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Making Space for Brown Girls: Dominique Morisseau

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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If I asked you right now to name five black female playwrights, could you do it? And no, Lorraine Hansberry doesn’t count. If your answer to this was no, we have a serious problem. Now, it’s not entirely your fault as I often find myself struggling to come up with names off the top of my head. Recalling my days in theatre history classes in college, I could name plays written by Euripides and Shakespeare or Neil Simon and Nora Ephron, but as I sat there as the only black woman in that class, I couldn’t help but feel as though something was missing. Where’s my history?

DominiqueMorisseau-HeadshotFrom that moment forward I felt I owed it to myself, and the many black female playwrights out there to find as much content as I could. Insert Dominique Morisseau, a Detroit native making a name for herself all across New York City and beyond.

Her playwriting credits include Detroit ’67 (Public Theater; Classical Theatre of Harlem/NBT; Northlight Theatre), Sunset Baby (Labyrinth Theater Co – NYC; Gate Theater- London), and Follow Me To Nellie’s (O’Neill; Premiere Stages). As well as having produced other original works with the Hip Hop Theater Festival, Penn State University, American Theatre of Harlem, and The New Group.  Her work has also been published in New York Times bestseller, Chicken Soup for the African American Soul and the Harlem-based literary journal, Signifyin’ Harlem.

Most of her inspiration for her plays is a result of conversations in communities and the people that she is writing about. Where a common process of playwriting is overhearing dialogue on a train or a bus, Morisseau takes it one step further.

“I have to be able to engage with people and have a conversation with them and be able to go into the community to feel like I can truly bring justice to them.”

Once she does that she begins her writing process, which includes lots of color and music.

“Music really lands me in the time period or region. It helps me recapture the dialect and the words that are popular, the isms, the sayings. That process gets me textured in the world I’m writing about,” she tells the American Theatre Wing.

Well that process seems to be working for her, as her play Detroit ’67 earned her the prestigious Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama in 2014. Her play was unanimously voted on by jury members who stated her play “explores an explosive and decisive moment in a great American city. The jury was completely drawn into the world of Detroit ’67, whose compelling characters struggle with racial tension and economic instability. The jury also felt strongly that the play powerfully exemplifies the goals of the Kennedy Prize. Detroit ’67 is a work grounded in historical understanding that also comments meaningfully on the pressing issues of our day.”

Detroit ’67 had its world premiere at The Public Theater in 2013 and was presented in association with the Classical Theater of Harlem and the National Black Theater.

The Public Theater characterized it as the following:

It’s 1967 in Detroit and Motown music gets the party started. Chelle and her brother Lank transform their basement into an after-hours joint to make ends meet. But when a mysterious woman winds her way into their lives, the siblings clash over much more than family business. As their pent-up feelings erupt, so does their city, and the flames of the ’67 Detroit riots engulf them all.

The play is the first of a 3-play cycle on her hometown Detroit, entitled The Detroit Projects, which is still in development.

Morisseau, who is an alumni of the Public Theater Emerging Writer’s Group, the Women’s Project Playwrights Lab, and Lark Playwrights’ Workshop, has an extensive list honors to her name including; a Jane Chambers Playwriting Award honoree, a two-time NAACP Image Award recipient, a runner-up for the Princess Grace Award, a recipient of the Elizabeth George commission from South Coast Rep, a commendation honoree for the Primus Prize by the American Theatre Critics Association, winner of the Barrie and Bernice Stavis Playwriting Award, the Weissberger Award for Playwriting, the U of M – Detroit Center Emerging Leader Award, a Lark/PoNY (Playwrights of New York) Fellow. With awards like that, it would be hard to ignore her. In an interview with the American Theatre Wing she expressed what it meant to be a woman of color working in theatre.

“I’m a woman of color, a black woman playwright. I’m a part of a marginalized class in theatre right now, we are still working to make space for ourselves, to be seen on stage, and produced on stage. That means I have to get in conversation with theaters often and advocate for my work and advocate for a new audience. So that what’s in theaters right now, is not the only audience that has to exist. So that, theatre audiences can start becoming more diverse just like the writers who are writing for theatre – which I’m apart of. So, it’s about making space for everyone’s voice to be heard.”

Well Ms. Morisseau, I hear you loud and clear and I can’t wait for Dominique’s upcoming projects. Which include the world premiere of Paradise Blue, the second installment of her 3-play cycle, The Detroit Projects. The play will be premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, directed by Tony Award-winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson and starring Tony Award-nominee De’Adre Aziza, Golden Globe-nominee Blair Underwood, and Andre Holland. The play runs from July 22 till August 2. Tickets can be purchased on the Williamstown Theatre Festival website, here.

Blue (Underwood), a gifted trumpeter, contemplates selling his once-vibrant jazz club in Detroit’s Blackbottom neighborhood to shake free the demons of his past and better his life. But where does that leave his devoted Pumpkin, who has dreams of her own? And what does it mean for the club’s resident bebop band? When a mysterious woman with a walk that drives men mad (Aziza) comes to town with her own plans, everyone’s world is turned upside down. This dynamic and musically-infused drama shines light on the challenges of building a better future on the foundation of what our predecessors have left us.

Also in the works, as recently published by Broadway Black, Morisseau is guest curator for The New Black Festival, which just commissioned five black playwrights for UN-TAMED: HAIR BODY ATTITUDE, coming this fall.

2015 is surely to be a year for black female playwrights and I’m glad to be able to witness it. So that when I’m teaching in my performing arts classes in Brooklyn in the fall, my students will not have to feel like I did. They will have a range of black playwrights and artists to draw inspiration from and be inspired by.

It’s clear that she is an artist who believes wholeheartedly in the power and strength of community and diverse storytelling.

Dominique Morisseau, thank you for being Broadway Black.

Theatre Educator. Advocate for Accessibility. Activist. Rebel. Artist. Avid Theatergoer. I Just Might Be A Black Shubert In The Making. Harry Belafonte's Long Lost Daughter. Auntie Audra Always. Cynthia Give Me Back My Edges.

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Power’s Omari Hardwick On How Denzel Washington Impacted His Life

Jerrica White

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Power is back in full swing and in its fourth season. Omari Hardwick is still fine as hell. Anika Noni Rose is giving her best praise in her role this season.

It goes without saying that we at Broadway Black are here for Power and we’re tuned in every Sunday. We’re also tuned into the story of generosity and brotherhood between Omari and Broadway Black legend, Denzel Washington.

The struggle is real and for Hardwick, that struggle is no different from anyone else. Before he made it big, he was substitute teaching and coaching football; where coincidentally his coaching John David led to a relationship with Denzel Washington and his wife, Pauletta.

“They gave me shelter when I didn’t have a place to stay or whatever but they sort of allowed me to be close enough to the family so I sort of transitioned into getting an agent…the whole thing…doing all these odd jobs.”

Hardwick was seconds away from signing on to be a firefighter before he booked a role with Spike Lee for “Sucker Free City.” However, things went wrong as they sometimes will, and the deal fell through. Although “The funds were low and the debts were high” the Washington’s gave Hardwick a reason “to smile, when he wanted to sigh.”

Well we’re surely happy Hardwick is giving his best life as “Ghost” on Power. Washington continues to grant gifts as he brings August Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle to HBO, with the exception of Fences.

Check out the full interview between “The Real’s” Loni Love and Omari Hardwick HERE.

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Inspiration

WATCH! A Poet & A Playwright: Staceyann Chin & Donja Love Inspire on PBS’ First Person

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I get excited when I see artists and creative producers seeking to increase visibility about diversity within black queer communities. Queerness like Blackness includes a wide spectrum of experiences. The visibility of these experiences is needed to understand the contributions Black Queer people make to society and see clearly the struggles Black Queer people still face.  First Person, the PBS Digital Studios show about gender identity, sexuality and queer community hosted by Aaryn Lang, Donald Shorter, Kirya Traber and Tonyln Sideco, brings these narratives to the forefront.  First Person recently interviewed gay Black playwright Donja R. Love and nationally renowned Black lesbian poet and activist Staceyann Chin about their lives.

Donja R. Love is a Philadelphia born and raised Afro-Queer playwright, poet, and filmmaker.  In Season 2  Episode 1: Boundless Black Masculinity,  Donja Love shares his experience of surviving depression and suicide ideation, expanding notions of Black masculinity, and what he refers to as the radical power of “softness.” Love discusses coming out, his strong relationship with his parents and offers advice to his younger self.

In Season 2 Episode 2: The Evolution of Staceyann Chin, spoken-word poet Staceyann Chin talks about growing up in Jamaica when derogatory words were words available to identify queer people or lesbians. This lack of language led to a late discovery that she was a lesbian. While attending college in Jamaica, the young poet was sexually assaulted by 13 boys after she began verbally declaring her sexuality on campus. Chin talks about her journey to find her voice as an activist and raising a child as a single lesbian.

Love and Chin offer tender reflective testimony about their queerness. For these artists, their queer joy, queer struggle, queer experiences are intersectional and deeply connected to systems of race, gender, class, and mental health. The richness in their narratives is bolding and inspiring offering a generous honest what it means to be black, queer and creatives.

Staceyann Chin is currently living in NYC with her daughter and is on tour with Jill Scott. 

Donja Love is now preparing to make his Off-Broadway debut with Sugar In Our Wounds at Manhattan Theater Club. The play is one play of a trilogy titled The Love Plays, that explores Queer Love during pivotal moments in Black History.

First Person can be seen online at PBS or on Youtube 

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Broadway Black Exclusive

Exclusive: Denée Benton and Okieriete Onaodowan Talk Great Comet, Diversity & Artivism

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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comet
On a gloomy day more characteristic of February than May, the Russian Samovar served as the perfect venue for a sit-down with Tony and Drama League nominee Denée Benton, to discuss her role in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.

Image: Chad Bata

We’re also joined by her soon-to-be co-star Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, who coincidentally is wearing an outfit matching that of Benton. Although these two have not begun rehearsals yet, the chemistry and coordination is perhaps best described as prelude of what’s to come this July when the two play scene partners in a truly revolutionary move for Broadway;

Two Black actors leading a show that encourages inclusive casting and ignores gender norms set in Moscow in 1812. How “non-traditional.” But is it really?

Benton, who plays Natasha with whimsical naïveté, has the role of her dreams in her Broadway debut further inspired by her never having to deny her Blackness to do it.

“I remember having my hair texture was very important to [the creative team] and important to me. I was like, ‘I couldn’t let this moment pass by for a Black woman in all of her Blackness being Natasha.’ I thought it was just very important but the fact that there’s a creative team that shares the consciousness and none of them are people of color, it’s just… it was incredible to me.”

This same consciousness of the creative team was also very key throughout her audition process. Having auditioned previously for director Rachel Chavin and writer Dave Malloy, any initial hesitations about going out for Great Comet dissipated once she got her hands on the material and fell in love with the music and her character, adding “there was synergy and everything was right and that’s when I knew it was mine.”

 

Image: DP Jolly

 

Denée’s debut performance earned the actress a Theatre World Award and her first Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical earlier this month.

On the other hand, Onaodowan was quite busy playing the tailor-turned-spy Hercules Mulligan and soft-spoken James Madison in Broadway’s hit Hamilton when he received the call. “Rachel called on my second to last show of Hamilton. We were talking about the Ghostlight Project and she told me, ‘Actually I want you to be Pierre.’

Image: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

“I learned ‘Dust and Ashes’ and I played some for the producers and then I worked with a piano teacher. The main thing was to make sure I could play the piano.” Now in early stages of preparations, Onaodowan commits to getting the technicalities and nuances of Pierre out of the way before deep-diving into his story. We look forward to seeing “Oak” on stage again, but this time on 45th street, the same street declared “Broadway Black Street” during the 2015-2016 season where The Great Comet plays nightly.

As the conversation progressed, we decided, this year’s line-up, although diverse, lost a bit of steam from what it once was. The question now is, “whose shoulders does the responsibility of equal representation lie?” For Onaodowan, “It’s tricky, but it’s not tricky. It’s really up to those who put on shows, who are responsible for what goes out and what we see. As an actor, I can do as much as I can, but until I start producing shows myself, there’s only so much that I can do or say right now.

“It’s just understanding. Broadway is in a weird spot because there’s only so many seats you can sell, and it’s a risk taking on something that may be culturally relevant or moving the needle along; but again, it’s business. It’s financially making your money back and making a profit.”

He adds the best part of the success from Hamilton isn’t its diversity, per say, but that Hamilton is “terribly profitable.” That “these people and this music, this style/genre of music is profitable so, hopefully, producers say ‘Hey I can make a dollar.’”

great comet

Image: DP Jolly

Similarly, Denée chimes in: “What I found is you have a lot of well-meaning creative teams who are liberal people, who have good hearts but haven’t necessarily done the research in what it means to break a system that was based on systematic racism.” That said, it will take creative teams like those of The Great Comet to step outside of the box, for there to ever be any true progress for actors of color.

Onaodowan is also aware it doesn’t solely fall on those who make the shows, but those who see the shows. “[Ticket-holders] buy tickets. If you see a show that is diverse, even if you’re not crazy about it, go out and support it because you’re saying ‘I support diverse theatre and there’s an avenue for this,’ it can be profitable.”

Still, both actors maintain hope for the future; hopefully, one that shines as bright as the light fixture in the finale of The Great Comet.

With the way social media has taken off, it allows some of our favorite stars to interact with fans about upcoming projects or simply enlighten them about issues that affect society, helping them stay optimistic and outspoken. It’s “artivism,” as the BAC calls it. Something both Benton and Onaodowan haven’t taken lightly. Benton, this past Black History Month, launched what she calls the “Black Princess Project” to highlight Black royalty that we otherwise wouldn’t have learned.

great comet

Image: DP Jolly

“That’s the only reason fame matters, because you have such a wide platform and, nowadays, if they won’t teach it in our history books, you can just post it and I like that. For me, it’s important. This would all start to feel meaningless if I couldn’t use [my platform] to change something or say something.”

As the son of Nigerian immigrants, Onaodowan has remained outspoken about immigration rights, giving the keynote address to a crowd of new citizens naturalized in New York City last September.

He also stresses the importance of artists using their voices to uplift communities and speak out about what matters. “I think artists do have a [civic] responsibility at some point. I always say as artists, you are responsible. If you have that platform you are responsible for what you put out there, and as much as you would love to just do your art, when you reach a certain level there’s [sic] certain things that come with your job.

“I don’t know how to write grants or run a non-for-profit or anything like that. But, in my lane, what I can do is use this platform of how many thousand people listen to me to try to put something positive out in my own personal way. It’s important to use your platform to say something because people listen.”

Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan joins Denée Benton in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 on July 3rd.

For tickets, follow the Great Comet.

 

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Protected: Get Your War Clothes On: Billy Porter Energizes in GLAAD Acceptance Speech

Jerrica White

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Okieriete Onaodowan to Host 3rd Annual Shubert Foundation High School Theatre Festival

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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Before picking up the accordion for his upcoming run in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, from the original cast of Hamilton, will host the third annual Shubert Foundation High School Theatre Festival for New York City Public Schools.

On Monday, March 13th at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre (239 West 45th Street) at 7 p.m, more than 100 students from five New York City high schools across the city make their Broadway debuts performing from their selected winter musicals or plays.

Additional guest artist presenters include Shoba Narayan, Nicholas Belton, and Paul Pinto of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, with cast members from Dear Evan Hansen.

A panel of professional theatre artists and theatre educators selected a total of five productions from a pool of 25 schools. Students from the chosen schools will present excerpted scenes and musical numbers from:

The Music Man: Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (Queens)
Almost, Maine: Brooklyn High School of the Arts (Brooklyn)
Company: Susan E. Wagner High School (Staten Island)
Angels In America: Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts (Manhattan)
Into The Woods: Edward R. Murrow High School (Brooklyn)

School principals and teachers, along with student family members, will attend to support their young performers representing four of the five boroughs, along with Philip J. Smith, Chairman of The Shubert Organization and Robert E. Wankel, President of The Shubert Organization.

New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña states:

“Theatre instruction teaches students the importance of rehearsing while building self-confidence and strengthening public speaking skills. These are critical skills that prepare students for college, careers and beyond. That’s why I’m so pleased that we continue to expand access to theatre programs and arts education across the City. In particular, we are committed to leveraging the incredible connections we have to New York City’s rich cultural resources and developing meaningful arts partnerships with organisations like Shubert.”

According to the press release:

“The High School Theatre Festival showcases the ongoing and excellent theatre work currently taking place in NYC public high schools, as well as highlighting the positive effects of theatre study on skills for the stage and in life: collaboration, artistry, discipline, focus, literacy, student voice, self-awareness, presence, active listening and empathy.”

Peter Avery, the Festival’s producer and the Director of Theater for the NYC Department of Education, further expressed the importance of the festival, and the impact it might have:

“How inspiring for our student performers to have such unique support for their Broadway debut of their show excerpts, from a professional tech crew and pit musicians to the broader embrace of the theatre community. Given today’s discourse, it is all the more crucial to celebrate the next generation of diverse, talented artists in our NYC public schools. These young men and women, representing a myriad of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, expand the definition of casting and collaborate to produce meaningful theatre for others.”

Sponsored by The Shubert Foundation in partnership with the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE), the festival focuses on the impact a full theatre program might have on students and school communities, and further enables them to see theatre and the arts as a potential career path. Since 2005, The Shubert Foundation has provided more than $4.3 million to the New York City Department of Education for Theatre/Arts programs.

For more information, visit Shubert Foundation.

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Events and Happenings

​The Broadway Black Guide to Carrying Your “Wokeness” Through March

Jerrica White

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Right off the heels of the most exhausting* time to be woke for those of us blessed and basking in our best melanin lives–Black History Month–is March. March is Women’s History Month.

And today, March 8, is International Women’s Day.

Now, what is International Women’s Day? Ain’t it already Women’s History Month?

Let’s be real, raise your hand if you remembered it is Women’s History Month.

BUUUUURLEY.

Alright. It is what it is and there’s work that needs to be done to use this time to educate and elevate our stories. But hey, that’s why we’re here talking, right?

As described by the UN, International Women’s Day is “a day when women are recognized for their achievements without regard to divisions, whether national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political. International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and across Europe.”

Okay, okay, so what about this strike going on? The demonstrations?

No, the Deltas did not just leave their National Convention. The sea of red you’re seeing is for A Day Without Women. The leaders of The Women’s March have urged us to come together in economic solidarity to recognize the value that women hold, but more importantly, to acknowledge and rise against the inequality in: lower wages, discrimination, sexual harassment, and job insecurity.

A few of our Broadway Black favorites in formation.

 

Alright. I’ve got on my RED, what else can I do?

  • Women take the day off, from paid and unpaid labor.
    • Can’t take off? I get it. Me either. But educate with love, why you’re (men included) wearing red.
  • Avoid shopping for one day (with exceptions for small, women- and minority-owned businesses).

Like Black history month, every day can be used to educate, love, and support the contributions Women make in the world. Here at Broadway Black we’re in the business of shinning a light on the women making noise on and off the stage.

Check out our compilation remembering and saluting women who are out here doing the dang thing!

How are you celebrating International Women’s Day? Tweet us pictures of you standing in solidarity!

 

*Exhausting: yea, I said it, exhausting. When you have folks trying to efface the little amount of consistent and committed time dedicated to honoring the achievements of our ancestors and those who continue in their path, by moving to change the focus to the broadened “Great Americans Day,” I gotta go. Or bosses and coworkers catering fried chicken and macaroni as their only nod to our heritage. #PermanentEyeRoll Or referencing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as if he is the only African American who walked this green earth. It is exhausting. Also, my hat is off to all of you in the trenches of Facebook comments and Twitter mentions because *in my best Drake voice* they don’t make no award for that, but y’all deserve #trophies for your commitment to education with a side of shade and tea.

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Twitter : @BroadwayBlack

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