Valerie Curtis-Newton misses live theater.
The head of directing and playwriting at the University of Washington School of Drama and the founding artistic director for Seattle-based theater company The Hansberry Project, Curtis-Newton is firm in this belief: The magic of theater is untranslatable to another medium.
“[It’s] a little bit like the difference between going to church and watching a televangelist,” Curtis-Newton said. “I can love the message in both forms, but the TV church rarely, if ever, raises the hair on my arms. When I’m in live church, sometimes I stand up and wave my hands and can’t shut up.
“The same thing is true with theater. To watch a film of it, I can lean in, I can be intellectually engaged and sometimes I reach a kind of catharsis with it. But it’s very rare.”
Still, that doesn’t mean Zoom plays and online readings aren’t useful, and Curtis-Newton envisions a future where they become a crucial tool to help develop new work, particularly for small organizations like hers.
That’s already the case with The Drinking Gourd: Black Writers at Work, a new initiative from The Hansberry Project and Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company that aims to co-commission, co-develop and co-premiere new plays by Black writers. For its pilot year of 2021, The Hansberry Project has commissioned work from five writers and True Colors from three.
The Hansberry Project will present free virtual readings of two of those plays at 5 p.m. Sunday, April 18. Short play “7-11” by Brandon Jones Mooney focuses on “strategies of survival,” while “Hermanas Nuevas” by Aviona Rodriguez Brown acts as a metaphor for the African diaspora with its story about distant sisters trying to come together as a family unit, Curtis-Newton said.
The Drinking Gourd was conceived by Jamil Jude, artistic director at True Colors Theatre Company, as a way to connect Black theaters across the country and create an infrastructure that would nurture new plays from Black writers.
He got in touch with Curtis-Newton — the first person he thinks of when mulling big projects, Jude said — and she came up with the name. “The Drinking Gourd” is a Lorraine Hansberry play, the title referring to enslaved Africans’ description of The Big Dipper, which acted as a navigation aid on the way to freedom.
Jude’s idea for a new national network of play development resonated with Curtis-Newton.
“Because the country is in this moment of racial reckoning, what it’s done inside the Black artistic community is made us really realize how self-reliant we need to be, so we’re not at the whim of predominantly white institutions,” she said.
For Jude, The Drinking Gourd is a pathway to go way beyond the “tepid inclusion” seen in many arts institutions. As predominantly white theaters reckon with their internal culture, some are commissioning work from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) playwrights. But that only does so much, Jude said.
“That play may or may not have a second life after its world premiere,” he said. “Very few plays by BIPOC writers are then getting done all across the country. We can name them. We can name the Dominique Morisseaus, the Katori Halls, what have you.
“What difference could there be if the plays actually had productions inside culturally specific organizations before they then got a chance to be presented by predominantly white institutions?”
This paradigm shift could help prevent BIPOC organizations from waiting in line or even missing out on a play altogether due to financial concerns, Jude said. And it could stop writers from being forced to water down or translate work for audiences.
“What happens if that writer got a chance to write in their most authentic voice, nurtured in an environment where they didn’t also have to be a cultural encyclopedia?” Jude said.
Eventually, Jude and Curtis-Newton hope The Drinking Gourd follows the model set out by the National New Play Network, where new work gets a series of “rolling premieres” in theaters across the country. A cohort of Black theaters would co-develop and co-premiere new plays, enriching the work via exposure to new ideas and enriching regional theaters with infusions of talent.
“It’s not just going to benefit Black writers and theaters,” Jude said. “It’s going to benefit the entirety of the American theater.”
Even now, in the early stages of development and as a partnership of two companies, the benefits are evident for Curtis-Newton.
“For me and Hansberry, working and living in Seattle — which is so not a Black place — to connect with a company that exists in a Black place, it gives me tremendous ideas and confidence about our specific programs and strategies for reaching out into our communities,” she said. “As we work to balance what we can each bring to the table, I think it makes us each better partners.”