“This didn’t start 20, 30 or 40 years ago,” Dorothy Clark observes. “Black folks have been writing for a long time. You’d be amazed at the number of people–even those I expected to–that don’t know the work of black playwrights.”
This is the week she does something about that. Clark, a business manager at the Duke University Museum of Art, is also the artistic director for Front Porch Productions, a fledgling, Durham-based theater company that’s chalked up two productions since its inception last August. This week, the group caps its first year in operation with an ambitious set of three one-acts spanning the past 40 years of black theater. It’s Carrboro’s first Black Playwrights Festival, and it opens at the ArtsCenter tomorrow night and runs through June 22.
The idea for the festival emerged during a conversation Clark had last summer with Colin Bissett, the ArtsCenter’s departing executive director. “We got to talking about what ArtsCenter was trying to do with their underserved audiences,” Clark says. “By the time I left we’d decided to do a festival of black plays.”
Scheduling the festival was tricky. Following “Portraits in Black,” an August variety show at Hayti Heritage Center, Front Porch had already committed to an April production of The Fruits of Miss Morning, by North Carolina playwright Elmo Terry Morgan. Front Porch ultimately staged Miss Morning in an empty office furniture building in the same neighborhood as Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater. There was just enough time between the Miss Morning‘s close, a subsequent appearance at the Bimbe Festival, and the ArtsCenter’s midsummer new play celebration, 10 by 10, to fit the playwrights festival in between.
At the same time, Clark has been busy writing the script for a Front Porch fall production, an original juke joint play called Bird of Paradise Dew Drop Inn, which premieres this October.
In conversation, the festival comes across as a natural extension of Clark’s aesthetic credo. She credits her theatrical “awakening” to the late George Houston Bass, Langston Hughes’ literary executor and founder of the Rites and Reason Theater at Brown University. While studying under Brown, Clark discovered that theater could be built on a people’s heritage and experience.
“Since then, it doesn’t matter what job I’ve had,” she says, “I’ve tried to be involved in some aspect of theater and carry on that same belief, in the richness and validity of there being such a base in black culture.”
Clark had two major goals for this first festival. The first was to showcase a continuum of black playwriting, one that extends at least a century before the Harlem Renaissance. After all, James Hewlitt’s African Company was staging its interpretations of Shakespeare and original works in New York theaters in the 1820s. By 1834, Victor Sejour had already distinguished himself as a dramatist in his native New Orleans, before his later years in Paris where his work would be applauded by Napoleon III.
Indeed, Clark planned to stage Sejour’s The Brown Overcoat at the festival, but had to postpone production when the rights to a translation could not be secured in time. Instead, she focused on two plays from the 1960s: Douglas Turner Ward’s Happy Endings and Ted Shine’s Contributions.
Both plays take their context directly from the civil rights movement. The lunch counter sit-in which becomes a key off-stage element in Shine’s 1969 play Contributions could have easily been the one staged in Greensboro at the turn of that decade.
Ward’s Happy Endings, written in 1965, the year before he helped form the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, is in ways as much about class conflict as it is about race. While two domestics at first seem to be weeping sentimentally over the dissolution of their employers’ marriage, we ultimately find they’re crying over implications a lot closer to home.
While humor undeniably plays a part in both works, the jokes ultimately serve up sobering truths.
Clark’s second challenge for the festival involved representing black cultural history in theater, while showing, in her words, that “everything these playwrights wrote was not about ‘nigger/whitey.’” Clark deliberately looked for plays “that could have been [about] and been done by any group, but just happened to be written by blacks.”
She found one, close to home. Bissett introduced Clark to the writing of Rita Marie Nibasa, a promising Raleigh playwright whose first play, Stories Like Ours, was workshopped at the 1996 Berlin Theatre Festival. Last year, her one-act Healthy Primates took honors at Edward Albee’s Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Alaska, and a new play of hers will be workshopped there when this year’s conference convenes on June 20.
Carrboro’s Black Playwrights Festival will present Nibasa’s play What Lot’s Wife Saw, a psychological memoir about religion, sexuality and one woman’s childhood in the South. Clark characterizes Nibasa’s atmospheric work as “pure theater.”
In it, different characters, including the narrator, wrestle with the meaning of a Bible story told in a revival at a small Baptist church. That meaning is further complicated by family ties, and the fact that the preacher is the narrator’s grandfather, a man whose beliefs–and actions–toward women don’t always square with scripture, to say the least.
“You can’t put [Lot’s Wife] in the category of realism. The time is not necessarily linear,” Clark notes. “Rita’s a very efficient writer. She assumes that the audience is intelligent.”
Trying to explain the concept of her presentation, Clark repeatedly returns to the images in the script. “It’s like this movie. There are flashbacks within flashbacks. The audience can’t rewind it. It’s a challenge to present because the audience only has a short time to get that.”
While Shine’s and Ward’s plays deal with differing issues involving race and class in America, both take on the perceived differences in attitudes between different age groups of African Americans. Contributions and Happy Endings clearly show that at times social protest art in the 1960s struggled as much with what was called “the generation gap” as it did with the cultural inequities of the era. Both plays feature younger characters who criticize–and misinterpret–the motivations, commitment and the desperation of the older characters.
A 21-year-old criticizes his grandmother’s cooking for a racist county sheriff in Contributions, while a similar youth decries his aunts’ tears in Happy Endings. Both young men significantly mistake their elders’ sympathies. And in both stories, humor hovers over something significantly darker.
“I almost felt guilty laughing at Contributions,” Clark admits. “But it is a comedy–on the top level. And Happy Endings is definitely funny.
“Still, there are layers. You respond immediately, but when you think about it, what’s the funny part? The women in Happy Endings are domestics; they’re not making enough to live off of. There’s this nephew who’s not working, not looking for work, and not contributing in any way; there’s nothing funny about that.
“And yet it is. It’s an excellent example of laughing to keep from crying.”
Clark will co-direct Happy Endings and What Lot’s Wife Saw with company member Ajaye Feamster, while Bruce Evans will direct Contributions. The nine-member cast includes Ilana Brandon, LaDonna Akins, Stephen Marshall, Kazemde Masud, Julya Mirro Oberg, John Nyrere Frazier, DeLois Brandon, Kelly Hicks and Carolyn Jefferson.