“Where are the Black Directors in RVA?”
By Tanya Boucicaut
As a Virginia Beach transplant, I came to Richmond to further my education to study theatre and theology. I found it easy to give praxis to the educational context of VUU’s School of Theology; Black churches were everywhere. Unfortunately, when it came to theatre I found the search to be challenging. Initially, I had no idea where to find shows that represented the Black Aesthetic when I arrived at VCU as a theatre graduate student. I define the Black Aesthetic as stories that are unequivocally about Black life. Later, I would discover the complicated terrain of the Richmond theatre community. And it wasn’t until I had a conversation with one of my mentors that I realized, this issue of the lack of Black directors represented in the Richmond theatre community needed to be addressed in a larger context. Thus my journey began to reach out to local theatre companies’ artistic directors to initiate this necessary conversation surrounding the question, “Where are the Black directors in RVA?”
Every artistic director I emailed responded promptly. They included Iman Shabazz of the African American Repertory Theatre, Joel Bassin of the Firehouse Theatre, Anna Johnson of the Cadence Theatre, and Deejay Gray of the Theatre Lab. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the numerous theatre companies in Richmond. I reached out to companies for which I attended performances. Our correspondences varied to include emails, phone calls, and face-to-face meetings.
Some questions were quantitative. These questions inquired about the number of Black shows produced at their location in the season, and the number of Black directors hired as a means to provide data to answer the question, “Where are the Black Directors in RVA?” Bassin and Johnson were the first to respond to my inquiry. Bassin shared he was new to the Firehouse this year and his response included the following Black productions in their current season: Mark Pettaway’s No One in the Room (Nov 2015), Valerie Davis’/LandMinz production of A Change of Heart (Dec 2015), Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company’s rep of For Colored Girls… and For Black Boys (March 2016), Woven Obits’ Carrying the Load (March 2016), and Raymond Goode’s upcoming run of Through Their Eyes (July 2016). He also shared, “In previous seasons, David Emerson Toney and [Dr.] Tawnya Pettiford-Wates have directed Firehouse productions that probably wouldn’t be considered to be stories about Black life.”
Johnson described the Cadence Theatre as a “young company”. In response to the initial set of questions, she said, “Over the past few years we have produced one play per year that specifically addresses black life (Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change, and Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop), although we are not married to a formula of choosing plays (i.e. plays written by women, plays that are written by African Americans, etc.).” It should be noted: all were placed in February/March of each season.
Let’s be clear, just because a Black story is told doesn’t mean it’s fully actualized. As we see with much of Richmond’s productions, it can be argued that there is something missing when a Black story isn’t told under the helm of Black artistic leadership and vision. Race inhabits nuances about lived experiences that cannot be taught or gleamed externally. There is a fundamental notion that the Black director brings a particular truth, perspective, and voice only developed from inherent and lived experiences. This is not to say all Black directors are monolithic but to be fair to the Black story, the perspective of a Black director is essential. Furthermore, to fully answer the aforementioned question, we as theatre community must assess the hiring data instead of solely focusing on intent.
A few days later, I was able to have a conversation with Shabazz. Our conversation began with the question at hand to which he replied, “[Black directors] are absolutely without a doubt, here.” He went on to share that while several Black directors in the area are clearly capable of demonstrating their skill, few are given platforms to do so. With that being said, the African American Repertory Theatre under his leadership is preparing to relaunch soon and will yet again, “create the space and the opportunities can and will exist.” This does not negate any work of other companies, but it will offer perpetual space for Black directors and artists to share their stories, which is not currently done in the city. He believes, “As a theatre community, there is certainly space to give way to all artists.”
While Gray and I had a long conversation, the crux of it surrounded Theatre Lab’s commitment to creating opportunities and platforms for those whose work may not typically get visibility. In relation to the Black Aesthetic, last fall Theatre Lab, with Mary Shaw and a host of local Black artists in collaboration with The Conciliation Project, which is under the artistic direction of Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, created the Black List Initiative. It consisted of producing staged readings of August Wilson’s entire Century Cycle completely under the leadership of RVA’s Black directors as well as providing a scholarship for an African American college-age student or college bound high school student. He also shared the importance of inclusion not just being a phase, but having inclusion be decidedly ingrained in a company’s mission.
After my initial conversation with the artistic directors and it is evident by the number of collaborations mentioned, Gray put it best, “Richmond is standing on the precipice of something exciting.” I believe Richmond is on the verge of a new era, not of a Kumbaya colorblind casting haze, but one of calibration. A calibration that includes honestly assessing where we are as a larger theatre community through directly addressing the issues and impact tied to race, and strategizing plans to move forward. This calibration is in no way an attempt to seek validation; rather, it is an assertion of the Black Aesthetic’s inherent value. My hope is that this calibration process could begin to take place as a forum or panel discussion soon.
If theatre is the embodiment of the human condition, then as community we must be committed to sharing and producing works to showcase all aspects of the human condition to include plays that represent the Black Aesthetic. An aesthetic, as Shabazz described, that “share[s] the infinite breadth of the Black story.” This would bring us back to the initial question, again I ask, “Where are the Black directors?”
Tanya Boucicaut is a candidate for an MFA in Theatre Pedagogy at VCU and an Adjunct Faculty of Writing at the School of Theology at Virginia Union University.