Editor’s Note: In partnership with the Doris Duke Foundation and the Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation, TCG’s THRIVE! Uplifting Theatres of Color initiative offered $1,140,000, equaling 46 grants in 3 categories, to U.S.-based (including Tribal lands and Territories) Black Theatres, Indigenous Theatres, and Theatres of Color (BITOC). In addition to the funds, 21 BITOC receiving RECOGNIZE category grants also participated in REBUILD, a learning cohort working with BIPOC consultants to strengthen their effectiveness in specific areas. The initiative was created with an advisory committee of 14 BIPOC theatre leaders and artists. To further uplift these companies, American Theatre magazine approached myself (Regina Victor, editor of Rescripted) and fellow cultural critic Jose Solís to curate and edit six articles highlighting the RECOGNIZE companies, with each of us guiding three pieces. It was our work to divide and then re-thread these companies together into articles with common themes, source writers and assign them, and edit their drafts, with American Theatre seeing to the final copy edit. These stories are examined through the lens of this year’s critically focused Rising Leaders of Color cohort (Amanda L. Andrei, Citlali Pizarro, and afrikah selah), as well as three Chicago-based writers (Dillon Chitto, Madie Doppelt, and Tina El Gamal). This six-part essay series showcases 21 examples of people doing the work, championing their culture, and finding creative solutions to generational problems. Thank you to Jose for being a wonderful thought partner in this project, and to Emilya Cachapero and Raksak Kongseng for your invitation and support.
“A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world.”
—Susan Sontag, On Style
Theatre is the closest thing we have to magic. Cheesy but true. Theatre has the power to synchronize the breaths of a hundred strangers at once. It unifies people, even if only for an hour or two. Theatre makes magic when the work feels true. Not true as in nonfiction. True as in honest. Honesty that propels the work of art into the world as a thing all on its own.
There’s a fine balance between exemplifying something and commenting on it. Commentary is a step removed. It’s insincere or lacking nuance. You can feel when a play is commenting on something. The topic and the artists have an unbridgeable gap—like the kind of inclusion they sell on a T-shirt at Target. Or a regional theatre run by all white people whose only friends of color are the actors they hire. They work from the outside and try to fill the gaps. Instead I crave work that stages the honesty of an internal experience exploding outward.
In order for institutions to create art that is “a thing in the world,” it needs to include a few key components. These components are my own personal criteria for selecting works that have reach beyond mere commentary:
- Work with geographic specificity. Meaning, how does it participate in the community in which it is rooted? (And yes, it does have to participate in its community.)
- Offer classics with a twist. It’s beautiful to turn backward in order to push forward. There’s so much power to be garnered from our trailblazers. However, when returning to the classics, it’s vital to bring them into the present with specificity. How can these stories serve us today? How might they need to change?
- Invent. It’s too easy for theatre to feel like an industry committed to redos. Remounts, remakes, remixes. As an emerging theatremaker and playwright, seeing new work makes me believe that my work is possible. That I and my fellow emerging artists have a place in this industry. I long for theatre I’ve never seen before, something truly new and surprising. Something that shocks others out of their seat in the audience and into their own creative genius.
Fortunately, there are theatres doing this work and leading with integrity and honest storytelling. These are the places that TCG’s THRIVE! Uplifting Theatres of Color Program is highlighting. This fall, this program awarded over 20 theatres across the country with RECOGNIZE grants. Selection criteria for the RECOGNIZE grants focused specifically on “a deep level of service to their chosen communities” and “a clear vision guiding their ongoing and future work.” These grants are unrestricted and meant to recognize and support the continuation of the recipient theatre companies’ current work. It is an investment in creating art that is a thing in the world all on its own.
Here is a look into the work of three THRIVE! recipients whose work exemplifies the requirements I outlined above: They create new works, invest in the specificity of their location, and insert their communities into classic texts. The impact of these THRIVE! recipients extends beyond the conversations among the theatre community and into the lives of neighbors, friends, and unsuspecting passersby.
National Black Theatre (Harlem, NYC)
National Black Theatre (NBT) has themed their 56th’s season Defiance of Our Bloom. According to the theatre’s website, the season “acknowledges the multitude of systems that try to bury our light, our Culture, and our humanity, whilst highlighting and honoring the science, soul, frequency, and vibrancy of our Bloom.”
This past August, NBT hosted their second annual silent disco, Learn to Love Yourself (LTLY). LTLY celebrated the work and impact of female-identifying DJs and photographers who are creating “a sonic, transformative journey for our community to learn, love, and heal themselves.” This daytime programming over three Saturdays at Uptown Grand Central Plaza offered headphones to join the silent disco dance party and free portraits by accomplished local photographers (Maria J Hackett, Flordalis Espinal, Ayesha Kazim).
Learn to Love Yourself exemplified all that theatre can be. It was both an ode to the history of Black disco in Harlem, and a commitment to community joy through dance and inclusive programming. I mean, how many disco events are child-friendly? It was inventive, community-centered, and a classic genre revitalized.
Currently onstage as part of their main season is the Broadway revival of Purlie Victorious, directed by Kenny Leon and starting Leslie Odom Jr., who inherits the titular role of Purlie from playwright and actor Ossie Davis. Talk about a (modern) classic with a twist! Be sure to check out the rest of NBT’s programming, including their brand new building, set to open in 2026, and Soul Series Lab for swiftly emerging playwrights, directors, and producers.
Teatro Vista (Chicago)
Teatro Vista, or Theater with a View. This Chicago gem, a Latine ensemble theatre, has been reinventing audience engagement since its founding in 1990. Since then, Teatro Vista’s mission has been to “engage, connect, and challenge audience members through Latinx stories that reflect the universality of our humanity.”
Alongside their stage programming, Teatro Vista has an ongoing Digital Hub on their website. This hub is part of the mission created by co-artistic directors Wendy Mateo and Lorena Diaz dubbed “Futurology,” or “the study of current trends that forecast future developments,” which was the unifying theme for Teatro Vista’s 31st season. The Digital Hub houses the freely accessible podcast thriller The Fifth World by Gabriel Ruiz and the moving graphic novel Detective Q, written and created by Marvin Quijada and Gabriel Ruiz. This ongoing and public commitment to community engagement through free digital media programmed into the main season is Futurology at its best: accessible, engaging, and contemporary.
Specificity makes way for universality, and that’s exactly what Teatro Vista is accomplishing with its programming, on and off the stage. Their multimedia style paired with classic texts proves that reverence for historical works and Futurology can go hand in hand. The kickoff to their 2023-24 season, ¡Bernarda!, is a modern twist on Frederico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, opening just in time for Halloween. Written by Emilio Williams and directed by producing artistic director Wendy Mateo, ¡Bernarda!, according to theatre’s website, “remains faithful to the relevance of the original while re-imagining it for a new generation.” The promo further boasts that ¡Bernarda! is a “show that would make Lorca swipe right.”
Hattiloo Theatre (Memphis, Tenn.)
Hattiloo Theatre is the only free-standing Black repertory theatre in five surrounding states, and their dedication to staging Black stories of the past, present, and future garners them a strong regional audience. Their upcoming season is stacked with beloved, acclaimed Black female playwrights. From Suzan-Lori Parks’s Obie-winning Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2, & 3 to Dominique Morisseau’s Confederates, their stage is committed to historical narratives with a twist for 2023-24.
Hattiloo’s commitment to celebrating and uplifting Black voices goes beyond the stage. Their pay-what-you-can Self-Identity Theatre Camp lies at the heart of the impact they have on their community. This theatre summer camp for 10- to 13-year-olds focuses on the study and practice of various elements of Black culture, as well as providing a space for self-expression and bolstering self-love. The name itself, Hattiloo, is a combination of artistic director Ekundayo Bandele’s two daughters, Hatshepsut (Hatti) and Oluremi (Loo). With family at the center, Hattiloo Theatre prioritizes the celebration and education of Black youth in Memphis and beyond.
Currently Onstage (or in a Digital Futurology Hub)
As mentioned, National Black Theatre, Teatro Vista, and Hattiloo Theatre are just a few of the 20-plus selected RECOGNIZE grant recipients that are creating exciting work. I encourage you to visit the full list of recipients, and check out what’s currently playing on their stages across the country below:
AlterTheater: Br’er Peach (audio play)
East West Players: Spring Awakening (closes Nov. 19)
Junebug Productions: Gomela (filmed production)
National Black Theatre: Purlie Victorious (closes Jan. 7th)
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company: New Roots Theatre Festival (Nov. 10-12)
Silk Road Rising: Various video play offerings
Teatro Vista: ¡Bernarda! (closes Nov. 19)
Madie Doppelt (she/her) is a Chicago-based theatre artist and enthusiastic contributing writer at Rescripted. She is the associate artistic director of the Actors Gymnasium and a graduate of the Theatre School at DePaul University.
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