Playwright, producer, and photographer Garlia Cornelia Jones has built a career out of making space for Black theatre artists. A producer with the Obie-winning Harlem9—a collective of theatremakers dedicated to exploring Black culture through storytelling—she is also the founder and artistic director of Blackboard Plays, a reading series devoted to Black playwrights that was held twice a month at the Dramatists Guild prior to COVID closures. Since its inception, Blackboard has been a launchpad and incubator for hundreds of plays—including Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls and Jordan E Cooper’s Ain’t No Mo’, just two of the many that have gone on to find success.
While she launched Blackboard in 2008, Jones' history of supporting Black artists really began in college. A Detroit native pursuing her undergrad in Bloomington at Indiana University, Jones was struck by the lack of Black writers being produced at the school. With the help of her cohort, including actor J. Lee (now an actor on The Orville), she launched Black Curtain, a space where Black theatre artists could write, direct, and produce. As well as a creative hub, Black Curtain was a diversity education initiative; shows and events were used to teach students about African-American culture, and to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, Islamophobia, and other causes.
“We were figuring out how to make space for us and how to make our own space within a predominantly white institution,” recalls Jones. “That was really where I tested out, and was successful, in being able to use theatre for effective social change.
“The goal, for me has always been to use theatre and stories to tell the stories of Black Americans in this country” says Jones, who, in addition to running Blackboard and being a part of Harlem9, works as a line producer at The Public, writes plays, is the NYC Chief Rep of the Parent Artist Advocacy League, and works as a theatre photographer. With her photography on pause due to the pandemic, Jones has turned her attention to live streaming and digital producing—she was a co-creative producer for The Public's #ToBeBlack in honor of Juneteenth—and she has continued to virtually produce the Blackboard readings.
Jones launched Blackboard as an MFA playwriting student at The New School. After staying in Bloomington to complete her Masters in African American and African Diaspora Studies—an undertaking “to understand a more historical aspect to Black Americans in this country”—she moved to New York City to hone her voice as a writer. There, Jones found support at the cell theatre, Blackboard's first home and where she would go on to work as the Director of Development and Marketing.
"Nancy [Manocherian] and Kira [Simring] were two early white allies in my career, who believed in the mission I had for what became Blackboard," says Jones. "Their work with Black artists before me was part of the fabric of what they believed in." The mission for the reading series—then and now—is twofold: to build a home for and nurture a community of Black playwrights, actors and directors in New York, and to develop different kinds of stories, by and about Black Americans, than those which dominate our stages and screens.
The tokenizing of Black stories and artists in the American theatre is just one of many concerns being amplified by the BIPOC community in this moment. The indignities and racism that BIPOC, and in particular Black theatremakers, face on a day-to-day basis can no longer be ignored and many, Jones included, are asking fundamental questions about what the future looks like.
“Do we even need the spaces that the white theatres have?” Jones asks. “I believe that Black artists don’t need white institutions for validation, or to be successful." She points to her BIPOC peers in New York—organizations like Harlem9, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer's National Black Theatre (where Jones has worked as a photographer), Liberation Theatre Company, The Movement Theatre Company, Quick Silver Theater, The Fire This Time Festival, and The New Black Fest—that have successfully forged their own paths.
The question of whether to continue working with predominantly white institutions—like, say, through her producing role at Off-Broadway’s Public Theater—alongside her support of Black spaces, is about working towards a more equitable American theatre.
“I do feel more invested in helping their evolution towards being actually more inclusive,” says the artist. “We think about white institutions as being ‘American’ institutions because they have a lot of the money and are able to get a lot of the funding… It’s important to pull apart and dissect what is ‘American.’ Because if they’re supposed to be telling American stories, then they’ve done a really bad job. They’re only telling a very small percentage of stories from BIPOC artists.”
For Jones, the change needs to come from within predominantly white theatres. And the current backdrop of civil unrest and widespread cries for racial justice across many industries may push such a shift. “Everything about our industry needs to change and I am seeing the work done, but we must continue to call out white supremacy and white supremacist practices, as uncomfortable as it can be," says the artist. "That discomfort is driving us towards the continuing of the work on individual and institutional levels."
Looking ahead, Jones is focused on expanding Blackboard. Currently co-curated with Oneké Cummings, the small-but-mighty organization needs increased support so that it can continue to develop Black plays and playwrights. She is also building a community of artists in her hometown of Detroit, while continuing to juggle a multi-hyphenate career path.
"I am a single parent," says Jones, "so employment and various streams of income are a vital part of my life. I have many achievements and student loan debt. Duality is my reality. Systemic racism has affected me no matter how many awards or degrees I hold. I do this work for my own personal survival as well."
Learn more about Blackboard and Garlia Cornelia Jones by visiting her website garliacornelia.com.