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The Need for Scholarship on Black Queer Theatrical Culture

As audiences, theatremakers, theatre students, and scholars in the United States continue to push for increased inclusion and broader representation on stage, there has been an increase in productions written by—and centering the stories of—Black queer individuals: A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical and for Best Book of a Musical in 2022, Fat Ham by James Ijames won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and Donja R. Love’s latest play Soft premiered at MCC Theater in 2022, to name a few. These productions, and the onstage representation of Black queer communities, are necessary to the development of the theatre industry as a more inclusive and welcoming space and contribute to what I call a Black queer theatrical culture.

However, while theatre organizations are progressing in the right direction and, slowly but surely, continuing to learn the value of producing Black queer theatrical pieces, the academic side of theatre—mainly writing, research, and classes offered at the university level—is not moving at the same pace. Black queer theatrical culture offers the opportunity for Black queer communities to be fully represented onstage and adds to the richness of voices that make up the theatre. Theatre production (encompassing the active art of theatremaking) and theatre scholarship (theatre research and academia) often have a symbiotic relationship: the two mutually benefit each other, and when one side thrives, the other does as well. Steady growth in theatre production allows for more material for academics to research, and more research helps theatremakers receive feedback and grow in their work. In order for this renaissance of Black queer theatrical culture to survive, it needs to be nurtured by both sides of the industry.

In order for this renaissance of Black queer theatrical culture to survive, it needs to be nurtured by both sides of the industry.

What Is Black Queer Theatrical Culture?

I define Black queer theatrical culture as a set of practices that exists at the intersection of, yet is markedly distinct from, Black theatrical culture and queer theatrical culture. I advocate for use of the word “culture” because it is more fully representative of the social behaviors and patterns that accompany these topics. A culture is also a practice that changes over time. The term “Black queer theatre” denotes a more fixed practice and focuses solely on the product of theatre, while “Black queer theatrical culture” denotes a culture that can change over time and is inclusive of the product of theatre, the history of the culture, and social behaviors within the culture.

Black theatrical culture, with its foundation in the Black Arts Movement, has a history of perpetuating anti-queer biases. Queer theatrical culture, on the other hand, has a prolonged history of intentionally centering white voices and excluding Black perspectives. Thus, Black queer theatrical culture is made up of Black queer theatrical pieces that center and effectively engage in discourse about Black queer identity and the various implications of said identity. Black queer theatrical culture offers unique perspectives on Black queer identity and cultural traditions that highlight the indivisibility of Black queerness—something that Black theatrical culture and queer theatrical culture do not do.

For example, Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer-winning musical, A Strange Loop, makes visible the ways in which Blackness and queerness work together to shape how the main character, Usher, understands his body and navigates the world at large. Aziza Barnes’s BLKS highlights how Black queer people have combined Black cultural traditions with Black queer practices such as mutual aid and community care (rather than carceral policing) in order to survive. Additionally, plays like Donja R. Love’s one in two showcase how Black queer people have a particularly unique framing of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that stands in contrast to more common portrayals of the epidemic in white queer theatre and more fully places HIV/AIDS in discussion with the violence of healthcare institutions and the social and economic effects of the disease. These three plays, and many other Black queer theatre pieces, highlight the need to discuss Blackness and queerness in tandem.

Three performers sit on couches and chairs on a brightly colored living room set.

Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Alfie Fuller, and Paige Gilbert in BLKS by Aziza Barnes at MCC Theater. Directed by Robert O’Hara. Set design by Clint Ramos. Costume design by Dede Ayite. Lighting design by Alex Jainchill. Hair, wig, and makeup design by J. Jared Janas. Photo by Deen Van Meer.

Why Do We Need Scholarship on Black Queer Theatrical Culture?

About two years ago, after the first year of my graduate studies, I was desperately trying to think of a thesis topic. I wanted to focus on one that I felt passionate about, and after starting community-based work with other Black queer folx, decided to look into Black queer theatre. At this point, in the beginning stages of my research, I understood Black queer theatre as a product, and it was not until later that I understood the topic as more than a product, and as a culture. To my surprise, narrowing down on a topic did little to calm my anxieties about having to actually write a thesis, as I quickly learned that, unlike some other theatre topics, like theatre censorship or Elizabethan theatre, there was not an abundance of scholarship focused on Black queer theatre. While the field of Black queer studies has progressed in the past two decades, it’s still rare that Black queer studies discuss theatre—save for the work of E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson, two collaborators and researchers who discuss Black queer performance. There are analyses that bring Black queer theory in conversation with film and television studies, music theory, visual art, and performing arts as a whole, but very few analyses that specifically focus on theatre. This lack of an established and robust field of study dedicated to scholarship on Black queer theatrical culture not only does a disservice to folks who wish to study it, but it also harms the practice of active theatremaking.

In many ways, the theatremaking process is affected by the opinions of theatre critics. In the article “The Basics of Theatre Criticism: The Parking Lot Rule,” theatre critic Danielle Rosvally wrote that theatre criticism has four major functions: to provide publicity for a production, to spark a conversation about a specific piece of art, to offer press clips for people who worked on a production, and “to give audiences a sense of the show, its strengths, and its weaknesses, which in turn allows theatregoers to make more educated decisions about how they spend their time and money.” While theatre critic Jonathan Mandell states in his article “Are Theatre Critics Critical? An Update” that he and many other critics believe they only have a minimal impact on the box office and ticket sales, negative reviews of a show do have the potential to negatively impact box-office sales and may even force a production to close early, while a positive review has the potential to lift a lesser-known production to stardom.

More informed critics and more nuanced reviews will hopefully lead to increased Black queer productions and their ticket sales.

In recent years, theatremakers and theatre critics have both been vocal about the need to diversify the field of theatre criticism. Queer theatre critic Linnea Valdivia states in “Queering Theatre Criticism” that “as the culture shifts to producing more diverse stories, critics have an obligation to their readership and to the artists themselves to be able to talk about a variety of different issues and trends in clear and respectful ways.” Essential to a critic’s ability to talk about art in respectful ways is a knowledge of various types of theatre and theatre theory. A codified field of scholarship on Black queer theatrical culture can help create a foundation for discussing Black queer theatrical culture through a critical lens. This field of study can help critics recognize identifiers of Black queer theatrical culture and, from there, they can go on to review a show with the understanding that what they watched was a work of Black queer theatrical culture. More informed critics and more nuanced reviews will hopefully lead to increased Black queer productions and their ticket sales.

Increased scholarship on Black queer theatrical culture can also have less measurable benefits. Recently, Jordan E. Cooper’s Black queer piece Ain’t No Mo was on Broadway and received a significant amount of public attention; but this piece, and many other similar works can still be financially and physically (for those outside of New York) inaccessible to people interested in Black queer theatrical culture. Scholarship on Black queer theatrical culture can serve as an additional point of entry for those who are interested but either can’t afford to attend or do not live near a production. While academia is inaccessible for many as well, an influx of academic writing and scholarship means that more of this work will trickle down to people at all education levels and to the general public. With more people researching and writing about Black queer theatrical culture, there will be more writing styles that may be easier for, and more appealing to, non-academics, and more people writing in different spaces. While some may still have work published in theatre journals, others may have work in free online platforms. More points of entry into Black queer theatrical culture increases access and can help ensure that there will always be a new generation of Black queer theatre artists who see themselves represented in the theatre and know that this culture exists.

Scholarship on Black queer theatrical culture also has the opportunity to affirm the work of artists who are contributing to this field. Black queer theatremakers are often forced to advocate for their own work. Scholarship on this subject, then, can affirm the work of these artists and aid with advocacy, while also emphasizing that Black queer theatrical culture is valuable, necessary, and worthy of critical analysis just like any other faction of theatre.

Six performers in jumpsuits dance on either side of another performer who is dressed in an usher costume.

James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles, Jason Veasey, Larry Owens, Antwayn Hopper, John-Andrew Morrison, and L Morgan Lee in A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson at Playwright’s Horizon. Directed by Stephen Brackett. Choreography by Raja Feather Kelly. Scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado. Costume design by Montana Levi Blanco. Lighting design by Jen Schriever. Hair, wig, and makeup design by Cookie Jordan. Photo by Joan Marcus.

By defining a Black queer theatrical culture, I hope to resist defining the subject as something that is fixed and set in stone, and instead define it as something that can be molded by those within it and shift as society shifts over time. A dedicated field of study to this culture can track when, why, and how Black queer theatrical culture shifts and can place these culture shifts within the larger field of theatre history. Without the scholarship to cement the culture within the greater theatre canon, we run the risk of neglecting the work of these artists and losing the rich history of Black queer theatrical culture and the current renaissance to history. By increasing points of entry to Black queer theatrical culture and affirming the work of artists already creating within this space through nuanced critique and scholarship, my hope is that more Black queer artists—and audience members—will begin to engage with Black queer theatrical culture and help shape the future of this culture and this field of study.

How to Support Scholarship on Black Queer Theatrical Culture

Without scholarship on Black queer theatrical culture, the practice of creating Black queer theatre is at risk of existing on the fringes of the theatre world. Recently, creators of Ain’t No Mo had to take to social media to try to extend the production’s run. While they succeeded, the play still closed earlier than expected. Ain’t No Mo received fairly supportive reviews, but many publications stated that the production was a bit over-the-top. Had critics from these publications been well-versed in Black queer theatrical culture and fully understood the reasons behind Cooper’s campy production, perhaps the reviews may have differed and the show could have completed its full run. Additionally, had there been students at all levels of academia researching and writing on Black queer theatrical culture, maybe there could have been more audience members invested in fully understanding this work.

In offering a scholarship dedicated to Black queer theatrical culture, scholars can better advocate for and better represent the work that so many Black queer theatremakers are doing. In line with the symbiotic relationship between theatre production and theatre scholarship, Black queer theatremakers have already started this advocacy work by calling for more diversity in who is writing about their work and the publications that produce these pieces. We need folks in academia to contribute to this advocacy work as well and encourage Black queer folks in theatre academia to research and write about Black queer theatrical culture. Like me, some scholars may realize the richness of Black queer theatrical culture quite late in their academic careers. If folks within the academy advocate for this field of study, more Black queer scholars will know that this field exists and that others are passionate about this work as well, and the academic field of Black queer theatrical culture will have a renaissance of its own.

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