Why Some Black Playwrights Are Saying Their Shows Must Not Go On
In Ohio, the playwright Charly Evon Simpson scuttled last month’s planned Cleveland Play House production of her latest work, “I’m Back Now,” after the director said that the theater had mishandled an actor’s report that she was sexually assaulted at the building where the theater housed artists.
In Chicago, Erika Dickerson-Despenza forced Victory Gardens Theater to stop its production of “cullud wattah,” her Flint water crisis-prompted family drama, in the middle of its run last summer to protest actions that included the ouster of the theater’s artistic director.
And in Los Angeles, Dominique Morisseau shut down a Geffen Playhouse production of her play “Paradise Blue” a week after its opening in late 2021, saying that Black women who worked on the show had been “verbally abused and diminished.”
The steps by playwrights to halt productions of their own work reflects concerns by Black artists frustrated by what they see as a failure of theater administrators to live up to the lofty promises made during and after the spring of 2020, when George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police prompted nationwide protests and calls for change in many corners of American society, including the arts. In theater, an anonymously-led coalition of artists, known by the title of its first statement, “We See You, White American Theater,” circulated a widely read set of demands for change.
“We don’t want to be pulling our plays — we are playwrights, we want our plays to be done, we are walking away from money, and we are walking away from seeing our work onstage,” Morisseau said. “But this is not an ego act and it is not a diva act. What we are doing is standing up when no one else will.”
The cancellations have come just as theaters have been trying to reopen and rebuild following the lengthy pandemic shutdown.
There has been notable change to address concerns about diversity and representation: An increase in the number of plays by Black writers staged on Broadway and beyond; a wave of appointments of administrators of color to high-level theater industry positions; the renaming of two Broadway houses after Black performers (James Earl Jones and Lena Horne).
But the cancellations reflect recurrent concern about conditions in the industry. There is pain all around — although actors are often still paid, the playwrights can lose fees and the theaters lose box office revenue and sunk production costs. And there are reputational risks: Will theaters still want to hire these artists? Will artists still want to work at these theaters?
“It’s damaging to the theaters, it’s damaging to the playwrights, and it’s damaging to all the artists involved, but it puts a spotlight on issues that need a spotlight, and I hope it’s catching the field’s attention and reminding us that we haven’t solved all the problems,” said Sheldon Epps, a senior artistic adviser at Ford’s Theater in Washington, the former artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, and the author of a new memoir, “My Own Directions: A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theater.” “We had all those conversations and all those conference calls, and the talk was valuable but clearly a lot more action is needed.”
These cancellations began in October of 2021, when Jeremy O. Harris posted on Twitter an email he had sent to the Center Theater Group of Los Angeles, saying he wanted to “begin the process” of canceling that theater’s production of “Slave Play,” his acclaimed drama about interracial relationships. The Los Angeles production was to be the first since a pair of buzzy Broadway runs, but Harris was upset that the theater had announced a season with just one work by a woman.
The reaction was immediate. The company apologized publicly, and within a week had pledged that the following season at its Mark Taper Forum would feature only work by women or nonbinary playwrights. Harris then allowed “Slave Play” to proceed; the production became the best-selling show at the Taper since the pandemic shutdown.
“We have nothing to lose by telling a theater that we don’t want to be their mascots any longer,” Harris said.
“Here’s the thing: writing a play is an act of community service, and even in pulling the play you are doing an act of community service — that is theater as well, because the conversation that gets sparked is similar to the conversation sparked by doing the play,” he added. “The only cost is to the ego of theater administrators who have dropped the ball in upholding the politics of the playwrights they’ve programmed.”
Harris ultimately praised the Center Theater Group for its responsiveness, and Meghan Pressman, the theater’s managing director and chief executive, said she was “grateful” for Harris’s confrontation, even though it was difficult.
“We’re being called to task, and we learned a lot,” she said.
Morisseau was next, pulling the rights for “Paradise Blue” from the Geffen. The precipitating incident has never been made public, but Morisseau said at the time that “Harm happened internally within the creative team, when fellow artists were allowed to behave disrespectfully.” The Geffen apologized, saying, “an incident between members of the production was brought to our attention and we did not respond decisively in addressing it.”
In an interview, Morisseau said she considered pulling her play a last resort.“I felt there was nothing else for me to do,” she said.
And why have there been several cancellations in recent months? “I think what you’re seeing is a failure of institutions and institutional leadership to take seriously the harms against Black women,” Morisseau said. “It’s nothing new to us, but it is very disappointing to experience it in a theater ecosystem that we all seek to be better. You can’t welcome us and our stories, and not welcome the people who tell our stories and the bodies on whom our stories are told.”
Playwrights, unlike screenwriters, have enormous power over the use of their work, sometimes by virtue of their contracts, and sometimes by virtue of the nature of their relationships with regional theaters.
Prepandemic, there were occasional instances of playwrights exercising such rights for a variety of reasons. In 2016, Penelope Skinner withdrew a Chicago theater’s right to stage her dark comedy, “The Village Bike,” after a news report detailed allegations that the theater’s leader had mistreated performers; in 2012, Bruce Norris withdrew a German theater’s right to stage his Pulitzer Prize-winning race-relations satire, “Clybourne Park,” because he was angry about plans to cast a white actor to play a Black character; and in the 1980s, several playwrights canceled productions because of a union dispute.
“We encourage authors to exercise all of their contractual rights to the extent possible,” said Ralph Sevush, the executive director of business affairs at the Dramatists Guild of America, an association representing playwrights.
For the affected theaters, the cancellations have been disruptive — in each case, tickets had already been sold. Victory Gardens, which was already imploding when “cullud wattah” was pulled, has since shut down; the Cleveland Play House and Geffen Playhouse both issued apologies.
“Cleveland Play House acknowledges there were missteps in efforts to respond to a sexual assault,” that organization said in a statement last month.
The financial implications vary from case to case. Morisseau said that, when “Paradise Blue” was canceled, “Every artist got paid through their contracts. I, as the writer, and the Geffen, as the institution, are the only ones who took any financial hit.” David Levy, a spokesman for the labor union Actors’ Equity Association, said that “Every Equity agreement anticipates worst case scenarios in which a production is canceled before the full run of the show is completed. When that happens, the union does our part to enforce the contract so that actors and stage managers are taken care of.” In Cleveland, the union filed grievances that led to payment to its members for the canceled show there.
The current round of cancellations is directly tied to the racial reckoning that has roiled theaters over the last three years; there have been a wide array of calls for change, from term limits for industry leaders and more diverse creative teams sought by the We See You petitions, to the renaming of theaters and the use of racial sensitivity coaches won in a pact negotiated by the organization Black Theater United.
Black artists have cited the issues that propelled those movements in describing their current concerns. In Chicago, Dickerson-Despenza pulled the rights to her play after the dismissal of the theater’s artistic director, Ken-Matt Martin, who was one of three Black leaders in top positions at Victory Gardens. At the time Dickerson-Despenza decried the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values” of the board; the board president, Charles E. Harris II, who is Black, issued a statement then saying, “We are committed to acting in the theater’s best interests in all matters.” He did not respond to an email seeking comment for this story.
Stori Ayers, who directed both the canceled production of “I’m Back Now” in Cleveland and the canceled production of “Paradise Blue” in Los Angeles, used similar language in an Instagram post about the two experiences, citing “white supremacy theater making culture.” Both of those theaters declined to comment beyond their written statements.
Simpson, the playwright who pulled the rights for “I’m Back Now” from the Cleveland Play House, said she had decided to take that step after Ayers withdrew from the production over the theater’s response to an actor who said she had been sexually assaulted in an elevator at the theater’s artist housing.
“To put it simply: if the health, safety and well-being of people working on my play is in question, then there’s no reason for the play to happen,” Simpson said. “I could no longer trust that the theater was going to take care of the people putting on my show.”
Simpson said she’s not sure what will happen next with “I’m Back Now,” because it was commissioned by the Cleveland Play House, and this was to be its first production. The play is about three generations of Cleveland residents, including a historical figure named Sara Lucy Bagby, who was the last person forced to return to slavery under the Fugitive Slave Act.
“You want the production, and you want to make it possible, and many of us are taught to be so grateful for that and to ignore things that may bother us,” Simpson said. “I didn’t ever imagine having to pull the rights.”