Over the weekend of February 2 to 4, I took in three readings in the free First Look festival — new plays commissioned by Ford’s Theatre to spotlight stories about social justice and racial history and to hear voices and experiences of underrepresented characters and lesser-known historical figures — and from first to last my reaction was Bravo! The quality of the work matched the excitement of witnessing the inaugural presentation of an ambitious project that was two years in the making — and yes, that means it started during the early stages of the pandemic.
As Ford’s Director Paul R. Tetreault noted in his warm welcome on opening night, the commissions will focus on and encourage works by writers and playwrights identifying as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Per all the artists involved, Tetreault has been the ringleader in initiating, developing, and supporting this project, and all have expressed their deepest gratitude for his tenacity and sheer will to get it done.
Senior Artistic Advisor Sheldon Epps and Director of Artistic Programming José Carrasquillo facilitated the introductory session to hear from two of the inaugural playwrights commissioned — Dominic Taylor and Rickerby Hinds — and Director Seema Sueko, who represented Pearl Cleage.
The panelists explored the term “workshop” and indicated that the new plays can be seen as a “voyage of discovery.” They then shared the importance of collaboration in getting a play up on its feet once the words are on paper. They also noted the importance of asking questions throughout the process and emphasized that’s where the magic and discovery happen, where the questions can be just as important — and sometimes even more important — than the answers.
The playwrights described their inspiration for writing their particular plays, the process of getting ideas into a theatrical form, and what they hoped to achieve from the experience. They all agreed on the essential role of the audience serving as the community — reacting, listening, being silently attentive, laughing, or even restless. The audience reaction has a profound effect on play development, Sueko added. She and the playwrights shared how eager they were to be out in the audience actively listening and observing how the audience responds — or doesn’t — to the first presentation of the new work.
Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard by Pearl Cleage, with direction by Seema Sueko (February 2 and 4, 2023, at 7:30 pm)
Considering the importance of the “community,” Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard was a perfect start for the festival. This fascinating piece immersed the audience in the Atlanta setting with tales about the Southern mentality steeped in bias and degradation, race and class, and the rise of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor, who cut through it all. Written by the venerable Pearl Cleage, who once served on Jackson’s staff, Something Moving has an Our Town kind of flow and feel. The characters are intentionally nameless Citizens to more effectively represent voices in the community, folks who witnessed his charisma, who felt the movement in their beings when they listened to him, watched him take on staunch segregationists, get knocked down and get back up to achieve multiple terms. On this 50th anniversary of Jackson’s initial election, Something Moving: A Meditation glides along so smoothly with full vignettes about the South, Atlanta, and his life that you don’t even miss the traditional theatrical structure or notice the absence of anyone playing or portraying Maynard Jackson.
Young and Just by Dominic Taylor; directed by Donald Douglass (February 3 at 7:30 pm)
Dominic Taylor’s Young and Just provides a glimpse into the lives of two people, Dr. Ernest Everett Just and Dr. Roger Arliner Young. Taylor described how he was researching Dr. Just, who was the first Black graduate at Dartmouth College, and accidentally came upon his association with Roger Young. Taylor was intrigued that a woman was named Roger and that she started her studies in music at Howard only to discover a true calling in the sciences. Once he found out she was the first Black woman to obtain a PhD in the sciences from the University of Pennsylvania, he was stunned that nothing much had been written about either of them, like they never existed. Taylor felt that something had to be done to rectify the situation and bring them both into the public eye. His Young and Just is a depiction of their lives and missions, interweaving the stories to hold together in a unified piece. José Carrasquillo described the writer’s language and words as beautifully fitting the period and landing with a punch.
Blackbox by Rickerby Hinds, directed by Thomas F. DeFrantz (February 4 at 2:30 pm)
Rickerby Hinds uses magic to tell the story of Henry “Box” Brown, who mailed himself in a box crate to freedom. Hinds noted that this was a story that was ready to be told. His play Blackbox is steeped in the spirit of Henry Brown’s personal history and even evokes the fervor of Nat Turner’s admonitions for liberation. Hinds brings the savage reality of bondage to the forefront — the brutality, the lies, the hopeless degradation, the terror, and the horror for children. The play gets across the devastation of families being separated and sold away from each other with no end in sight. Henry Brown’s life-death decision to have himself shipped from Virginia to Philadelphia reflected his absolute desperation, and the script brings us along on the harrowing journey. Hinds shared that the idea of someone who intentionally confined himself in a box to escape to freedom, and who later made a living as a magician, stayed with him and wouldn’t let go. Hinds uses so much of Brown’s own text from his writings that he sometimes jokingly shares authorship — “co-written with Henry Box Brown.”
I got a chance to talk to the artistic advisors who also served as dramaturgs for the plays for a wrap-up at the end of the festival. They expressed their joy and exhilaration about the plays finally being seen by audiences after so much work and effort, a lot of it on Zoom. They agreed that the process gave playwrights freedom to create their best work. And they all appreciated Washington audiences and the sacred space of Ford’s Theatre as a remarkable venue.
Sheldon Epps, senior artistic advisor: From the first time I directed, I could tell that Washington, DC, has very smart audiences. They really do know how to listen, they’re taking it all in, they know how to focus and go with the experience. They are present on the journey.
Sydné Mahone, Legacy Commissions advisor: There’s an impact of looking up from the audience seeing where the world changed. It’s a pivot that focuses the mind, like stepping into history. There’s something grounding and aspirational about the space and being part of the work presented here. Also, the timing was incredible — the country was reeling from a racial reckoning with all the societal events when the commissions were generated in 2020. That reality haunts through the plays, an energy surrounding them, and goes through everything. The plays in a way are anointed to impact the audience. We are witnesses to what’s invoked, and the plays reflect that in making human connections, we feel the human drama.
Sheldon Epps: Agree, they’re all wonderfully inspirational. There’s something intriguing about plays that motivate action. They’re not static, not at all.
José Carrasquillo, director of artistic programming: There’s such incredible diversity in the writing and writing styles of the plays. And the stories, all three plays, are having a profound effect on me.
The team recognized the talented directors Seema Sueko, Donald Douglass, and Thomas F. DeFrantz, who brought their amazing talents to their assigned plays; the actors who breathed life into their characters; and the many designers and communications specialists who got the word out. And of course, the artists stressed that none of this would have been possible if not for the watchful eye, consistent support, and presence of Paul Tetreault, who initiated the project and advocated for it every step of the way, kept the project front and center as a priority, and provided welcoming remarks each session.
While everyone was celebrating the accomplishments of getting the first set of plays performed in readings, there are more scripts getting ready for future readings — so we can all stay tuned for stunning new works at Ford’s Theatre in its next First Look festival.
The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions were given staged readings from February 2 to 4, 2023, at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th Street NW, between E and F Streets NW, Washington, DC.
Free readings of new plays by BIPOC writers at Ford’s
(interviews with Sheldon Epps and José Carrasquillo by Debbie Minter Jackson, February 1, 2023)