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Erika Dickerson-Despenza, Ntozake Shange.

Erika Dickerson-Despenza Crafts Ntozake Shange Social Justice Theatre Residency

Established to recognize a woman, femme, trans, or non-binary playwright of the African diaspora, the residency will provide a salary with benefits and full support to pursue creative work.

NEW YORK CITY: The Public Theater, the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and the Ntozake Shange Literary Trust have partnered to establish the Ntozake Shange Social Justice Theater Residency. Conceived by inaugural playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza, the residency aims to recognize a distinguished woman, femme, trans, or non-binary playwright of the African diaspora. The residency is named in honor of Ntozake Shange, Public Theater artist, Barnard alumna, Obie-winning writer, Black feminist, and fierce advocate for women and the dignity of humankind. This rotating two-year playwriting residency will provide a salary with benefits and full support to pursue their creative work as a playwright. 

Shange’s groundbreaking choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf premiered at the Public in 1976 with direction by Oz Scott, choreography by Paula Moss, and featured Shange as “Lady in Orange.” The production won the 1977 Obie Award for Distinguished Production and transferred to Broadway later that year, where it was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play and Trazana Beverley received the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress. 

In fall of 2019, the Public revived the production for the first time in over 40 years, and in 2022, it transferred to Broadway, directed and choreographed by Camille A. Brown, and earned seven Tony nominations. The original Broadway production of for colored girls… remains the longest-running straight play by an African American writer in Broadway history.

“Despite the many debuts of Shange’s works at the Public Theater, there was nothing named for her; there was no enduring evidence of her legacy within the institution,” said playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza in a statement. “Part of the work of my work, a la Toni Cade Bambara, is ancestral elevation and reverence. Ntozake Shange is my literary mother, and creating the Ntozake Shange Social Justice Playwriting Residency allows me to cement her legacy in the cultural memory of the Public Theater, NYC, and the American theatre at large, while also building my own.”

Dickerson-Despenza continued, “I have crafted a residency that will outlast me; one that will enable women, femmes, and non-binary scholar-playwrights of the African diaspora who help shape the future by writing about and beyond the crises of their time to have a comfortable salary, healthcare, and access to the most prestigious and resourced Off-Broadway theatres and Barnard College, home of Shange’s archives and the groundbreaking Barnard Center for Research on Women.” 

After serving as Tow Playwright-in-Residence from 2019-2020, Dickerson-Despenza made her Public Theater debut in 2021 with cullud wattah, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize-winning play about three generations of Black women living through the water crisis in Flint, Mich. Her upcoming production of shadow/land, directed by Candis C. Jones, will premiere at the Public in April 2023. Currently, she is developing a 10-play Katrina Cycle, which centers climate crisis-induced and state-sanctioned water vulnerabilities and displacement rippling in and beyond New Orleans and the Midwest. 

During her residency, Dickerson-Despenza will focus on writing a new play and formalizing and expanding a podcast series called “The Clearing.” She will also participate in a public event at Barnard in each of the two years, as well as offer masterclasses and other events for Barnard students. 

“We are thrilled about this historic partnership between Barnard, the Public, and the Shange Literary Trust, which uplifts Black women playwrights, giving them visibility, a platform to share their craft, and an opportunity to pass on their knowledge and expertise to the next generation,” said Barnard Professor and BCRW Co-Director Premilla Nadasen in a statement. “Shange, a Barnard graduate, was a trailblazer who went on to become one of the world’s most renowned poets and playwright. We are honored to have Erika Dickerson-Despenza, who builds on Shange’s legacy, as the inaugural recipient of the Ntozake Shange Residency. Erika’s brilliance is evident in her award-winning work, which speaks to pressing social issues in a profound and deeply impactful way.” 

On Thursday, Oct. 13, Barnard will host a special one-night-only event in the Diana Center to commemorate the establishment of this residency. 

The Ntozake Shange Literary Trust was established by Ntozake Shange in 2017 and commissioned to preserve, manage and promote the Shange literary legacy comprising 13 plays, seven novels, and 19 poetry collections.

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