During a year of widespread calls for racial justice across the nation, the theater industry has been reckoning with its own failures around issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Now, as theaters crank back into gear after a year of darkened stages, returning to their old ways is not an option, says Mandy Greenfield, artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
While Greenfield has made it a mission to produce the work of artists of color, she knows theater organizations can and should be doing more. With that in mind, the festival kicks off its return to live, in-person theater this summer with “Celebrating the Black Radical Imagination: Nine Solo Plays,” running July 6-25 on the Front Lawn of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance in Williamstown. Co-curated by Tony-nominated “Slave Play” director Robert O’Hara, the program comprises nine world-premiere solo plays by Black writers, written for actors of color and brought to life by Black directors. Each week will feature a set of three 30-minute plays.
“After a year of very intense, devastating, and illuminating events in the political arena, having this celebration of Black voices and the Black theatrical imagination to dream us forward feels really exciting and timely,” Greenfield says.
In programming “Nine Solo Plays,” Greenfield and O’Hara had two overarching goals: to put up-and-coming and established Black writers in the spotlight and to empower Black directors.
“I know that directors rarely are offered commissions and rarely get the chance to commission [playwrights],” O’Hara says. “The process usually goes the opposite way. So we thought it would be a really thrilling prospect for a director to identify the individual writers they want to work with and see how that sparks their imaginations.”
The three directors helming the plays at Williamstown are Wardell Julius Clark, Candis C. Jones, and Colette Robert (replacing Awoye Timpo, who helped select the playwrights but had to drop out due to personal reasons).
O’Hara, who directed “A Raisin in the Sun” at Williamstown in 2019, says it’s encouraging to see directors take “ownership of developing the plays, as opposed to having an institution develop it and then hire a director to come in and work on the project.”
The goal, Greenfield says, was to find “as broad and diverse a group of Black artists as we could to write the material, but also about getting a plurality of directorial visions and impulses.”
O’Hara has directed work by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Colman Domingo, Danai Gurira, and Nikkole Salter, but he’s also an Obie Award-winning writer whose plays include “Bootycandy” (seen at SpeakEasy Stage in 2016) and “Barbecue” (produced by Lyric Stage in 2017). With this production, it was vital, he says, to make way for other emerging artists. “I have a platform now, so I am able to go into spaces and request certain things and open up doors and open up spaces for others.”
Clark is directing three plays — Terry Guest’s “A Ghost in Satin,” Ike Holter’s “Don’t Get Got,” and J. Nicole Brooks’s “Black Moon Lilith.” Set in the distant future, “A Ghost in Satin” brings to life a theatrical, avatar-like re-creation of Eartha Kitt at a time when humans “have found a way to reincarnate famous icons,” Clark says. “The story hones in on the sacrifice Eartha and all artists made and continue to make in the fight for social justice.” “Don’t Get Got” centers on a woman who appears to be on a work break at a mortuary, though things are not what they seem. “Black Moon Lilith” focuses on two characters — an Italian saint and an inmate at what may be a slave colony on Mars. “The two are deeply connected,” Clark says, “and we figure how they got to where they are and the sacrifices made along the way.”
Jones is helming Zora Howard’s “The Master’s Tools,” Ngozi Anyanwu’s “The Last . . . (A Work in Progress),” and Charly Evon Simpson’s “Mark It Down.” The latter concerns a young Black woman searching for a way to memorialize her grandmother. “The Last . . .” examines an artist on the brink of unveiling a final piece, with Jones calling it “a timely love letter to artists and how we go mad in baring our souls to our work.” “The Master’s Tools” looks at the real-life historical and theatrical character of Tituba, the first woman accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials.
Robert is shepherding France-Luce Benson’s “Ghosts of the Diaspora,” Guadalís Del Carmen’s “Border of Lights,” and NSangou Njikam’s “Freaky Dee, Baby.” The latter Robert describes as a “wake-up call, a seduction, a shake-up, and a party all in one” as it tells the story of Freaky Dee and “how his first sexual experience was a pathway to finding his true self.” “Ghosts of the Diaspora” follows a septuagenarian as he revives the people, places, and moments that haunt him — from a James Brown concert in Zaire to growing up in Haiti and living through the kidnapping of a close friend. “Border of Lights” chronicles a first-generation American woman traveling to visit family in the Dominican Republic for the first time in two decades. “All three plays I’m directing are about ‘home’ in its many complicated and nuanced definitions,” Robert says.
Jones praises O’Hara for leading the charge in extending this opportunity to a diverse group of Black artists. “I rarely experience this kind of inter-generational building and creating,” she says. “It is a testament to a seasoned Black director harnessing his relationship with a theater [in order] for the theater to build new relationships. Perhaps this could be one of many models for an institution to practice active listening with Black artists.”
The undertaking, Clark says, speaks to the kinds of opportunities that BIPOC artists are seeking in the post-pandemic theater world. “We’re asking for predominantly white institutions to make space and give resources for artists of color to thrive, uninhibited as much as possible by the supremacy culture that has dominated not only the theater industry [but] the entertainment industry and the country at large. It is a time of constant change, and it seems to be a good first step.”
CELEBRATING THE BLACK RADICAL IMAGINATION: NINE SOLO PLAYS
Produced by Williamstown Theatre Festival. July 6-25, Front Lawn of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Williamstown. Tickets (on sale June 22): 413-458-3200, www.wtfestival.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.