All three stages at Center Theatre Group have hosted artists whose stories reflect our diverse community since our doors opened in 1967, but this fall marks an important moment. At the Ahmanson, Taper, and Douglas, three powerful female playwrights—all theatre artists of color—have works onstage simultaneously: Dominique Morisseau, book writer of the Broadway-bound Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations (at the Ahmanson August 21 – September 30, 2018); Lynn Nottage, writer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat (at the Taper August 29 – October 7, 2018); and Jocelyn Bioh, writer of the wickedly funny School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play (at the Douglas September 2–30, 2018).
All three playwrights have talked extensively about the necessity of forging their own paths. Jocelyn Bioh told NPR that she became a playwright because she was struggling to land roles while studying theatre performance at Ohio State University. After auditioning for show after show that was
cast to type, with few roles for non-white actors, she was finally offered a part: as a cockroach.
Yeah, I wasn't the lead cockroach! … I'm like, how are you going to be part of the chorale of roaches! Even my 19-year-old self understood how insulting that was.
Dominique Morisseau had a similar moment while attending the University of Michigan as a theatre performance student. Morisseau told the Star Tribune:
We weren’t getting cast because they weren’t doing nontraditional casting and they weren’t doing any work by writers of color, so I decided to write my own play. … When the buzz hit me—we were totally sold out—I saw how important it was for everybody, especially the black students on campus, to see themselves and their lives reflected onstage.
Lynn Nottage also found her calling while in college at Brown University, when she took a graduate playwriting class taught by Paula Vogel (whose Indecent comes to the Ahmanson in 2019). In a joint interview with Vogel when both Sweat and Indecent opened on Broadway, Nottage told The New York Times:
There were not a lot of women in the theater department—it was really run by men, and so the message was that women can be onstage, but women can’t really be backstage … The two of us write history plays, and we write political plays, and I think that that’s why, perhaps, our journey has been a little different … The plays are unabashedly political and they’re about very difficult subject matters and they tend to be unafraid of the darkness. And I think that women writers are supposed to embrace the light.
None of these playwrights shy away from dealing with fraught subject matter. School Girls tackles colorism and the difficulty of living up to society’s beauty standards, as Bioh told American Theatre:
I struggled for a very long time to own my own beauty in a business that’s based on aesthetics, and tried to form myself to be someone else’s standard of beauty … If this play could just be a catalyst for some girl to accelerate that process of acceptance for themselves, that would make me the happiest person ever … That’s the goal, totally—to give someone who is struggling the thought that they are enough, that they are amazing and they are incredible. I could be so much further ahead of my career if I had written this play 10 years ago, and understood and accepted myself at that point.
Sometimes it’s not just about inspiring an audience but challenging them as well, as Morisseau explained in a 2016 interview:
Right now I’m just aware that my job is to speak the truth of my experience and my corner of the world. I can’t be afraid of that truth or mute it in any way, even as it becomes confronting for others or exposing of myself. The only way to remind us of our collective humanity is to keep pushing for more stories from the disenfranchised to have equal voice and support socially as those in positions of privilege. Balance of storytelling is all of our responsibility because we all ultimately benefit from it.
Nottage concurred in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2009, just before Ruined earned her her first Pulitzer Prize. She quoted filmmaker Werner Herzog:
It sounds basic, but he said, 'Our job as artists is to literally keep our eyes open while everybody else's are shut' … And we've fallen down very badly in the last couple of decades. We're in a really unique position to have a conversation with an audience. But we are not challenging them, not their morality, their religion, their politics, liberal or conservative. We are not shaking them to the core.
Nonetheless, she thinks we might be able to get there. In response to a question about defining
the American theatre, Nottage told The Interval:
I can say what I think the American theatre should strive to be, which I think is a reflection of the beauty and diversity of this culture. I think that we fail to live up to it, but I think that’s what American theatre should be: a real reflection of what’s happening today.
Bioh is optimistic about the audience for such work. She told Stage & Candor:
The theater community is thirsty for work that’s new, different, and innovative. This is what has always made the theater an exciting place to go to and it will continue to be exciting with the inclusion of stories not written by the same kind of people with the same kind of perspective.
Who is going to tell those stories? Morisseau offered some advice to the next generation of theatre makers in Breaking Character Magazine:
My advice is to think about what stories you are interested in telling in this world. What kind of stories excite you that you’d like to usher forward? Because we are ALL storytellers, whether designing the set or the lights, directing, acting, writing, stage managing … we have signed up to tell stories together. And so before you can accomplish any great theatrical feat, get very connected to who you are as an artist and what you find purpose in, and follow THAT. Find a way to not just be served, but to also be in SERVICE to others. Those are the makings for the greatest kind of artists … those who are here for reasons beyond their own self-preservation. Join the movement of bringing unheard stories to the mainstage, and be brave in your art. If it scares you, that’s a good sign to say yes!