Monday, February 25, 2013

Black History Month & Theatre

Contributed by Keith Josef Adkins

Aw, good ole black history month. That special time of year when theaters produce black content (new or classic) and black theater artists are finally in high demand. A steady paycheck for four weeks in February is a breath of fresh air (or should I say some paid rent).

I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between theaters and Black History Month. Sometimes it illuminates the lack (or interest or financial trust) in black story throughout the year. Sometimes it’s a reminder that the black experience is potentially an after-thought in the day-to-day of theatermakers, or worse, some awkward racial obligation. It’s 2013 and most of us realize black people are not a monolithic group. Black people represent nearly every nationality, language, religious affiliation and culinary lifestyle (macrobiotics included). Some black people have Korean grandmothers, prefer to live in Detroit, refuse to wear name-brands, couldn’t breath without a name-brand, want to free Mumia, worship Beyonce, or ready to flee to the interior of Brazil if one more person strips down to their underwear and does the “Harlem Shake”.

As an artist who knows my family history, I consider Black History Month an opportunity to shine an extra special light on a history I spend every day celebrating. However, I would encourage everyone to use the entire year to study everyone’s histories. I really believe the more we know about each other, the more we’ll realize how tangled our lives. And hey, if we realize our lives are truly tangled, maybe we’ll demand theaters to shine the spotlight not just in the month of February, but perhaps the entire year.


Keith Josef Adkins is a playwright, screenwriter and artistic director. His plays include Sugar and Needles (2013 Prototype Production at Epic Theater – NYC), Sweet Home (2012 production MPAACT Theater Company – Chicago), The Final Days of Negro-ville (2012 Playwrights Foundation Rough Reading Series – San Francisco, 2011 Represent Festival at A.C.T. – Seattle), The Last Saint on Sugar Hill (2011 production MPAACT Theater Company), Safe House, The Dangerous, Farewell Miss Cotton, Pitbulls, among others. Keith’s play Sweet Home just earned six nominations (including Best Script) from the African American Theater Alliance in Chicago, his play The Last Saint on Sugar Hill recently earned a 2012 Jeff nomination for Best New Work in Chicago. He was also recently named resident playwright (2012) for MPAACT Theater in Chicago and Epic Theatre Ensemble in New York City. His awards include a 2010 Gateway commission from the Obie Award-winning Epic Theatre, a 2010 A Contemporary Theatre/Hansberry Project Commission, a 2009 New Professional Theater Playwright Award, a 2009 New York State Council on the Arts playwriting grant, a 2008 Kesselring Fellowship nomination, among others Keith has been published in Humana Festival 2003 – The Complete Plays, Playscripts, The Best Women’s Stage Monologues 2005, and African Voices. He is featured in the NAACP’S Crisis Magazine winter 2012 edition as “four writers to watch”. Keith was also recently selected into the University of Iowa Theater Department’s Distinguished Alumni Gallery. Keith worked as a TV writer on the CW hit comedy "Girlfriends". His feature film script The Disappearing is in development with SimonSays Entertainment (2010 Sundance’s Night Catches Us with Anthony Mackie). Keith also worked as a story editor on the critically-acclaimed feature film Gun Hill Road, which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. In 2010, Keith co-founded The New Black Fest, a festival of new and provocative playwriting, music and discussion from the African Diaspora. He serves as co-artistic director. In 2011, Keith also co-founded the American Slavery Project, a five-year series of plays and conversations around the topic of slavery and the Civil War to complement the Civil War’s sesquicentennial.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sheer joy + raw theater ambition = panic attack

Contributed by Michelle T. Johnson

I've never been known for doing things the easy way and producing my play in New York City before putting it on its feet in my home town of Kansas City is no exception.

Wiccans in the 'Hood was originally written to debut at the 2013 Kansas City Fringe Festival. As a playwright, I was excited to be organized enough to have cast and crew in place by last Fall.

But I couldn't leave well enough alone.

I hear about the Midwinter Madness Festival in New York City last October, enter my play  and next thing I know, the festival is saying yes.

Sheer joy plus raw theater ambition equaled  panic attack.

So, by late November, suddenly I'm trying to figure out how to put a five-person, one-act play in the Big Apple in the next three months when I have no money and don't know any directors or actors in New York City.

While I did briefly think about flying my Kansas City cast and crew to NYC, when  I crunched those numbers I figured building a rocket ship in my backyard with tin foil and left over wasabi paste would be easier.

So, with my trusty little iPhone I found myself creating an Indiegogo campaign to raise money and using the wonders of Google and Twitter to find the amazing NYC director Kevin R. Free to direct my play. And Kevin was able to find James Masciovecchio to be the assistant stage manager and assistant director and actors Kimberlee Walker, Bloo Rodriguez, Michael Murray,  Samantha Debicki and Shay Gines to bring it all to life.

From my home in Kansas City and with the help of associate producer Vicki Vodrey (a friend and Kansas City playwright who has self-produced two of her plays in NYC festivals) I was able to pull off the miracle that allowed me to see Wiccans in the 'Hood premiere in New York City before my Kansas City cast and director has a chance to have one rehearsal.

The biggest challenge to doing it this way has been one leap of faith after another. While I'm not a control freak, like any one who has artistic vision about their own work, it's been difficult to surrender as much as I've had to.

What I've learned the most from this process is that whether you're self-directing a play that will be 10 minutes from your house or 2,000 miles away, you have to trust in the collaborative spirit of theater. You have to trust and believe that the people you entrust your story to will live up to that trust so that it all works out.

And when it does, it may not be like turning water in to wine, but it sure feels that way.

Wiccans in the 'Hood will be part of the Third Annual Midwinter Madness Festival at Roy Arias Stage II, 300 West 43rd Street, 4th Floor · Tickets on sale through Feb 23.

 NYTheate Interview


Michelle T. Johnson is a Kansas City area native who works in the diversity field nationally and locally as a national speaker and writer. She's a former journalist and former employment attorney of several years.

In addition to her three published books on workplace diversity, Johnson is the "Diversity Diva" whose freelance column has run twice a month in the Kansas City Star's Business section since 2008.

As a playwright, her plays have been produced in the Barnplayer's "2011 Six By Ten Festival," the 2012 Kansas City Fringe Festival and by Potluck Productions in 2012. She has been selected as a featured playwright by the Unicorn Theater's Writer Showcase in February 2013. Johnson's play "Wiccans in the 'Hood" makes it World Premiere in February 2013 where it has been selected for the "Midwinter Madness Short Play Festival" in New York City. The Kansas City premiere of "Wiccans in the 'Hood" will take place in the 2013 Kansas City Fringe Festival.