Binders Full of Women and People-of-Color Playwrights

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Simone Missick, Brent Jennings and Diarra Kilpatrick in Closely Related Keys (photo by Rita Stern Milch and Heidi Wianecki)

At a recent panel on diversity in Southern California theater, several of the artistic directors on the panel trotted out familiar platitudes about their commitment to diversity, their willingness to challenge their audiences with plays about people that don’t look like them and their desire to build a more diverse audience. Yet these same artistic directors run theaters that still devote the majority of their resources to plays written and directed by white men.

Given the astonishing range of theater being made by women and people of color all over the country (see here, here, here and here, to name just a few plays), the reluctance of major theaters to walk the walk they talk is increasingly at odds with the reality of American theater as a whole. Yet somehow, the argument is still being made that there just aren’t plays out there by women and people of color that are ready to be produced in the big time.

Well, I’m starting a binder. Binders of plays, binders of playwrights and binders of women and people of color currently writing and directing in the professional theater will be available to any leaders who continue to protest, “I want to produce a diverse season, I just can’t find any plays.” I’ll start the list with two–you add on in Comments.

After, all imageJennifer Berry’s After, All, which opens February 14 at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre as a guest production of The Pasadena Playhouse, explores the nature of female friendships through two women in their 40s who were brought together by circumstance and torn apart by loss. The play explores marriage, motherhood, divorce, mid-life career changes and the particular kind of intimacy that women share. Berry, who is directing the play herself, shared,

Women’s friendships are close, so I find what we tell each other, what we keep secret, what we show, really interesting to write about. Women raise their children side-by-side. If you go check out any park in Los Angeles, you’re gonna see a bunch of women sitting their with their kids talking, and usually it’s not the kids that they’re talking about. They’re usually talking about their lives and their secrets.

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Jennifer Berry (photo by L.B. Jacobson)

The play not only provides roles for two women in their 40s, it also shows us these women free of any male gaze. Though men are spoken of and are part of the characters’ lives, the audience engages directly with these women as people rather than through their husbands and children. Accordingly, they talk about much more than husbands and children. Berry again,

One of the women says things that nobody else will say: We’re just friends because of circumstances. Some of it harsh, but a lot of it is real. It’s what two women, closed in a room together, would say to each other if they knew this is the last time you were going to see this friend that you loved so much.

Though the production is taking advantage of the opportunity to market the play specifically to women and their friends (the matinee on Sunday, February 23, offers a two-for-one deal to women who come together), nothing about the play actually makes it niche. After all, the Western canon contains a number of plays about men that are not presumed to be of interest solely to men. With plays about men by Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett,  Sam Shepard and Edward Albee, audience members can simultaneously empathize with the characters as humans and understand the role that sex and gender play in defining them, regardless of whether they share that character’s sex, gender or ethnicity. The same is true of After, All.

Note to artistic directors: The actors in After, All could be women of any color. So go on, make it a two-fer.

On February 22, Closely Related Keys, written by Wendy Graf and directed by Shirley Jo Finney, will open at The Lounge Theatre in Hollywood. Graf’s play takes place in New York and centers around Julia, a young, successful lawyer who suddenly finds out she has a half-sister in Iraq. When that sister shows up on her doorstep, Julia and her estranged father are forced to confront their past and their own prejudices.

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Wendy Graf (photo by Rich Schmitt)

Graf, who is Jewish, has written a number of plays with Jewish characters and themes, but she also writes characters with cultural heritages different from her own. No Word in Guyanese for Me is about a lesbian Muslim refugee from Guyana. Leipzig  features an Irish-Catholic family in Boston. Though this production has a black family at the heart of its story, with Julia being in an interracial relationship with a white man, director Finney told me,

Anybody could tell this story or play this story. The core of this family could be anyone. The biracial relationship, the betrayal of the father, the multi-cultural child and the foreign element could be told by anybody and the story would remain the same. This is not a play about the African-American experience. This story is very contemporary and is about the interconnected world we live in.

Finney’s resume is as diverse as Graf’s: She has directed plays by and about African Americans, Latinos and Japanese people:

My job as a mythmaker is to tell the emotional truth of that story—to tell a story that helps us navigate our time. Emotions see no color. Storytellers who transcend race consciousness, who transcend gender consciousness, are doing the due diligence of transformation in our artistic world.

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Shirley Jo Finney (photo courtesy of Hatikva Productions)

And yet, Closely Related Keys is as firmly grounded in the details of the cultures it represents, as it is in the basic humanity of its characters. As the family drama unfolds, the truth of America’s relationship with Iraq, past and present, is illuminated, as well as what changed (and not for the better) for women in Iraq when we deposed Saddam Hussein. One moment in particular could have been pulled straight from the feminist blogosphere: When Julia attempts to get her Muslim half-sister to put on an American dress, her sister firmly rejects the idea, arguing, “I would not feel like me.”

After, All and Closely Related Keys are just two new plays by women being done in one city in one month. Others premiere all of the time in cities across the country. What new work have you seen that would refute the notion that big theaters are trying but just can’t find plays by women and people of color to produce?

The thicker our binder gets, the fewer excuses established theaters will have to produce seasons without gender parity and ethnic diversity. They claim they want their stages to look like the world we live in: Let’s hold them to it.

After, All runs on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. from February 14—March 16 at the Carrie Hamilton Theater at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Closely Related Keys runs on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m/ and Sundays at 4 p.m. from February 22—Mar 30 at the Lounge Theatre in Los Angeles.


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Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom. Related: Diversity and its Discontents in Southern California Theater.

Comments

  1. Marissa Dooley says:

    I’d say put Renee Floresca with “Nanay, Tatay, Anak” in there. The piece focuses on a Filipino family in the US and touches on issues such as immigration, drug addiction, and cross-generational conflict. More information about Renee’s work can be found on http://reneerises.com/.

  2. Sina Skates says:

    As a playwright, as a female playwright, and as a mother, there are many issues in creating works for the theatre that are important to me. I’ve been given the opportunity to write for Theatre for Young Audiences and also the general public and it’s an incredible experience for me. I look at creating strong female characters and breaking traditional roles and stereotypes. When I was a student I studied children’s books, and especially gender inequality in early readers and other materials. I’m proud to be a woman writer and know that the work I get to present touches to our youngest of people and the next generation. I hope that they grow up to know that each of us has value to give to this world in being true to ourselves. That we all have something to offer that is unique and it is in our differences that we celebrate and embrace life. ♥

  3. Just a few from the Philadelphia region:

    Pia Wilson
    (although she recently moved to NYC, she’s from our area)
    http://www.piawilson.com/
    “Generation T” (world premiering at the end of this month) is the story of two Marines who recently returned from Afghanistan. Their lives are a blur of house parties, drug deals, and PTSD flashbacks, set against the backdrop of the upcoming 9/11 anniversary. The attitudes of those around them are a mixture of indifference and misunderstanding.

    James Ijames
    “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” (readings at PlayPenn and NNPN). Christmas Eve, 1800. Martha Washington, widow to the first president, is ailing and surrounded by a group of faithful slaves who are all too aware that upon her death they will be emancipated. Drifting off into a fever dream, Martha is taken by a cross section of historical characters through America’s past and into its future, played out like a three ring circus by those whose freedom depends upon her end.

    Applied Mechanics
    http://www.appliedmechanics.us/
    (a collaborative group whose membership is primarily female)
    “VAINGLORIOUS: The Epic Feats of Notable Persons in Europe After the Revolution”
    After the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror that followed in its wake, a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte rises to fame through his military prowess and goes on to conquer much of Europe and rule as Emperor of France. Meanwhile, in Vienna, a musical genius named Ludwig von Beethoven experiences his own meteoric rise. Simultaneously, literary star Germaine de Stael invents comparative literature, the wheeling dealing diplomat Talleyrand reinvents political strategy, and Josephine de Beauharnais redefines First Lady style and grace. This large scale historical fantasia imaginatively captures a moment in time, portraying the lives of these five iconic figures and the remarkable people who surrounded them as they fought, rose, struggled, and fell. Featuring a cast of 26 and condensing 20 years of European history into a tautly choreographed action-packed hour, this piece surrounded the audience in a living landscape of epic proportions. “The title of Applied Mechanics’ astonishingly theatrical show is Vainglorious. The subtitle is ‘The Epic Feats of Notable Persons in Europe After the Revolution.’ Said notable persons include, among others: Napoleon, Josephine, Beethoven, Mme de Stael, and Talleyrand. So you might want to brush up your 19th-century history. Or not — just go and let the show carry you through 20 years of vainglory. (Besides, there’s a crib sheet on the back of the program.) Regardless: If you’re interested in experimental theatre, don’t miss this one” (The Philadelphia Inquirer).

    (Yeah, probably list that one under “book it in.” Great roles both created by women and women as male historic characters commenting on history.)

    Jacqueline Goldfinger
    http://www.jacquelinegoldfinger.com
    “Skin & Bone” (world premiering in March) In this new comedy about aging and nostalgia in America, elderly twins sisters Midge and Madge run a broken down bed and breakfast that has a date with the wrecking ball. When a young woman appears, searching for clues about a former guest, a storm of memories begins to brew and all three women stumble down a dark and dusty road of a past better left hidden. “Goldfinger has a unique poetic voice. She isn’t writing just to entertain an audience (though she manages to do so); she is writing to pose questions that have no quick, simple answers” (Philadelphia Weekly).

    “Slip/Shot” (winner, Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play & Brown Martin Award for Social Engagement) When racial tensions come to a boiling point in a Florida town, even an accident can have paralyzing consequences; a heartbreaking drama about violence, fear, and our need to move forward. “Like many of Goldfinger’s plays, ‘Slip/Shot’ is decidedly southern gothic, with an ethereal lyricism that evokes Faulkner, McCullers, Williams” (American Theatre Magazine).

    Quinn Eli is a master of short plays but, unfortunately, he doesn’t have a website.

    And there are a slew of emerging female and/or artists of color just beginning to find their voices on the stages in our area. We’ll be filling many of your binders in the next few years. For more info on just a few of them, check out: http://philadelphiafoundry.wordpress.com/.

  4. Meant to include this one as well:
    A moving and self-effacing comedy, ‘Why I’m Scared of Dance” by Jen Childs is about turning the choreography life gives you into the dance that only you were born to do. Jen doesn’t have a personal website but you can read about her company here: http://www.1812productions.org

  5. Teri Feigelson says:

    I am a 56 year old woman from Memphis, TN and have just written my first play. I entered it into Memphis’s Playhouse On The Square’s playwriting competition for new works and shoot fire if I didn’t win! Please come to Memphis to see ‘Mountain View’ July 10-August 2, 2015 at Playhouse On The Square’s TheatreWorks. About a young girl coming of age deep in the mountains of Appalachia. Please come see it! You may want to include it in your binder.
    Thank you,
    Teri Feigelson

  6. And I am but one.

  7. We recently did a podcast on this topic. We talked about 24 plays by 17 playwrights produced by 21 theaters. http://www.maxamoo.com/podcast/upcoming-shows-playwrights-of-color-part-2/

  8. Way to go, Jackie, for repping the Philly area! (And way to go, Holly, for continuing this important dialogue). If I could also add to the binder list:

    Jackie Sibbles Drury (We Are Proud To Present…) happens to be a woman and a POC (twofer!)
    From the press release… “Six actors come together to devise a theatrical presentation about an obscure 20th century genocide in Africa. What begins as an amicable workshop unravels into a storm of competing egos and conflicting agendas. From these tensions, rise hidden hatred and dormant violence forcing these “post-race” Millennials to confront their true nature. Drury’s work is both chilling and fiercely funny.”

    Charlotte Ford (BANG!) “Charlotte Ford’s Bang is a subversive, feminist ‘sex show’ performed by a trio of brainy lady actors/performance artists/clowns. Sound more like an undergraduate thesis project than a fun night out? Please note that Bang is also a hilariously ribald comedic event, glorying in boobs/butts/beer and audience participation.”

    Off the top of my head, the other lady/POC playwrights I can remember seeing regionally in the past few years: Megan Mostyn-Brown, Rachel Bonds, A Rey Pamatmat, E.M. Lewis, Robert O’Hara, Lisa D’Amor, Nina Raine, Danai Guirira, Leslye Headland, Johnna Adams, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Kara Lee Korthron, Annie Baker. (Paula Vogel’s at the Wilma working on a commission right now, which I find super exciting).

    Personal note #1: I worked on a production of “We Are Proud” as the costume designer with a team of a female director, assistant director, set designer, lighting designer, sound designer, prop designer. At the first production meeting, I sort of paused and looked around the room. It was the first time in — well, ever — that I had not been solidly in the minority as a female member of the design team. When I mentioned it to the director, she smiled, looked around the room, and simply said, “How about that. I just hired the best people for the job.”

    Personal note #2: I think I am more proud of “Vainglorious” than almost anything else, and, oh, I would leap at the chance to bring that to the rest of the world. Including, for the record, some really lovely and playful gender-bending: Napoleon was portrayed by a woman, and Josephine by a man.

    Personal note #3: Adrienne Mackey, a local director and devised theatre creator, has been blogging on this topic (among many other things) at swimponypa.wordpress.com. There’s a great post where she analyzes the regional data for playwrights as well as directors, actors, and designers, and breaks it down into some informative graphs. Worth checking out.

    Personal Note #4: I was working backstage at the Walnut Street Theatre (the longest continually-operating theatre in the English-speaking world) in 2012, the year the first female director helmed a mainstage production. It literally took over 200 years.

  9. A wonderful article and as valid in the UK as in the US. I am a London playwright who also writes about those on the margins. I am published. I have a huge body of great reviews. Yet I am fighting the same battles for parity that women in theatre here have been encountering for the past 30 years. Women want to see the diversity of their lives onstage but they are denied that possibility. Time for Guerrilla Girls to demonstrate!

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