” Pipes joked.
I finally settled for, “Your show couldn’t have been written by white people.”
“So like, how dare you?” I asked, maybe trying to parody the way that women of color are always interviewed after accomplishing something grand.
“I don’t know,” she said, “Blind ambition?”
“I mean, is this just like a thing that all kids from California do?”
The City of Angels
The sage-for-her-age Los Angeles native has achieved high levels of success for someone who is all of twenty.
Pipes credits her Los Angeles upbringing for the early start she got in writing.
“LA is responsible for everything good that’s ever happened to me,” said Pipes. Pipes attended an underfunded elementary school visited by No Child Left Behind outreach programs, including the Young Storytellers Foundation and Sony.
“When I was 8 years old, this organization assigned me a mentor, and every Wednesday helped me write a play — I had a little play at the end of 9 weeks. It was performed on our school stage by local actors.”
In addition to having written, directed and produced a web series, Pipes has also had several of her original plays staged.
Last year, her play “To Serve Butter,” was produced by the Ensemble Studio Theatre at LA’s Atwater Village Theater. The play’s meta-narrative about acting touches on interpersonal race relations in a world where a Southern chef casts black actors in her re-enactment of her family’s plantation past.
Another of her works, “Stiletto Envy,” is currently featured at the New York Fire This Time festival, held at Kraine Theater on 84 E 4th Street. The festival, dedicated to giving a glimpse of the multitudes of different Black experiences in America, will also feature a live screening of Meet Me @ The Clinic in its entirety on February 1st.
On The Clinic, Dia is often accosted by strangers, who question her about her ethnic makeup. Neither Dia nor the show ever explicitly answers the question, though Pipes will. Like her character, Pipes doesn’t mind being confusing to other people, but tries to stop herself from thinking of her identity in terms of numbers.
“I try not to say the percentages. I’m black, white and Puerto Rican. [Being mixed] forces you to cut yourself, which no person should have to do. It is difficult to navigate.”
Pipes auditioned for, and got into, to an arts high school that required its students to dress in all black for its evening theatre classes. It was here that she met the co-creator of Meet Me @ The Clinic, Victoria Tamez. Both 19, the two were inspired by Issa Ray, and her work on the web series Awkward Black Girl, now an HBO series. The two spontaneously came up with the idea for a workplace drama, after exchanging stories about volunteer experiences.
“I volunteered at Planned Parenthood, and I was talking about that real-life thing and it spun into the idea of the show. I knew how much of it was mundane work so the arcs were very character driven,” said Pipes.
“We wanted [our characters] to start off hating each other. We wanted to make it about the friendship, the relationship with the two women. Not a boy, or a crisis, but a strong female friendship growing.”
After ten days, Pipes had completed the script. The show, it turns out, was a labor of love, put together by a rag-tag team of young actors, previous drama teachers donating their time (keep an eye out for the hilarious pro-life protester), and freelance producers like Allie Hunter, who Pipes credits for her expert scheduling abilities, and video editor, Spencer Slovic. While working full-time, Pipes and Tamez filmed for a month, mostly on weekends. During the production, Pipes and Tamez made concerted efforts to make their cast diverse. In their 35-person crew, 23 were female, and 15 of that number were females of color.
The Clinic was filmed for free in various locations, including the Western Justice Center, where Pipes had worked.
“We had no budget. No funding. Not a dime. We’d buy pizzas for the big group days, to be like thank you,” said Pipes, smiling. “This show came together because of a lot of kindness.”
Kindness can be a radical act.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of Brown & Fearless. Be sure to follow the Brown Girl Lifted Facebook page.