I miss going to the theatre.
I hella be reminding myself of the last performance I went to live. Little Shop of Horrors at Pasadena Playhouse with MJ Rodriguez (POSE) and Amber Riley (GLEE). That was October 2019. I can’t even account for missing Parable of the Sower and Talents at UCLA which happened right at the beginning of the pandemic lock in ( I couldn’t go because I couldn’t justify spending the money- parking, tickets, gas and so on was looking at about $150 for a date night with boo thang, but also excessive). Today, I regret not going. I heard it was amazing. I’m worried I won’t have another opportunity to see it again. Or any live performance for that matter.
I miss going to the theatre.
Buying themed drinks that never get me drunk. Leaving right before the talkback to have a real talk-back in the parking lot- in safe company of course. Inviting my friends to come with me whose only experience in theatre are liturgical plays. Seeing what they thought about the lights and the set and other things they wouldn’t have had an opportunity to think about had they not been invited fulfills me. Theatre offers community, perspective, and insight to future possibilities, especially shows like Parable of the Sower and Talents which is about surviving the future. And though I can produce and direct the shit out of a stage reading, as my sister Naynay tells me, “It’s just different with all the design elements.” I agree. Sometimes for me, it’s knowing that the cast and crew have worked their ass off on the show for months that were full of meetings, rehearsals, auditions, and the show! 4-12 week run, 3-4 shows a week and each performance different than the one before. AHHHHH I miss it so much.
I miss going to the theatre.
But I for sure don’t miss the casual racism I often experienced at the theatre. White people laughing at Ms. Celie being called ugly, or white women expecting me to cry (performatively) when slave owners kill their slaves, or being asked for my ticket 38 times before I reach my seat. I don’t miss watching shit that doesn’t care if me or people who look like me are reflected in the show because we aren’t the target audience.
I don’t miss not being considered an expert in the field, even after being a published and an award winning playwright. I have my MFA in writing for the performing arts and interned at one of the largest LORT’s in Los Angeles (Center Theatre Group). I’ve had a feature reading of my one act play, the first one act I ever wrote with no revisions made, performed at the Kennedy Center, our country’s national theatre. I spend most of my spare time reading and refreshing my memory of important Black theatrical practices to sharpen my skills for sport. I’m an expert dammit! Though I miss seeing plays live, I do not miss the culture of the theatre scene who constantly reminds us that their love and respect for our work is conditional (with monetary value and bragging rights of course) and has nothing to do with Black people. UGH! I know I’m not alone here.
I don’t miss theatre culture.
I didn’t need for another Black person to die at the hands of state power to see that theatre companies don’t give a shit about us. It wasn’t their silence or lack of change in leadership that told me but one look at their staff and season lineup and it’s clear. It bothers me and it has been bothering me for some time now. It bothered me in community college when I asked the director of the department if we could do Ruined by Lynn Nottage and she claimed we didn’t have the people for it (without ever looking). It bothers me come February, when my story is all of a sudden “important” and need to be shared, just in time for Black History Month. As a playwright, it all messed with my head and made me feel like I’m not good enough or working hard enough on my craft. I would compare myself with young Black playwrights who are winning the game right now like Michael Jackson (2020 Pulitzer Prize winner of Drama for hit musical A Strange Loop), Jermey O. Harris (Slave Play) and Jocelyn Bioh (School Girls, Or the African Mean Girls Play). I’d be hella hatin’ on them like “It’s because they went through the white institutional canons of literature like Columbia and TISH.” followed by anger that my university did not get my shit on Broadway and then embarrassment, that I was salty in the first place of those whom work I cherish and value. Then I start blaming myself again… I’m no good.
I started reading an anthology on the Black Arts Movement (BAM) some time last year and it really brought me out of this theatrical funk. Amari Baraka, founder of the movement, felt the same way back in the 60’s. Inspired by Malcom X and John Coltrane (the way I’m inspired by Dr. Sadiya Hartman and rapper Noname) BAM was born. Baraka was exhausted of the limited range of Black art that can only exist under the thumb of oppressors. He knew his work had value that was being overlooked because of it’s radical anti-state political messages that sought to make theatre goers uncomfortable (as racism made him feel). BAM is my shit though. It realigned my mission and really forced me to ask myself what I wanted as a playwright. Do I want to make a career out of being on Broadway/Off Broadway and becoming as big-time as I can be? Do I want to eradicate white supremacy from Black art? What can I do to ensure future survival using my power as a creative and my writing as a weapon, foundation and testimony? Today, a lot of people never even heard of BAM though will praise the art that emerged from it (Soul of a Nation art exhibit which is full of visual art that emerged from BAM or inspired by it, placed in museums that once considered such work intolerable with no mass appeal). Poets, playwrights, actors, painters and so many other fine artists gathered to seek refuge and peace with like minded company of their time and more than anything, that’s what I want: artistic community.
Developing Black Light Arts Collective (BLAC) has been the most rewarding experience of my life. The goal is to put on plays that centers a Black audience. Host learning engagements that centers a Black audience. Read and engage with work that centers a Black audience. It’s so specific and doesn’t have to call for BIPOC participation because we are BIPOC, mostly B. I’m so proud of the collective and what we are doing and who we are becoming. We launched on June 19th (Juneteenth) 2020 with a rewritten virtual performance of my one act play Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like a Slave) directed by Chicago hotshot Kyra Jones, who later partnered with collective member and young Hollywood professional screenwriter Angelica Rowell for a Pilot Writing workshop where 30 Black folks participated to strengthen their craft. We hosted a phenomenal poetry workshop with published living icon Morgan Parker who offered wisdom and new work to the community (where they also received Parker’s book of poetry Magical Negro for attending the workshop for free). We are currently preparing for winter with workshops that centers sustaining mental healthiness during the holidays with a team of mental health professionals who are also artists. This january, we will host a free workshop led by the creative nonfiction mastermind, Hanif Abdurraqib (where we will also offer free resources). We are launching our first zine collection at the end of October where we gathered some of the most electrifying work by local Black artists to speak on the 5 human senses and honestly, it’s the bomb (like y’all need to be sure to get a copy when it’s out for real, for real). To keep my passion for theatre and all Black art ignited, I co-host a weekly radio show on Radio Tirado with my good friend and theatre expert Erika Alejanndra called New Black Math. Named after the famous essay by Suzan Lori Parks, each week we discuss Black theatre and the ways in which we fit in and want to stand out. It’s my favorite thing to do right now.
I miss the theatre.
But more importantly, I miss the possibilities of it’s creativity being fully unleashed and shared amongst marginalized people groups, saying “I see you, shit I am you,” offering itself as a sacrifice of love and reflections.
Art is powerful in that way.
I need that.