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A Dream Deferred: Black, Indigenous, and Women+ of Color Playwright-Activists

One evening at bedtime, my twelve-year-old grandson asked me, “Nana, are you happy with your life up to now?” I was taken aback by his question. Did he sense something in me? Some disappointment or dissatisfaction? It took me a few beats to muster up a response. Finally, I said, “Well, yes... and no.”

Let me explain.

For me, there is life before I read “The Count 3.0” and life after I read “The Count 3.0.” “The Count” is an ongoing study by the Lillys in partnership with the Dramatists Guild which analyzes and presents data on who is being produced in the American theatre. Before “The Count 3.0” was published, I was what feminist, journalist, and activist Gloria Steinem coined a “hope-a-holic.” Things in the industry were slowly improving and I was hopeful that more plays by women+ would not die on the vine, unplucked and unproduced. I knew I may not see parity for women playwrights in my lifetime, but as an activist I was doing my part to, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, bend the “arc of the moral universe towards justice.”

A young boy and an older woman lean their heads together and smile.

Yvette Heyliger with her grandson.

In 2015, “The Count 1.0,” the first study by the Lillys, was published. When reading about the number of produced women playwrights, I was shocked to learn that I was one of the 96.6 percent of women of color whose work had not reached production in our nation. This was through no fault of our own. Talent (or lack thereof) had nothing to do with it. The quest for equal opportunity fueled my continued fight for parity. I was compelled to soldier on despite my nagging suspicion that white women would likely benefit more from my advocacy efforts than I would as a Black woman.

If ”The Count 1.0” were not enough of a wake-up call, that same year, in an article, “Playwrights and the New Play Exchange” written by Gwydion Suilebhan, project director of the New Play Exchange for National New Play Network reported:

There are about 15,000 to 25,000 playwrights working in the United States right now. Let’s call it 20,000 just to make it an even number. And those 20,000 playwrights seem to create about one new play per year, on average. Which means that there are about 20,000 new plays per year entering the cultural ecosystem. At the same time, there are about 2,000 professional world premieres of new plays in the United States every year. So let that sink in. That’s 20,000 new plays and only 2,000 world premieres every twelve months. The unavoidable, mathematical conclusion is that 90% of all new plays never get produced. Only one out of ten ever go from the page to the stage. So if the average playwright writes one new play a year, that playwright can reasonably expect one world premiere production per decade. One. World. Premiere. Per. Decade.

Suilebhan’s article, coupled with the findings of “The Count 1.0” presented a particular challenge for me. I have been an activist for most of my life, lifting the flag and charging onto the battlefield, seeking justice for one cause or another. It is one of my passions. These statistics were enough to make any artivist think about where to put their energies!

For the first time, I saw myself as part of a community of Black women+ activists in the continuum of time.

In 2019 I went to see Gloria: A Life by Emily Mann, a play about the life of Gloria Steinem. I was moved, inspired, and humbled by the play. Most surprising was learning that Black women, and later a Native American woman chief, played a pivotal role in Steinem's development and growth as an activist. The first act of the play was Gloria’s story. The second act was our story—the story of audience members who would step up to the mic and share what was on their hearts and minds in a sacred Native American tradition called a talking circle.

In a Playbill interview, Mann was asked to describe what a talking circle was. She remarked, in part, that the talking circle was:

One of the biggest life lessons [Gloria] had ever learned. Years later, she saw the power of talking circles in the consciousness-raising groups formed out on the road. No one came in as an expert. The people on the ground were saying what they needed and what was going on in their lives. That form of grassroots organizing is how great social justice movements happen.

Act two of each performance was led by different notable special guests. The night I attended the show, the second act was led by Gloria Steinem herself. She re-created the talking circle where women would commune that we learned about in the play. The talking circle was a safe space, a space where there was freedom to say whatever was on their mind. Sometimes ideas for activism grew from these talking circles. Interestingly, the seating in the theatre lent itself to this activity, as it was theatre in the round. It was very compelling how community was instantly created in this setting.

In that moment, I was moved to stand up and speak. I could hardly believe I was sharing my story before this new community I was a part of, much less to this icon of the women's rights movement. Other than a friend who accompanied me to the show, I knew I would probably never see the majority of the people in that audience again. But for this moment in time, and through the magic of theatre, we were all bound together by our experience of the play and the creation of community brought about by the talking circle.

Five women gather on a carpeted stage as the audience watches.

Yvette Heyliger and Gloria Steinem during Act II (the talking circle) of Gloria: A Life by Emily Mann at the Daryl Roth Theatre.

My voice was shaking with emotion as I shared, “It is hard to be Black in America. It is hard to be a woman in America. It is hard to be aging in America.” I did not add this at the time because it seemed self-evident, but it is also hard being an artist in America. Steinem listened intently as I briefly expounded on my thesis. After I finished, she kept thanking me for my honesty and bravery. I was stunned by this. Gloria Steinem was thanking… me? She continued on, saying that Black women have always been at the forefront of activism in this country. For the first time I saw myself as part of a community of Black women+ activists in the continuum of time. Steinem encouraged me to take refuge in the historic leadership of Black women in the fight for justice and equality in America. And by their clapping, the majority white audience seemed to agree (another stunner).

In January 2022, during my tenure as an executive committee member of Honor Roll!, an advocacy group for women+ playwrights over forty and their women+ allies over forty, I invited literary agent Beth Blickers of Agency for the Performing Arts (APA) to speak to our members in an event called Honor Roll! Presents: A Conversation with Beth Blickers. In response to a question on Blickers’ favorite and least favorite part of her job, Blickers said: “The thing that breaks my heart is when I am sitting with someone of a certain age talking about their career frustrations. [I ask them:] ‘Well, do you do this or do you do that’. I can watch the mental calculation of what has maybe been lost years of not doing self-advocacy and it is frequently because they have been busy advocating for other writers.”

I felt like Blickers was talking about me. In addition to Honor Roll!, I have held volunteer and leadership positions in the (now defunct) 50/50 in 2020, Lark/Hedgebrook, and the Women’s Initiative (made up of members of the Dramatists Guild), as well as the League of Professional Theatre Women, now celebrating its fortieth year of advocating for opportunities and visibility for professional women+ in theatre. As the years wore on, advocacy began to take more of my time and creative energies. Truth be told, I enjoy advocacy and, like Blickers suggests, I did put it ahead of my own self-interests. For this reason, I had to redefine success for myself.

A group of protesters with various posters smile for a photo in Times Square in New York City.

League of Professional Theatre Women's Annual Women Stage the World Parade through New York City's Theatre District. (Yvette Heyliger is far right in the afro.) Photo: Erik McGregor.

So, in answer to my grandson’s question, here’s the “well yes” part:

I had become a producing artist and was able to give myself opportunities to grow as a playwright by seeing my work living and breathing on smaller stages. I published a collection of my full-length plays. My shorter works and monologues appear in theatrical anthologies. I pen theatre-related articles for online magazines and blog posts. I have been interviewed on theatre-related podcasts. I have curated and produced events promoting women’s work around the social issues of our time like the brutality and murder of women of color at the hands of the police and the #MeToo movement.

These steps ensure that my grandchildren and future generations of theatre lovers will know I was here and had something to contribute to the American theatre. And finally, although in the minority—not unlike the Black suffragettes and Black feminists who fought for inclusion despite the unrelenting bias they endured—I found community with white women theatre artists fighting for parity.

And, here’s the “… and no” part:

All of these efforts have afforded me the street cred and respect of my peers but not the nationally recognized awards and accolades that garner the attention of regional theatres and Broadway producers. I have failed in balancing my work as an activist with my work as an aspiring playwright in that sense. (In fact, right now, I am sure there is a submission opportunity, or a grant, or residency that I should be applying to as I write this article!) I am “of a certain age”—too old, perhaps, to be the next “hot thing,” “flavor of the month,” or “theatre darling.” I am a recovering “hope-a-holic” who cannot go backwards and recover those “lost years of not doing self-advocacy.”

The icing on the cake came with the Lillys’ most recent findings in the “The Count 3.0” which says, in part: “It’s clear that, although the American theatre has continued to add to the diversity of its playwrights, neither gender nor racial parity has yet been achieved in terms of production. Anecdotally, it appears that women over the age of fifty, especially Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) women+ who led the push for the diversity we now enjoy, do not appear to have directly benefitted.”

There it was in black and white. I had been fighting all this time for white women to have more opportunities in the industry than women like me. This news was very disheartening. It caused me to call into question the last fifteen years of my life as an activist fighting for parity for women+ theatre artists. What now? Do I keep fighting for those BIPOC women+ under fifty and future generations?

The truth is, now in my sixties, I am tired and ready to turn this particular fight over to those who are younger and stronger. After years of advocacy, I was looking forward to spending more time writing, networking, submitting more consistently, maybe getting an agent, and securing that all-important regional production that may have a future on the Great White Way. I was looking forward to taking my seat at the table.

Knowing I am part of a historic lineage, a continuum of Black women activists on the frontlines of one cause or another who may not see the fruits of their work in their lifetime, I am wondering how to reconcile and be at peace with the findings of “The Count 3.0” while still fighting the good fight. I am wondering what the response to these findings are by other BIPOC women+ playwrights in my shoes, or if they even know. I am wondering, “What happens to a dream deferred,” a question posed by poet, essayist, novelist and playwright, Langston Hughes in his iconic poem, “Harlem”:


What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?


Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.


Or does it explode?


I don’t yet have an answer to Hughes’ question because I am still living it. But I can imagine the mountaintop. And as I crest, I see my dream deferred exploding—not in my lifetime but a hundred years from now when women+ playwrights in great numbers explode onto the American theatre scene. In my dream deferred, I see BIPOC women+ having the same opportunities as their white sisters and together as womenkind, they have the same opportunities as white men. In my dream deferred, I see producers discovering the plays of BIPOC women+ over fifty and posthumously dedicating whole seasons to their unsung work. In my dream deferred, I see a seat at the table for all of us. In the words of voting and women's rights activist, community organizer, and leader in the civil rights movement, Fannie Lou Hamer, “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats when all of us were tired.”

A flame flickers from a wide candle.

Peaceful Candle by jupiterimages for freeimages.com.

And now… I welcome you, dear theatre community—especially BIPOC women+ theatre artists over fifty—to our first virtual talking circle. As is the tradition, I will light a (virtual) candle and open the talking circle with a prayer that will rest our comments and reflections in the hands of a nondenominational higher power: May our virtual talking circle be blessed and the voices of all within it be honored as equal in importance. May the collective wisdom of the circle uplift the theatre community at large, as well as the audiences who come to us seeking fellowship.

And now, your comments and reflections on today’s question: What happens to a dream deferred?

Yvette chatted on Instagram Live with Communications Manager Ramona King about this ideas in this essay and where we go from here.


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What a terrific piece, Yvette. I am of two minds on the advocacy issue and the fact that it benefits others more than us. One is this: that's the way it always is, and we have to do the work so that future generations don't have the same stumbling blocks that we do, and we just keep doing our best to advocate, do our creative work, and love whatever we are allowed to create and accomplish in this crazy mixed-up world. But, on the other hand, I equally feel that it is to the perceived benefit of those at the "top" of the hierarchy, the privileged ones, to make us keep working/striving/fighting for the same ground over and over again, so that that's all we can ever do, and we are never fully free to create. I say perceived benefit, because no one is truly free, whole, creative, supported, unless we all are, and so they are stifled by the systems in place as well. But they are stifled with privilege. All of that being said, I love what you've written, I love doing both creative work and advocacy work with you, and I am charged to see what we may still create and accomplish!

Thank you for your insights, Shellen. Yes, let us soldier on as sisters in this fight, charged with "what we may still create and accomplish" for ourselves and for theatre women+ yet to be born. And may white and BIPOC theatre women+ be employed and lauded in equal measure.

Thank you so much for this piece, Yvette. I related so strongly to it, on many levels.

As a disabled 60+ female performer/composer/playwright/musician/director and many other hyphenates, I have advocated and fought for more visibility and inclusion of artists with disabilities of all diversities for well over 40 years and have experienced being one "who led the push for the diversity we now enjoy, [but] do not appear to have directly benefitted.” Please understand, like you, I am extremely grateful for the work I HAVE found and accomplished on stages and studios, etc, and have written/created much of the work I've performed all over the world, while being called by Boston Globe "clearly ahead of her time." My advocacy work has contributed to the tripling of employment of performers with disabilities (PWDs) in TV & theatre, while I myself made it to the final callbacks for 7 Broadway shows, only to lose the final round to non-disabled actresses, while younger PWDs (including BIPOC) have found those doors I beat upon open to them. I am PROUD of the increase in visibility which I fought for. And PROUD of my daughter's involvement in Teaching Hard History for the SPLC, educational work in Namibia, and fight for teachers' rights, while saying "well, look who I have as a mom." Creating a legacy of activism (as you have for your grandson) is maybe the most important thing we can do. AND there is still that "dream deferred" you and the esteemed Mr. Hughes refer to. If I look carefully at who is chosen to put their disability writing on well-known stages, while my work has existed since 1993, I see young white men. I'm not trying to say that we are the same person. I just want to express my gratitude and empathy from the perspective of the disabled community who do not even get counted in The Count or most industry diversity reports. Thank you with all my heart.

Anita: Thank you so much for sharing your lived experience and invaluable perspective as a member of the PDW (performers with disabilities) community. We have so much in common. I wonder if The Count has considered including PDW in their study. I will bring it up to the Dramatist Guild's Equity Diversity Inclusion Access committee, of which I am a member. Will be in touch...

HowlRound Community:

Here is another comment that was sent to me personally:

"There are quite a few black women getting produced in New York - now - but how long did it take for us to get there?"

To this one I replied:

"New York City is tricky in that it does seem as though we are getting a lot of opportunities here and therefore can feel assured that things are changing. (How exciting was it to have so many black plays on Broadway post-pandemic? So great!). But this is not the case in theatres across the country. I guess this is why The Count 3.0 hit me so hard. I was lulled into thinking things were really progressing in the parity movement because I live in the 'mecca of theatre'."

Hi, All! Just wanted to share this comment someone sent me personally:

"There have been articles everywhere about how statistically white women are by far the major beneficiaries of affirmative action. I personally know of two instances where white women were hired to head up DEIA offices, and then were hostile to people of color in their department. Of course, we don't use the term "affirmative action" with arts - we might say "woke" regarding people of color becoming more visible - but I wonder how much of the business world affirmative action issues apply to us."

PS. That message was followed up with this:

For the record, in both of those instances that I mentioned, the POCs who were bullied by their white female head-of-DEIA-department bosses were Asian women. (To be clear, bully bosses = white women; underlings who were bullied = Asian women.)

Yvette, this is so powerful. You speak truth to being a woman, a black woman and ageism. A Dream Deferred is my go to poem when I’m feeling the feelings. I have deep identification. I, too, am a hope-a-holic trusting that there will be a seismic shift. However, observing the curtains being ripped down on the treatment of Black, Indigenous and People of Color in this industry makes it hard at times. Yet, we persevere. I’ll try not to defer my dream.

Yvette, this is so powerful. You speak truth to being a woman, a black woman and ageism. A Dream Deferred is my go to poem when I’m feeling the feelings. I have deep identification. I, too, am a hope-a-holic trusting that there will be a seismic shift. However, observing the curtains being ripped down on the treatment of Black, Indigenous and People of Color in this industry makes it hard at times. Yet, we persevere. I’ll try not to defer my dream.

Hi Yvette, I found your article enlightening, moving and also infuriating. It's a very hard realisation that the hard work you have done all your life as an advocate has benefitted others more than you due to entrenched inequality. While your work an advocate has been selfless and no doubt you are pleased to see some gradual improvement even thought the boats have not been lifted evenly, it is my hope (I must be a hope-a-holic too!) that your dream deferred is much. much closer than one hundred years. In your lifetime I hope you receive many productions and the balance shifts a little bit away from advocacy to pursuit of your own goals, and that you achieve much success. Warm wishes, Emma

Hi, Emma:

Thanks for your comment and hope that my "dream deferred is much closer than one hundred years". This sentiment sent me on a quest to learn if I was, indeed, still correct about the 100 years. So, I emailed a friend and was given this formula to try to figure out how long it would take to achieve parity. I was told, "take the earliest date and the most recent date; calculate the rate of change; and then predict, according to that rate, how long it would take to achieve equity".

I first became aware it would take 100 years to achieve parity with the January 2022 publication of the New York State Council on the Arts Report on the Status of Women: A Limited Engagement written by Susan Jonas and Suzanne Bennett. It was this report that sparked the (now defunct) 5050 in 2020 movement to achieve parity for women in the American theatre by the year 2020 (a year that came and went and which, incidentally, coincided with the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote!).

Now, full disclosure, math is not my long suit but my understanding is that I would take the year 2002 (when I first learned about the lack of parity for women in the American Theatre) and the most recent date, 2022 (the year The Count 3.0 was published), and go from there. Twenty years is as good a measuring stick as any I suppose!

Is anybody good at math?

Excellent piece, Yvette! You truly are an ARTIVIST, and we admire you for your activism as well as for your courage to tell the truth. This discussion of race—Which women are getting produced?—is an important one. And I think it’s equally vital to look at history. There may be a post- George Floyd consciousness surge, but how long will this “woke”-ness last? In the past fifteen years, what percentage of produced plays have been written by women, and what percentage of those by women of color? Uncovering those answers, I hope, will result in a dialogue that unites, rather than divides, us.

It is an honor to be in this virtual talking circle, asking the critical question: "What do we do next?" And the equally critical question: "How can we do what's next in a way that brings us joy and mends our broken hearts?" When I initiated the Honor Roll! Talks Self-Producing Panel that we had last weekend, I knew it was important to include a social hour to talk afterwards; to share our stories and be witnessed by one another. My take away was that when we internalize rejection as reflecting our worth, rather than the systemic oppression that it truly is, we are alone and defeated. Sharing the truth about how impossible it is to get our voices heard lets us be energized and called to action. I do hope this is the tipping point that ushers in an arts community that is built on compassion and equity. Whatever is next needs to be big, loud, inclusive and fun.

Bayla: Your hope that "this is the tipping point that ushers in an arts community that is built on compassion and equity" officially makes you what, as I report, Gloria Steinem calls a hope-a-holic. I say, from your lips to God's ears! And I agree, "Whatever is next needs to be big, loud, inclusive, and fun". Sounds like my dream deferred exploding...

I began working in theatre over 50 years ago, I was pretty lucky so didn't realize how rare it was for a woman to earn her living working in the business until it thankfully was brought to my attention after I retired. I get some solace for our generation to see some progress in these two current generations of theatre women who have made their marks or are in the process of doing so. But we have a long way to go.

I look forward to the day when all theatre teachers and professors encourage all of their kids experiment, test themselves and fly - no limitations.

I look forward to the day when people who have "made it", hire, mentor and pay kids who want to learn and gain practical experiences, and not just kids who have graduated from Yale, Tisch and the like, but kids who couldn't go to college. And I want to see kids who aren't non-white males have the courage to approach working designers for those jobs.

I look forward to the day when people are hiring not female black, Hispanic, LGBTQIA+ playwrights, directors, designers, composers, stagehands, assistants, etc., but just playwrights, directors, designers, etc. And, well, I hope 50% will happen to be female. And even if they don't do well the first few times, hire them again and again so they can gain the same kind of experiences white males get.

Theatre Commons Community: I received permission to share a comment that came to me via email in furtherance of this conversation. "I have some white women who come to me about how to present their work in this new environment where they perceive all the slots going to Women of Color (which is false, but there are many who think this) - and I give them tools to do the work of racism, to work to weed that out and question it along the way, and to be kind to themselves in the work." Thank you so much for your comments, everyone. Keep 'em coming!

This was me, saying this. I will own the quote because people do come to me and ask about this, and I have been thinking about these issues for a long time. I think we should offer an event, a dialogue, and ways to move forward. How to approach working through it. How do we come together to move all of us forward, and how can we clear up some unhealthy ideas. How can we call ourselves in (instead of calling ourselves out) and use compassion to allow us to move toward healing and growing? That's my impulse. And I thank you Yvette for bringing all of this to light. Without this post, it would have taken us longer to do it. And it's needed. Change is necessary. Thank you so much!

Let's do it, Emma! I love this, "How can we call ourselves in (instead of calling ourselves out) and use compassion to allow us to move toward healing and growth?" Also, I think taking a look at the hard cold facts in The Coung 3.0 vs People's Perceptions is important. There is work to do-- even among us as theatre women+. Theatre Commons Community, please, keep your comments coming. It will be important as we plan this future event.

A beautiful and important read. And the accompanying photo speaks volumes.

Thankful to Yvette and grateful for all the connections to other women/women-identifying artists through Honor Roll!, Women's Theatre Festival and so many others wonderful organizations.

As a playwright, it has been my mission to focus on heroic and resilient women including suffragists, feminists and activists from then to now. That is how I 'take my broken heart and turn it into art.'


Lisa, I love that... "That is how I take my broken heart and turn it into art". It is so important to get the unsung stories of our history as women+ activists out there. I never took Women's Studies courses in school. My focus was on acting, then playwriting, and much later theatre education. I did my own independent reading about the struggles of black suffragettes and feminists. As we saw in "Gloria: A Life", the theatre can be a place where we can all learn what they didn't teach us in school. The truth-telling that went on in that play was so surprising to me. The admission that Gloria's development and growth as an activist was learned from black women activists and the Indigenous woman chief was huge. Looking forward to the next, Women's Theatre Festival! I hope it will get more support in the years to come.

Thank you Yvette for speaking so authentically about your lived experience, the experience of so many people, generations! And it breaks my heart. There is no lack of talent. There is a lack of vision on the programming side. As a queer, disabled, chronically ill white writer writing work that is funny and uplifting, I get no traction. I won't let myself write any more plays. Talk about addiction to hope, I have never had a professional production after 30 years in this business developing other people's scripts and producing reading after reading after workshop, etc. There is only so much rejection a person can take. I have loved spending time with you, especially the video we made about using NPX. And I am grateful for NPX for being able to have a play with 55 recommendations. I live for that validation when no one will produce the play, even after I put it up to great notices and a 93 on show-score. I don't know what else I can do to get people to notice. Where are the theatres looking for something new?

Emma, thanks so much for your post. What you have shared is so striking. I understand why you say it, but I hope you will continue to write plays. "Abraham's Daughters" and "Fukt" are such important pieces. God gave you stories that only you could write. We can't let the lack of opportunity silence the stories that were put in our hearts to tell. For me, production or not, I see publishing as the way to go to ensure future generations know I was here and had something to say.

Thank you Yvette! Of all my plays, those are the ones I am surprised don't get done. I am writing other things now, not plays. I have several new plays that I'm not going to develop further because the landscape is so hostile. For/about older women (my play Just Ignore Me) and about being autistic (Love 15). I have literally been told, "we're not doing it, because you're a woman. We have our women lined up." Well, I am not exactly a woman, but I'm not arguing with people. No one gets any younger, but we can get wiser, and we can stop knocking on the wrong doors.

This essay makes me so sad - and angry - because of the never-ending reality of women, especially women of color but also because of your, Yvette's, reality. You're so talented. I thought you were being produced all over the place; that you're not is so wrong. I have no brilliant solution but just wanted to acknowledge you and your piece.

Judy Binus


Thank you, Judith. We have to stay the course, don't we? My youngest daughter is a writer--a poet-- and she has given me a granddaughter. Sometimes, I find myself wondering if my granddaughter will become a writer too. It makes me smile, knowing that, if she chooses playwriting, our generation of theatre women+ activists have paved the way for parity for her. That's something.