I am a Playwright. Yes, I am Black so that means I do Black plays. Yes, I am a woman so that means I do Black plays that are woman-centered. But let me be clear. I do not do gospel plays or urban stage plays, which in many cases, are technically the same thing. I have a very distinctive idea about the kind of theatre that I’m doing through my company, Harkins House Productions. This kind of theatre is targeted specifically to the people who are not Tyler Perry or David E. Talbert fans…and those people do exist. It’s a lot of them, actually. Since both of these men have been doing stage plays for a number of years now, their fan base is established and lucrative.
My projected fan base is rather small and still in need of serious developing; seemingly when I mention that I do plays to potential members of that fan base, many of them, understandably, assume that it’s Tyler Perry-ish in content. For the purposes of this piece, Tyler Perry-ish content means there’s a lot of singing, dancing, over the top comedic material, oversimplified themes, and Scripture-quoting, or misquoting if he’s donning a wig and lipstick. Uhh no. Please understand, I don’t have a problem if that’s your thing, but that’s not my writing style or mission as a playwright….and we just need more diversity anyway. Agreed?
Then, there’s the traditional theatre circuit, which is even harder to enter and much more political. I’m not sure how much you know about theatre, Black theatre in particular, but there aren’t many theatres around the country vying for scripts by Black playwrights. Even so, if a playwright doesn’t have a relationship with those Executive Directors and other key personnel, their scripts won’t even see the light of day in a playwriting workshop, let alone a stage and a playbill. During the height of the Black theatre movement, the majority of those plays were staged at theatres owned and operated by Black Executive Directors and specialized in grooming Black playwrights, actors, directors, set designers, and such. As for Broadway, do I really need to get into that? A Black stage play goes to Broadway with such low frequency that, to me, making Broadway a goal of a Black playwright’s career is
not even worth it. I take that back, it’s worth it but I just believe that Black playwrights should focus on getting their work to the stage and let Broadway take care of itself, which is what it’s going to do anyway.
Even if theatre ain’t your thing, the names August Wilson or Lorraine Hansberry would still ring a bell, yes? All of us in this playwriting game are striving for that kind of legendary status, or at least, we should be, but ever heard of Judi Ann Mason, Alice Childress, Ed Bullins, Pearl Cleage, Sonia Sanchez, Douglas Turner Ward, Marcia Leslie, or Shay Youngblood? It’s okay if you haven’t. These are a few names of critically-acclaimed Black playwrights who have had many of their works staged and perhaps just as many unproduced scripts collecting dust. Of course, there’s others such as Lydia Diamond, Katori Hall, Lynn Nottage, and Suzan Lori-Parks who have managed to establish a footing in the traditional theatre world, even secured Broadway runs and many accolades with their works. But again, unless theatre is your thing, most of the Black audience (this includes my folks and Tyler Perry & ’nem folks) won’t be familiar with these playwrights.
So, if theatre is such a hit or miss business, why do theatre at all then? Well, for one, I love it and everything about it. The story unfolds before the audience and the immediate responses to certain elements of the story are priceless for the playwright and director. To that end, the greatest power in theatre is the ability to engage the audience while simultaneously presenting messages or themes in an uncensored manner. For those of us doing this playwriting thing, we also have to be willing to pull off these gloves of conformity and go ‘there’. Trust me, the audience wants to see it, so do it. Honestly, in order to attract an audience, you have to go ‘there’ because ‘there’ is the edginess & unapologetic reality that Black theatre has been offering for over a hundred years now.
The most vital aspect of theatre is its’ accessibility for underserved audiences. With so few movies and television shows depicting the depth and range of the Black experience, Black theatre can take up that slack easily because that’s another thing it has been doing since its’ origins — establishing a platform for the myriad voices of Blackness. Also, Black playwrights have to be good at creating innovative ways to get their work out there. This isn’t a problem so much as it’s an opportunity, which is why I will always applaud Tyler Perry & David E. Talbert, no matter how I feel about their content. The path that the two of them have forged is to be used as a definitive guide. At the same time, technology & social media are making it easier to get our work out there and there are still unchartered waters.
I found my voice as a playwright. I’ve been writing for years, mainly with the intention of being an essayist and novelist (that’s still going to happen, but I digress). Mind you, I’ve been a theatre patron since 1994, attending several shows done by local theatre companies such as Memphis Black Repertory Theatre, Bluff City Tri-Art Theatre Company, the Orpheum, Playhouse on the Square, and Hattiloo Black Repertory Theatre. So, I wasn’t a stranger to theatre and had been doing my homework in understanding the industry all along.
After learning how to construct a stage play by reading published plays and practicing, I decided to take a leap of faith in 2010 and staged my first original production, FOUR WOMEN, at the Evergreen Theatre in Memphis. Despite the structural issues in the script, the show was well-received and that’s what sealed the deal for me.
My second stage play, The Man Store, debuted in May of this year; and again, it was very well attended and received. This script was much stronger and structurally sound than FOUR WOMEN, which indicated my growth, or better yet, my confidence in writing. Yet, I’m still learning that it’s only as good as the last show and the business of securing funds for the next run is an ongoing endeavor. Here’s where both the commercial or indie theatre & traditional theatre worlds coincide. Theatre is an expensive business; raising money is a tedious exercise, but it’s a necessary evil, or else, there won’t be a show. When I started my company in 2010, I sat aside money from my salary and continued to do this until this year when the job sent me packing. Now, I’m creatively developing ways to raise funds. Of course, many have suggested that I apply for grants, but I can’t. Here’s why:
Harkins House Productions is NOT a non-profit company. The overwhelming majority of performing arts grants are set aside for non-profit organizations. In addition, do you know how much work is involved in applying for grants? It can be a very time-consuming task and, after all of that, it’s not guaranteed that the grant will be awarded to the applicant(s). I’m not interested in doing all of that reporting & document chasing for anyone other than my accountant and lawyer, not an Advisory Board or a nitpicking arts funder. I don’t have the patience for that. Besides, as the economy continues to relapse and rebound, many of these arts funding organizations have cut their grant programs, therefore, many nonprofit theatre companies still have to raise more money through playbill advertising and sponsorships to cover expenses after securing grant monies and charitable donations. This is why I decided that going the for-profit route was better for Harkins House. I do not regret my decision.
Through sponsorships and playbill advertising, I raise funds to cover some expenses. Of course, as the exposure of the company increases, it will be much easier to secure major sponsors & advertisers. Meanwhile, I scratch and claw at raising dough. Currently, I’ve launched an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $2,000 by September 10th. I’m praying that I’ll hit this goal, however, I got a Plan B, Plan C, Plan D ready to go. You see, while I believe in theatre, I also know what I’m up against — a tough economy, an underdeveloped market, and a start up business still cutting its teeth. No doubt about it, there’s people highly interested in the work, but stage plays don’t grow on trees. With just a few dollars to this IndieGoGo campaign, I can take this money & stretch it out to do another run of The Man Store while I organize a plan for DVD sales and a small tour in 2014. So, won’t you, yes you reading this, help? On behalf of every struggling playwright, it will be most appreciative.
For more details about the fundraising initiative, click here.