Earlier this month, we reached out to a small group of Black writers in our community to respond to one or more question prompts regarding their thoughts on the intersection of Black History Month and Theater as part of an evolving record of writers’ voices and opinions on important topics. These prompts were:
In your opinion, what is the relationship between Black dramatists and the general public’s understanding of American history?
How does the theater help preserve, complicate, and celebrate Black history?
Are there any Black writers, living or deceased, that you would like to bring particular attention to?
These are their responses:
Kirsten Childs (The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, Bella: An American Tall Tale)
The relationship between Black dramatists and the general public’s understanding of American history is the relationship between all dramatists and the general public’s understanding of history. It‘s fraught, it’s subjective and it’s always worthy of tackling.
I truly don’t know how theater preserves and complicates Black history, but I can tell you how it celebrates it in America. Not before and not past the twenty-eight days of February for whoever the lucky Black writer is, chuckle.
Since I’m a musical theater writer, I’m just going to focus on writers who’ve written for musical theater. These are folks that you either 1. know about; 2. will know about soon; 3. will never know about until it’s too late or too expensive because you decided to pass on going to their shows, oh foolish ones.
Micki Grant. Michael R. Jackson. Masi Asare. Marcus Gardley. Cheryl Davis. Charlayne Woodard. Angelica Chéri. Scott Davenport Richards. Fred Carl. Regina Taylor. Sukari Marie Jacobs Jones. Morgan J. Smart. Jacinth Greywoode. AriDy Nox. Janice Lowe. Douglas Lyons. Imani Uzuri. Troy Anthony. Marcus Scott. Janelle Marie. Charles Randolph-Wright. Jarrett Murray. Dionne McClain-Freeney. Kahlil Daniel. Darrel Alejandro Holnes. Aurin Squire. Ayesu Lartey. Elizabeth Addison. Bil Wright. Bridgette Wimberly. Charles Vincent Burwell. Dahlak Brathwaite. Darius Smith. Ed DuRanté. Gregory F. Jackson. Joseph-Vernon Banks. Mkhululi Matyalana Ka Mabija. Nambi E. Kelley. Naomie Harris. Shawn Rene Graham. Will Power. Charles Innis.
France-Luce Benson (Deux Femmes on the Edge de la Revolution, Boat People)
Unfortunately, I think our understanding of American history continues to lean towards a narrow and frequently revisionist perception of events. While I know many Black dramatists (myself included) who challenge these ideas in their work, in innovative ways – the problem is we are not hearing their voices. I do appreciate that many more theatres are making major efforts towards to create seasons that are inclusive, and yet there is still a significant imbalance. Additionally, we just aren’t seeing enough work by a variety of black dramatists – particularly those who represent the expanse of the Afro-Diaspora. Until we understand how America’s involvement in the Afro-Atlantic slave trade impacted ALL countries of the Afro-Diaspora, and our relationship to those countries, as well as the contribution Blacks from all over the diaspora have made to America – I don’t think we can have a clear picture of America’s history. Simply put, we need to hear from more voices.
That said, I’d like to bring attention to a few initiatives led by Black Dramatists: 1) Acclaimed playwright Carlyle Brown started the Afro-Atlantic Playwrights program in collaboration with the Camargo Foundation and The Jerome Foundation. I was honored to be among the inaugural co-hort. I was also delighted to be selected for subsequent festivals featuring the work produced during the one month residency. The festivals took place at The Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, and NYU. The work Carlyle is doing to celebrate playwrights from across the Diaspora is inspiring and important. My co-hort included Genevieve McCall, Zainabu Jallo, Kara Lee Corthron, Bode Asiyanbi, Kimberly Ellis, Blessing Hungwe and Femi Osifisan – all writers you should know. 2) Playwright and Actor Magaly Colimon-Christopher founded “Hear Her Call” in 2019. Hear Her Call is an annual festival of Caribbean Playwrights, and Magaly is a force of nature. The next Hear Her Call Festival opens in March of this year. Conch Shell Productions – Hear Her Call
Khiyon Hursey (Sean’s Story, Eastbound)
I think there are a number of dramatists working today to celebrate black history. I also think History can include the past, present and future. I think artists such as Jackie Sibblies Drury, Michael R. Jackson, Robert O’Hara, Donja Love, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins are creating work that looks at our current history as black people while also looking back into the past to further unpack the complex histories of Black Americans. With that said, the theater, at times, does not give our grant our great black artists the “so called honor of” having their work on the great white way while continuing to usher in the mediocre work of white men. Broadway is changing, yes, but until we see a more diverse array of writers, the theater continues to not celebrate, complicate, and preserve our history to the fullest.
Happy Black History Month!
Jonathan Payne (Opal Root, The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll’d)
I would love to hands down shout-out Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm! I admit, I am biased as once his classmates at Juilliard, but his work is just stellar. I haven’t heard anything like his work, and have just been riveted every time I hear or see something of his. He’s wonderfully funny and sharp, and mixes the black experience and genre in unusual ways. He’s also a bit of a hip prophet. It’s worth it to just sit with him and trade thoughts. He has a unique insight and way of maneuvering about the world. He is hands down one of my favorite writers and humans out there.