Black Southern Playwrights Take Center Stage
The interruption of the COVID-19 pandemic gave way to a time of reckoning for theatre and theatremakers. As we collectively emerge from the pandemic’s crucible, let me present a beacon of hope for what theatre in the United States can be, at its best: “adaptable, emergent, sustainable, and well.” I am quoting Lauren E. Turner (she/her), the founder and producing artistic director of New Orleans-based theatre company No Dream Deferred and the We Will Dream: New Works Festival. Having chronicled Lauren’s transition from working in a racially traumatizing theatre to founding her own theatre company just a few years ago, I find it striking to hear her say, “We [at No Dream Deferred] are no longer immersed in conversations about surviving predominantly white spaces. We are fully engaged in building the thing we deserve, want, and desire.”
And what might that thing be? It’s currently the We Will Dream: New Works Festival, which is setting out to serve as “a bulwark of support for the professional and artistic development of Black playwrights.” The inaugural edition of the festival runs 19 March through 19 June 2023 at the André Cailloux Center for Performing Arts and Cultural Justice in New Orleans, Louisiana, showcasing new plays by Black playwrights originating from or working in the American South. This year’s festival proudly presents three full productions and one staged reading. Running in repertory, the festival line-up features world premieres of Drapetomania: A Negro Carol by M. D. Schaffer (he/they), Where the Suga Still Sweet by Brian Egland (he/him), and The Defiance of Dandelions by Philana Imade Omorotionmwan (she/her), as well as a staged reading of Sons of Liberty by Cris Eli Blak (he/him). These productions are milestones in the playwrights’ careers: a first professional production for Philana, M. D.’s first professional production in the South, and Brian’s first time having a script licensed and play produced (rather than self-producing).
Community is a throughline, as is the relief of not having to explain oneself or one’s work.
Joy is a stated central value of the festival—as is the case with all of No Dream Deferred’s work—and it is infectious. As I spoke to the festival playwrights, they reiterated what a pleasure it has been not only to be selected for this festival, but to experience it. Community is a throughline, as is the relief of not having to explain oneself or one’s work. M. D., who hails from Texas but currently lives in New York City, says, “Having Black teams where you can be unapologetically Black in these areas is a blessing unto itself. To be vulnerable in Black circles about insecurity and have them… understand where you’re coming from, to feel that with Black Southern people, made me feel at peace.” Philana, who is originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana and now living in New Orleans, echoes M. D.’s sentiment. She wrote The Defiance of Dandelions during her MFA playwriting program at Ohio University, where it received a workshop production directed by a white professor. Although she didn’t want to disparage the director’s work on the play, she says, “It’s nice to have a director who can bring their lived experience to the content.” When asked in interviews which artists were inspiring them right now, every playwright named their fellow playwrights in the festival. Their joy is palpable.
In addition to the heartening feeling of creating in community, this festival offers an opportunity for these four Black Southern playwrights to have their plays produced, which is a gift. It may seem too obvious to state, but let me say it anyways: productions are valuable for playwrights. As Philana says, “It’s so important to be produced to figure out if things are working or not in your play.” In fact, Philana had decided to give up on playwriting entirely before The Defiance of Dandelions was selected for the We Will Dream Festival, but as a result of her experience, she has decided to continue writing plays.
Although there has been progress in equitable representation on America’s stages (note that Lynn Nottage is tied with Lauren Gunderson at twenty-four productions in the 2022-2023 season), there is still work to be done. The Count 3.0, published in 2020, calculates only 24 percent of new plays produced on American stages in the prior three theatrical seasons were written by Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) artists. Worse, only 20 percent of all produced playwrights were BIPOC artists over the same period. What’s more, as Yvette Heyliger cites in “A Dream Deferred: Black, Indigenous, and Women+ of Color Playwright-Activists,” according to a 2015 article by the director of the New Play Exchange, Gwydion Suilebhan, an American playwright can reasonably hope for one professional world premiere of one of their plays per decade. If most American playwrights rarely or never have an opportunity to see their work produced, this is especially true for Black playwrights. For this reason, one of Lauren’s goals for audience cultivation for the We Will Dream Festival is to have artistic leaders from theatres across the country come see these plays, in hopes that they will consider programming them in future seasons.
The theme for submissions was “Inheritance,” and the festival’s play selection committee was intentional about programming plays that disrupt the idea of the Black voice being a monolith. The tone of the selected works ranges from darkly comedic to deeply sentimental. The playwrights have a wide variety of intentions for their work, including wanting to provide resonance and hope, to provoke discussion, to create a platform for a soft story to be spoken aloud in a community where it usually goes unspoken, and to leave audiences feeling joyful and capable of spreading that joy to those around them. Yet again, joy’s ripple effect resurfaces.
As storytellers, these playwrights are interested in having their communities, their small towns, their friends and aunts and brothers and sisters and students and neighbors, and even their own internal monologues find a voice on stage. Brian, who is originally from Breaux Bridge, Louisiana and now lives in New Orleans, put it this way:
“I don’t put as much stake on Broadway as other artists do, because I feel stories of independent communities are just as valuable, especially being from one. We [theatre people] love theatre, but no one else that I know knows it. Theatre gets lost in itself. Theatre is not really a part of my culture. What I intend and hope to do is to create theatre that is as culturally relevant and connects to audiences that I call family and community the same way a film or TV show does.”
If theatre has served as a form of documentation of daily lives and cultural preservation throughout human history, it is essential that Black (and in this case, Black Southern) stories be included in that canon.
Through their participation in the We Will Dream Festival, these four playwrights are claiming their inheritance, as well as the vital need for their stories to be documented and shared with the world. Both M. D. and Cris said that their works presented in the festival are the first plays they’ve written in which they found their voices. Brian says this production of his play has been the opening into the next part of his artistry and his career. He insists that theatre must keep “evolving so our histories keep being told and we keep learning from them.” If theatre has served as a form of documentation of daily lives and cultural preservation throughout human history, it is essential that Black (and in this case, Black Southern) stories be included in that canon.
For those interested in taking a page out of No Dream Deferred’s book, Lauren’s first piece of advice is to make sure the festival has a strong connection to place. Inheritance, she says, is also about remembering there are no empty spaces. The André Cailloux Center for Performing Arts and Cultural Justice is located on Bayou Road, which is the oldest road in New Orleans, originally formed 4,300 years ago and used by Native populations to transport goods from Bayou St. John to the Mississippi River, thus allowing New Orleans to establish itself as a port city and the cultural crossroads that it remains. As a cultural center created by and for Global Majority-led organizations, the André Cailloux Center intends for its presence to be “an act of reclamation for both the historic Indigenous and Black presences along the Bayou Road corridor.” Its presence demonstrates Lauren’s claim that we are always creating “on top of histories, on top of enduring legacies, on the backs and shoulders of our ancestors, and we have inherited the exact ingredients and things we need to do it from them.”
In addition to the physical location of the space and the ancestral chorus within its walls, the festival was designed to integrate seamlessly into the existing cultural fabric of New Orleans, with its many festivals celebrating art, music, food, and culture. It was important to Lauren and team for the festival’s offerings to remain accessible to all New Orleanians, so they established a walk-up comp ticket program for Louisiana residents to receive a free ticket to any performance if they arrive and show proof of residency one hour before the show. As Philana says, “I’m from Louisiana. It’s where I grew up. I never thought it would be a place where I could have any kind of life as a writer or a theatre artist. I appreciate [the festival] happening here because it says you can have a life here.” Theatre being for the people of the place is vital, especially in the American South, which suffers from some of the worst “brain drain” in the country.
To build community and conversations beyond the performances, the festival has also programmed a critical response series for audience members, plenary talks by James Ijames and Erika Dickerson-Despenza, the first-ever Global Majority Intimacy Conference led by Ann James, a convening of the National Association of Opera Administrators, and a Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) theatre summit for students and young professionals.
The inaugural festival received funding from the Mellon Foundation and took ten months to organize, comprised of three months of planning by No Dream Deferred’s Dream Team of executive leadership followed by seven months working with their Community Advisory Board. The festival received forty submissions from playwrights in all stages of their career, and although they had only intended to program three plays, they ended up selecting an additional play for a staged reading because the choice was so difficult to make.
Nothing actually matters more than the wellbeing of the individuals involved in making the thing. Not the show, not what people think about the show.
After a momentous opening at the end of March, the biggest challenge now is getting the word out about the festival and encouraging audiences to come back to the theatre. Coming out of the pandemic, Lauren says, “We’re going to have to do the work of personally inviting each person back, stakeholder by stakeholder, individual by individual, relationship by relationship.” A big part of that work is creating a space that’s accessible and making sure people feel safe enough to come back. Another part of it is finding the spark that will excite people enough to draw them out of the comfort of their homes: for example, the festival refutes the idea that there’s a lack of Black theatre artists to be found by naming Blackness as a value and contracting fifty Black theatre artists for this festival.
The festival is also creating a culture that keeps the artists coming back by centering wellbeing and pleasure. Lauren says, “Nothing actually matters more than the wellbeing of the individuals involved in making the thing. Not the show, not what people think about the show.” In contrast to a theatre culture that has taught us “the show must go on” at all costs, the We Will Dream Festival is honoring process over product by, in one instance, maintaining the flexibility to make decisions by canceling one scheduled performance so its stage manager could be in her sister’s wedding. Lauren says, “I keep telling myself: there’s actually nothing I can’t do.”
As I spoke to festival participants for this piece, my interviews were threaded through with statements that began with “I forgot”: “I forgot how good this feels,” “…how much I missed this,” “…how important it is,” etc. Clearly the We Will Dream Festival is already providing an essential space for remembering. If the festival’s intent is to build community space for dreams, legacies, conversation, and networking, it is achieving its goal by reminding its writers how good it feels to claim your inheritance and exercise your gifts in collaboration with other artists.