ArtsATL Writes: BWS…voice to real stories seldom told in theatre

September 25th, 2021

“Black Women Speak initiative aims to give voice to real stories seldom told in theater”

OCTOBER 28, 2021

Horizon Theatre Company kicks off an innovative initiative, the New Georgia Woman Project: Black Women Speakthis weekend. This “Fall First Look” at the project offers audiences, both in person and over Zoom, the opportunity to not only watch stories forged from real conversations but also the chance to meet and discuss the work with the artists driving it.

Black Women Speak is the brainchild of Horizon Associate Artistic Producer Marguerite Hannah, who said the idea grew out of the dramatic collision of different ideas accelerated by the events of 2020.

Horizon Theatre Associate Artistic Producer Marguerite Hannah had the seed of an idea that evolved into the New Georgia Woman Project: Black Women Speak.

Hannah, who serves on the boards for Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Alliance Theatre, Arena Stage and others, said she kept having conversations early in the pandemic with fellow arts professionals about whether the arts are essential. This fed into her gnawing concern about how the arts could possibly be so if art-makers no longer knew their own audiences and communities well, she said.

And then there was the fact that not enough stories about Black women were being told on stage — something that Hannah had experienced firsthand for 35 years as an actor, producer and director.

“For me, it was important not only to expand the theatrical canon of plays about and by Black women but to hear from everyday Black women,” she said. “Right now, we are all in the shadow of our sisters that are at the forefront of changing the world or holding back the walls of the dams. But it was also, ‘What are women like me thinking? The ones that aren’t being written up and profiled on MSNBC. What are we thinking, what are we feeling?’

To develop the Black Women Speak plays, Horizon commissioned nine playwrights — four relatively established writers and five emerging talents — and gathered more than 150 Black women from metro Atlanta and across the South to join a series of small group conversations. Hannah said that this turned into 25-plus two-hour “Coffee Chats” over Zoom since the kickoff in June.

The conversations would begin with prompts, with topics ranging from travel, voting, religion, or even more specific questions such as one about the fictional African country from Marvel Comics: “If Wakanda were a real place, what part of it would you want?”

Hannah carefully organized each session to keep them small and intimate, around six to 12 participants on average. The playwrights often would join, but also could watch the recordings afterwards. The space they fostered together throughout the process has been described as safe, open and inclusive. And at times, in ways that were sometimes surprising to Hannah, it sparked catharsis.

“At the end of the chat one night, this woman said, ‘This has been so good I don’t think I need to go to therapy,’” she recalled. “The conversations were able to celebrate who you are but also talk about traveling, taking a nap, having permission to say no.”

From these Coffee Chats, the nine playwrights are creating new scripts, featuring dynamic Black women characters, in a wide variety of genres and formats. The chats will continue into 2022 and, as part of the project, Horizon will nurture the plays toward full-fledged production over the next five years. 

The four established playwrights who will have scenes showcased at the “First Look” are Candrice Jones (The Golden Hours), AriDy Nox (Homegirls), A’ndrea J. Wilson (Lead Me Home) and Shay Youngblood (Boss Black Ladies and Tender-hearted Girls).

“I was jazzed about the idea of creating a show in deep concert with Black women,” said New York playwright AriDy Nox.

A New York City resident who grew up in Stone Mountain and earned her bachelor’s degree at Spelman College, Nox said that her ties to the South and specifically Atlanta continue to inform her work as a writer. That’s a factor in why she felt drawn to this project.

“The real insight that comes from listening to Black women within our particular social context has always been a huge underlying concept of my plays,” she said. “I was jazzed about the idea of creating a show in deep concert with Black women about what does it mean to return to our roots and for playwrights to be amplifiers and megaphones for the community.”

Gravitating toward magical realism and science fiction, Nox has penned works including a “historical reimagining” of the life of Sally Hemmings, Black Girl in Paris (2020), and the “afrofuturist ecopocalypse musical” Metropolis (2019). “Weird is a good descriptor of most of the things I write,” said the Tisch School of the Performing Arts at NYU graduate.

Shay Youngblood, whose playwrighting credits include Shaking the Mess Out of Misery, Talking Bones and Amazing Grace, calls her Boss Ladies and Tender-hearted Girls a “love letter to all Black women.

“I want people to come to this play and walk away feeling new ways of looking at this present moment and the future,” Youngblood said. “I want them to laugh and laugh so hard, they cry. I want them to experience some of the emotions that these women inspired in me.”

The casts for each show include some newer performers along with Atlanta favorites, including Cynthia D. Barker and Enoch King. The writers will workshop their plays in November and December before moving into full readings in January and February.

Along with that initial core of four writers,Horizon also has formed an Emerging Playwrights Collective that includes five Atlanta-based playwrights, Tramaine Brathwaite, Amina McIntyre, Chiwuzo Ife Okwumabua, Kelundra Smith and Dana Stringer. These writers will have their plays read in summer 2022.

Both cohorts will have full readings next year for theaters that are members of the National New Play Network, with the aim of landing a full-scale production for each of the nine new plays.

“First Look” performances will take place in person at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Alpharetta Arts Center and November 5-7 at Horizon Theatre. Each night will also be livestreamed on Zoom. In-person and virtual tickets are free and available here. COVID policies for the theater can be found here.