WASHINGTON — In what is clearly a first for D.C. theater, four new plays by African-American playwrights about the black experience are premiering simultaneously on Washington stages. Although partially coincidental, the happenstance demonstrates the steady growth in opportunities for black playwrights in the capital.
The plays include “Starving” by S.M. Shephard-Massat at Woolly Mammoth Theater; “Cuttin’ Up” by Charles Randolph-Wright, from the book by Craig Marberry, at Arena Stage; and two plays in repertory at African Continuum Theater — “Draft Day” by Marvin McAllister and “Kingdom” by David Emerson. In addition, Quira Alegria Hudes’ Caribbean play, “Yemays’s Belly,” is running at Signature Theater.
The four preems offer profoundly different perspectives on African-American life. “Starving” is a penetrating look at residents of an Atlanta apartment building in 1950, where racism is a constant presence. “Cuttin’ Up” focuses on the importance of black barbershops in the U.S. “Draft Day” draws parallels between slave auctions and the purchase of talent by professional basketball teams, while “Kingdom” is billed as an inner-city meditation on “Richard III.” The latter two are from D.C. playwrights.
“This is great for a city like D.C. with a large African-American populace,” says Melvin D. Gerald, managing director of African Continuum (ACTCo). Considering that the four productions rely principally on area actors, he says they demonstrate the strong and steady growth of black theater and auds here.
Indeed, ACTCo itself is a worthy case study. The tiny theater, headed by producing artistic director Jennifer L. Nelson, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year with a move into the Atlas Performing Arts Center, a renovated movie theater complex. The multi-use Atlas is the focal point of a neighborhood finally making its comeback from the Martin Luther King riots. ACTCo now performs in a theater lab there and will settle into a larger space to be completed next year.
Gerald says performing two unknown plays in rep is a daring risk for the tiny troupe, but one that Nelson feels helps celebrate the anniversary and demonstrates the theater’s charter. Other recent activities include the expansion of a new play development program called Fresh Flavas with a $50,000 grant from the Ford Foundation.
A challenge for ACTCo and other D.C. theaters is to further develop black auds. For example, Prince Georges County, Md., is the country’s largest minority county with the highest per capita income for African-Americans. But it remains largely untapped as a subscription base for local theaters.
At Woolly Mammoth Theater, an energetic education and outreach program includes a series of four community-based plays set in different quadrants of the city that tell diverse stories from D.C. neighborhoods. Slated for January is “The Other River: Ripples and Vibes from D.C.’s Southside.” In addition, Woolly wants to produce more plays from black playwrights now that it has moved into its new downtown facility, says marketing director Michael Kyrioglou. Yet finding plays that fit its absurdist style is always difficult, he says.
At Arena Stage, the commissioned “Cuttin’ Up” is one of many black plays to emerge from a well-funded development effort. The theater spent a bundle to unearth Zora Neale Hurston’s musical “Polk County,” from the Library of Congress in 2002, and has tapped a wellspring with the black musical “Crowns.”