The Black Artists of Yesterday, Today, and the Future
Recognizing and Remembering Black artists that have uplifted Theatre: Aja Houston
We continue our educational exploration for Black History Month, an annual observance that honors the important people and events in Black culture and the history of the United States. Though the month seeks to uplift Black joy, it also is a reminder of the work that must be done as a country to fight against systemic racism, police brutality, and the inequality Black people continue to face. Here at CTG, we are exploring Black history through the lens of Black artists who uplift the theatre community.
This week, we are exploring the work of playwright and Center Theatre Group Teaching Artist, Aja Houston. Teaching Artists at Center Theatre Group take on a variety of roles and projects, from working directly with students in classrooms to working with community members in workshops at our Boyle Heights costume shop. The cohort works alongside Center Theatre Group’s Education & Community Partnerships team to collaborate with and inspire the greater L.A. community of artists and storytellers. We had the opportunity to sit down with Houston to talk about her experience as a Black Artist, and her work at Center Theatre Group and beyond.
Aja Houston was born in Las Vegas, but says she is from “Everywhere, USA” since she moved around the country with her single mother throughout her childhood. “I always say [I was] army brat adjacent, because my mom was really great at her job in public relations, [so] we would just move wherever she was recruited for a better opportunity,” Houston explained. She cites her interests in the arts to her nomadic childhood—as she acclimated as “the new girl” by entertaining those around her.
She studied acting as an undergraduate student at Pitzer College in Claremont, California and began her career in the arts as an actress in London, New York City, and San Francisco.
At one point she said to herself, “This is killing me softly, if I must go up for another…stereotypical role.”
When devising her first play, Houston wanted to create the roles she was not finding or being cast in as an actress. “I was becoming really disenchanted with the plays and the roles that I was going up for,” Houston said. “There is not a lot of variety when it comes to roles for Black women, women, period, right? I mean, I love A Raisin in the Sun, but how many times can that be produced? We're not a monolith, and there's so many different multifaceted parts of the Black diaspora that I would love to see.” she shared.
She moved to Los Angeles to focus on playwrighting, entering the MFA in Dramatic Writing program at the University of Southern California. During her studies at USC, she created plays that use her passion, politics, and magic realism to create unusual worlds that told “nuanced, humanizing Black stories led by Black women.”
Houston found magical realism to be a source of empowerment as a Black artist, creating worlds that allow anything to happen. “Being a Black woman, especially in the States, and moving through this space, there are a lot of obstacles and restrictions,” she said. “With my art, I'm able to create something where people can have superpowers. They still have conflict and obstacles...but having it in a different kind of reality excites me.”
Houston’s writing process begins with a theme and two questions: “What will the world of the play be like? And what’s my in for how I can tell this story differently?”
Houston found that blazing your own trail could be rewarding, with the culmination being her first play, Superwoman? which explores the theme of the detrimental “strong Black woman” stereotype. “I always wanted to do [playwriting] in conjunction with my acting. I was like, ‘I'm going to write the parts that I would love to act in myself.’”
At Center Theatre Group
As a Teaching Artist at Center Theatre Group, Houston is currently leading a six-week workshop for CTG staff to devise their own individual short plays inspired by their impactful life events. Their first drafts are read by local professional actors.
Houston has found the experience of witnessing her students’ generosity and stories to be “lifesaving.” Students have reached out to her to thank her for the ways it taught them to express themselves in a safe space—Houston is happy that they were able to find confidence within themselves and their work.
She finds that the key to an artist’s success is the ability to support and express themselves in a way that contributes value to their own story. “Everybody is not going to like your work. Art is subjective, people's tastes are subjective, and that's not what this space is about. It's about making sure you're telling the story as powerful[ly] as you can,” she said.
Navigating the Arts as a Black Artist
Houston finds that art enables the opportunity for her to have difficult discussions and analyze the darker parts of society. For example, in Waiting (4,380,000 Hours and Counting), she wrote about the “legacy and continued genocide of Black people in this country". The piece uses Houston’s signature lens of magic realism, as the show follows Proctor, an 18-year-old Black American, who passes into the afterlife and finds herself a captive of “The Middle” — a place where Black souls killed for the sin of being “Spooks” are held until they earn their redemption. Another play, Ladyville—developed in The Road Theatre Company’s Under Construction Playwrights Group— tackles the rendering of Black women invisible in this country. “There are so many Black women missing and we don’t get the same attention as what happens to Black males in this country.”
Houston has made it her mission to create work that asks hard and necessary questions, that challenges audiences. “I'm unapologetically Black....and I want you to feel super uncomfortable.... Especially if I'm talking about certain subject matters.” she shares, noting how she hopes her art can become a conduit for conversation and reflection rather than simply just a spectacle. “I want audiences to feel uncomfortable and convicted in some way. Whether or not [they] act on that or not [is their choice]. But I'm not here to pat you on the back and make you feel great.”
Houston’s work is not always dark—she believes there should always be levity. “Yes, we laugh, because you can't always cry. But sometimes we laugh because things are so dark and absurd that you have to laugh.”
Houston finds that the stories she writes are not about an issue, but rather the Black experience. “I don't write issue plays; I write Black stories. The very fact that my Black body is politicized will inherently add another wrinkle to my human experience. I can write a love story and it is impactful because we don't often see Black people loving on each other on stage.”
Though progress has been made since 2020 and the events surrounding George Floyd’s murder, Houston feels there must be more space for Black and Brown artists within theatre. “[Theatres] have been trying to be a little bit more cognizant of diversifying their programming, but...I still feel like they're playing it safe with what they choose to program, it's repetitive.... not enough theatre companies [are] having the courage and bravery to produce different voices.”
After feeling that theatres were “not ready” for her voice, she is excited to share that a production of her play, HERe, will be produced this fall at Ammunition Theatre Company. The play is a dramedy that explores finding the bravery to heal and love oneself again, all within the world of the “Black Grimm Forest.”
Looking forward, Houston hopes that theatres produce a larger variety of Black stories from different perspectives. “I would like to see theatre that doesn't just focus on our pain...and trauma that we go through, but instead, show how we persevere... and how we still create our art, music, our dance, our everything,” she said. “We do other things that bring us joy, and we're still having the same human experience. It's just that it's colored differently. No pun intended.”
The solution? Aja had one thing to share. “I would just say, be brave. Stop being boring.”
To learn more about Aja Houston, her story, and her mission, visit ajahouston.com