Black Southern Playwrights Take Center Stage

Although there has been progress in equitable representation on America’s stages (note that Lynn Nottage is tied with Lauren Gunderson at twenty-four productions in the 2022-2023 season), there is still work to be done. The Count 3.0, published in 2020, calculates only 24 percent of new plays produced on American stages in the prior three theatrical seasons were written by Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) artists. Worse, only 20 percent of all produced playwrights were BIPOC artists over the same period. What’s more, as Yvette Heyliger cites in “A Dream Deferred: Black, Indigenous, and Women+ of Color Playwright-Activists,” according to a 2015 article by the director of the New Play Exchange, Gwydion Suilebhan, an American playwright can reasonably hope for one professional world premiere of one of their plays per decade. If most American playwrights rarely or never have an opportunity to see their work produced, this is especially true for Black playwrights. For this reason, one of Lauren’s goals for audience cultivation for the We Will Dream Festival is to have artistic leaders from theatres across the country come see these plays, in hopes that they will consider programming them in future seasons.

The theme for submissions was “Inheritance,” and the festival’s play selection committee was intentional about programming plays that disrupt the idea of the Black voice being a monolith. The tone of the selected works ranges from darkly comedic to deeply sentimental. The playwrights have a wide variety of intentions for their work, including wanting to provide resonance and hope, to provoke discussion, to create a platform for a soft story to be spoken aloud in a community where it usually goes unspoken, and to leave audiences feeling joyful and capable of spreading that joy to those around them. Yet again, joy’s ripple effect resurfaces.

As storytellers, these playwrights are interested in having their communities, their small towns, their friends and aunts and brothers and sisters and students and neighbors, and even their own internal monologues find a voice on stage. Brian, who is originally from Breaux Bridge, Louisiana and now lives in New Orleans, put it this way:

“I don’t put as much stake on Broadway as other artists do, because I feel stories of independent communities are just as valuable, especially being from one. We [theatre people] love theatre, but no one else that I know knows it. Theatre gets lost in itself. Theatre is not really a part of my culture. What I intend and hope to do is to create theatre that is as culturally relevant and connects to audiences that I call family and community the same way a film or TV show does.”

If theatre has served as a form of documentation of daily lives and cultural preservation throughout human history, it is essential that Black (and in this case, Black Southern) stories be included in that canon.

Through their participation in the We Will Dream Festival, these four playwrights are claiming their inheritance, as well as the vital need for their stories to be documented and shared with the world. Both M. D. and Cris said that their works presented in the festival are the first plays they’ve written in which they found their voices. Brian says this production of his play has been the opening into the next part of his artistry and his career. He insists that theatre must keep “evolving so our histories keep being told and we keep learning from them.” If theatre has served as a form of documentation of daily lives and cultural preservation throughout human history, it is essential that Black (and in this case, Black Southern) stories be included in that canon.

For those interested in taking a page out of No Dream Deferred’s book, Lauren’s first piece of advice is to make sure the festival has a strong connection to place. Inheritance, she says, is also about remembering there are no empty spaces. The André Cailloux Center for Performing Arts and Cultural Justice is located on Bayou Road, which is the oldest road in New Orleans, originally formed 4,300 years ago and used by Native populations to transport goods from Bayou St. John to the Mississippi River, thus allowing New Orleans to establish itself as a port city and the cultural crossroads that it remains. As a cultural center created by and for Global Majority-led organizations, the André Cailloux Center intends for its presence to be “an act of reclamation for both the historic Indigenous and Black presences along the Bayou Road corridor.” Its presence demonstrates Lauren’s claim that we are always creating “on top of histories, on top of enduring legacies, on the backs and shoulders of our ancestors, and we have inherited the exact ingredients and things we need to do it from them.”

In addition to the physical location of the space and the ancestral chorus within its walls, the festival was designed to integrate seamlessly into the existing cultural fabric of New Orleans, with its many festivals celebrating art, music, food, and culture. It was important to Lauren and team for the festival’s offerings to remain accessible to all New Orleanians, so they established a walk-up comp ticket program for Louisiana residents to receive a free ticket to any performance if they arrive and show proof of residency one hour before the show. As Philana says, “I’m from Louisiana. It’s where I grew up. I never thought it would be a place where I could have any kind of life as a writer or a theatre artist. I appreciate [the festival] happening here because it says you can have a life here.” Theatre being for the people of the place is vital, especially in the American South, which suffers from some of the worst “brain drain” in the country.