This new trek back in school has been quite a ride. I have had to re-visit plays that I haven’t read in years and finally buckle down and read plays that I should’ve read as a theatre-goer years ago. This past semester, the plays that stood out were Antigone, King Lear, Oedipus, Lysistrata, The Blind Man and the Monkey, Othello and The Birds. There were over 20 plays read so I know I am missing out on some that I really enjoyed but those have stuck around in my brain for some reason. This was a theatre history class so it encompassed stage settings, background information and costuming considerations as well. Reading the plays and discussing, within a constructed outline, would be idea for reading such an array of plays. The challenge for me came with having to assimilate these into weekly writings and discussions demonstrating a personal understanding. So here’s the thing…
I posted my picture because I am black. I am a black woman living through a pandemic and watching people that look like me get murdered on national television. And then I had to play make believe with these plays and immerse them in conversations in my life…? So I am attending my first PWI and I am the ONLY black woman in the class, excuse me, the only black PERSON period. I remember this became an issue for me the week of Breonna Taylor’s murderers indictment. They began discussing King Lear as if nothing had happened. There was still a dance in their eyes and lightness in their smiles. I remember looking at their faces on the zoom call and it looked as if not one of them had been affected. I brought it up during my segment of the discussion and their silence was blaringly loud. The younger me would’ve felt sorry they had to connect with “that” conversation but I dismissed their wandering, uncomfortable eyes and actually hoped they sat in those emotions even if just for a few seconds.
The above mentioned plays would be great in a contemporary setting with a diverse cast and even all black. I would especially love to see this done with Antigone and Lysistrata. With the current theatre platforms, including #WeSeeYou and a push for anti-racist curriculums and theatre programming, these adaptations would be more accessible than when I went through my BA program yeeeeaaaarrrrs ago.
For this coming semester I reviewed the syllabus ahead of time so I am getting ahead of the readings/reviews for: The Cherry Orchard, Waiting for Godot, Death of a Salesman, Fences, Streetcar Named Desire, Dutchman and some other classics. I am in this program to remind them that there are black theatre classics as well from Angelina Grimke, Douglass Turner Ward, James Baldwin, Adrienne Kennedy, George C. Wolfe and others. Personal research and what one chooses to focus on is one thing but when it comes to teaching core classes to budding theatre practitioners Professors have the responsibility to come out of their comfort zones and present a TRUE representation of the theatre world.
Rejection is a language in itself. Initially it speaks hurt and devastation. Eventually it presents doubt and causes one to stop the process or the detour the journey they are on. Every artist is told something to the tune of, “rejection is a part of the game.” But there are no courses or free therapy sessions to instruct you what do to with the emotions, fear of trying and trauma that tag along with repeated rejection.
What I am witness to now is that the repeated process will produce. Like the watering of a plant, it is done with intent. You touch the soil to check for dampness, to determine how much water is needed for that day. You trim the dead edges of the leaves, you turn the plant to face the sun and eventually the plant grows to it’s potential. While it is done consciously, it is for the plant to stay alive not necessarily to grow. This is the same with artists. The acts of our creativity keep us alive and with that continued process of creating, our art grows.
If I could talk to my 25 year old self, I would tell her to define all of the rejection she will experience in auditions and writing queries on her own terms. I would tell her that it does not mean to perfect the “plan B”, it simply means that was not the right job. Something better suited is coming down the pike through the continued process. I would tell her that what is hers will come specifically designed with her name on it.
So, this message is for me. I am definitely coming full circle with my dreams. I recently enrolled in an acting class to warm my technique back up. I am speaking into existence my return to the theatrical stage and I am beginning my process now.
My research focuses on the “insertion” work of black women in literature, particularly theatre. Carroll is a “first” that probably a lot of people do not know about, not just theatre but Broadway.
Today on her birthday, I re-member Vinnette Justine Carroll who was the “first” black woman to direct a play on Broadway, with her 1972 production of the musical Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. In addition, until 2016, Carroll was the only black woman to have received a Tony Award nomination for direction. That is 44 years, four decades, that passed before Tony consideration was given for a black woman director on Broadway. And just to do the math, when Carroll made history directing this musical, Broadway had been producing theatre for approximately 115 years.
Carroll was also an actor and playwright. She is known for the reinvention of song-play, the expression of identity through gospel music in the African-American theatre experience. Not surprising, Carroll was into creating and directing new works that positively and artistically presented people of color in theater and art. Her primary interest was giving voice to African Americans and other minority communities that have been culturally and artistically silenced.
Happy birthday to Tony Award nominated director, Vinnette Justine Carroll! Add her name to your name of black women being properly “inserted” and recognized for her artistic contributions in theatre.
Wait, whose birthday is it? Danai Gurira, from “The Walking Dead” and “Black Panther”:
On my research journey, I am documenting and inserting any significant absence of information on women in theatre. See, not only is Gurira an amazing and versatile actress, she is also a playwright. Her play, “Eclipse” was the first play to premiere on Broadway with an all female and black cast and creative team. (Yes, after all these years, we are still creating “firsts” for black people!) The play is set in war-torn Liberia and focuses on three women who are living as sex slaves to a rebel commander, and is about how they deal with this difficult situation. The play was inspired by a photograph of female fighters and their tale of survival.
And as you can see the play starred the beautiful and talented, Lupita Nyong’o.
So today I salute Danai Gurira and encourage you to learn more about her and buy tickets to “Eclipse” if it comes to your city. I saw a production of it here in Atlanta and the story creates suspense and chills!
I dared to pursue my passion of studying theatre at Grambling State University. One of the first plays produced upon me entering was, “Livin’ Fat” by Judi Ann Mason. The theatre director so often bragged on how this play was written by his “class mate” and how she had written it while still attending Grambling. I didn’t think much of the playwright after the production until years later and I was living in Los Angeles.
One day I was watching the tv show, “Different World” and the writer credit for that episode read, Judi Ann Mason. It was then I found out she was more than a playwright born, raised and educated in the south. She was an award winning writer and a trailblazer for black writers in Hollywood.
The play, “Livin Fat” was produced off Broadway in 1976 by the Negro Ensemble Company, and won a comedy award sponsored by the Kennedy Center and television producer Norman Lear. Lear then hired her as a writer for the series “Good Times” and she went on to write for “Sanford”, “A Different World”, “Beverly Hills 90210” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
Judi Ann Mason, was one of the first female African-American sitcom writers in Hollywood and one of the youngest television writers of any race or either sex. As I am researching for my studies, re-discovering black women playwrights is imperative on my path. So today, we honor Judi Ann Mason! We remember you and thank you!
While studying film in grad school, a lot of my professors had taken on the “grassroots/indie” approach to their art and influenced the students as well. Meaning, if you want it on the big screen you have to execute guerilla style film making and do everything yourself. So being a writer and actor, when I first moved to Los Angeles, my natural inking was to write a play, cast it, direct it, produce it, market it, etc.
For me, that robbed me of the time I needed to be creative. As my luck would have it, I went to a book reading for Ntozake Shange and she said something that saved me from a lot of future stress. To paraphrase her, ‘write something so good, others will want to perform it, buy it and/or produce it.’ So after studying arts all through high school, undergrad and grad school, I found myself back in the library reading the timeline and art of some of my Sheros.
I sought to study the greats and determine how they were able to create timeless art that others yearned to bring to life and share with their perspective audiences. That is my mission. Especially with my play, “Hope’s Return”.