Producer and playwright Denise O’Neal didn’t like what was happening in the theater community: black writers falling by the wayside, either by sheer omission from mainstream stages or by those prejudiced against anything from African-American dramatists other than the type of lackadaisical, self-produced work that made Tyler Perry famous.
Regardless of the reason, the fact remained as O’Neal surveyed the American theater that the black playwright remained largely without a platform and thus set out to correct the injustice.
The “Fade to Black” Play Festival is both historic and groundbreaking in its approach. The festival will be held June 13-15, 2013, at the Obsidian Art Space in Houston, and addresses the longing of O’Neal’s heart with ten 10-minute plays: to expose people to the fact that theater written by African-Americans can also be as deep and complex as is the human condition.
“I think people have come to expect a certain kind of play from self-producing African-American playwrights. Similar to a Tyler Perry movie or something unstructured, thrown together without substance or meaning,” O’Neal said.
“Many playwrights have to get experience learning to do a better job as a playwright. ‘Fade to Black’ was a means of showing everyone is diverse… Some are eclectic, through provoking, so [audiences] aren’t going to see common-type story lines, but stories that are compelling and interesting.”
Playwrights submitted their work from across the country for consideration in March 2013, and a four-judge panel selected the finalists whose work will appear on the Obsidian stage. Now, it is up to the audience to decide the winner of this pioneering new festival. But, it was a struggle even getting to this point, O’Neal contends.
Harold J. Haynes, who launched Encore Theatre nearly 20 years ago, wasn’t originally convinced by the festival’s premise until he reached back to recall his own struggles as a new theater owner. He soon signed on as both judge and director of “Portal, or Metaphorical Tricycle,” written by finalist Kevin R. Free.
“Eventually, I thought any type of forum is good to give new writers a voice,” Haynes said. “She has made me do a complete 360 degree turn, because when I first decided to own a theater, I thought, ‘If they don’t come, I was going to entertain myself’.”
The 10-minute play, Haynes says, is a challenge for the playwright who must master their craft in order to tell a complete story in such a brief amount of time. Texas Southern University graduate and published playwright Eric C. Jones may know a little something about that struggle. His play “American Rifle” touched a real nerve with judges before finding its way to finalist status for “Fade to Black,” but it came with a little sweat equity.
His play centers on the gun control debate, timely given the recent events of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in Newtown, Conn., and the subsequent push by President Barack Obama for legislation tightening access to firearms. Whereas in a full-length, two-act play, Jones said he might be able to fully explore the topic in depth, his 10-minute offering allows the audience to fill in the blanks in a very thoughtful way.
“My goal isn’t to try to wrap everything up in that time frame, but just to be a reflection where it can be impactful of themselves and afterwards, they can discuss it,” Jones said.
“I like to go against the grain, I want people to be intrigued but I want them to think. They are not thinking, and they expect the entertainment to just soak in, but they need to be challenged but they also need to have their minds and hearts open to new things. With the subject matter, you don’t really have to go outside.”
Among Jones and Free’s work, “Fade to Black” also features a play exploring Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s last meal prior to his assassination, pieces which explore choices and challenges, the trials and tribulations of women, and “the essence of being your real self, having fun and enjoying life,” Haynes said.
Co-Producer Leighza Walker said she anticipates sold out performances–and delighted audiences–by festival’s end. But, she cautions that this is not a festival of “black plays,” but rather a celebration of African-American playwrights open to the entire community.
“We’re all humans who experience identical experiences,” Walker said. “There are aspects that are unfamiliar to us, but when you delve into it, we are all the same. We must try to stop what happens…often there is a Mexican celebration, but only Mexican-Americans and their families attend. We have a black celebration, and only the black community attends.
“It’s time for us to look at things with new eyes, and I am looking for global dominance,” she said, with a laugh. “Tell your friends, let people know this is going on.”
The “Fade to Black” Play Festival is June 13-15, 2013, at the Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak, Houston, Texas 77007. For tickets and more information call 832-889-7837, or visit www.obsidianartspace.org. Not suitable for persons under age 13.
Plays include “A Rebecca By Any Other Name is Still A Becky,” by Michelle T. Johnson; “A Sunny Day in Chicago,” by Nate Jones & Tynesha Clark; “Airport Diner,” by Carol Roper; “American Rifle,” by Eric C. Jones; “Burdens,” by Peter Fields; “Cultural Diversity Ate My Lunch,” by Alonzo D. LaMont; “Last Supper,” by Carlton & Barbara Molette; “Lonely Hearts,” by Rachel DuBose; “Portal, or Metaphorical Tricycle,” by Kevin R. Free; and “Venus and Mars – Date Night,” by Angela Batravil.