The House of George | NC Central University, Durham |  Thursday, Oct. 21–Sunday, Oct. 24  

If Howard Craft’s car had been in better shape, he might never have made it to the Kennedy Center.

Or off-Broadway. The New York Times might never have praised his “rich and thoughtful” drama Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green, as a play “with a sardonic humor that recalls The Colored Museum and Hollywood Shuffle.”

Why? He might never have become a playwright.

The award-winning playwright reflects on the automotive dilemma that changed not only his artistic trajectory and life, but the history of regional theater, this week, as his alma mater NC Central University revives his first play, The House of George, as the opening production in its current mainstage season.

In 2001, Craft was an undergrad poet and fiction writer at Central, trying to get a job at the Triangle Tribune. Though the newspaper didn’t take to his pitch for a column where fictional characters took on real-life local issues each week in a make-believe barbershop, they hired him as an editorial writer.

While sitting in Francesca’s, that legendary Ninth Street purveyor of gelato, Craft heard a PSA on the radio about a new play competition at NCCU. The winner would get $250.

“I needed my car fixed,” Craft remembers. “I’d never written a play before, but I thought maybe I could turn that barbershop thing into something.”

He walked down to the Regulator Bookshop.

“I probably had seen maybe two plays in my life, and they were assigned in college,” he says. “The only playwright I know of is August Wilson, so I buy four or five of his plays, read them—and then I wrote The House of George.”

“When it won, I was shocked,” Craft says. “When they took it to the Kennedy Center, I was even more shocked.”

He used the money to get his car fixed.

Central premiered the undergraduate’s first play as a mainstage production in October 2002 and presented it at the American College Theatre Festival. Its arrival got local notice, too: a glowing review, by this reporter, in the INDY, and a subsequent nod for best original play in our end-of-year regional theater wrap-up.

The sudden success forced his hand.

“I was looking at my desk. I’ve got a stack of rejections from short stories over there, and a $250 check over here—so I guess I’m going to be a playwright now,” he says. “From that, I went on to write The Wise Ones,” he says. “I got one of the state’s playwriting fellowships from that, and then I did eight plays on health disparities for Central.”

PlayMakers Repertory Company, Manbites Dog Theater, Streetsigns Center, and WUNC-FM have produced Craft’s subsequent plays.

Then there were those two engagements of Freight, off and off-off Broadway, one of which got press as a critic’s pick in the New York Times. Longtime artistic collaborator J. Alphonse Nicholson, who originated the role of Abel Green in Chapel Hill before performing it in both New York productions, is now shopping Craft’s screenplay for the drama in Los Angeles.

In a field where development and production opportunities are rare, Craft is an anomaly: Every script he’s written thus far has been produced.

Just last month, he shared the stage with another phenomenal local playwright, Mike Wiley, in Theatre Raleigh’s production of their co-authored drama, Peace of Clay.

Craft’s work tends to touch on present and historical issues among a particularly under-served group: Black communities in mid-sized Southern cities.

“Either you get the rural South, or New York, Chicago or L.A,” Craft says, of the typical focus in Black playwrighting. “But what about towns like Durham, Fayetteville, or Roanoke? We don’t get a lot of those stories.”

He began that exploration in that very first play, The House of George.

“He was inspired by robberies that were happening to barbershops on Fayetteville St. in the 1990s,” says Stephanie Asabi M. Howard, chair of NCCU’s Department of Theatre. “Although it was his first work, I thought it was a great work.”

George, the central character, has a lot of rough edges: a dissatisfied, divorced, ex-military barber with a long list of grievances and no inclination to filter any of them.

“In this space, he can take control, be key, and his word can be taken seriously,” Craft says. “That’s not necessarily the case for things outside his barbershop.”

The playwright based George, he says, on “more than a few older Black men in the Vietnam era and before.” Craft’s father grew up in Durham before urban renewal and the Durham Freeway blighted the Hayti community in the 1970s. “My idea was, what was it like for someone to start a business then, and to see the neighborhood and community changed?”

“George is angry, and he can be toxic in his own way, but he’s also got a lot of love in him,” Craft continues. “Everybody’s love language is different, and George’s is very coarse, very put-down, but it’s still his.”

But that approach could alienate a younger generation, including Darryl, a barber in his 20s. “The older generation looked at us [in Generation X] like we look at millennials now,” Craft says. “I get that. So I explore it in all these characters. Every generation had the belief that it was going to be better for the generation that comes after. But George doesn’t feel that way. There’s a tension in what the older see in the younger, and what they hope for, what they believe.”

Stephanie Asabi M. Howard notes that the barbershop “is like the church in the Black community. You go to get knowledge and inspiration and to share your thoughts and grievances. It becomes a wonderful place for a meeting of the minds.”

“They say write what you know,” Craft says. “I’ve been going to the barbershop since I was two years old. I grew up with those characters.”

Craft pauses to reflect on this week’s homecoming.

“I feel like Tom Brady going back to Foxboro,” he smiles. “It’s a comfortable feeling.”

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