Elana Dykewomon (Photo/Jane Tyska)
Elana Dykewomon (Photo/Jane Tyska)

‘How to Let Your Lover Die’: Oakland writer Elana Dykewomon’s first play to premiere at Bay Area Playwrights Festival

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UPDATE, Aug. 9: Elana Dykewomon died on Sunday, Aug. 7. Read her obituary.

A “silence-shattering story of caregiving, community, and honoring the requests of the dying.” That’s how the 2022 Bay Area Playwrights Festival describes “How to Let Your Lover Die,” the first play by Oakland novelist and poet Elana Dykewomon, which premieres at the festival later this month.

The play follows the character of Mich as she navigates her partner Susan’s diagnosis of Lewy body dementia, a progressive disease that causes a decline in cognition, movement and function. As her partner slips away, Mich finds support in a group of other elderly lesbian women.

Dykewomon, 72, told J. the play is mostly autobiographical, with the character of Susan based on her spouse of 28 years, Susan Levinkind, who died in 2016 from Lewy body dementia. “It’s about how you make choices at the end of life, and what the consequences of those choices are and how you negotiate them,” she said, adding that the rest is “window dressing.”

One of five plays chosen from 240 entries, “How to Let Your Lover Die” will be read by actors on Zoom and projected live to audiences at San Francisco’s Potrero Stage on Saturday, July 30, and Sunday, August 7. The Sunday reading will also be livestreamed. Tickets are $10 to $45.

Jessica Bird Beza, executive artistic director of the Playwrights Foundation, which hosts the festival, said that although younger, less established artists are usually highlighted, the selection committee was deeply moved by “How to Let Your Lover Die.”

“This is [Dykewomon’s] first play and seeing so much potential and promise and connection in it already, [we wanted] to really support and elevate that and give resources to her in that process, especially as an older female playwright,” Beza said.

Born in New York City in 1949, Dykewomon studied at Reed College in Oregon and, as she puts it, “never left” the West Coast. She has written eight novels, one of which, “Beyond the Pale,” won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction in 1997. Her poetry and essays have been published in numerous collections and magazines. In 2021 she edited, with Judith Katz, “To Be a Jewish Dyke in the 21st Century,” a Sinister Wisdom special issue.

What’s the story behind the name Dykewomon? She adopted it, she said, as a pen name in 1981 while writing her poetry collection “Fragments from Lesbos.” She wanted to demonstrate her commitment to the lesbian community and to distance herself from traditional literary culture. “I figured if I called myself Dykewomon, I would never get reviewed in The New York Times,” she told J. “Which has been true.”

The goal of the two-week festival, now in its 45th year, is to help playwrights fine-tune their plays through workshops and audience feedback and to get their work in front of potential producers, Beza said.

Dykewomon has high hopes for “How to Let Your Lover Die.”

“I’d like to see the Berkeley Repertory Theatre pick it up,” she said. “After all, why not?”

“How to Let Your Lover Die” by Elana Dykewomon

Readings July 30 and August 7 on Zoom, with in-person watch parties at the Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. $10-$45. Proof of vaccination or negative Covid test and masks required.

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene was a staff writer at J. from 2022-2023.