The Importance of Difficult Conversations Between Collaborators
As I reflect on the six years that I have been in residence at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia through the National Playwright Residency Program (NPRP), there are two conversations with Artistic Director Susan V. Booth that stand out in my mind.
NPRP is an innovative national initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon that initially placed fourteen playwrights at fourteen theatres for three-year residencies. When I became a part of the first group of playwrights, there was no way I could have predicted the profound and wholly unexpected way that the residency would affect my writing life. Sure, I was looking forward to getting off the road and putting down deeper artistic roots in the city I’ve called home since 1969. Sure, I was looking forward to exploring long term collaborations with other artists. Sure, I was looking forward to seeing more of my plays on the Alliance stages. I even welcomed the opportunity to interact with others at the senior staff level and to learn more about the mysterious nexus where art and commerce and community must find a common language to make any progress at all.
That was the shape of what was more or less known to me as I began my first cohort. And all of that happened. I found my place at a theatre that felt like it could really be my artistic home. I met and collaborated with visionary directors, wonderful designers, and the kind of amazing actors who inhabit a playwright’s dreams. And I learned enough about that mysterious nexus to realize that art and community are the things at the heart of my life and work and that commerce was best left to those who understand and embrace the challenge of it better than I ever will.
… art and commerce and community must find a common language to make any progress at all.
Because of all this, by the time the exchanges I mentioned above occurred, Susan and I had already established the necessity for absolute honesty and complete candor about matters of race in general and race in Atlanta specifically. We had promised to tell each other the truth and trust ourselves to find, within that truth, common ground and common purpose. Without that mutual commitment, there would be the ever-present danger of overlooking things or withholding things or generally behaving in ways that emphasize politeness over truthfulness. This is usually not helpful in getting to the heart of the matter. Which was exactly the place that both of us wanted to explore. In addition to continuing to write my plays and explore the work I was doing with the Alliance education department, I self-defined my role to be having continuing conversations with Susan about matters of race and class and gender and whatever subjects we wanted to examine as we collaborated on making sure our institution reached as wide as audience as possible. An audience that looked like our city looks, diverse in every possible way. It was a shared goal and one we both took seriously.
Conversation number one took place in 2013, after I attended my first senior staff meeting under the terms of my new grant. I was immediately aware that I was the only African American face in the place. I was the only person of color of any persuasion. The others in the room were not strangers to me. Gathered around the conference table were several people I had worked with on productions before my residency began. Some were my friends. All were people I respected. I also had friends among other Alliance staffers not in attendance because their positions did not put them at the senior staff level, but who, I recognized, were a much more diverse group.
At the end of the meeting, I followed Susan to her office and gently suggested that if she was serious about the Alliance reflecting the incredibly diverse community Atlanta has become, her senior staff needed to reflect that, too. She shared with me her frustration at the lack of applicants of color coming through the professional pipeline the institution was using, and her hope that she could positively impact that pool of qualified candidates by exploring a new partnership with Spelman College, a historically black college for women on Atlanta's southside, while nurturing new, non-traditional networks and consciously casting a wider net when it came to filling senior staff positions at the theatre.
[Susan and I] had promised to tell each other the truth and trust ourselves to find, within that truth, common ground and common purpose
And that’s exactly what she did. The Spelman Fellows program is now in full swing, bringing bright young African American women into all phases of the theatre’s administration and management functions. And in 2019, every level of staff, artistic, and administrative, is now more clearly representative of who we are as a community. While there is an acknowledgment that there is more to do, we know we are moving in the right direction as an institution. That was conversation number one.
Sometime later, Susan and I were sitting alone in the balcony of the theatre. This balcony was designed in the pre-integration South specifically to keep black folks out of sight and out of the minds of white theatregoers who occupied the main floor. We sat in silence at first, just trying to absorb this painful example of the legacy of southern racism. We could almost feel the presence of the ghosts walking around in the space, upstairs and downstairs, trying to figure out what happened and where were they supposed to sit now. I told Susan I had never seen a show from that balcony and did not intend to ever see one. She understood. We traded a few ideas for ways to purify the space, but champagne and sage burning seemed inadequate to the task, and we never talked about it again. That was conversation number two.
A few years later, Susan told me about the renovation she was dreaming of that would tear out every inch of that old balcony and the downstairs too. All those ghosts would have to fend for themselves since in our newly renovated space, everybody could sit wherever they wanted to sit and is guaranteed to see themselves in the audience, on the stage, backstage, and everywhere in between. That’s what Susan said she was going to do. And she did. We opened a brand new theatre space in February 2019, and I was honored to have my eighth Alliance Theatre world premiere, Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous, open there in March 2019 under her direction.
The Gift (for Susan)
It’s a gift.
This ability to see the future and inhabit the past
And embrace the possibilities in each one
All at the same time.
It’s a gift like tap dancing or jumping Double Dutch or perfect pitch,
And those who have it rarely understand the challenges of those not born
With the ability to duck and dance between two swirling ropes,
Or beat out complex rhythms with your feet and never break a sweat,
Or hit the note that can break our hearts and then hold it until it does,
Or decide to build something brand new simply because it is time,
Past time, prime time, and then do it.
It’s a gift.
This moment of standing together at halfway to one hundred
To celebrate the promise of a future
Shaped by us and shared by us and more sacred then we can possibly know,
Because the power of our presence here together
Has very little to do with the ways the world will sometimes calculate our worth
By counting things that they can codify.
But we are here because we believe in magic.
We are here because of our shared faith in the power of the stories
Artists alone can tell us about who and why we are.
We are joined together by our unshakeable belief that these essential and eternal stories of loving and longing
And learning to look unblinking at our beautiful, fragile, terrifyingly mysterious humanness,
Can only be expressed by the careful arrangement of words meant to be spoken aloud;
By the creation of songs meant to be sung as if the singer’s life depended on it, because it does,
And somehow, we know it, like we know the song that she is singing is the one that we would sing if we could sing it just like that.
Or the words that he is speaking aloud, standing bravely alone in a circle of light, are the very ones that we hold inside our own desperately beating hearts,
So of course we recognize the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
It’s a gift, this showing us to us, in these stories of love and joy and rage and family and forgiveness, all at the same time.
A gift we proudly claim the right to offer because we have fifty-year roots right here on this very spot,
And those roots grow deep and deeper with every season,
With every reason to call this city home and mean it.
Because it is. Which doesn’t mean we always understand it.
It means that sometimes we get it right,
And sometimes we get it wrong.
And sometimes we tell the story straight,
And sometimes there is a twisting, turning, winding road,
We agree to take to see what the end will be,
Knowing that together we can always find it, hold it, share it, shape it,
make it what it needs to be in that moment of the truth,
the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Even when we sometimes want to turn away,
Thinking the truth is too heavy a burden to bear.
But that’s only until you get used to it,
Only until it becomes second nature to you.
Only until you realize the truth is all there is
That, and joy.
And now they live together, here,
Which is why it is a gift,
To stand side by side at this moment when all things are possible,
And greet the future with everything we’ve got, and then some.
To open our arms wide enough to embrace every story, and then some,
Until we find the one that has your name on it,
Until you lean forward in your seat and whisper, yes! That’s me! They got it right! That’s me!
Because on opening night, as the house goes to half,
And we are all there together in the close and holy darkness,
In that moment, we will know the beauty of the gift we’re giving
Is the sharing of these stories of all we are, and all we will be,
Together, for another fifty years,
And then some.