The New Black Fest
I believe this is truly one of the most exciting times in theater. Playwrights are actually sitting center stage with decision-makers talking about the relevancy of new play development, and, more important, the future of American theater. I, for one, believe this conversation couldn’t come at a better time. On the other side of the planet, Egyptians stand up against a bullying government. Here in the U.S., President Obama turns his nose up to anti-gay marriage laws. In Wisconsin, public workers protest a state budget that would inhibit their bargaining power. So, it brings me much joy to know the American theater, that I often believe to be the most antiquated of all the artistic institutions, has decided to turn the spotlight on the livelihood of the playwright. Why? The playwright’s creative observations often acts a barometer to our humanity, and that, my friends, ideally should incite change. Exciting times, indeed. In fact, I would dare to tag this time as revolutionary, or, at least, a revolution in the making. Believe me when I say I have my fingers crossed.
After attending Arena Stage’s Black Playwrights Convening in 2010, I decided to incite a bit of change myself. I had this idea about a theater festival celebrating the diversity within the black experience. The festival, in my imagination, would also counteract what I felt was a suspicious recycling of one monolithic black aesthetic within institutional theater. You know, August Wilson, August Wilson, and more August Wilson. (I love August Wilson, but honestly, enough was enough.)
Wait, let me backtrack a little. Over the last four years I have been in numerous conversations with fellow artists about what to do with this “waiting game” so many of us find ourselves in. I simply mean waiting for larger theater institutions to legitimize our talents and qualify our careers. In truth, many theater artists (color and gender aside) believe we are not a legitimate playwright until the Public Theater, Manhattan Theater Club, the Goodman, etc., stamp their marks of approval across our playwriting souls. That’s not only a grand burden for these institutions to carry, but it’s also a bit delusional for the playwright to expect all and everything from these institutions.
I’m not talking about commission opportunities, or diversity fellowships, or new play reading slots; I simply mean space. Unless a theater is going the movie-plex route and providing twenty-three venues for twenty-three plays in a given night, opportunities will be few and far between. When you then add a global economic crisis to the opportunity equation, and race and/or ethnicity on top of that (particularly with many institutions still regarding race as risk)—well Todd London and Ben Pesner in Outrageous Fortune have already gathered this evidence and courageously (or outrageously) provided the statistics, so I won’t continue to beat that dead playwright horse any longer.
However, what I do want to underscore is that I have spent a great deal of time with my fellow artists, discussing the “waiting game,” or what appears to be the misrepresentation of blackness on stage. Sometimes these conversations explode into legit rants about why a theater company would produce a play that depicts black characters as oversexualized, man-eating savages (I saw something like that recently in NYC from a respected theater company), or why an artistic director tends, even when their theater’s mission is much more expansive, to foster black women playwrights over black men. Yes, these conversations do happen and not even the international and national touring of a Lynn Nottage play, or an all-black Broadway production of Tennessee Williams, can diffuse them.
Let me backtrack a little bit more. I spent five years working in television as a writer. It wasn’t a pre-packaged trajectory. I was living and starving as a playwright in New York City. I decided to supplement my creative and financial slump with some acting. I quickly was cast in a play at Crossroads Theater in New Jersey. In a nutshell, the writer of the play (who also worked in TV and film) recommended me to the producers of an LA-based TV show. I remained employed there for a few years. Although theater companies, like the Mark Taper Forum and Black Dahlia Theater in Los Angeles, provided as much as they could to sustain my creative momentum, I still felt I needed to be back in New York City, where I was convinced a true playwright must strive, where true theater legitimacy existed.
I moved back, only to discover a few things: there were more theater artists and fewer opportunities. Two, many of my peers were still imprisoned by the aforementioned “waiting game.” Three, I felt I needed to do something about something, somehow. Needless to say, during my experience at Arena Stage’s Black Playwrights Convening in 2010, a few things were festering. I knew I didn’t want to have any more conversations about the imbalance of opportunities in American theater without suggesting and/or instituting some type of solvency. I was also thinking that I was in Washington D.C., where President Barack Obama, the country’s first black president, resided and what better time in our country’s history for a black man, a progressive being, an artist, to feel fearless about anything.
So when David Dower, at the end of the convening, asked if any of the conveners wanted to share ideas about the future of black theater and I said, “I want to do a festival,” well, I knew I took the first big step. Minutes later, J. Holtham and Jocelyn Prince, then the New Black Fest’s future co-artistic directors, approached with enthusiasm, similar impulses, and some great ideas. Six months later J. Holtham, Jocelyn, and I were standing in the backyard of Lynn Nottage’s home that she generously offered up for The New Black Fest’s first fundraiser. With a guest listed that included Suzan-Lori Parks, filmmaker Malcolm Lee, artist/philanthropist Leslie Lewis Sword, playwright/screenwriter Diana Son, actor Chris Chalk, Jack Walsh and Leslie Shultz of the BRIC Arts/Media/Bklyn, actor/producer Ron Simons, among others, we were able to ignite a lot of enthusiasm from our sincere ambition to find and showcase insurgent voices within the African Diaspora and, of course, create opportunity!
We only were interested in diversifying the black narrative and penetrating the larger theater canon with a new diversity
Three months later we were at The New Black Fest’s first event at Julliard, listening to actress/activist Bridgit Antoinette Evans moderate a discussion on arts and activism with playwrights Suzan-Lori Parks and Kia Corthron as well as activist/thinkers Kenyon Farrow and Monica Williams. The enthusiastic, diverse crowd, accompanied by the biting wit and intellect of the panel, made it clear to us we were onto something very important. We were providing a communal platform for a new generation of black theater artists—global in perspective and experience, and who, undeniably are invested in building stronger community.
When J. Holtham, Jocelyn Prince, and I sat down in our early meetings about The New Black Fest we were all very clear that we wanted the “New Black” to be two things: a means for us to provide legitimacy and momentum in the often stagnant lives of black theater artists. Secondly, we wanted the “New Black” to represent the diversity within the Diaspora. We wanted to challenge ourselves by showcasing plays from black writers whose narratives were foreign, even to us. We wanted to find artists and audiences who were interested in narratives that have been shaped by the world we live in at this very moment. We were not interested in artists (or audiences) who subscribe to the notion that the only audience is white, or voices that exploit and use black story as commodity, a place to go slumming before stepping off into the real frontier. Let me say that more eloquently: we were not interested in narratives or artists who believe the only legitimate theater consumer is the white one. We only were interested in diversifying the black narrative and penetrating the larger theater canon with a new diversity.
Interestingly, J., Jocelyn and myself never thought it would be a daunting task to find what we needed. We knew the artists and audiences we sought were everywhere. The outpouring of support and donations from the theater and cultural community was overwhelming. I can’t speak for J. or Jocelyn, but for me curating The New Black Fest was thrilling. We knew we wanted to include a solvency component into our conversation and programming. We knew it was important to directly engage our audiences in conversations about reshaping the look of black theater. We also knew we wanted to talk to artivists (artist/activist) and discuss ways to send theater artists into the community and find ways to support social and/or cultural organizations. We knew we wanted music from artists who were exploring new forms of musical theater—Stew, Eisa Davis, the Afro-Punk folks, etc. We also knew we needed plays exploring every experience known, from every corner of the planet.
Basically, we wanted to change the landscape of American theater in twelve quick days. Not possible, of course, but we ended up with a pretty amazing line-up. From a hilarious and heartwarming new play on cross-cultural and pansexual romance from Cori Thomas, to a daring new play about race relations in the post-Obama South from Brandt Adams and Godfrey L. Simmons Jr., to an amazing satirical devised piece on the “new black” from the New York Neo-Futurists, we were very proud of our selections. We wanted to diversify within our diversity and we did just that.
Of course, there were naysayers while putting together The New Black Fest. Many white theater artists (and institutions) didn’t show any support. Some articulated that we were separating ourselves, you know, ghettoizing. We were warned that if we use the word “Black” in our name it would scare people away. The world, we were told, was much more post-racial and multi-ethnic now. A good friend, black and playwright, told me he spoke to many of his black theater peers who expressed they wouldn’t support or attend The New Black Fest because they weren’t interested in “that black stuff.” I’ll admit, that type of cultural dismissiveness concerns me. It doesn’t derail my perseverance, but it does suggest that there’s a fear about collective determination and that’s scary in the year 2011. It is a real problem when a legitimate effort to elevate the overall playing field for theater is looked at as marginalizing, or some unevolved “black stuff.”
If we’re truly trying to make theater an inclusive event, an all-compassing institution, then why is there so little black representation in theater, on stage and off? Why is it okay for blackness, as some frame it, to be only supported when it’s part of the white narrative? Think about it. If the playing field in theater was already equal and diverse and representative, then there would be no need for theater artists to take matters into their own hands.
The New Black Fest is staying active. We have recently teamed up with playwright Judy Tate and actor Godfrey Simmons, Jr. and 651 ARTS in Brooklyn to launch the American Slavery Project. This brand new reading series aims to initiate new conversations around theater’s role in counteracting the increasing revisionism in our political/social discourse about the Civil War and slavery. More importantly, the American Slavery Project aims to promote a new generation of African-American voices who are telling the diverse and rich stories from an era that most adversely affected us. The series runs from mid-March through Juneteenth, throughout various locations is New York City. We’re also preparing for the next New Black Festival, scheduled for Fall 2011. It promises to be more exciting and innovative than the first one.
So as global communities invest in political change and American theater attempts to reimagine the role of the playwright, the New Black Fest will continue to provide a platform for theater artists who remain interested in celebrating the black theater voice and broadening the communal perspective of the black narrative on the American stage.