What is a black play?
What are the expectations placed on black playwrights?
Should black playwrights make their homes at culturally specific institutions?
And has black writing and life changed with the election of Obama?
These were just a few of the questions posed at the 2nd convening of the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage on January 16th and 17th. Focused on Black Playwrights, the convening hosted a round table of playwrights, including Pearl Cleage, Marcus Gardley, Lynn Nottage, and Lydia Diamond. And there I was, a fly on the wall, tweeting the wit and wisdom of the room @tcg and #newplay.
What emerged from two days of round tables and two nights of performance was a community of artists under pressure, but sustained by each other. The joy of being in a room together was palpable.
It began with a look at where we are now, with a playwright asking, “With a black president voted into office by my fellow Americans, I need to be an American now, and what does that mean to me?”
Going further, “If I don’t have to write as a black nationalist or radical feminist, what does that do to my love stories?”
These uncertain expectations and ‘rules’ for black writing pervaded the Convening, and went beyond questions for race. As one playwright said, “I do hip-hop work, and both black and white institutions don’t get it, the former for generational reasons.”
This generational divide of what makes black theatre heated up when an older playwright defined Negro theatre as plays that denied the pervasive effects of racism on black life. This playwright went further, saying “How can a black voice not hear Nina Simone? Thelonious Monk? It doesn’t make sense to sound like Kenny G.”
Some of the younger playwrights pushed back hard on this idea, saying, “Black audiences want more complex and expansive stories and characters”. One playwright told a horror story of a black director who wanted to take the endings off words to make the characters sound “more black”.
Despite these pressures, many playwrights afirmed a simple rule, “I go where I’m loved”. The obligation to support culturally specific theatres wasn’t there for many of these younger playwrights, several of whom felt their non-traditional aesthetic wasn’t embraced there.
The pressures of writing in that traditional narrative were traced back to the huge shadow of August Wilson. His name returned again and again to the conversation, always with love, but sometimes mixed with frustration at how his legacy had created a series of expectation for black playwrights.
But this was not a group interested in playing victim. Ideas for entrepreneurship, for going into black communities to find your audience, for collaboration between culturally specific theatres, and for national advocacy coursed through the two days; moving general frustrations into specific actions. The conference ended with the playwrights publicly sharing their work, giving proof of the breadth and depth of talent in the field.
“We gotta crack the heart wide open because when it healed up it healed up wrong.” The Convening acknowledged this pain, and the necessity of more pain to heal a world where “The sight on injustice is invariably in black bodies”. But there was also joy for the moment we find ourselves in, and a willingness to face risk to move things forward. As one playwright put it, “Do what you do, and if they run you out of town, lead the parade.”
For more information and perspectives on the Convening, check out the New Play Blog here.
By day, Gus is the mild-mannered Circulation and Customer Service Manager at TCG. By night, he transforms into August Schulenburg: playwright, actor, director, and Artistic Director of Flux Theatre Ensemble. His produced plays include Riding the Bull, Carrin Beginning, Other Bodies, Rue, The Lesser Seductions of History, and Jacob’s House.