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Plays by Black writers are finally getting the spotlight, from Broadway to Dallas

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Evan Michael Woods
From left, Djoré Nance, Nikka Morton and Jonah Munroe, cast members of Stage West Theatre's production of 'What to Send Up When It Goes Down.'

It’s a great time to be a Black playwright.

Plays by Black writers have been showing up on Broadway and at regional theaters and smaller local houses in unprecedented numbers. Audiences of all kinds appear hungry for Black stories they haven’t seen before.

And those stories have been winning awards. The last four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and five of the last six have gone to Black writers, including 2019 winner Fairview, which opens later this month in Dallas in a co-production by Undermain Theatre and the Bishop Arts Theatre Center.

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Evan Michael Woods
The cast of Jackie Sibblies Drury's "Fairview," a co-production of Undermain Theatre and Bishop Arts Theatre Center.

Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury, whose work was previously presented by Undermain, Fairview takes place at a birthday party in an upper-middle-class Black household. The family is at first watched and commented on by a set of white characters. Then things get stranger.

“Black playwrights are the best of American playwrights right now. We’re living in a golden age of playwriting by Black writers,” says Kevin Moriarty, artistic director of Dallas Theater Center, which produced Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning Sweat three years ago.

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Markus Gann
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Denise Lee plays Millie, an actress who objects to the stereotypes in an anti-lynching play in Alice Childress' 1955 backstage comedy "Trouble in Mind" at Dallas Theater Center.

DTC is about to open Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind, a racially charged play that premiered off-Broadway in 1955 and is enjoying a revival due to the renewed attention to dramas by Black writers relevant to our times.

“We have a generation of recognized legendary figures who are still writing like Lynn Nottage and Suzan-Lori Parks,” Moriarty says. “And at the same time, we have a new generation of Black writers who are innovating in form and content in incredibly bold, exciting ways.”

When New York awoke from its pandemic slumber last summer, Los Angeles playwright Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over was the first drama to make it onto a Broadway stage since the March 2020 shutdown.

It was followed by a half-dozen other Black-written plays in the 2021-22 season. New York theaters and their brethren around the country were taking steps toward a new normal in the wake of the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Two years earlier — the last pre-pandemic season — there were only two plays by Black writers on Broadway, according to The New York Times. And in the two seasons before that, one and zero.

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Evan Michael Woods
From left, Vandous Stripling II and Daniel Saunders in Second Thought Theatre's production of "Pass Over."

Pass Over, about two Black men stuck on a street corner in a kind of loop of historical oppression that had critics comparing it to Beckett’s existential masterpiece Waiting for Godot, was later mounted in July by Dallas’ Second Thought Theatre. The original production was made into a movie by Spike Lee.

In recent months, Pass Over has been joined by other Black dramas in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including the fourth-wall-breaking What to Send Up When It Goes Down and Between Riverside and Crazy at Fort Worth’s Stage West, Lonesome Blues at Deep Ellum’s Undermain and August Wilson’s Fences at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth.

Later this season, Turtle Creek’s Uptown Players is producing Chicken & Biscuits, one of the seven plays by Black writers produced on Broadway during the 2021-22 season.

The 2022-23 Broadway season already looks promising with productions underway or planned of 1776 and Death of a Salesman with Black or mixed casts, The Piano Lesson, Topdog/Underdog and Between Riverside and Crazy.

Meanwhile, 91-year-old playwright Adrienne Kennedy is making her Broadway debut with the long-simmering Ohio State Murders, about a Black writer returning to her alma mater and confronting its racist past. Also coming to Broadway is Jordan E. Cooper’s comedy Ain’t No Mo’, in which the U.S. government grants free one-way tickets to Africa to every Black American.

The rush of Black-created theater has been fueled by a national reckoning around race. The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement have thrust arts groups into meaningful action, producers and directors say.

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Courtesy of Second Thought Theatre
Sasha Maya Ada directed Second Thought Theatre's production of "Pass Over.

“There were conversations happening in spaces where I don’t think they had been happening beforehand and at a depth that had been previously glazed over,” says Sasha Maya Ada, who directed Second Thought’s Pass Over. “I think it opens up a deeper conversation of how we handle Black stories.”

For example, Ada says, “I have not been prepared in my many years of training to fully and safely explore” the abuse of Black characters that is often depicted. In Pass Over, that means a devastating act of violence that ends the play.

The sensitivity to responsibly portray the often difficult circumstances in Black stories was not around in 1957 when Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind was scheduled to transfer to Broadway and make her the first Black woman to have a play produced there.

Because she refused to tack on an ending of reconciliation, the producers decided to cancel the planned run of the meta comedy. Instead, two years later, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun set the precedent.

In the current political atmosphere, Trouble in Mind became a flashpoint. Set in a Broadway theater during rehearsals of an anti-lynching play called Chaos in Belleville, the story of racial conflict has been revived around the country in recent years, including its long-delayed premiere on Broadway last fall.

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Jordan Fraker
Denise Lee stars in Alice Childress' 1955 backstage comedy "Trouble in Mind" at Dallas Theater Center.

Now in previews and opening next Wednesday, Trouble in Mind runs through Oct. 30 at Dallas Theater Center. It stars Denise Lee as Millie, an actress butting up against the stereotypes she and other Black cast members of Chaos in Belleville are forced to portray. The irony is that the backstage issues it confronts are the same ones that kept it from moving to Broadway.

Tiana Kaye Blair, a member of the DTC acting troupe, wanted the company to produce Trouble in Mind “because it scared people.” She read it in college, before it started hitting stages again. Jonathan Norton, DTC’s artist-in-residence, saw it at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2017 and brought it to the company.

“It makes people appropriately uncomfortable and challenges us to talk about the stereotypes and archetypes that have lived with us since the beginning of American cinema and stage, and how they have been harmful to not only Black folks but to white folks,” says Blair, who is directing the production. “What Alice Childress is writing about in her own time that we still see legacies of today is Black women relegated to being servile and submissive, or aggressive and in charge, or selfless to the point of dedicating their lives to the people they’re serving.

“Alice Childress is also writing about a time when white women are expected to be beautiful and helpless and that’s it. … How far have we come from that? Are we still engaging with that kind of storytelling? In the same way, the stereotype of cis white men has been that they’re required to save the day, that they have all the answers.”

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Tom Fox
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Director Tiana Kaye Blair listens to suggestions before starting Dallas Theater Center's 'Working: A Musical' dress rehearsal at the Annette Strauss Square outdoor theatre, Tuesday evening, July 6, 2021. Blair is directing Dallas Theater Center's 'Trouble in Mind,' running now through Oct. 30.

To prepare, Blair and dramaturg Kamilah Bush curated a history of racist stereotypes for the cast and crew, watching such American films as Gone With the Wind, Imitation of Life, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Birth of a Nation to explore the origins of the stereotypes.

“In the play-within-the-play scenes, when the cast is rehearsing Chaos in Belleville,” Blair says, “one of the things that was important to me and I’m sure important to Alice is the dichotomy between who these people are — the vibrancy of their actual personhood — versus the stereotype that they’re boxed into.”

Details

Trouble in Mind runs through Oct. 30 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. $5-$100. dallastheatercenter.org.

Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Manuel Mendoza is a freelance writer and a former staff critic at The Dallas Morning News.