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Dreaming Beyond Broadway

Star Finch: I wanted to talk with fellow playwrights about Broadway and specifically Black playwrights on Broadway. I’ll start by asking: As kids or even just when you were first getting into playwriting, was Broadway a dream of yours? Is that a goal on your radar for your work?

Psalmayene 24: Broadway was actually one of my first theatrical experiences. Growing up in Brooklyn, I went on a couple of field trips to Broadway in elementary school and junior high school, so that was my introduction in a lot of ways to professional theatre. Those formative experiences impressed my mind with a certain type of approach to theatre—a certain type of style, even. Even though my own personal theatrical style has veered away from those early shows that I saw, Broadway does hold a special place in my heart because it’s connected to my childhood. Now as I’ve matured and developed as an artist, I understand Broadway as something different. My understanding of it is more complicated. Now it represents the pinnacle of crossing over commercially in theatre. It also represents integration in a way that is not as simple or idealistic as one might think. While Broadway for me is not the be-all, end-all, I’d be disingenuous if I said it isn’t part of a personal long-term vision.

J. Nicole Brooks: I love this question. I hate this question. I was jumping through all the hoops and carrying around something to break every glass ceiling. I thought I was doing all the things that said, “If you follow this path, it will lead you to Broadway.”

And where I am now is, Oh my God, I’m so glad that Broadway is not my goal. I think the years that I worked and lived in Los Angeles helped me to realize that Los Angeles is not a mecca. It’s just a town. New York is a town. Neither determine success. I have so much deep respect and admiration for the Black artists that are currently working on Broadway. It is so difficult. But for me, I’m glad to be at a point where it is not my end-all, be-all. But if it happens, it happens.

Star: Growing up, I would visit New York because I have family there. And I think in my mind as a kid, Broadway was musicals for tourists. And then when I got a little older, I had a queer uncle who would always show me old Bettie Davis movies, movies from the forties and fifties. And whenever there was a reference to Broadway in those old films, it just seemed like a really cool club—like the hip place for talented people to be. I don’t know if Broadway wrestles with that question of whether it’s about entertainment for tourists or if it’s about Broadway being the pinnacle of the art form.

But I do want to get back to all the Black artists who are on Broadway and are doing their thing. This question really came up for me in December when—I’m sure y’all heard about it—the whole campaign for Ain’t No Mo’ by Jordan E. Cooper closing. A lot of Black celebrities came together to buy tickets and it had all this critical success and it just felt like, how is this thing closing? You know what I mean? People are loving it, but people weren’t filling the seats. And I read about how Jordan E. Cooper is the youngest Black American playwright on Broadway with Ain’t No Mo. And then at that same time, Adrienne Kennedy was making her Broadway debut with Ohio State Murders at the age of ninety-one.

Five cast members of Ain't No Mo' stand on stage during a performance.

The Broadway cast of Ain’t No Mo’ by Jordan E. Cooper. Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb. Scenic design by Scott Pask, costume design by Emilio Sosa, lighting design by Adam Honoré, sound design by Jonathan Deans and Taylor Williams, and wig design by Mia M. Neal. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Psalm: Wild to have those two extremes happen concurrently.

Star: Right? And yet they’re still swept up in this same conundrum. Granted, theatre is struggling period. A lot of shows that are closing early aren’t able to fill seats across the board. But for us in particular, how were you responding to these articles and interviews about what was going on with that?

J. Nicole Brooks: Look, we know that Broadway is for-profit. That’s how it’s organized, and that’s the way it always will be. But you’ve got this one gifted playwright, Kennedy, who’s been around for so—thank you Lord—long. And it’s like ninety? North of ninety?

Star: Seventy years playwriting. Seventy!

J. Nicole Brooks: And that is so badass. Although this was a frustrating moment, watching a young playwright fight for their place just let me know how tough we are, and it spanned to this playwright who has been here. It upset me that we can’t just allow our projects to breathe and flourish. It’s so much unrealistic pressure.

Star: And Ain’t No Mo’ had Lee Daniels as a producer. That’s all I kept thinking. This play had all the magic pieces, right? The fairytale pieces.

J. Nicole Brooks: Right.

Star: And it still couldn’t stay in the air.

Psalm: Yeah, I guess I wasn’t so much surprised by its premature closing as I was surprised that a radical play like that got produced on Broadway in the first place. I saw a thrilling production of the play at Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C. Broadway was not really built for revolutionary Black theatre. When and if that sort of subversive Black work gets produced on Broadway, it feels like we sneak it in and then by some divine stroke of luck, it might also happen to resonate with that tourist type of audience that we know eats up Broadway fare.

Ultimately, it’s about being true to your own voice—which for me is rooted in the belief that theatre is a revolutionary tool and that it can be a weapon for Black liberation. That’s my primary charge. And then I want it to be entertaining and as universal as it can be because I want to touch as many souls as possible. What happened with Ain’t No Mo’ closing early is unconscionable, and it’s damn near criminal that Adrienne Kennedy’s work took so long to get to Broadway. But that’s what we’re still dealing with. That’s the type of entrenched, institutionalized racism that we have to navigate and overcome. But I’m not going to let that prevent me from having certain aspirations. Like I said, that’s not the be-all, end-all, but a lot of damn people will see work on Broadway and those audiences deserve to be transformed as well. They can benefit from the beauty we create too. So let’s not deprive them of it.

Ultimately, it’s about being true to your own voice—which for me is rooted in the belief that theatre is a revolutionary tool and that it can be a weapon for Black liberation.

Star: Have y’all have seen Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress?

Psalm: Yes. Love that play.

Star Finch: I took advantage of the National Theatre’s streaming subscription service, and I got to see the one that they put up in… I think it was 2021. But that play debuted in 1955, and it was a huge success. In the production notes, it mentioned that she was offered Broadway back in 1955 if she would agree to tone it down a little bit. She refused and passed away in 1994. And then it made it to Broadway in 2021.

The thing that struck me most about the production was that they did the first act with the costumes from the 1950s—you know, a fifties sort of style. Then in the second act, they wore modern clothes and it was just telling everything because this play from 1955 was hitting everything. I’m watching it in 2022. So you fast-forward how many decades but even with the changed costumes, it’s still the same exact dialogue for the same struggles we face today in this industry.

It’s funny: My kids often talk about backrooms, which are an online urban legend with a whole mythology built around it. It basically involves liminal spaces where you feel like you’re trapped and you’re not going to get out. You’re stuck in a maze of various levels. And speaking as playwrights specifically, it feels like we’re trapped in these back rooms that we can’t get out of. Every generation seems as if we’re still looking for the door out of the maze. And we see it for ourselves, we see it for the generation before us, and the generation before that and so on. For someone with Kennedy’s brilliance to have her Broadway debut in her nineties is a travesty. What are we doing?

The cast of Trouble in Mind on-stage during a performance.

The company of Roundabout Theatre’s Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Set design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume design by Emilio Sosa, lighting design by Kathy A. Perkins, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan, original music by Nona Hendryx. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Psalm: Yeah. I guess I’m of the belief that the work itself is our escape hatch. And sometimes we might not even be alive to see how many people experience that work as a portal to freedom. Like Alice Childress. Part of her victory was writing the play and preserving it for subsequent generations. It just wasn’t on Broadway yet.

Star: She refused to compromise, and that’s the beautiful thing.

J. Nicole Brooks: I respect that.

Star: I mean, that’s the violent thing and the beautiful thing. Like everything else.

J. Nicole Brooks: I was in the theatre program at my white university. And it’s like, I knew I was one of three Black people in the whole department. Y’all know the story. I would go to the library and in the reference section they had these books on the history of Black performers on American stages. I can remember reading the descriptions and the reviews of Alice Childress and trying to imagine what it must have been like to see these plays. I had never seen a professional production of Trouble In Mind. But now knowing that she said, “No, I’m not going to bend nor conform.” Another badass.

For those that actually make it into the Broadway realm, I give them all the respect. But I also know that there were so many of my other peers that didn’t—and it may not have been their goal. And that, to me, gives me a greater sense of hope because if I look at it the other way, it feels like a trap. Especially coming out of the pandemic. I felt like a lot of Black-led projects were thrown to the fire.

Star: Since we’re in the middle of a plague, now we’re going to do a sweep of Black productions. Now y’all can have it.

J. Nicole Brooks: I will never forgive that. I just won’t. I don’t know. I just... I really am rooting for everybody Black. For real. I really do be. But I don’t want Broadway to be the litmus for whether or not you make it as a playwright.

Star: That part.

Psalm: I definitely want to echo that, about not judging these Black plays on being closed so quickly because of the circumstances. They’re like pandemic fodder at this point, and it shouldn’t take a pandemic or the We See You White American Theatre movement to usher in a watershed moment for Black plays. It should be the order of the day. This deluge should have been happening all along. I don’t think our generation of playwrights is necessarily any better than the generations of playwrights that preceded us. We’re responding to our times in beautiful and imaginative ways—just like they were. So why are doors being opened now? And how long will the doors stay open?

Star: It’s the last hired, first fired syndrome.

I really am rooting for everybody Black. For real. I really do be. But I don’t want Broadway to be the litmus for whether or not you make it as a playwright.

Psalm: Yeah. So then what will we do after that? The whole idea of getting our own and creating our own mechanisms is an ever-growing and recurring conversation. Our own theatres. Our own Broadways and things like that. So it kind of goes back to how self-sufficient, how kujichagulia, can we get? You know what I’m saying? How much can we do it ourselves?

Star: Yeah.

J. Nicole Brooks: Kujichagulia. I want to high five you on that. Like a jumping in the air in slow motion high five! I’ll say this in parting: You’re two playwrights that I deeply respect, and it feels good to have this kind of conversation. If Broadway is what an artist wants to do, I wish them a peaceful journey. Otherwise, as a people, we have a lot of money. I don’t care what none of these little reports say. We have dollars. If we want to do what we want to do, we should be able to do it.

Star: I’ll just quickly say that I’m very grateful to be on this playwright journey at this moment in space and time with y’all. And I look forward to our continued dreaming together and building new worlds on the page, in conversation, and in brick and mortar one day.

J. Nicole Brooks: Yes.

Psalm: No doubt.

Star: Take care, y’all. Thank you.

Psalm: Love, peace, peace.

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