WMC News & Features

Works by black women take center stage

Curtis Newton Valerie

Each human is uniquely different. Like snowflakes, the human pattern is never cast twice. We are uncommonly and marvelously intricate in thought and action, our problems are most complex and, too often, silently borne.                                                                                —Alice Childress, playwright


While #OscarsSoWhite has raised awareness of the lack of opportunity for people of color in Hollywood, and activists have brought attention to the dearth of women writers and directors in mainstream films, audiences might not be as aware that the climate for women of color, white women, and men of color on U.S. stages is no better.

Plays by women account for just 22 percent of the performances staged each year in U.S. theaters. The numbers for people of color are at least as bad. Using Washington, D.C. as an example, just 18 percent of the plays produced in the 2015 season were by people of color, despite the city being 56 percent people of color.

But in Seattle, the country’s fifth-whitest big city, a 44-year-old regional theater festival is rejecting that paradigm and mounting an entire festival of plays by Black women.

The Intiman Theater Festival, May 24-October 2, is co-curated by Andrew Russell, Intiman’s artistic director, and by Valerie Curtis-Newton, currently the head of performance–acting and directing at the University of Washington School of Drama and artistic director for the Hansberry Project, a professional African-American theater lab.

The festival’s season will include two major productions: Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, which debuted on Broadway in 2011; and Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, written by Alice Childress in the early 1960s. The festival will also feature an emerging artist showcase that will provide free professional training for a group of up-and-coming local artists; a reading series of contemporary plays by Black female artists; an evening of short plays “exploring themes of beauty, image, and representation”; and “Black Women Wisdom,” a gathering of Black female writers.

Childress, the first African-American woman to have a play produced in New York City with Gold Through the Trees in 1952, wrote more than a dozen plays, many featuring complex roles and stories about African Americans that were not available when she started on the stage as an actor in the 1930s. Diamond, in contrast, is a contemporary playwright and professor of theater. Her work has appeared across the country, including a three-month run of Stick Fly on Broadway.

Russell says the Intiman’s festival format allows them to “deep dive” on different subjects. The 2016 season, he says, is focused on “celebrating beautiful, moving plays that are also by Black women.” While he says the focus is important, he paraphrases Childress, saying, “We don’t announce the white male theater festivals we are having, but we are having them.”

Curtis-Newton says the 2016 festival turns the current artistic scarcity model on its head. “We're at a place where people are actually willing to acknowledge that avenues for production have not been equitably distributed,” she said. “We have had for a long time ... one show slot in a season that would be the play by the writer of color, and we would sort of pass it around from community to community. So this year is the August Wilson play and next year it's José Rivera and the next year it's David Henry Hwang—but there's the one slot. And then the communities of color were sort of like crabs in a bucket—we're all hustling to get in that one spot. We end up in this position because there aren't more people of color in the rooms to help make decisions.”

That often means Black women experience even greater invisibility than Black men, Curtis-Newton says. “Black women can be excluded, and Blackness still feels like it's in the room. But if Black men are excluded there is a kind of questioning. I want everybody's stories. I want more stories. This is just one moment where we said, ‘Let's actually give sisters some attention and some due—let's let them have their shine.’

“In many ways, as we are having more conversation about race and equity, the voices of women are being relegated to the B-side of the record. Much of the conversation about police violence, and the attack on the Black man, and the school-to-prison pipeline, and all of the social issues that are coming out of our community, many of them are focused on the ways in which systematic oppression impacts Black men and Black boys. That's why Black Girls Rock and Black women's wisdom are important, because Black women have a view of those things that are affecting Black men, and they also have their own stories to tell. It's been really hard, when the two stand side by side, for Black women’s issues and voices to be heard.”

Playwright Shontina Vernon is one of the artists whose work will appear in the 2016 festival. Her play A Lovely Malfunction will be part of the “Can You Hear Me Now?” series of contemporary plays by playwrights who are Black women.

Vernon says the Intiman’s approach is a radical change for theater. “[The festival is] saying it doesn't really matter if we are in a community that is predominantly Black or not—these voices need to be part of the national narrative, the global narrative. You have to hear from the women, and you have to hear from Black women in particular. Our experiences are unique. Especially in a place like America, they are really unique.”

Broadening that cultural narrative requires a broad range of storytellers, Vernon says. “We are really trying to spin stories that are about freedom and about liberation and about affirmation and about celebrating the Black aesthetic. I feel like every entity has this sort of industrial complex version of itself. Theater is no different. When you have a lot of these cultural gatekeepers who are mostly white, often male, you get a whole pantheon of plays that do not reflect your experience.”

But Vernon says audiences need to understand the stories they do see in a larger context. “I think the cool thing about having a lot of Black, female storytellers in this city together ... represented at the same time, is that maybe seeing some of these plays together will broaden the understanding. Because you are not just seeing the one, isolated play in the season, which is usually how it happens—there is usually one Black play in the season. In seeing them all, I would hope people would understand there is a kind of through line. Because some of our experiences share things, and similarities, and some of them are so vastly different. I hope it dawns on people, like, Oh, they are Black and female. But Blackness is not a monolith and womanhood is not a monolith.”

After directing Wedding Band for Intiman, Curtis-Newton will have directed all three of Alice Childress’ major works professionally, an important achievement. “In Trouble in Mind, Childress has a quote at the end of the play, where she says, ‘We have to go further and do better.’ [And playwright Lorraine Hansberry says], ‘If you want to do something, you have to do something,’” Curtis-Newton says. “These women are activists. That's what I love about being able to present these writers in the fuller context that they were activists, they were trying to make change. They were saying really interesting and hard truths in an artful way that got through people’s armor and pierced their hearts.”

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