Pessimistic Hope for the Future of Theatre

by Leelee Jackson

I’m really scared I won’t be able to do what I want to do in theatre. I know it sounds crazy but I have high expectations for the impact theatre has on people as well as the shape of the future. I grew up in a Black baptists church and that was my first real experience in theatre. Rev preaching, often going off book depending on the energy (or holy ghost) of the church. The choir serving as chorus, preparing the way for the Lord to lead. It was all so dramatic when it needed to be, gentle/ wise/ joyous/holy. Just like how I feel when I watch plays. Cathartic. I loved that shit. Watching sista Yolanda shout in short dresses and high heels was my favorite part. Sometimes her booty would show a little or her bra. I always wondered what she was going through to make her shout that way. I wondered if her man left her or if her daughter didn’t come home. Like, sis had character development down and it all was displayed from the pews. It was her role and my favorite character no doubt. Staged and organic.

I don’t feel like that when I watch plays that often. And I mean, I’d be foolish to believe every play should (or even could) offer me the Black baptist experience (like the broadway musical The Color Purple for reference of it being done in mainstream). What makes this sort of gospel theatre so special to me is the call and response, the audience playing a role in the play as well. Sometimes at theatre engagements, I’m the only one laughing and showing any form of human life in the audience. I’ve been asked to keep quiet in theatre spaces from being too loud and carrying on during musical numbers as if I was in church and not in a chair that’s way too small for my ass and cost me 35+ dollars to sit in. All to pretend I’m not even there. 

I write with the church in mind (and I’m not even religious). One of my favorite memories was during a performance of my one act play Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like a Slave) in LA a few years back, when my partner’s grandma walked right across the stage during the show to go to the restroom. Or during another show a few years before when the producer announced my play “by Leelee Jackson,” my brother shouted from the front row “YEEEE” (which is something we say where I’m from to show love and support or to say I see you). I love that shit. I like to call it the second show, the play that happens in the audience during/around the performance. 

I keep the second show in mind when I write. I remember being young and watching the Tyler Perry Madea plays on bootleg dvd’s when we didn’t have cable (which was often). The auditorium was full of Black people watching something that was written with them in mind. Spoke to them and held their attention. Stories that concerned them. That was so special to see at 13 years old. Not that I had a clue then that I would be a playwright but this familiarity of theatre that started from the church made it resonate. My aunty went to a Tyler Perry live play once and she said that during one of the songs, “The audience drowned out the actors.” She went on to say how the experience there was different from watching the dvd’s and before I had even been to a live musical theatre experience like that, I knew she was right. That kind of spirit/energy/engagement is so special. I feel it in my plays when I’m writing them. How to engage with the audience instead of pretending they aren’t there. I live for it. And I want to participate in theatrical practices that are concerned with the audience reflecting the characters portrayed on stage. Ugh, it gets me so upset that well funded theatre with a certain caliber of “excellence” is often withheld from the characters who are reflected in the play. One time my full-length play The Shit Show had a reading in LA that I couldn’t attend because I could not afford to go (they didn’t offer me a comp). That’s wild to me.

I’m really scared I won’t be able to see what I want to see in theatre arts. I keep seeing this vision of theatre outside the white gaze. Outside of white influence/imagination/expectation. Outside of what we have had to indulge in for the sake of “fine arts” even if it had nothing to do with our mothers and fathers. I picture alternative theatrical spaces that goes out to those whose lives are reflected in the play. I know of plenty of smaller community theatre spaces committed to uplifting theatre in marginalized spaces (some who have produced my work) so I know it exists and that kind of theatre makes me so full and feel so seen. I want a future where those spaces are created and paid attention to and well funded. Spaces who keep the audience in mind as well as the characters/people who are centered in the work.

I don’t know if I’ll get to see a future where this is the dominant theatrical narrative. I’m trying now and it’s hella hard. Getting funding/attention/community support is very hard when everyone wants you to write/be like Hamilton (which I’d NEVER do). I want my plays to live on in those spaces. I want to live where every play in my community reflect me and those in the community. Less attention to the big ass theaters who aren’t assessable or concerned with the working and working poor communities. It feels like an uphill battle and I have no idea if there’s anything on the other side or just me dreaming something that ain’t real.

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