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Keith Josef Adkins on The New Black Fest

Playwrights’ Corner
Four actors sit around a table, covered in scripts and snacks, rehearsing for a reading of Jocelyn Bioh's "Schoolgirls or The African Mean Girls Play." In the background is a red curtain that wraps around the whole room.
In the rehearsal room for Jocelyn Bioh's SCHOOLGIRLS or THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY. The New Black Fest 2016.

The New Black Fest at The Lark is back with a vengeance. April 3-7, 2017 will bring us amplified voices, ones that will dig even deeper into the theme of this year’s festival, Black Sustainability. The festival has always been a movement, a living and breathing organism that takes action and produces real change. With this in mind, I wanted to know more specifics about this year’s bent and how people of color can be leaders in this new world order. In an effort to open up conversation, I spoke with Artistic Director and Co-Founder of The New Black Fest, Keith Josef Adkins to ask a few questions.

ALEXANDRA GONZALES: How do you choose which artists you work with for The New Black Fest?

KEITH JOSEF ADKINS: Each year I think about what's happening in our world or what's happening in our communities, or what type of urgent conversations I hear within my social and theater communities. Depending on where I land on the meditation, I then think about the playwrights who are passionately exploring these ideas. It's important to me to curate a festival that places itself at the center of what's happening in our world and to select playwrights who have very particular passions to support or complement the curation. The playwrights (and their work) do not have to be at a master stage, but both do have to demonstrate some level of insurgence, a fearlessness.

AG: Does the work we'll see at the festival this year have a particular focus or set of focuses?

KJA: The work this year in the festival will focus on sustainability within the Black community. In the last few years I've been examining and thinking about how much the Black community must face—racism, micro aggression, policing, overt and sometimes violent disdain, "being the only one in the room", among other seemingly daily obstacles, yet the community is still able to sustain a high level of empowerment and steadiness. I've been thinking about my great-great grandparents, my grandparents, my parents, all of whom sustained against institutional inequities and still fought, endured, manifested numerous successes. There's a lot to admire about that. It's an obvious template for sustainability and survival. With this new political leadership, one that continues to demonstrate a disregard for Civil Rights, I wanted to make sure this year's festival provided a conversation about how to understand such overt opposition.

AG: Our nation and artistic sphere has been changing in big ways this year. As someone at the helm of a festival that has a history of championing stories of the underrepresented,  do you feel your goals have changed or been modified in any way?

KJA: As a member of an institutionally marginalized community and a community that has ALWAYS fought against (in small ways or large ones) profound inequities, it is my continual responsibility to advocate for our complexity in storytelling and provide (or find) spaces where authentic theater-marking can be supported and championed. In other words, the fight for authenticity is a continuous one; I simply have to stay true and committed to that fight.

AG: Who are some people you haven't yet had the opportunity to work with and why do you want to work with them?

KJA: My mission as an artistic director isn't to seek out artists who I want to work with, but to engage, meet and champion writers whose voices represent a fearlessness and honesty that can potentially change the way we all think about our world.

AG: What is your advice for people of color who seek to be leaders in the artistic world?

KJA: First and foremost, wait for no one to give you permission. Have a clean and clear-cut mission. In other words, be very specific about what you want to accomplish and how to accomplish it. Surround yourself with others who advocate for excellence and a desire to change a cultural or political landscape. You need support and allies; go into your artistic and cultural communities and identify them. In some cases, they will even find you.  And, think big and fearlessly. Set out to change the world and do everything in your power to accomplish that goal.

A version of this article appeared in The Lark's March 2017 e-newsletter. To get more stories like this straight to your inbox, sign up for The Lark's mailing list now!