TheatreLAB’s ‘BlackList’ spotlights playwright August Wilson in inaugural POC focused theatre series
TheatreLAB is known for putting on shows that are experimental and push the boundaries, and Mary Shaw, company artist and co-creator of the upcoming showcase BlackList, figured there was no better place to honor the Black playwright August Wilson.
Deejay Gray, artistic director for TheatreLAB, and Shaw decided upon Wilson (pictured below) as their focus for their inaugural event for more than one reason. Shaw had the opportunity to do an exploration of Wilson’s readings during her undergraduate years after the playwright had died in 2005.
“I fell in love with him and I tried to consume as much of him as I could,” said Shaw. “If there’s a way to celebrate his life-because his words have meant so much to me-I need to do everything within my power to make that happen.”
Another big reason is that this October marks the 10th anniversary of his death. Wilson is regarded as one of the most talented and influential American playwrights, and rightfully so. He wrote 10 full length plays about the post-slavery Black experience in the 20th century.
Wilson won several awards throughout his career, including a Tony Award for Best Play for Fences, five New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, and Radio Golf, two Drama Desk Awards for The Piano Lesson and Fences and two Pulitzer Prizes for The Piano Lesson and Fences.
“The pieces themselves are rich in their text and themes, and as a collection, The Century Cycle is an unprecedented masterpiece,” Said Gray. “The Century Cycle is perhaps the most ambitious undertaking by a playwright.”
BlackList is going to feature an ensemble of actors of color performing scenes and monologues from each of Wilson’s works within his magnum opus.
The idea for the show was fostered through Shaw’s revisiting of Wilson’s works when writing a piece for the online magazine Black Broadway on the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh.
“Mary Shaw and I met many months ago about some ideas that she had for her company artist project and that’s how the whole BlackList initiative was born,” Said Gray. “We thought he would be a great representation of not only the power of this kind of program, but the power of the African American voice.”
TheatreLAB believes supporting minority voices in theatre is essential – be it people of color, members of the LGBTQ community or otherwise. The level of respect they’ve shown throughout their short but explosive run has varied, but it has always been a staple.
That being said, the lack of diversity within the theatre community mirrors a major issue we are dealing with across the board. The importance of representation is immense, but unfortunately so is the lack of it within the media and within the education system.
Ask anyone taking humanities or arts courses in the area- they will tell you that a majority of the material they are assigned are either written by or are revolve around white artists or authors, and that is not because there is a lack of them to choose from.
“There’s no reason for me to not have known [any of] them. These people are a part of the American Literary Lexicon,” Shaw said.
Bringing artists of color into the spotlight was definitely at the top of Shaw’s priority list when creating this project, stating that it was a travesty how little we see of Black artists. “We’re in the American South, which houses a majority of the Black population in the country. And it is just a shame that we don’t know anything about Black artists, Black educators, Black scientists, or Black mathematicians,” she said. “It makes me sad.”
Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates also spoke on the lack of color within the theatre. “It’s very hard to bring Black theatre to the forefront- it’s always on the margins,” She said. “There’s a lack of work acknowledgment for Black artists, particularly in Richmond, but universally. Black theatre is generally a side dish-unless the company is a Black theatre company.”
In addition to teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University, Pettiford-Wates is the founder and artistic director for The Conciliation Project, an arts initiative that centers around social justice, and was asked personally by a member of TheatreLAB to join the production team.
Pettiford-Wates has worked first hand with Wilson, so she jumped at the chance to work with his plays in such a public way.
“As a person, he was very unassuming. He was a very dignified and humble man. As an artist, I loved his integrity and his commitment to making certain our story as Black people was told with integrity and truth. The good, the bad, the ugly- the truth.” She said.
Her love for Wilson and his work is a main component of what led her to be called on to lead a panel discussion on The Black Aesthetic, an important concept within Wilson’s plays. According to the Professor, the Black aesthetic is a distinctive code for the creation and evaluation of Black Art.
Pettiford-Wates met Wilson during her attendance at Carnegie-Mellon for theatre. She spoke specifically of Jitney, the first play Wilson had written, saying that she and her other Black classmates worked on it when it was still in pieces.
In addition to being on the discussion panel, she is happy to be directing Two Trains Running, as it is one of her favorite Wilson plays. [It] represents the multi-generational and the incredibly rich tapestry of Black opinion,” she said. “We are not a monolithic people and we come at things from all different directions- he weaves that tapestry in such a brilliant way.”
Directing Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has brought her to appreciate how it showcases the trauma of being Black in America in addition to what happens to that trauma. Additionally, she was asked to act in a scene from Fences - another one of her favorite plays by Wilson, which happens to also be the first one shown on the Broadway stage.
Gray, Pettiford-Wates, and Shaw are all in agreement this event should not only bring attention to the artistry of Wilson specifically, but any artist of color who has been denied the spotlight.
“I think I can speak for the entire team when I say that BlackList has a wide audience appeal,” Gray said. “Of course we hope diehard August Wilson fans will come to celebrate with us, but we especially hope that young or new audiences will join us so they can have the opportunity to dive headfirst into the works of a master, the man responsible for some of the greatest pieces of theatre in American history.”
Shaw said that the goal of the BlackList is to do an annual celebration of a Black writer or theatre artist that would otherwise go uncelebrated, calling it “an opportunity for people that have been othered [excluded] to hear their voice and not just as a voice that has been othered, but as someone who shares the American experience just like anyone else of any other skin color who was born here.”
Pettiford-Wates hopes to inform, educate and inspire with The BlackList production, and hopes the audiences takes away a new found appreciation for Wilson and his contributions to American Theatre.
“The man was a prolific writer,” she said. “And I’m just hoping other people see that.”
Proceeds from the event will go to scholarship for students wanting to pursue higher education. Wilson did not go to school and was self-taught, but according to Pettiford-Wates was all about education.
The show goes up October 18th at 7pm in The Basement in the TheatreLAB and tickets are 15 dollars for the public and five dollars for students. Tickets can be purchased at theatreLABrva.org.
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