The 12th Annual Theatre Festival in Black and White

13240112_10153769195904482_2289939961647940301_nThis is the twelfth year of Pittsburgh Playwrights’ Theatre Festival in Black and White.  It is the first year it will be at the Three Rivers Arts Fest.  I had a chance to sit down with Eric A. Smith, the Production Manager for Pittsburgh Playwrights; Daphne Austin, who is a first-time playwright featured in this year’s set; as well as Christine Marie, the director of Ms. Austin’s play No Winners.

It is a festival meant to encourage the idea of “stories that can be felt by anybody,” says Smith.  The Festival consists of six original plays, three with black playwrights and white directors, and three with the inverse.  “People cross lines they typically don’t cross,” says Smith, “the plays don’t have to deal with racial issues.”

The idea of the Festival is that “it gets people working together.”  It’s about the “common threads,” says Ms. Marie.  It started as a dream for the Festival’s creator, Mark Clayton Southers…a vision:

To be standing on a stage, looking out and only see silhouettes, profiles.  Race, not identifiable.   The actors on stage, the audience; everyone alive, animated, enjoying themselves, and laughing.  To see participants and spectators as people, regardless of the color of their skin.

This festival “opens up doors for people who wouldn’t have access otherwise,” says Marie.

“Most art is telling the story of a culture,” says Smith.  “If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.  We really are starting to see the commonality of all people regardless of racism.” 

As Janis Burley Wilson, the V.P. Education & Community Engagement at The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust puts it, “Southers does a good job of bringing different members of the theater community together to work collaboratively.  And in the past that hasn’t happened, you’ve had what’s been thought of as “Black Theater” and then “Theater”.  And those two paths have not crossed.”

As Smith puts it, “black people don’t go out for general auditions.  [But this festival works as a] bridge.  It allows for artists to know, meet and create together.”

In the past, if “a black person wrote XYZ.  You’ve already cut off 2/3 of your audience.”

However the Festival has been seeing a great surge in popularity since its beginning. Southers said in a 2011 interview that “we really don’t have a lot of African-American playwrights in Pittsburgh.  Very few.  I can count them on one hand.  We don’t get a lot of scripts.”  However by 2013, there had been 17 African-American playwrights submitting.  And this year, 23 of the 42 scripts submitted were from African-American playwrights.

Much of that success has to do with outreach to the community.  With the help of social media and the colleges and universities, Pittsburgh Playwrights has been able to find and encourage new talent to submit.

Daphne S. Austin, who is a first-time playwright in the Festival, says that she began her playwriting career at church, writing for a children’s Sunday school. She was connected to Pittsburgh Playwrights through a writing class offered by Mark Southers, which helped her in dealing with a lot of grief.

“Put it on paper.  Get it down.  There are obstacles: computer problems, time issues…”  After her first table read, she admitted, “I had to step outside of the comfort zone.  That’s a step for me.”

Her play, No Winners, takes on the issue of parents who are dealing with victims of gun violence.  “Grief is global, but it’s all very connected,” Austin explains.  “If you’re not able to forgive, it holds yourself prisoner.”

Her piece attempts to explore the “communality about grief.”  Or as director Christina Marie puts it, “Wondering what happens behind the scenes…how do we cope with grief?  With another people’s grief?  How are they really grieving behind the scenes?”

The play is a crucial examination of a human feeling, which transcends race.  Grief is global.  Marie says, “Two people in the entire universe who understand in their bones what happened at that moment, and they don’t understand it, together.”

“There’s forgiveness then there’s understanding, back to Shakespeare: we all bleed the same,” says Marie.  “This is when it comes down to a baseline of humanity and motherhood.  There’s nothing else like it.”

“Pittsburgh Playwrights is a company for the playwrights.” says Smith.  “The playwrights are involved.”

That implicit connection is something that the Festival really tries to imbue.  Marie explains her experience with finding the right actor for her play.  “Know the impact they’re going to have saying the lines…it’s a holy experience.  When I saw this kid saying the lines, I knew…it was him”

This year will be a mix of veteran playwrights like Ray Warner, who has been exhibited in The Theatre Festival in Black and White four times; FJ Hartland who has done three; and Kim El, who has been in seven of the twelve previous fests.  As well as first-time contributors such as Daphne Austin, Michael Curry and Nick Nemec.

“This show is grassroots,” Smith says.  “It’s not just professionals, but part of the contagious festival circuit that brings amateurs back again and again.”

“It’s part of a renaissance in the ability to cross drama, to cross racial lines,” says Marie “it’s about deeply reaching out to individuals.”

All performances are free to the public in conjunction with the Three Rivers Arts Festival. For more information about the Theatre Festival in Black and White, click here. The festival schedule is as follows:

June 4

12:00pm – 1:00pm Stay by Ray Werner and Mental Case by Kim El

2:00pm – 3:00pm Vows by F.J. Hartland and Crossing Sacred Lines by Michael Curry

4:00pm – 5:00pm Home Again, Home Again by Nik Nemec and ​No Winners by Daphne Salter-Austin

June 5

12:00pm – 1:00pm Home Again, Home Again by Nik Nemec and No Winners by Daphne Salter-Austin

2:00pm – 3:00pm Stay by Ray Werner and Mental Case by Kim El

4:00pm – 5:00pm Vows by F.J. Hartland and Crossing Sacred Lines by Michael Curry

June 6

7:00pm – 8:00pm Stay by Ray Werner and Mental Case by Kim El

June 7

7:00pm – 8:00pm Vows by F.J. Hartland and Crossing Sacred Lines by Michael Curry

June 8

​7:00pm – 8:00pm Home Again, Home Again by Nik Nemec and No Winners by Daphne Salter-Austin

June 9

​7:00pm – 8:00pm Vows by F.J. Hartland and Crossing Sacred Lines by Michael Curry

June 10

​7:00pm – 8:00pm Stay by Ray Werner and Mental Case by Kim El

​8:30pm – 9:30pm Home Again, Home Again by Nik Nemec and No Winners by Daphne Salter-Austin

June 11

12:00pm – 1:00pm Vows by F.J. Hartland and Crossing Sacred Lines by Michael Curry

2:00pm – 3:00pm Home Again, Home Again by Nik Nemec and No Winners by Daphne Salter-Austin

4:00pm – 5:00pm Stay by Ray Werner and Mental Case by Kim El

Check out the rest of our 2016 Summer Preview here! Follow along with our summer adventures with the hashtag #SummerwithPITR on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!