Why Theatre Needs More Stories About Black Women Told By Black Women

Special Features   Why Theatre Needs More Stories About Black Women Told By Black Women In the season of Eclipsed and The Color Purple, audiences and creatives alike are reminded of the importance of diverse and genuine voices in theatre.
(Counterclockwise from upper left) Danai Gurira, Liesl Tommy, Ella Fitzgerald, Florence Mills, Debbie Allen, Oprah Winfrey, Lynn Nottage, Lupita Nyong’o, Brenda Russell, Cynthia Erivo, Toni Morrison
(Counterclockwise from upper left) Danai Gurira, Liesl Tommy, Ella Fitzgerald, Florence Mills, Debbie Allen, Oprah Winfrey, Lynn Nottage, Lupita Nyong’o, Brenda Russell, Cynthia Erivo, Toni Morrison

The stories of black women are receiving long-overdue traction on Broadway. More specifically, the stories of black women told by women of color themselves have received media attention, audience enthusiasm and critical acclaim in this 2015-2016 season. As we finally seem to realize the power and importance of these stories, as an industry and community, we also understand the importance of authenticity in who’s telling them.

Danai Gurira’s buzzed-about Broadway debut, Eclipsed, helmed by Liesl Tommy, leads a cast of all women of color. It’s the first-ever Broadway play to boast an all-female cast and creative team—something that struck Tommy as a long time coming. “People keep saying that it’s not true, that there’s been so many productions with all-female casts,” she says, citing Broadway productions of ‘night Mother and For Colored Girls… as examples. “But those productions had male directors. It’s 2016. The fact that this is the first time that’s happened is just amazing to me. We finally get a chance to tell our own stories, but from a place of leadership!”

Though it is a first, generations of women of color—including composer/lyricist Brenda Russell (The Color Purple), playwright Lynn Nottage (Ruined, Sweat) and producer-director-actress-dancer Debbie Allen (Grey’s Anatomy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)—have been paving the way for black women to tell stories that reflect their personal place.

While Russell, Nottage and Allen count amongst the women who’ve made way for Gurira and Tommy, black women like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ella Fitzgerald and more paved the way for them. “My mind goes straight to Florence Mills in Shuffle Along,” says Allen, which is coincidentally finding new life in this season’s Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. “On her heels was Josephine Baker who was in the chorus [of Shuffle].”

Allen, Nottage, Russell, Gurira and Tommy find themselves driven to tell stories they relate to—which often means that the subjects of the story match the storyteller. Gurira, for example, possesses a specific desire to tell the stories of African women. Born in Iowa, she grew up in Zimbabwe and centers many of her plays on the experiences of Zimbabwean women. But, she notes a motivation to expand her knowledge of Africa itself, setting Eclipsed during the Second Liberian Civil War. “I just have this insatiable desire to know more about where I’m from,” she says.

For all of these women, the ability to tell their own stories carries great importance because, as Nottage notes, “We’ve never even been able to tell our story.” The majority of history has been told by a single, isolated perspective. “History gets distorted when it’s told by someone who doesn’t understand the physical and emotional trauma,” Nottage says, explaining the default white male perspective lacks the impact of historical knowledge of what it means to be black. “It’s like trying to recount to someone what it’s like to go through war, and you’ve never been in a war.”

Pascale Armand, Lupita Nyong’o and Saycon Sengbloh
Pascale Armand, Lupita Nyong’o and Saycon Sengbloh Joan Marcus

This type of nuance in narrative ownership that comes from a lived experience, points to the effect of someone telling a personally lived story and the gravity of legitimacy. That genuineness not only shines through the text of the play, but it serves to create a kinship with the actors called to tell the writer’s story. “With one exception, all of the actresses in our play are from Africa, and several of them came up to me and told me they were relieved, because they didn’t have to ‘teach’ me anything,” says Tommy, who was born in South Africa. “They only had to worry about their portion of the process. The rigor with which we approached the storytelling, they trusted that 100 percent.”

There’s also a reason people clamor for material that’s “for women by women.” The female lens differs from the male’s. “Women always have a different point of view, I believe, than men. It’s engineered in our DNA,” says Allen. Russell adds that there is an emotionality audiences find in pieces written by a woman. “It’s a feminine impression. People respond to it whether they know it or not.”

This “feminine impression,” creates a storytelling perspective that seems obvious, but is often absent from the theatre scene. These women feel no one else can tell their stories for them, and Gurira argues that women can’t (and shouldn’t) wait for permission to create. “I can’t wait to be validated to do my craft,” she says. “Who else would do it? We want our stories told. Who can we expect to tell them but ourselves?”

Erivo with Jennifer Hudson in <i>The Color Purple</i>
Erivo with Jennifer Hudson in The Color Purple Photo by Matthew Murphy

Authenticity in perspective applies to writers, directors and the whole creative team of a piece. Tommy recalls starting out in the theatre, working with her team to choose designers for a project. “They brought in a few names, and I said to them, ‘Okay, now how many of these people are women? How many of them are women of color?’ And they looked at me with blank faces. They had never even considered it.”

Tommy views herself, and other directors, as a vehicle to help correct this “unconscious marginalization.” She insists on a diverse design team for each of her productions to ensure balanced storytelling from all creative disciplines. “Part of my job as a leader is to fight for diversity. I’m not going to be in a room with all white men.”

At the same time, the need to discuss race and “alternative” perspectives signals a greater problem of visibility. This “othering,” as Nottage calls it, demonstrates there is not enough being done to highlight women of color across all disciplines, which is why ownership and visibility is so vital.

Whether in the early creative process or on the stage, these women use their work to push for inclusion. “I try to be led by my curiosity,” says Nottage. “Sometimes I begin with a question. Or, I begin with a place of absence—where there’s an empty space—and I want to fill in those blank spaces.”

A scene from <i>Sweat</i>
A scene from Sweat Photo by Jenny Graham

For Gurira, Eclipsed was the perfect marriage of personal connection and inclusion of unheard voices. The story focuses on women held as “wives” by a commanding officer in a Liberian rebel army. “I found a photograph of these female fighters in Liberia who were fighting in the rebel army. I had never seen anything like it,” says Gurira. “They had AK-47s around their necks, and they had these cool jeans on. And I just wanted to know more about them. I get excited by seeing very specific things that I’ve never come across.” After finding that common ground, artists must push deeper so as not to shut out the voices that have some of the most compelling stories to tell.

What’s more, these stories serve as weapons against stereotypes. “It’s depressing, sometimes, the stereotypes that come out as a result of people saying things about our race,” Russell admits. Generalizing of African Americans also extends to the whole of Africa. “People think we all speak Swahili,” she laughs with incredulity, noting the principal indigenous language of Zimbabwe is Shona. “Nine-hundred million people live there alone. There are 1,500 languages. Not dialects, languages. There are so many generalizations I could go on all day.”

Tommy agrees, “I have found that there is so much bad storytelling that comes from the West about Africa. You’ll watch a movie about East Africa and there’s music in it from South Africa in the transitions. The lack of respect for our culture, languages, people and history, it’s just insane to me. You don’t watch a movie about Germany with Romanian music playing in the background. So I’m very much about specificity [in details] because that’s how you get a specific story.”

Theatre needs to continue to expose specific and varied black narratives. “There are beautiful stories out there about black people, beautiful black stories, and they have nothing to do with being in gangs,” says Russell. “That isn’t a reality of the entire race. We have to write them. If we don’t write it, it won’t get out there.”

David Cromer, Bryce Kyle Jenkins, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Anika Noni Rose, Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo  in the 2014 Broadway production <i>A Raisin in the Sun</i>.
David Cromer, Bryce Kyle Jenkins, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Anika Noni Rose, Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo in the 2014 Broadway production A Raisin in the Sun. Brigitte Lacombe

There is more than one kind of story to tell, and audiences are responding. As Allen highlights, writers like Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange and Nottage tell different stories of the black experience and “those stories become the great ones, the classics, because of their truisms, their rawness, and their poetic language.” Today, Russell’s Color Purple revival proves this again.

The magic of the theatre has led to pride within the black community and empathy outside it. “I think black audiences will walk away from The Color Purple with a sense of pride,” says Russell. “It’s a story that’s being told with respect and spirit. But people of all colors and backgrounds are coming to that theatre, and they’re having a moved experience.”

“The more you go to a theatre and the more you hear stories you aren’t necessarily familiar with, the more open you become,” says Nottage. “I wonder: Would there be a black president if people hadn’t already begun imagining, through film and television, that a black man is president? It’s self-actualization.”

Tommy adds, “I think if we had started paying attention to more diverse stories even ten years ago, we wouldn’t be dealing with all of this now,” referring to the broader problem of systemic racism in America.

While each of these women brings personal experience as a black woman to stories about black women—lending the feminine impression and black consciousness to a piece—it’s important that voices, of any kind, not be limited to only telling the stories of people that look like them. While the need to tell the stories lived by a specific culture cannot be overstated, there is also a desire to be seen as something more than just a woman of color. It’s a careful balance.

When Nottage received the Blackburn Prize for her work in theatre, she was referred to as a “black playwright.” “They never say ‘white playwright,’” she says. “That can mean there’s only going to be a focus on my race, and not on my craft itself.”

Debbie Allen, Jessica Capshaw, Justin Chambers, Kevin McKidd, James Pickens Jr., Sara Ramirez, Caterina Scorsone, Jesse Williams, Chandra Wilson and Kelly McCreary in <i>Grey&#39;s Anatomy </i>
Debbie Allen, Jessica Capshaw, Justin Chambers, Kevin McKidd, James Pickens Jr., Sara Ramirez, Caterina Scorsone, Jesse Williams, Chandra Wilson and Kelly McCreary in Grey's Anatomy Adam Taylor/ABC - © 2015 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc

“When I go to work, I don’t go to work as a black person or as a woman, I go as an executive producer and director,” says Allen. “I am minding and looking after the artistic health and well-being of actors and crew that come from every ethnic background imaginable. That spirit is why our show...is accruing a whole new generation of audiences around the world.”

Allen also directed an all black Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and she argues that the success of that piece lies in the quality of the material that can speak to any ethnic background. “I know our audiences would have believed I had written that story myself, because the characters wrung so true. The ethnicity can become somewhat of a blur, because it all works.”

It comes down to trusting the audience. Audiences want diverse stories, and can appreciate narratives worlds different from their own. Creatives in power can’t be afraid to test conventional boundaries.

“I think with my work, it’s passion meeting purpose. It’s singing ourselves into existence,” says Nottage of what she calls accidental activism. “The more we become part of the public record, the more we become part of history. By the sheer act of writing, we are trying to place value on the stories that we’re invested in.”

Through the influence of their storytelling and the ownership of their stories, these women are definitely “singing themselves into existence.” It’s politics meets art. “Women’s voices have been appropriated and not been allowed to have their full breadth and full life,” says Gurira. “We need to have full ownership of those stories, from women who look like us, so we can have full representation of ourselves.”