Red Clay Plays | Episode One: Mother Nature and Mother’s Day | Mojoaa Performing Arts Company

Three women sit side by side on a sofa in a home in a plush suburban neighborhood in upstate New York. The area has the highest per capita of PhDs in the state. Perhaps one percent of the population is Black.

The first woman, Big Mama, vividly evokes the stereotypes put on Black Southern women circa 1850. A preppy, peppy, conservative woman primly sits beside her: American Mother, era 2009. To her right is Afro Queen, an embodiment of Afrocentric 1960s nationalism in dashiki, beads, and platform shoes.

Nanobots? Hardly. They’re Nannybots. And a hapless Black couple from the near future has to select one—and only one—to help raise their infant son.

You can hear the Afrofuturist one-act comedy, “Mother’s Day,” in the first episode of Red Clay Plays, a new podcast from the Raleigh-based MOJOAA Performing Arts Company that launched last week. The 18-week series—free to listen to on Audible and Spotify, among other streaming sites—features works and interviews with nine Southern Black playwrights across eight states.

After opening with Lisa B. Thompson’s droll dystopia, the first season ranges from the lyric to horror, from Black life comedy to social issue dramas. The series’ objective is to dramatically broaden the bandwidth available to playwrights of color.

“I think there is often this idea that there’s just one way Black Southern folks are writing theater, and it’s just not true,” says artistic director Monèt Noelle Marshall, the series’ curator and host.

“Southern Black playwrights are making and reimagining worlds, and creating so much more than what people expect. There’s such a wide breadth, and what I love most is that I can see myself, my family, my people in different ways in each of these stories.”

Marshall created the series to address the limited opportunities that Black playwrights experience, especially outside of New York.

“It became really clear,” Marshall says. “So many folks are writing about the South, and are from the South, but they’re not in the South anymore, because of lack of resources and opportunities. How can we change that?”

The company currently accepts submissions from Black Southern playwrights and Black trans authors, regardless of region, “because we know the South is not the safest place for Black trans folks, and we want to include them,” Marshall says.

“When we expand our idea of what theater is, it leaves room for more people,” Marshall says. “A love letter, when performed, is theater; a lyrical poem, when performed, is theater.” She shudders when she thinks of Black playwrights being turned away “because it doesn’t look like A Raisin in the Sun or an August Wilson piece.”

“That’s not diversity,” Marshall concludes. “That’s not equity.”

Thompson, an African studies professor at University of Texas at Austin, thinks Marshall’s current project is “monumental” in addressing the regional barriers that inhibit stage artists.

“If we want to know the complexity and breadth of the nation and the world we’re living in, we have to look beyond what’s easy, beyond our native communities,” Thompson says.

Her one-act comedy, “Mother Nature,” which opens Red Clay Plays’ first episode (she also wrote “Mother’s Day”), flips the script on gender roles and domestic relationships when a cozy mother-daughter talk goes astray in the near future. In Thompson’s otherworld, a matriarchy reigns in the chaos caused by free-ranging men, instilling a mandatory remarriage program that regularly replaces aging undesirables with younger stock.

As she peruses an online catalog of potential new mates for her daughter, the mother mocks how men buy into the conventions of matrimony: “That romantic mumbo jumbo…gives them, I don’t know. Purpose? A sense of fulfillment and hope, I guess.” She pauses on a specimen sporting an outdated press and curl haircut: “The Reverend Al model,” she notes.

“I’ve gotten to the point now where I understand my superpower,” Thompson says. “It’s using wit and humor in order to make a statement. Humor’s disarming; it allows people to let go of their defenses. Then you go in with what you need to share.”

These days, Thompson’s revisiting the bewildered new parents in “Mother’s Day,” turning the script into a screenplay for a short film. “The persistence of the stereotypes of Black women—they’re haunting this young mother, who is trying to be something that in many ways for the world is unintelligible,” Thompson notes.

She also wanted to note how the modern Black middle class navigates racism in different ways than other social strata. “Even though you’ve ‘made it,’ you’re still having to deal with these ghosts.”

Then there’s the capitalistic specter of manufacturing and marketing. “If someone’s going to create a technological answer to this—who’s going to have the resources?” Thompson asks. “In what images will those Black caretakers be?”

Thompson hopes the podcast format, accessible to greater numbers than conventional theater, will bring in “what the theater desperately needs: cross-generational audiences.”

Podcasts, she notes, can also expand the art form’s reach and lifespan. “Live theater is ephemeral, but a podcast can freeze a piece in the moment, and give people who can’t make it to the show an opportunity to experience it.

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