When Donnetta Lavinia Grays was an undergraduate at the College of Charleston, she was cast in a production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Grays, a queer Black woman from Columbia, S.C., was not cast as Juliet, nor Romeo, despite obvious talent and extensive acting experience across genders. She was cast as Juliet’s nurse—not a small role in the play, but not a true lead, either.
But no matter—she was new in college and didn’t think much of the director’s choice. It was not until after the show was over and she read a review of the performance praising the casting, and her acting in particular, that something clicked for her.
“The review blew my mind,” she told Ms. in an interview last week. “Because the reviewer said that I played the world through my racial sensibilities. And that it was—and this was shocking—that I played it as a sort of ‘Veronese mammy.’ Right? That was the quote.” (“Veronese” refers to Verona, the Italian city setting of Romeo and Juliet, and “mammy” refers to the lasting pro-slavery-imagined stereotype of older, Black women servants to white families).
Suddenly recognizing someone else’s perception of herself, Grays spoke to the director, who told her that he could not take the risk of casting her in a role like Juliet because he wasn’t sure how audiences would take it.
“I understood then,” she said, “that people were going to limit me regardless of what my talent would be.”
Not Someone’s Servant, Nor Someone’s Victim
This was not an isolated incident in Grays’s career. In graduate school at the University of California-Irvine, Grays recalls fighting to play any character who was not someone’s servant or someone’s victim. When her professor at the time recommended she play the role of the Black boy who gets beat up in an alley, she insisted that, as an adult woman, she should play an adult woman with a complex life—not someone whose main identity in the show was being abused.
Being forced to fight for roles had a liberating impact on the burgeoning actor:
“I got this clear understanding that even though I might have perception of myself, other people would receive me in a different way and those folks would have certain control over opportunities […] It gave me the freedom to just go ahead and give up on them.”
Growing up as a shy, nerdy, queer, Black girl in South Carolina, it be might surprising that Grays didn’t gain this understanding earlier in life. But, her narrative is, notably, not one of escape from the conservative, often racist culture typically associated with the South.
Her high school was wildly diverse, but also wildly segregated. She passed a Confederate flag on her way to school every day, but found space with the theater kids, a uniquely diverse group of friends who “looked like the world.” She was cripplingly shy for years, but her mother encouraged her to use her voice—and when that was too hard, to write. She recalled:
“I remember her slipping me a letter saying, ‘I know it’s hard to talk sometimes, but maybe you can write things down.’ And so we would exchange letters every now and again. So, writing as communication, emotional expression— that came from my mom. I got […] all of that, in my Southern beginnings.”
Those letters exchanged with her mother were undoubtedly the start of what would become a deep love for writing, and the freedom that that shy, voiceless girl found in putting her words onto a page became a new kind of freedom when she turned to playwriting later in life.
Creative Control for Playwrights
Unlike acting, where casting directors and producers had ultimate control, playwriting allowed Grays to create theater that centered on who and what she saw around her.
“I create the worlds. I create these characters. I have them speaking in this complex language in and amongst each other,” she said, “and I don’t have to determine the structure based on what anybody else does. I have my own structure; I have my own voice.”
Of course, writing a play does not mean that it will get produced—and that’s one place Grays and countless other minority playwrights run into challenges. Grays found artistic directors’ responses to her work to be similar to that director she encountered in college:
“It becomes a pattern, a crutch for artist leadership to say, ‘The audience isn’t ready,’ when what they mean to say is, ‘Oh and, by the way, I am completely unwilling to get them ready, even though I am the one with enough power to do so.’ It’s cowardice and complacency.”
This is where things like the Kilroys’ List come into play.
The Kilroys is a group of playwrights, directors and producers in Los Angeles and New York City who strive to promote gender inclusivity in theater. Every year since 2014, they have been releasing The List to do just that.
As in many fields, theater is often dominated by white men, and those on the margins frequently struggle for recognition. For example, in the 2016-17 season, 86.8 percent of all shows produced in the U.S. were written by white playwrights.
Additionally, women are severely underrepresented in American theater, making up only 35 percent of contracts for the principal lead in a show. And the disparities translate to pay, too—men make more than women and white actors make more than Black actors across the board. These are just a few examples of a whole host of shocking statistics that demonstrate the pervasive inequality in the theater world.
The List works to remedy some of these disparities by promoting work by women and LGBTQ+ playwrights, who are so often ignored when theaters choose what plays to produce. Christina Ham, a member of the Kilroys and playwright herself, described The List to Ms. as “an annual survey, usually, of excellent, underproduced new plays by women, trans and non-binary writers.”
The List 2020
According to Ham, the spring season is generally when theaters “take more risks” in producing shows outside of the traditional canon. (Grays noted, “My work isn’t radical beyond the fact that it is Black, love-centered and queer,” but work like hers still fits into that “risky” category.)
This year, many of the shows shut down because of COVID-19 tended to be these “risky” productions, as they were being produced in the spring season. So the pandemic, unsurprisingly, is disproportionately affecting playwrights who produce such “radical” work—namely, Black, queer and marginalized writers.
Consequently, this year, The List is doing something new.
“This year is very different,” Ham says:
“Because, obviously, theater has been shut down because of the pandemic. And so, what we wanted to do is we wanted to collaborate with different organizations […] and really try to track down who are those plays and playwrights that were in the midst of either rehearsal and/or production, who were shut down because of the pandemic and bring recognition to those plays and playwrights.”
The List was released on July 7, but published as “a living document,” posted with the promise to be added to—the number of shows by underrepresented playwrights canceled due to COVID-19 continues to grow, and The List intends to reflect it in whole. A form is available online for those whose plays have been postponed or canceled due to the pandemic to add their names to The List.
Donnetta Grays is one of the playwrights on The List this year. Her show, “Where We Stand,” was to be performed in Baltimore as a part of a program bringing theater to communities without access to it, from school-aged students to people in old age homes to incarcerated folks. When the pandemic hit, the traveling production was quickly shut down.
“It was the first thing to go,” Grays said, “And that was devastating, because that’s where I felt like the play was actually going to live. So to this day, I still haven’t seen my play in the way that it was supposed to be.”
The Lost Season
The Kilroys are calling spring 2020 “the lost season” for underrepresented playwrights.
“Because of the pandemic coming when it did, it actually wiped out a lot of those voices and a lot of those opportunities to have a platform for those types of shows,” Ham told Ms., “For those playwrights who had productions scheduled […] there’s no way to assume that all of the plays on our list, you know, would potentially then be [produced again].”
Because of the precarious nature of theater funding, it is far from guaranteed that the majority of these playwrights—who fought so hard to have their work finally produced—will ever be able to see their shows on stage.
More Than a Moment
In the current moment of awakening in the country and world, the Kilroys saw an opportunity to “memorialize these writers and their productions that are out there and that were supposed to happen.” For Grays, however, the historic moment means more than just what it looks like right now.
“To me that is less relevant than where we’re going […] If we are where we were before this moment,” she said—referring to the national and global response to George Floyd’s death and the pandemic—“then shame on us. We cannot be that behind the ball anymore […] If it doesn’t change us after this moment in time, people are just opting out.”
She went on to explain that theaters need to come out of this moment with changed practices and ideas, not just empty promises or short-lived diversity programs.
“That’s been the conversation,” she said, “The conversation is over—put it into practice.”
This year’s List serves not just to encourage theaters to produce plays by playwrights from underrepresented communities, but to remind those theaters of the commitments they made to those playwrights, to remind the theater community at large that even in this “pause” on life, these writers should have seen their work on a stage, and they should still get the chance to do so.
Grays’ name sits on The List this year, along with countless other underrepresented playwrights— a reminder that American theater has not seen the last of them.
And perhaps, also, a reminder that after this moment in time, the American stage should look different—a lot more diverse and a lot more equal— than it did before.
The following organizations assisted in compiling The List this year: LA Stage Alliance, League of Chicago Theatres, Theatre Philadelphia, Theatre Communications Group (TCG), National New Play Network (NNPN), The Dramatist Guild, Princeton University’s Brian Eugenio Herrera’s “Our Lost Season of Latinx Plays” list.