Black Feminist Video Game's Creative Team on Creating True Accessibility | Playbill

News Black Feminist Video Game's Creative Team on Creating True Accessibility
Playwright Darrel Alejandro Holnes, neurodiversity and accessibility consultant Cortland Nesley, and X Casting's Victor Vasquez discuss their creative process.
Christon Andell and Kyla Jeanne Butts
Christon Andell and Kyla Jeanne Butts Courtesy of The Civilians

The COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding theatre shutdown was the ultimate test of theatremakers’ abilities to say, “Yes, and!” The show must go on, after all. Without the traditional in-person ecosystem, artists tapped deeper into their creativity. Actors had to channel their inner-lighting, scenic, and costume designers, family members and roommates had to become prop masters, and creative teams had to reframe their thinking to present work on 16:9 screens instead of stages.

Playwright Darrel Alejandro Holnes’ Black Feminist Video Game felt so perfectly suited to the digital era of theatre, it might seem as if it was written in response to the climate of theatre in 2020. In reality, the play was originally intended to be presented onstage through The Civilians’ R&D Group’s Findings Series in 2020, but instead it became the first play to be adapted for live-streaming audiences. With the world of Black Feminist Video Game easily translating to the virtual space, the pivot meant re-imagining the production through a more cinematic scope. Holnes demonstrated his ability to say, “Yes and.”

Certain dialogue was delivered through emulating the format of Twitch, a video game streaming platform, with other plot and action mixed in through an actual interactive video game designed by Ché Rose and Jocelyn Short of Cookout Games (the video game design company Rose founded).

Starr Kirkland and Christon Andell
Starr Kirkland and Christon Andell Courtesy of The Civilians

Holnes had been cultivating the seeds of the story before theatres shut down, conducting ethnographic interviews while visiting Berlin several years ago. Stories from a biracial man with autism blossomed into what is now Black Feminist Video Game, which follows Jonas, "a biracial teenager with autism as he attempts to win back his crush with the help of the titular 90s game."

Very rarely, if at all, do audiences get to see Black, neurodiverse people represented in media, and Holnes realized the importance of honoring this intersectional identity with specificity and authenticity. Holnes, along with director Victoria Collado, neurodiversity and accessibility consultant Cortland Nesley, X Casting’s Victor Vasquez and Charlie Hano, and the rest of the creative team, shaped a creative process filled with intention.

Hear from Holnes, Nesley, and Vasquez as they discuss this process—from script dramaturgy to casting to production design—to ensure their production of Black Feminist Video Game was inclusive and accessible.

Darrel Alejandro Holnes: I developed this play through a community-based, social art practice, a process that was disrupted by the pandemic as it limited my access to the Black German community from where the story came. The writing of this play stems from an ethnographic interview I conducted in Berlin with a biracial, neurodiverse man who was a graduate student at the time. Thanks to The Civilians R&D Group, I was able to still incorporate U.S.-based Black, feminist, and differently abled community members in the development process of this play in the form of check-ins and feedback sessions with the person who inspired the character of Jonas, family members on the spectrum, disability advocates, and members of our cast and crew who are neurodiverse. Plus, the dramaturgical sessions about the script with a neurodiverse consultant Cortland Nesley and an inclusive casting process led by Victor Vasquez of X Casting.

Cortland Nesley: I went to school with somebody who was interning at The Civilians—Sarah Boess, an amazing human. She knew that I am autistic and that I have done a lot of consulting work in regards to neurodivergent stories and accessibility. She approached me and I sent her some resources and thoughts, and she was like, “Maybe I should just talk to The Civilians and maybe they can hire you.” That’s what ended up happening.

Holnes: Cortland's credentials really speak for themselves. The moment I read everything about Cortland, I was like, “Yes, yes, yes!” It was one of my favorite yeses in this process, because he brought in such terrific insight. It was great to talk to someone who's also familiar with theatre history, dramaturgy, and storytelling—it was incredibly helpful to me as a playwright.

Nesley: I was really pleased when I first read this script! I was really thrilled about it. It was really clear to me that this was a play written from the perspective of lived experience. I think so often stories like this get kind of reduced to a series of pathologizing tropes. It’s like people look down a list of, “What does it mean to be autistic?” and it becomes this clinical thing of, “It's this behavior and that behavior,” and it irks me, truly. I think this script, there was a lot more nuance and complication of, “Oh, what does it mean to be autistic in relation to being a young person or a Black person or a male?” and having those explorations coalesce. That’s what made me go, “There's something here that's really exciting.” From there I was like, “I'm on board. Let's do it.”

Holnes: It was important to me as someone with a relationship to neurodiversity, and with family members who are on the spectrum, to ensure that when someone who is of color, when someone is Black and on the spectrum, sees this show, they see themselves. It was important for me that we go through that process. I'm also inspired by Mickey Rowe, who is an advocate and was the [first autistic actor to play Christopher Boone] for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Mickey has spoken a lot about the need for what we now call identity-conscious casting.

Christon Andell
Christon Andell Courtesy of The Civilians

Nesley: I think what I found so pleasant about our collaboration on the script is that I think this play came from such a smart impulse. The questions that were being asked of the interview subject were really spot on, like, “What does it mean to be not just a person, but a person who's also working through things? Like trying to dismantle their own misogyny and trying to navigate what does that mean as a Black man specifically?” There were so many threads within this script, that made me go, “Oh, yep, this is something that exists in a lot of the autistic literature that I’ve read,” because in addition to being an autistic person with experience, I've done a lot of reading on these things. I have the literature background to take a thread that's there and go, “Let's name it. This thing reminds me of this [concept],” and I’m able to pull in some things I know about. Even just some work groups that I run into would say, “Oh, yeah, I know a lot of Jonases and they struggle with this in regards to their masculinity, or this and that.” So being able to take that and inject it in the story structure led to a really fruitful back-and-forth, and then ultimately, a text that exists that I can tell my Jonases about, because I don't think they've seen themselves like that before.

Victor Vasquez: For X Casting, this was right up our alley, in terms of supporting projects that are lead, shaped, and envisioned by not just folks of color, but also queer folks, and folks who maneuver through this world with a disability. When we got a call from Darrel and Victoria, the director, the initial conversation [aligned with our core mission], which is that we really believe that through a shared purpose towards collective liberation and anti-racism, we look to reimagine the art of casting. A lot of that, for us, is about infusing intention to process. The intention here, as led by Darrel and Victoria and The Civilians, is that there is an alignment of identity to the role, and how important and crucial that is to representation and art-making. For us, it's really about facilitating that process with intentionality, and to have conversations about neurodiversity, how complex and diverse even that identity marker is and can be, and maneuvering through the world with that experience.

Holnes: We also worked with Lori Wyman Casting, who really supported this process. I want to also shout out other folks on our team: [Cookout Games’] Jocelyn Short and Ché Rose, who created the game, and Julia Frey, who created a lot of the graphics and the interface associate with the streaming. They were incredibly receptive to helping make this experience one that people across the spectrum, and even including neurotypical people, can all access. I saw them implement guidance that they received from Cortland in real-time in the rehearsal room and as we got into the production. This team was assembled of people who just always said, “Yes.” Ché and I are old college friends and love gaming, and I was thinking, “Oh, I don't know how Ché is going to like it.” But he was 100% down. So much so that Cookout Games also hired student interns to work on the game who were also from the differently abled community. All throughout these levels, we were all thinking about this. Victor and Cortland were essential parts of that.

Nesley: I think what's so critical about that is, I think too often we think of accessibility as just this clerical task. It's like these checkboxes that need to be filled in: “If you do X thing, then Y body can access the space,” but accessibility is a lot more intimate than that. It's about communication, and it's about really having conversations with people. It's about hearing people and seeing people. It's about relationship building. So many different levels of this production were serving the accessibility component. It wasn't, “Alright, we do these things, then some people can see our show,” it became more, “Okay, let's listen to this community, figure out what this community needs from us, and then be able to execute that.” It's not just like rote exercise. I think it was this really fluid back-and-forth that led to the design choices that were made. Working with those designers was just delightful, truly. They were so receptive and so generous with their insights and time. I think it was because it was a really human approach.

Vasquez: For me, that is part and parcel, and at the core ethos of what casting processes should be all across the board. How do we create processes that really invite the wholeness of an individual in? You always consider someone's wholeness in a process. How do you design around them? Not how do you force them into a process that wasn't made with them in mind? But how do you design around them? Because then that's welcoming, that's considering their wholeness. The many great things about this project is that there are intersections within this wholeness. It’s not only about a person who is neurodiverse, but it's also about somebody who is neurodiverse and Black, who is neurodiverse, Black, and Latinx. There are so many levels. So how do we incorporate wholeness with such complexity in process? I think that that is one of the wonderful things that this project has done. In a lot of ways, it actually has curated process for that intention.

Holnes: I was doing an interview with Victoria, and one of the things that she mentioned was that she learned that this process can be every process going forward. It doesn't have to just be about a show that centers on someone who is autistic or someone who is differently abled. It can be shows that center a character that is neurotypical. As an industry, we can bring on more inclusive casting processes, and we can also create work that's more inclusive of neurodiverse people as part of the audiences. When Victoria said that, it lit a lightbulb in my head because I absolutely agree. 100%. Going through this process made me realize how easy it is. It is labor, it is work, and certainly everyone deserves to be compensated for that work in that effort, but it isn't this impossible dream. It’s definitely something that we made a reality that more folks can make a reality.

Nesley: When we were talking about making the play as friendly to as many people [in the audience] as possible, it can be tricky negotiating that certain access needs can contradict other needs. For example, for autistic audiences, it's usually good to avoid bright, contrasting colors that can induce a sort of sensory overload, visually. On the other hand, if you have vision problems, there's a lot of folks who need things that are high contrast in colors. So when I was talking about designers in regards to accessibility, it wasn't just in terms of, “We got to do this for this autistic audience.” It's about negotiating. What are the steps we can take for as many of these different populations as possible? When we can't negotiate and when there are these contradictory things, a lot of it is just reaching out to audiences. That's why we have things like an accessibility forum. When you make posts saying, “Come see the show,” there's this always this sort of obligatory post about your accessibility measures. It's not just enough to dictate the things you're doing, it's an ongoing conversation. So say, “We want to hear from you!” Have a forum that asks, “If you want to see this show, what do you need from us?” So that way, it doesn't become this one directional thing, but more, how do you make this a two directional process? Again, facilitating communication and conversation of asking, “What do you need?” Then asking, “How do we balance those needs?”

Christon Andell and Constance Fields
Christon Andell and Constance Fields Courtesy of The Civilians

Holnes: With digital theatre, as a playwright, I don't get to walk out into the audience afterwards, and talk to people and see what they think. Some folks have written me and I shared some of that feedback with Victoria. I told her, “I had a talk today with someone who saw the show. It was a parent of biracial son with autism, who spends most of his day gaming, and she said she cried when she saw the play, because ‘no one has ever told a story like this, no one has even tried, let alone gotten it right.’” Hearing that kind of feedback, lets me know that all of the collaboration that we did, all of the energy that we poured into this really was worth it. I also got feedback from the person who inspired the character of Jonas. He told me that he had felt seen and he felt moved. He found the play to be really heartwarming, and that to see a Black autistic character who was non-violent was really transformative for him.

Nesley: I really want to shout out Darrel here—I think this is research art done right. I think, so often, when writers go to write stories about neurodivergent subjects, the first thing is like, “Oh, let's go do the research on the experts! Let's go to the doctors or the researchers or such and such.” I think the problem is that you lose so much authenticity and you lose so much of what being a neurodivergent person is when you immediately run to those sources. In part because the relationship between say, a doctor and neurodivergent person, is so often one direction. It’s like, “I'm going to dictate what the reality of your ‘condition’ is.” They are robbed of what's being called a ‘Legitimate Knower’.

Holnes: I learned about community-based, social art practices from doing research as an ethnographer, based on anthropology. I admire the work of people like Moisés Kaufman, Theater Mitu, Anna Deavere Smith, and Rhodessa Jones, all who use research in some way to tell stories that are based on real life. What we did is different from what they do in that it's purely fictionalized as opposed to real-life representations of people on stage, but it's based on research. What I've learned from reading about their processes, and learning from researchers like Ruth Behar at the University of Michigan, and Carl Lindahl at the University of Houston, is that is these relationships are real. No one is your interview subject, they're your interview partner. You ultimately are always telling the story together. That's why feedback sessions and check-ins are so important.

Vasquez: The word authenticity is vital, right? There are so many conversations, and it’s has been part of the dialogue for quite some time now, about authenticity and casting and how important it is to represent communities within casting decisions and choices, because what we see matters, who we see matters. For me, the takeaway that I'd love for other people to consider is, what does it mean when you center authenticity in your process? For us to design new processes that really focus on opening that door to folks who share an authentic experience to a character, and then invite them into the process and say, “Help us collaborate in creating and bringing this character off the page and to life. Because you obviously are an expert in your own identities. You walk this world with them. Help us discover who this character is.”

Holnes: Circling back to Cortland's point, it is a two way street—it's about building relationships with communities, and always centering them as your process. I think so many times theatre and theatremakers, we center other people—we center critics or whatever the next opportunity is. You're trying to swing your bat to get the ball to go a certain way, but it's really not about any of those things. It's really about respecting, honoring, and being in communication with the community that you're representing on stage.

Nesley: I think what this production did so right, is that it really focused on centering the lived experience—not the clinical reality, but what the actual reality is of living in that body and mind experiencing it. There was just such care and respect to the person that Darrel interviewed. They were a collaborator. It felt like the real-life Jonas was another collaborator within this process. So I think, if you're going to clock out one lesson, that's it: If you're doing research for your project, what are you researching exactly?

Holnes: I really can't take the credit for all of that myself. It was a team effort. I'm just so grateful for all of the collaborators that we've named, and those who we haven't had a chance to name as well, including Dr. Nicole Eugene, who is a disability advocate and I had millions of conversations with.

Vasquez: For our process, we referenced a document that was created at the TCG [Theatre Communications Group] conference on June 9, 2017 in Portland, Oregon, led by Monique Holt, Regan Linton, and Talleri A. McRae. The document is called Creative Access: Accommodations for Professional Performers With Disabilities. It was super helpful, at least for us at X Casting, because it gave us some guiding principles about what does it mean to really breakdown with this intention, and create a process that holds space for people who identify as neurodiverse. I want to also give a major shout out to Phamaly Theatre Company, Colorado’s award-winning creative home for theatre artists with disabilities, because they're very much a part of this document that was created in 2017. It became a real guidepost for the release of the breakdown, for the language that was used, and for the questions that we were considering and asking of ourselves.

Holnes: I believe that theatre is different every night. I think that if we have a different set of actors from the neurodivergent community who also are bringing some of their experiences into these roles and into the story that the play will continue to grow, change, and evolve. As it is, we cut for the play to keep it a short, digital version, so there's so much more of the story to be told. I would love to see more versions. As we move forward, get back in-person, maybe outdoor, maybe online, in all these different ways and spaces. It feels like we were a part of making history and I just couldn't have done it without so many folks, so this just my big thank you to everyone. I hope that there are more plays in the future that continue to center the neurodivergent.

Black Feminist Video Game was presented by The Civilians in collaboration with 59E59 Theaters’ Plays in Place Program, Center Theatre Group, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and co-commissioner Williams Center for the Arts, and Lafayette College. To learn more and see the full list of production credits, click here.

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