Interview by Howard L. Craft | Story by Brian Howe

In recent years, as director of Black Ops Theatre Company and the Bull City Black Theatre Festival, JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell has been a leading champion of Black theater in the Triangle. As she told acclaimed Durham playwright Howard L. Craft, a fellow alum of N.C. Central, the roots in Black art and culture that nourish her work were planted long before she became a professional theater artist. 

They were planted growing up in the church, which was also her first taste of theater.

“It’s the epitome of a performance space, because you’ve got this really zealous word the preacher is going to give, and the atmosphere has to be set by praise and worship and dance and mime,” Holloway-Burrell says.

They were planted sitting around her family’s kitchen table, listening to her uncles spin yarns.

“I appreciate all the lies I had the opportunity to witness,” she says with a chuckle, “Because I learned so much about how to tell a good story, how to be believable.”

They were planted by Bruce Bridges, proprietor of The Know Bookstore, which was a bastion of knowledge on Fayetteville Street for almost twenty years.

“Bruce was putting Black books in my hand at a very young age and articulating the importance of combating white supremacy in your life through Black literature,” Holloway-Burrell says.

And they were planted at N.C. Central, under the tutelage of professors such as Karen Dacons Brock and Johnny Alston.

“I like to say steel sharpens steel,” Holloway-Burrell says. “They instilled so much work ethic in me. I understand what it is to be a professional because of their capacity to manage their personal lives and still center their art so beautifully. A lot of character-building happened for me in that department. Also, even if Dr. Alston was technical directing three shows, he would make time to go fishing, and that taught me the importance of self-care.”

Black Ops debuted in 2015 with Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment, an explosive indictment of American racism co-produced by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern

“I appreciated Jay [O’Berski] and Dana [Marks] for that, because we were introduced to this patron base of people interested in provocative theater,” Holloway-Burrell says. She’d been inspired to create the company while apprenticing at Cape May Stage in New Jersey.

“At that time, the only show on that featured Black actors was Our Town,” she says. “I knew there should be more variety in the way you get to see Black people on the stage. We can be doing just-as-poignant work by Black playwrights; we don’t have to be recreating Thornton Wilder. We did an Alice Childress celebration for her centennial, and so many people had never heard of her. Black Ops is me wanting to present everything I think is missing from our local community.”

Another goal is to serve an audience that is far from monolithic, a challenge that makes variety all the more important.

“There’s no way to create [one piece of] Black art where everybody feels like they’re being seen and represented,” Holloway-Burrell says. “Some folks want to see Tyler Perry, and some want to see August Wilson. Some want us to do Shakespeare. Their dollars are supporting your art. That doesn’t mean commercializing it, but you’re trying to serve the whole community and sustain your life and practice.”

March’s Bull City Black Theatre Festival at Manbites Dog Theater became a flashpoint in consolidating the energy Black Ops had been cultivating.

“Something that became very clear to the Black theater community is that we need to be in conversation and collaboration with one another more often,” she says. “Not just for the sheer joy that we had collaborating, but for the sustainability of all our organizations and projects. We got a glimpse of what the impact could be if we’re being more intentional about programming with one another, sharing our resources, time, and talents.”

Monét Noelle Marshall, another Indies Arts Awards winner, was part of the festival. Marshall says Holloway-Burrell’s “commitment to responsible community-building through theater edifies me, challenges me, and creates space for me and so many others.”

“She is a long-game legend,” Marshall adds. “We may not know the true impact of her work for decades to come.”

This year, Holloway-Burrell joined the new Bulldog Ensemble Theater, a group of artists who frequently performed at Manbites, the venerable Foster Street theater that closed this year.

“It’s bittersweet, because the other day I saw the doors of Manbites open, but it was for construction and not because a show was happening,” Holloway-Burrell says. “It’s the end of an era, but it was already trickling down when Common Ground and Deep Dish closed. I made the transition to Bulldog because I don’t want that light to burn out. And I’m taking this new route with Black Ops because I want to provide artists with the same sense of home I felt from [Manbites].”

By “new route,” she means taking a year off from Black Ops and the festival to pursue an ambitious fundraising goal.

“I want to reach one hundred thousand dollars by the end of February 2020,” Holloway-Burrell says. “I want us to move into projects with abundance. I want people to know they’re going to get paid, that we value their time and their art. The goal is to build a sustainable foundation. I need to be in conversation more with funders and donors, not just about what they can do for my work, but how we can create a more equitable playing field inside funding organizations.”

She brings the same expansive vision to her own artistic work as she does to supporting the work of others.

“I try to decolonize my space, where we’re not in hierarchical practice,” she says. “I don’t feel the need to assert my authority as director. I don’t want anybody to feel like anybody’s work matters more, even if that is what traditional theater practices have shown us. And I’ve been able to prove that this kind of flowchart is not necessary as long as people feel comfortable [enough] to fail and take risks.”

The proof can be seen in the strong social-media-saturated update of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House Holloway-Burrell created this year, inspired by a clip of Kayne West patronizingly cleaning out Kim Kardashian’s closet in Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

“I love Ibsen; he’s one of my favorite storytellers,” Holloway-Burrell says. “As a Black artist, I’m always thinking about how my experiences and identity shape the way that I view stories. Sometimes, all you need is somebody who looks like you on the stage, and you can connect in a way that you never would have before. I always knew I wanted to cast a Black Nora and see how that changes the dynamics of the story, and I’m interested in what it takes to bring in more millennial audiences, and the generation following them.”

Black Ops and BCBTF may be taking the year off, but that’s all part of Holloway-Burrell’s strategy for building a strong foundation for Black theater in the region. As Marshall says, she’s playing the long game, and the next generation will benefit from her labor as much as the current one.

“This is unconventional, but I want to build it into my motto,” she says. “Drake says, ‘I just take my time with all this shit / I still believe in that.’ I’m going to take it one step at a time.”

Correction: This story originally misidentified Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as The Dollhouse.