(Ed. Note: The following blog salon series will focus on how theatre artists are responding to Trayvon Martin’s death, the trial and verdict, and the subsequent cultural response to those events. This series grew out of a series of discussion between myself, our Diversity & Inclusion salon curator Jacqueline E. Lawton, The New Black Fest’s artistic director Keith Josef Adkins and TCG’s Director of Communications & Conferences Dafina McMillan. If you would like to participate in this series, please email Gus Schulenburg.)
Gus Schulenburg: How has the outcome of the Trayvon Martin trial impacted you as a theatre artist? As a citizen? As a human being?
Keith Josef Adkins: I was deeply moved, frazzled, silenced, concerned and even angered by the outcome of the Trayvon/Zimmerman trial. Despite my belief that we all live in a digitally-informed world where every truth or opinion should be at our reach, the verdict was a clear indication that information means nothing and black boys are still suspect. I consider myself a hope-chaser and, naively or not, my hope is that human beings are capable of understanding context. My hope is that human beings ultimately, deep down, want to live and thrive in truth and see others live and thrive in the same capacity. However, the verdict (and my father) reminded me that everyone doesn’t see the world (or have hope in it) as I do. And as my mom always said, so many people refuse to think and certainly face truth. As a storyteller, I feel that my mission is to convince audiences that truth has many colors, angles and complexities. There is no one way of looking at anything. Yet, it is difficult to engage audiences (and people) in conversation about the the multiple angles of truth when so many of us appear to be disinterested in context, historical significance and/or complexity.
GS: What actions are you taking, if any, to respond to that outcome?
KJA: A week after the verdict, my theater collective, The New Black Fest, initiated a project called Facing Our Truth: Short Plays on Trayvon, Race and Privilege. I have commissioned several theater artists to write 10-minute plays inspired by the verdict, race and/or privilege in America. Several theaters around the country (and within NYC) have already agreed to support (or even produce) Facing Our Truth in some capacity. My hope is that Facing Our Truth will incite truthful and action-based discussions around these issues within our collective artistic and personal communities.
GS: What role does theatre have in changing the conditions that contributed to the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman?
KJA: Well, that’s a pretty hefty expectation and charge for theaters and I’m not sure I want to impose that on them. However, I will say this: theaters are the last of America’s great public forums. Theaters provide a venue for community to gather and engage in story that hopefully is a reflection of the world we all share. But as many of us know, some theaters are merely venues where artistic leadership program story that sustain a belief that one group of the population is all that matters, and the rest of the world is on its own. In light of the ever-growing diversity within our communities and the new testaments the diversity brings, I would urge theater companies to reconsider their missions. Particularly if their missions are not designed to help elevate the social consciousness and awareness of its audiences. I’m not finding fault in the missions of theaters, but I do feel we’re living in a time when it’s important to challenge matters (and people) that appear to be destructive to our collective experience and progress.
GS: How have you engaged, or will you engage, with those who feel differently about that outcome?
KJA: Despite what anyone wants to believe about the outcome of the verdict, I’ve made it my mission to bring the focus back to context. Again, nothing happens in a vacuum AND what happens to anyone of us impacts all of us, whether we know it or not. I believe the more we’re aware that we’re all interconnected, the more empathy we’ll have for each other. And the more we’ll demand to see the bigger picture in all matters under the sun we all share.
GS: How do the racial/cultural power dynamics of the theatre field challenge or reinforce the conditions that contributed to that outcome?
KJA: Again, I’m not so sure that singling out theater is a good idea. I do think many theaters are a reflection or an extension of their leadership and/or the communities they thrive in. In other words, it’s all about context. With that said, there’s a great deal of privilege that exists within the theater community. Some of it is intentional, some of it is institutional, some of it is fueled by the inability or time to do something to address it. However, when artistic leadership continue to ignore evidence that much more urgent conversations and ideas need to take precedence over box office reliability, then it’s kind of unforgiving.
GS: What actions are you taking, if any, to change those conditions within the theatre field?
KJA: The efforts with The New Black Fest serve a dual purpose. One, I’m very committed to challenging myself and audiences to notions of blackness and universality. Two, I’m also interested in challenging how the so-called larger, privileged community identifies blackness and the importance of narratives that may or may not include a recognizable point of entry for them.
GS: So much of this work to make change grows out of the shining example of artists, cultural organizers and civil rights workers in the past and present. From whose example do you draw strength?
KJA: The civil, political and environmental activism of Van Jones, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hammer and my cousin and Cincinnati community leader Anzora Adkins. The literary, online and musical activism of Nina Simone, Bessie Head, Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, John Oliver Killens, Kia Corthron, James Baldwin, Julia Alvarez, Junot Diot, Melissa Harris-Perry, Public Enemy, Mos Def, Queen Latifah, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Sinead O’Connor, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan… I’m always being shown examples.
His plays include LAST SAINT ON SUGAR HILL (Fall 2013 National Black Theatre, NYC, 2011 MPAACT Theatre, Chicago), SUGAR and NEEDLES (2014 Epic Theatre – NYC), THE UNDERSIDE OF JACKFRUIT AND PAPAYA (2013 Working Theatre, NYC), THE BUG PODS (radio play, 2013 The Greene Space/Flea Theatre, NYC), SWEET HOME (2012 production MPAACT Theater Company – Chicago), THE FINAL DAYS OF NEGRO-VILLE (2012 Playwrights Foundation Rough Reading Series – San Francisco, 2011 Represent Festival at A.C.T. – Seattle), PITBULLS, SAFE HOUSE, among others.
Keith’s play Sweet Home just earned six nominations (including Best Script) from the African American Theater Alliance in Chicago, his play The Last Saint on Sugar Hill recently earned a 2012 Jeff nomination for Best New Work in Chicago. He was also recently named resident playwright (2012) for MPAACT Theater in Chicago. His awards include a 2010 Gateway commission from the Obie Award-winning Epic Theatre, a 2010 A Contemporary Theatre/Hansberry Project Commission, a 2009 New Professional Theater Playwright Award, a 2009 New York State Council on the Arts playwriting grant, a 2008 Kesselring Fellowship nomination, among others. Keith was also recently selected into the Lark Play Center’s 2012-2013 Monthly Meeting of the Minds playwright group.
As a screenwriter, Keith wrote for the CW hit series Girlfriends. He was commissioned by SimonSays Entertainment to pen a feature-length sci-fi drama called The Disappearing. He also wrote and directed an all-black sci-fi web series called The Abandon that launched in December. FBC Films named The Abandon the Best Web Series of 2012. IndieWire’s Shadow and Act named The Abandon a web series to watch in 2013. Keith is in development with executive producers Eriq LaSalle and Michael Beach for the feature film version of The Abandon. Keith is also in development with FBC Films to develop a feature-length sci-fi film called The Approach.
In 2010, Keith co-founded The New Black Fest, a festival of new and provocative playwriting, music and discussion from the African Diaspora. The New Black Fest is in its 4th season. He serves as artistic director. He’s co-founder of The American Slavery Project. He taught graduate playwriting at Columbia University. Keith also blogs regularly for HowlRound, an online theater journal.