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In a July CVNC article, we discussed how some local companies are responding to the call for change away from the systemic racism that permeates theatre. Some companies have focused on an increase in "non-traditional" casting, in which Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) actors are cast in roles that do not specifically call for one ethnicity or another. Some have collaborated with Black-run or minority-run companies to produce works and promote BIPOC actors and artistic team members. As White-run theatre companies begin their work to this end, Black- and minority-run companies have been carrying the banner for years.
Companies like Agape Theatre Project and Hidden Voices utilize their platforms to amplify the voices of historically marginalized communities, Agape of the African-American community, and Hidden Voices of diverse ethnicities, genders, and socio-economic statuses. Most recently, Agape collaborated with Burning Coal Theatre Company in The 19th Amendment Project with Magdalena Gomez's short work "APARTMENT 19: A Ten Minute Allegorical Play for Two Afro-Latinas." Gomez's work targets the critical influence of Women of Color on the suffrage movement and the erasure of this influence from our White-washed history. Perhaps the best way to view the performance is in the context of Agape's "Theatre Talk, Live!" episode featuring a viewing of the performance along with a discussion with director Kenneth Hinton, cast members Dannibeth Farnum and Lebone Moses, and playwright Magdalena Gomez.
Historically, Hidden Voices has produced a variety of multi-media performances and projects examining social issues such as sexual assault, homelessness, and incarceration in America. The projects page of their website is a great overview of their most recent works. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, Hidden Voices has remained extremely active on social media in promoting local artistic projects, social justice movements, and data relevant to those movements. In their upcoming project, slated for fall 2021, Hidden Voices will collaborate to share the stories of the families of America's death row in their musical theatre work, A Good Boy.
While MOJOAA, a Black, family-run theatre company in the Triangle, has had to postpone the world premiere of Smoked, by Thomas Brazzle, it is certainly worth keeping up with the rescheduling. The Chop It Up series, planned to accompany the run of the performance, includes a Pay-What-You-Can night, a dinner theatre night featuring dinner and a show, and two "Chop It Up Talks" panel discussions (one promoting Black-owned businesses in the Triangle and one evaluating how to speak openly and truthfully within a family).
In addition to the work of theatre companies, smaller organizations that capture the visions of one or two artists are putting in major legwork as well. Prolific Epic Partners, a labor of love from local artist and producer Edith Berry, has responded simultaneously to the challenges of COVID and social turmoil with Prolific Epic Partner's online initiative "The Show Must Go On!" This series premiered June 12th with a virtual variety show and has aired monthly on Facebook Live. This inaugural episode featured local artist Marcia Mattox performing her original song "All Over," which would go on to showcase in RDU On Stage's interview with NC First Lady Kristen Cooper. July's segment featured vocalists and dancers in a Gospel/Jazz Showcase and, in the August segment, Berry invited several youth artists to virtually perform original and prepared monologues live. The September 25th installment will feature seven spoken word artists with a focus on words of encouragement and hope, particularly through the state of affairs in our country today. In October's showcase, Berry plans to feature local comedians for some much-needed comedic relief and light-hearted entertainment. Taking advantage of one of the silver linings of the virtual platform, Berry also hosts talkbacks with each of the performers following their showcases, either in separate live streams or at the ends of the showcases themselves. These provide wonderful opportunities for insight into the actors' creative process and the impact of current events on their productions and lives. Recognizing the dual needs for artists to create and audiences to be enriched, Berry has funded this initiative out of pocket and accepts donations to help continue the work. More information may be found on the Prolific Epic Partners' Facebook page.
Naima Ince, of NYI Productions LLC, produces film and theatre with a focus on fusing the art of storytelling into her productions in bringing her art to diverse audiences. Her most recent project is a collection of poetry entitled Pure, which includes a chapter specifically dedicated to responses to our current crisis of social justice, is set to be released in November. In the meantime, you can follow NYI Production's response to the social justice movement in Naima's blog.
Mike Wiley, founder of Mike Wiley Productions, creates documentary theatre "designed to inspire audiences to examine America's racial history, teach the lessons of the past, and encourage the application of these truths to the present." His current initiative, Higher Ground Journeys, welcomes a host of local and nationally regarded speakers, writers, and artists to discuss the history of race in America and what it will take to dismantle the White supremacy that has gripped our nation since its birth. Register to attend the next virtual conversation to be held on September 17th or donate to support this cause.
As Breonna Taylor's killers continue to walk free, Kenosha police have added Jacob Blake's paralysis to the gruesome list of harm caused to Black bodies by police brutality. These events, followed by the Chadwick Boseman's death from colon cancer, which rattled the artistic community and beyond, throw a harsh spotlight on the desperate need for BIPOC faces in the arts. Boseman's performances of legendary icons like Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall elevated the contributions of these men in the modern mainstream. His revered role of King T'Challa in Black Panther taught Black boys – and the entire world – that Black men are heroes, too. When artists like Boseman and the small sample of local artists mentioned in this article show us what is possible but society villainizes, victimizes, or ignores the BIPOC community, the desperate importance of visible BIPOC artists and BIPOC artists' active collaboration in productions snaps sharply into focus. These artists, producers, and companies need your support – be it by monetary donation, volunteer work, or something as small as a like or a follow on social media – and the time to act is now.