By Janeal Downs
When Mary Shaw was in school minoring in Theatre, she was never exposed to black playwrights. That was until a professor introduced her to the work of August Wilson. “I had never read a play, or plays, before that struck me in such a way,” Shaw said. “The reason why was because Wilson not only spoke about the black experience, but spoke about it in a way that illustrated that black Americans are not so different from any other Americans.” Shaw said Wilson helped show that all races long for the same things, “intimacy, closeness, happiness and money.” Shaw was so moved by Wilson’s work, she felt compelled to do something and now with Black List, she is doing just that.
For its inaugural program, Black List will host a play honoring Wilson’s 10 plays known as The Century Cycle. The 10 plays represent each decade, from 1900 to 1990, of the black experience. The showing is in collaboration with Richmond’s TheatreLAB and the Conciliation Project. The show will feature selections from each of Wilson’s 10 plays. “One of my visions was to make sure that black actors in the community got a chance to play roles that are more complex than they often get to play,” Shaw said. “All of Wilson’s plays offer roles that challenge black actors; they’re not superficial characters.” The actors will portray real people, real love and real life problems. Shaw said they wanted to make sure this was an “all-around” community event; therefore, all of the money collected from door tickets will also go toward a scholarship for a current or college-bound African American student.
In order to cast these actors, Shaw and others reached out to groups on Facebook within the local theatre community. Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, the artistic director of the Conciliation Project, and Heather Falks had connections to Virginia Commonwealth University and reached out to actors at the university. Shaw said she and the others involved – Caroline Meade, Annie Colpitts and Deejay Gray – also reached out to family and friends to spread the word about the auditions. “(I wanted) the opportunity to show the larger Richmond theatre community that you don’t have to play inside the box all the time,” Shaw said. “That you can take something from a black playwright, or that you can use an Asian-American playwright or a Latina playwright, and still have not only the interest of the people in the community that want to act, but the people in the community will also come watch.”
Shaw works for Richmond’s TheatreLAB as a company artist and worked closely with Deejay Gray, the founder and artistic director of TheatreLAB. “I have been trying to find something to do to work with him, because through the company artist program you get an opportunity to use their space and their support,” Shaw said. “He was on board from the first moment, so we just started working together to put it together.”
Gray’s main role was to give Shaw a platform to create the program through TheatreLAB. “She and I have always been really interested and passionate about trying to find opportunities for African American artists in Richmond,” Gray said. “So we decided that this is what we wanted to do.” TheatreLAB was started about three years ago, and Gray said the company has always been dedicated to using theatre as a safe place and platform to speak to the community. Black List and the presentation of Wilson’s work will give them this opportunity.
While this is the first Black List event, they hope to continue celebrating African American artists and make it an annual occasion. With this October being the 10-year anniversary of Wilson’s death, Gray said he was the perfect artist to start with. “I’m really excited to educate our community on August Wilson, who I believe is one of the greatest artists of our time,” Gray said. Gray described Wilson’s 10 plays as portraying “100 years of African American voices” starting with “The Gem of the Ocean” in the early 1900’s and ending with “Radio Gold” in the 90’s. In the past, Wilson was honored for his work with two Pulitzer Prizes for his plays “Fences” (1985) and The Piano Lesson (1990). Before becoming a playwright, Wilson was a poet. He was, and continues to be, well respected as a playwright and author within theatre.
Gray wants people to know that the show is a celebration of Wilson’s work, but he is most excited about the fact that a deserving African American theatre student will be granted a scholarship through the program. “I think these kind of events are really important because any group that doesn’t feel like they are able to see themselves on stage, I don’t think it’s fair,” Gray said. Gray reflected on one show with an entirely black cast, where a young African American girl came up to him and thanked him because she had never seen herself on stage before. This moment inspired him and he thinks Black List will be another great way to share other’s stories on a platform where they can be heard.
The Black List’s inaugural show will be held Oct. 18 starting at 7 p.m. at the Basement, 300 E. Broad St. Tickets can be bought at theatrelabrva.org. General admission is $15 and student tickets are $5. The Conciliation Project will also host a workshop and panel discussion at the Basement the day before the show. Gray said the show will be a great way to share Wilson’s work with such a diverse city that may not have otherwise been aware of him. “We’re anticipating that people are really going to like it,” Gray said. “We have an amazing team of directors and actors…and the most important thing is that it’s really a celebration of (Wilson’s) work.”