The Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes: Horizon Theatre tries to become more inclusive onstage and off

October 8th, 2021

It is often true that if you don’t set an intention for something you want to happen, it won’t.

It’s also true that if you don’t put dedicated action behind the intention, it certainly won’t come to pass.

Take, for instance, Horizon Theatre Company’s desire to expand its Black audience as well as produce more plays by Black playwrights. For nearly 20 years, the theater has tried to build both constituencies, first by showcasing one play each summer designed to appeal to Black audiences, particularly Black women. In a city such as Atlanta, with a significant and engaged Black cultural class, the move made sense even if it did give the appearance of earmarking one show a season as The Black Show. While Black people attended other productions throughout a season, and non-Black audiences attended the summer show, the Black audience was underserved. Then, three or four years ago, the theater decided to add another play to its annual season schedules, again, aimed at Black or non-white audiences.

Despite the number of Black playwrights out there working, the Horizon found it often got out-bid by other local theaters for the rights to produce popular plays by Black artists. It also didn’t have as many relationships as it wanted to with young, up-and-coming playwrights of color who would trust the theater with their work as they were trying to establish themselves as writers to watch.

“We are struggling every year to find things that we want to produce, that the audience wants to see,” said Lisa Adler, co-founder and co-artistic producing director of the Horizon. “So we said, let’s see if we can put a pipeline in place to make that happen.”

The result is a new initiative called the “New Georgia Woman Project: Black Women Speak.” Organized and led by Marguerite Hannah, Horizon’s Associate Artistic producer, the project is designed to be an incubator for both established and newer playwrights. In an effort to make sure the resulting work resonates with its target audience, this summer the theater invited 170 Black women from across metro Atlanta — some Horizon patrons, some not — to participate in virtual “coffee chats.”

In 21 chats held since July, the topics have ranged from parenting to traveling to health and religion, all through the experience of going through this life as a Black woman. The program’s inaugural nine playwrights joined the chats, mostly to listen. It’s from these candid conversations that the Horizon is hopeful their company will become more diverse, and writers of color will get a better shot at having their work produced.

“We’re not a monolith and we’re tired of the larger population thinking of us as a monolith,” said Hannah.

“It’s all valid”

Hannah said the theater did a national search for the playwrights but required them to either have a strong connection to the South or live in the South.

There are four established playwrights: CandriceJones, AriDy Knox, A’ndrea J. Wilson, and Shay Youngblood. The emerging playwrights are: Tramaine Brathwaite, Amina McIntyre, Chiwuzo Ife Okwumabua, Kelundra Smith and Dana L. Stringer.

That the program is launching now is significant. Adler said the Horizon, along with other theaters across the country, have faced an onslaught of criticism since the killing of George Floyd by police forced a racial reckoning in many corners of American life. After the scathing manifesto, “We See You White American Theatre,” was conceived and released by some of theater’s most celebrated artists, directors and producers of color (and a few white allies) last summer, theaters around the country have been grappling with its mandate: do better with inclusion and diversity both onstage and off.

“We know that in the theater world, it is top of mind of every single conversation that I have,” Adler said. “There is no conversation in which that is not at least part of the subject matter of whatever meeting I’m in, and we’ve been in a lot of meetings nationally and locally.”

The national conversations struck a nerve: At least seven new plays opening on Broadway this fall are by Black writers. According to a New York Times report, in the three years prior to the pandemic, there had only been three, total.

Adler said her theater — as well as others locally — has had its share of criticism as well.

“We have not been immune,” Adler said. “It’s all valid and we try to do better.”

“Hear these stories”

The Horizon produced writer Shay Youngblood’s early work in the late 1980s, in what was the start of the artist’s long, prolific career. Youngblood has sat in on several of the coffee chats. So far about 70 of the invited women have joined at least one gathering. Youngblood said that while the conversations have been valuable to her as a Black woman, as a playwright she often works in isolation creating trajectories for imaginary Black lives that she’s hopeful resonate with real women. The chats have created a community of other playwrights like her, she said, but they’ve also given her the chance to hear the unvarnished thoughts of Black women struggling with life but also rejoicing in it.

“What has grown out of the coffee chats has been unbelievable,” Hannah said. “It has become like bridge clubs used to be in my mother’s generation. At the end of it you hear women say, ‘Wow. This was so good I don’t need to go to therapy this week. We have common bonds. We’re affirming each other, but honoring our diversity.”

In a recent conversation about travel, there were stories of trips to far flung places pre-pandemic, but one woman confessed that travel wasn’t a priority for her because of her family’s finances. But the woman has come up with an alternative.

“She and some other friends get together and go out and just for a night they’re not mommies,” Youngblood said. “It gives them a chance to be themselves.”

Another upcoming chat will be about the men in their lives. But even with such unfettered access to private thoughts, Youngblood said neither she nor any of the other writers are scripting plays directly based on what they hear or on any one person. Instead, the conversations are serving as catalysts for larger stories.

“I’m writing to and for Black women, but I’m not writing only for Black women,” Youngblood said. “I want other people to come to the theater and hear these stories and perhaps be educated.”

The established writers turn early drafts of their work in to Hannah in November and by late January or early February there will be public readings of some of the plays. The emerging writers will turn in drafts in spring. Then, some time in 2023 or perhaps even late 2022, some of those works will make it to the Horizon stage.