Take a moment to reflect on American culture as we know it today. From industrial inventions to the arts, what you’ll find is that African Americans have pioneered or influenced nearly every industry, yet their contributions are often downplayed and overlooked. Our awe-inspiring narratives seem to have taken a back seat to reminders of our dark past. Slowly but surely, though, our stories are told, achievements recognized, and contributions celebrated. In 2016, for example, the movie Hidden Figures told the story of the three Black female mathematicians who served as the brains behind one of the greatest space operations of NASA history. It grossed over $200 million worldwide, and enlightened the world on a crucial piece of American history that’s left out of our history books.
It’s not just NASA, either. Everyday household items like the ironing board, clothes dryer, and hair brush were invented by Black Americans, as well as music genres such as Rock ’n Roll and Country—both of which today, are predominately white. It’s time to place priority on celebrating the contributions of Black Americans whose talent and ingenuity have shaped this nation and made the culture what it is today.
That’s why Richmond’s TheatreLAB is so vital to the RVA arts scene. Founded in March 2012 by DeeJay Gray and Anne Colpitts—who are also the Artistic Director and Managing Director, respectively—TheatreLAB is an organization that “creates unique theatrical experiences that spark a collaborative exchange of ideas between artist and audience.” It enriches the community of theatre-lovers by providing a platform for emerging professionals to hone their craft and thrive in a creative environment.
In 2015, TheatreLAB was presented with an opportunity to add more meaningful diversity to their productions, and BlackList was born. A partnership between TheatreLAB and Mary Shaw, a Richmond native with a deep love for theatre, BlackList is a celebration of the African American voice. It creates opportunities for Black actors to take the stage as complex characters while telling the stories of Black playwrights whose life and contributions changed the face of both theatre and society at large.
“I moved [back] to Richmond six years ago, and the opportunities that existed for black actors were roles where ‘Black’ was in the character description,” Shaw recalls. “The sassy black friend, the slave, the servant—those were the roles available to many Black actors, so I opted to not act in Richmond.”
A hiatus from the stage undoubtedly left a void in Shaw’s life, so she decided to take matters into her own hands and show the theatre community that Black actors exist and want to work and be challenged.
Part of BlackList’s mission is to make the local community aware of how important the African American experience is to our entire shared American experience, regardless of cultural or ethnic background. Black history and culture is American history and culture, and theatre is no exception.
In October 2015, TheatreLAB and BlackList debuted their first production spotlighting poet and playwright August Wilson. Approaching the 10th anniversary of his death lit a fire under Shaw, and she felt compelled to develop a production sharing scenes and monologues from each play in his magnum opus, The Century Cycle.
Tickets completely sold out before doors even opened, and right away, the belief that Black-centric works lack the talent and/or general interest was debunked. Sure enough, the saying rang true: If you build it, they will come.
On August 3, 2017, BlackList honored another icon, playwright and writer with Lorraine Hansberry: Young, Gifted & Black. Though most famously known for her play A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry’s repertoire boasts numerous plays, essays, and journal entries that capture her passion for Black liberation. She dedicated her craft to being a voice for both the Black and LGBT communities up until her death at just 34 years old. Hansberry’s story is one not often told, so much so that she almost escaped under Shaw’s radar when planning BlackList’s second production.
“TheatreLAB’s 2016-2017 season was ‘Women at War’,” she explains. “[DeeJay] asked if I could do a woman playwright, and as a black woman, I felt silly that my next playwright was going to be another man. So, we started with Lorraine Hansberry. I spent so much time reading her works and things she didn’t get to finish before she passed; she was so incredibly ‘woke’ at a time where the Civil Rights struggle was at the top of every newspaper, and I loved that she spoke about race in a way that would make reporters today cringe.”
Shaw believes that while it’s a “happy accident” that Hansberry’s works were chosen in this political climate, it’s telling that works written so long ago can echo through the decades and land in 2017.
Educating the public, particularly in this climate, on iconic Black artists is but a portion of BlackList’s mission; students are priority, too. Black students in particular not only lack representation in our history books, but they also lack exposure to Black artists in their everyday lives. The BlackList changes that with their remarkable No Dream Deferred scholarship, which provides educational funding for students pursuing degrees in Theatre Arts.
So, why do we even need a BlackList, and why is such a scholarship important?
Shaw’s answer is simple:
“Black people shaped theatre culture in America, but you won’t learn that in school.”