Notes on Converting an Unbeliever

by Leelee Jackson

This past March, I celebrated my 33rd birthday. After losing my mother in early January I thought a lot about mortality. How we live our lives and who we live them with became more urgent and precious to me. I wanted to do something I love with the people I love.

When I meet other Black people within my general age range I’m always asked what I studied in school and when I tell them I got my degree in playwriting, the conversion almost always goes as follow – 

Them: Ohhh so you be doing plays like Tyler Perry?

Me: Yeah, just like Tyler Perry minus the budget. Do you like going to see plays?

Them: Not really. I mean I haven’t really seen any plays like that. I know this don’t count but, one time I was in a play at my church. But that don’t count. It was just at church thing that’s not really theater. 

Me: That DO count!!! It IS theater! 

Rather it’s a church, school or if they randomly saw a flash mob, I get all excited talking to someone about their live theater history. But I also get really annoyed right after. The association with theater being reserved and defined by Broadway musicals is deeply concerning. I spend a lot of time talking with homies and helping  reshape/redefine what theater is by thinking broadly about who it’s for, where it’s located and how it’s presented. I’m grateful for Tyler Perry Madea plays because it serves as a solid foundation to build on. More often than not, we participate in a shared lived experience centering his theatrical work where they remember watching the bootleg Madea DVD’s at they cousin’s house just like I did with my cousins back then. And sitting with the whole family laughing, crying and saying who in the room be acting like each character in the play, just like we did. And then reciting it to each other the next day at school during lunch period. I explain to them that that’s the exact kind of impact theater has on people when it’s written with intention, centering marginalized people groups as the core audience. 

Theater defined by what’s on Broadway limits the possibilities of art and culture. Because who really has access to that? It’s not cheap and it’s often not advertised in cities with larger populations of Black and brown folks. But Madea never made it to Broadway nor is the franchise ever considered theater in performing art spaces (during my 8 years studying theater in accademia, only once was his name ever brought up. It was in grad school. I brought it up) but his contribution to theater serves as a gateway to Black culture is prize winning in my opinion. But this isn’t about him. It’s about creating access to theater for everyone and what’s gained from the experience that is offered by the art form. 

After getting a postcard in the mail to Shotgun Theater’s 2022/23 season, I just about fainted when I saw one of my favorite musicals would be featured, Passing Strange by Stew. The original live recording film was directed by Spike Lee and starred the playwright as the narrator (which is the one I saw that made me fall in love with the play). At first I thought I’d just invite two of my friends who really liked musicals. But that low key felt like gatekeeping. I don’t know if my friends would like a musical or not but the only way to find out was to extend an invitation. For most of my close friends their most current live theater experience has been one of my productions. And they come as a supportive friend and I love that. But my work also can’t single handedly define theater either. It’s a shared love. So my Aries ass jotted down the names of 22 people who I wanted to spend time with. I personally invited them to celebrate turning 33 with a live musical production. I wasn’t even scared or sad if everyone said no because I would have enjoyed it even if I went alone (something I do often). But people came out. It was lit. 

And it does not have to be a big group. Inda Craig-Galván’s play A Hit Dog Will Holler had a run at Playwrights Arena. I purchased two tickets for the Black out night, not knowing at all who I’d invite. But I knew I wouldn’t be going alone. I reached out to my homegirl Sydney and she was so excited to go. She hadn’t been to any in person show since the pandemic erupted and that was hard for her as a performer. She also works diligently in policy change for LGBTQ people. This play is about an activist who has a chronic fear of leaving her home. Syd was the perfect person to see this show with, for she can fully understand the strain political work can have on a person’s mental health, especially when you are of the demographic you are advocating human rights for. 

We had hella fun too. After the show was over we grabbed dinner and sat and talked in length about how relatable the play was and what we loved most about it. The conversation seamlessly transitioned into one about us and our own mental health. I’m always grateful to Inda’s work. It tends to have that effect on Black womxn. Her work and the work of others that write in a way where it clearly concerns Black people offers visibility to the full self and revelation. That’s the good theater is made of and everyone is entitled to that feeling. Not just those who have participated in Broadway.

I hope that you can all consider how to fold in (dare I say convert) people in your lives who may not know there’s a theater space for them to enjoy and be centered.