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On Seattle stages, Black women playwrights speak for themselves

Complexity, truth and ferocity define a crop of new plays produced locally.

Cast of Sunset Baby

Sunset Baby, by Dominque Morisseau, is part of a wave of new plays by Black women writers being produced on Seattle stages. Opens at ArtsWest Playhouse Sept. 26. Cast members (clockwise from left): Aishé Keita, Marcel Davis and Tyler TreriseIt. (Photo by John McLellan)

Something is happening in Seattle theater. It is a wave that has gathered gradually in recent years, is gaining strength and shows no sign of cresting.

The rising tide of contemporary Black women dramatists is evident on numerous local stages — from the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s 800-seat Bagley Wright auditorium to the cozy confines of ArtsWest across the West Seattle Bridge.

And it is not only the number of these plays that is noteworthy. It is the diversity of themes, the intriguing subject matter and the striking aesthetic multiplicity in how stories are told. (The trend also is attracting gifted Black actors to Seattle — including Lamar Legend, Shaunyce Omar and Aishé Keita — and giving them reason to stay here awhile.)

“Historically, there are these kinds of surges that have come out of the Black female experience,” says Valerie Curtis-Newton, a leading Seattle director and University of Washington drama professor who has been championing Black women playwrights here for over two decades. “In the 1980s, it happened in fiction with novelists like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and others. Part of this trend is that women are rising up in general, and having more to say about the world we live in.”

And people are listening. Consider ACT Theatre’s recent staging of Pass Over, by Antoinette Nwandu, a gut punch of an homage to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting Godot, transferred to a gritty urban corner where two young, Black, homeless men hang out in an absurdist void ringed by trigger-happy, racist cops. The production earned full houses, and three Gregory Award nominations.

Cast of Is God Is
Washington Ensemble Theatre’s recent production of ‘Is God Is,’ by Aleshea Harris (Photo by Chris Bennion)

In another key there’s Is God Is, a play by Aleshea Harris that just ended its Washington Ensemble Theatre run. The revenge tale of two young women on a patricidal murder mission kept audiences reeling between laughter and shock with its outrageous Afro-punk mash-up of cartoonish satire, biblical allusions, Tarantino-esque pulp violence and the molten angst of the dispossessed.

And there’s more on the way. This week, ArtsWest opens its season with Sunset Baby, a story by Dominque Morisseau about a former Black power activist who reconnects with the adult daughter he abandoned long ago. Reviewing a London production, The Guardian said it “grapples with the tensions between past and present, one generation and another, while asking penetrating questions about the nature of liberation.”

In November, Seattle Rep debuts local author and Broadway veteran Cheryl West’s long-in-the-works Shout, Sister, Shout!, a new musical focused on the life of rock-gospel pioneer Sister Rosetta Thorpe. Fast forward a few months, and you can see ACT’s Seattle premiere of “Sweat,” a Pulitzer Prize-honored drama by Lynn Nottage about a multiracial group of co-workers in the Rust Belt during the last recession. Their blue-collar jobs are rapidly disappearing, and their votes may well swing toward Donald Trump.

Sweat by Oregon Shakespeare Fest
The cast of Oregon Shakespeare Festival performs ‘Sweat,’ by Lynn Nottage. A new production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play will be staged at ACT in March. (Photo by Jenny Graham)

The accelerating incidence of scripts by Black women on Seattle stages reflects a wider national trend, too. According to American Theatre magazine, Jocelyn Bioh’s Schoolgirls, or The African Mean Girls Play will be one of the most produced plays in U.S. regional theaters this season, while Morisseau and Nottage are among the top 15 most-produced playwrights.

Even the “great white way” has seen an influx of Black women dramatists. West cracked the Broadway musical scene earlier in her career (with the short-lived show Play On!, from 1997), but Morisseau’s Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations is a current box office hit, and Katori Hall’s Tina (a biographical musical about pop star Tina Turner) starts performances on Broadway this month.

Jackie Sibblies Drury won a 2019 Pulitzer Prize in drama for Fairview, her racially charged piece in the mode of a deconstructed Black TV sit-com. (Full disclosure: I was on the panel that recommended the 2019 Pulitzer finalists.) In a recent New York Times story about the current array of noteworthy black playwrights, Drury noted, “It’s exciting that there’s a lot of work that’s getting recognized right now. And I know that we’re all black, obviously. But I feel like the projects are as different as Edward Albee is from Harold Pinter.”

Bulrusher the play
Allyson Lee Brown (left) and Ayo Tushinde in Bulrusher, written by Eisa Davis and directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton. Staged by Intiman Theatre earlier this month, the coming-of-age drama about a multiracial, clairvoyant orphan was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. (Photo by Naomi Ishisaka)

What factors prompted this flourishing crop of Black dramas? In part it’s a generational change of artistic directors (including some new theatrical leaders of color) whose tastes and sincere commitment to cultural equity may guide their programming decisions. Or, more cynically, are they just checking off the diversity box to appease funders and evade criticism?

ArtsWest director Mathew Wright says for him it comes down to his notion of quality: “The reason to produce a Dominique Morisseau play is that she’s an incredible writer. There’s literally nothing not to love — the complexity and truth of her stories, her fierce and fresh use of language, characters that literally leap off the page in three dimensions from your first reading — but most of all I think it’s the huge well of deep, essential, often painful love that exists beneath the surface of all her plays, characters and situations.”

Another view: “I think there’s a growing awareness in Seattle, and around our country, that we need to hear more from voices that historically have been marginalized or silenced,” suggests Amy Wheeler, head of the Whidbey Island women’s writing retreat Hedgebrook, where many of the playwrights mentioned here have had residencies.

As one of the few Black women playwrights to earn a living from her work in 1990s and early 2000s, West has a slightly different take. “When I started out 30 years ago, the theater establishment thought works by women were too specific, and no subscribers would come. Then as an African American writer you were considered even more specific. Or they’d say, we’re doing an August Wilson play this season and that’s our only nod to diversity.”

Today, however, West continues, “People want an array of voices; we want an array of experiences. There’s recognition that Black people are not a monolithic group and have different things to say in different ways.… And if a show makes money, [producers] think, what else can you do that makes money?”

Playwright Cheryl West
Seattle playwright Cheryl West’s new play, ‘Shout Sister Shout!’ opens at the Seattle Rep in November. (Photo by Abe Booker)

Since the mid-1990s, Curtis-Newton has been tirelessly promoting and introducing works by older Black writers, such as the late Alice Childress (Trouble in Mind), as well as contemporary ones like Lydia Diamond (Stick Fly) and Morisseau (Curtis-Newton is directing Sunset Baby).

With longtime arts administrator Vivian Phillips, Curtis-Newton created and runs The Hansberry Project to encourage and help financially support productions of works by a variety of African Americans, female and male, for Seattle Rep, 12th Avenue Arts, Intiman and other companies. And three years ago she hosted a landmark “summit meeting” here that brought together top Black women dramatists from around the country.

She believes the steady growth of prominent theatrical expression by Black women is evidence of “more of a sense of autonomy among these writers, a sense of wanting to have our say. It’s the realization that you can’t rely on other people to tell your story for you.”

In the Black Lives Matters era, she says, “more young Black people have grown up being proud of their culture and wanting to own it. And because we’re telling our stories, we’re getting better at it.”

Are today’s emerging, younger Black artists (not just writers, but visual, dance and cinema creators) more emboldened to experiment with form in daring ways? Curtis-Newton frames that impulse historically. “There have always been classically oriented Black playwrights like Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin, and more avant-garde and African-based storytellers — Adrienne Kennedy, and more recently Suzan-Lori Parks. Today’s playwrights are open to both traditions. They see no contradiction in braiding together ritual, surreal and abstract elements with more realistic drama.”

But in a city where only an estimated 7% of residents are African American, is there a receptive general audience for these plays beyond the Black community? “Doing these plays reflects my community, but also makes us all one community,” asserts West. “So if I see a play by a Black or white or Latino playwright, each of those stories can have something to say to me, something to experience of the human story.”

Curtis-Newton agrees. “It’s about a recognition that our stories have value," she says. "If a theater does The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, does it only want Russian people in the audience? You just owe it to us to be woven into the fabric of all the stories you are telling.”

“My sense is that there have always been good scripts written by Black women,” says ArtsWest’s Wright, “but now that we are starting to have real, honest conversations about racism, patriarchy and white supremacy, more space is being made for those voices to be heard.”

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On Seattle stages, Black women playwrights speak for themselves

About the Authors & Contributors

Misha Berson

Misha Berson was the chief theatre critic for The Seattle Times for 25 years, now working as a freelance writer and teacher.